19 - A New Exodus, Jan 5, 2020

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2 Timothy 4:5-8

Mark 1:1-8

It says that when Jesus came up from the Jordan, the heavens opened. Jesus is baptized by John, who in his clothing, in what he ate, in what his message was, even where he was baptizing, is shown to be the Elijah whom the prophets said would come before the Messiah. And, it says, that the people were going out to where John was, out of the cities and into the desert to be baptized by him.

All of these details are showing forth a new Exodus, the Exodus of the Gospel. The Jordan is where Israel crossed, following Joshua into Canaan, the Land of Promise given them by God as their inheritance. This spot at the Jordan where John baptized Jesus may well be where Israel crossed over behind Joshua; but, back then, they were going westward from the desert into the cities of the promised land. And, this may be the spot where the prophet, Elijah, as he was directed by the LORD, crossed over, but he was going eastward, out of the city and into the desert, where he was taken up in a fiery chariot into heaven. And, here is where the new Joshua/Jesus comes to the Jordan. And, He and all the people are going in the direction Elijah took, eastward out of the city and into the desert; and here, again, the heavens open as they did for Elijah when Jesus comes up from the depths of the Jordan.

Jesus’ baptism marks that point where the Exodus of Israel ends and opens onto a new Exodus.  As on the day Elijah was taken up to heaven in the fiery chariot, the heavens open; they open beyond the Jordan in the desert, outside the city. That means that this is not another Exodus to a different land. This is a spiritual Exodus, an inner Exodus that begins in the Egypt of this worldly life, descends into the waters of Jesus’ death and then ascends with the risen LORD Jesus into the heavens; not heavens that are up there someplace in the sky. These heavens are the deep of the human heart. They are the beyond where is found our true self (Jer 17:5 LXX) in the mystery of God which is Christ in you! (Col 1:26-27)

This spiritual Exodus of the Gospel that is made manifest at the Jordan this morning is given in certain details that show the unity of the LORD’s baptism with His death on the Cross. Both St Mark and St Matthew say that when Jesus breathed His last on the Cross, the curtain of the Holy of Holies of the Temple was split in two. This is the same verb St Mark uses to say that, when Jesus comes up out of the Jordan, the heavens were split in two. St Matthew and St Luke, on the other hand, say that, when Jesus came up out of the Jordan, the heavens were opened. And, this is the verb St Matthew uses to say that when Jesus’ died on the Cross, the graves of the dead were opened.

Dear faithful, this Feast we call Theophany, the manifestation of God, shows God standing in the Jordan wearing the creation, wearing the death and corruption it is subject to, like a garment; it shows us that the LORD’s Pascha has begun! The new Exodus announced by the prophet, Ezekiel, has begun.

Remember, we read his prophecy at the Matins for Great and Holy Saturday after we have processed around the Church, following the Shroud of Jesus’ corpse (!), and have come back into the Church, passing under the Shroud as though entering the LORD’s Tomb, not yet but about to be emptied!

These movements of the Church in space and time are holy; they are veils that hide even as they reveal the inner Exodus of the soul that those movements carry. Outwardly, visibly, we exit the Church and process around it three times, then return into the Church, passing under the shroud. But these outward movements carry mystically the inward, spiritual Exodus of the Gospel that leads out of the cities of this world, into the desert of our soul, and into the LORD’s Tomb, into our heart where we are separated from God by the wall of enmity, dead in our sins and trespasses. They bring us to this mystical spot at the Jordan found in our own spirit where the heavens have been opened once and for all by the LORD at the Jordan for all who would follow the Christ, the King of heaven and earth, the new Joshua to His Cross outside the city and into His Tomb in the Garden! For, in the Garden, in the LORD’s Tomb, the graves have been opened out into the Garden of the LORD’s Resurrection. Entering the LORD’s Tomb, those who have died in union with Christ through the mystery of their holy baptism are raised, as was Elijah in the fiery chariot of the Virgin and her Son, to follow Christ the LORD into their own land, as Ezekiel foretold, the true Promised Land, the Holy City that is not the earthly but the heavenly Jerusalem!

The Path of this Exodus that descends down into the depths of the Jordan and into the deep of the human heart, and from there ascends up to God, is Christ Jesus Himself, the Way, the Truth, the Life, by whom alone we make our way to the Father. (Jn 14:6) Last Sunday, I set before you a hymn from Christmas and one from the Octoechos: “Of old, the Master that works wonders saved His people, making the watery wave of the sea into dry land; and now of His own will has He been born from a Maiden, and so He establishes a path for us whereby we may mount to heaven. (Festal Menaion, 270). “Of old, the strangely solidified path amid the sea revealed thy birthgiving, O pure one.” (vol I, Tone II, p. 88)

The joy of Christmas is that the Path who ascends to Heaven has come into the world. The Path is the Son of God Himself; it is His flesh, His Body that is now among us as the true Temple of God. It is the Church! And now, at this Feast of the Jordan, our understanding is illumined by this hymn of the Feast: “Of old the Jordan was parted in two, and the people of Israel passed over on a narrow piece of dry land [the narrow path], prefiguring Thee, O LORD most powerful [He is the narrow path], Who now makest haste to bear the creation down into the stream, bringing it to a better and changeless Path. (p. 377 Canticle VII). What is that better and changeless Path? It is the LORD Jesus Christ, the King of heaven and earth, who, in His flesh united to ours, leads us outside the city of this worldly life and into the desert of our soul and into our heart where we are dead in our sins and trespasses and into His own Tomb, found in the deep of our own heart. That is the ‘spot’ deep within us where the LORD has opened the gates of heaven and where the Path has blazed the trail that ascends up to God, whereby we may mount to heaven.

Dear faithful, to believe in Jesus Christ does not mean to ‘believe’ in Him as so many take ‘believing’ to mean. You can believe, you can even believe the right things with zeal and conviction—but you are still dead in your sins and trespasses. To believe in Jesus Christ means to do as He says: deny yourself, take up your Cross and follow Him into the wilderness of your soul, there to put the devil to flight not by your own power but by the power of the LORD’s Cross, the ascetical disciplines of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental worship. From the Jordan of our baptism, and from the wilderness of our soul, we now follow our Joshua throughout all of Galilee; that is, we bring our brokenness to Him. We bring our body, mind, soul, and heart to Him that He may heal us of the blindness, the deafness, the paralysis and all the brokenness of our idolatry so that we can take up our bed and walk on the Path of this New Exodus, the Path that is Christ Himself, that descends in order to ascend up to God. We unite ourselves to Christ not just with our heads but with our bodies, our soul, our heart. We unite ourselves to Christ by self-denial and taking up the ascetical disciplines of the Cross, in order to put to death all that is of death in us, all that separates us from God, that we may be raised from our grave to follow the Path, Christ Himself, out into the Garden of His Resurrection, into the deep of our heart and out into the mystery of Christ in you that is “beyond all things.” (Jer 17:5 LXX) For, the faith of the Church isn’t to ‘believe’; it’s to love Christ with our whole heart, soul and mind, and in that love, to be transformed, transfigured, changed within, with a soul made whole and clean and living, in a heart that is made new and soft and warm, and a spirit that is made fragrant in the luminous joy of Christ’s Holy Spirit!

May the Pascha of the LORD begin today at this Feast, at this very hour, this very moment in each one of us! Amen!