|31 - Two Mountains. Two Tombs, Apr 5, 2020|
This morning's sermon was video-recorded on our YouTube channel from Fr Paul's home office because all public services have been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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In our Gospel this morning, we hear James and John say to the LORD: “Teacher, this is our wish: that you would do for us whatever we ask.” This, of course, is in stark contrast to the LORD’s prayer in the Garden: “Father, not what I will, but Thy will be done!”
What did James and John want? They wanted power. For what purpose? Perhaps it’s best that the preacher let each of us answer that question for ourselves. For, what would each of us want the LORD to do for us? In how many ways, known and unknown to myself, do I exhibit lust for power? Why?
What did the LORD want? That we would become one with Him as He is one with His Father. Why?
Can you see that the power that James and John wanted would make it absolutely impossible for them to become true friends with anybody, let alone to become one with them? Indeed, we can see this in how their request alienated them immediately from their fellow disciples. But, should we note as well the gentleness of the LORD’s rebuke, as though He was not alienated from them even if they were from Him?
For, can you see that what the LORD wanted made it impossible for Him to desire power? The desire for power leads me to assert myself over against you, to protect myself from you, even, if necessary, to quash you. The LORD’s desire that we should become one with Him as He was one with the Father led Him to deny Himself to the point of losing His life for our sake on the Cross.
Who would you want as your overlord? Who would you want to follow: James and John, or the LORD Jesus Christ? Who do you feel your spirit wanting to cleave to? What worldly ‘power’ do you know or have seen that has the effect on your soul that the LORD’s humility has?
We draw near to the end of Great Lent. Next Saturday is the raising of Lazarus from his tomb. What worldly power, ever asserting itself over against every other power, has ever raised someone from the dead? Of course, you say, Jesus is God; He is Himself the Resurrection and the Life. But, let’s think about this more closely. Is His divine power to raise the dead that power that asserts itself over against every other power? Do we not see that the power of God to create the world and then to raise the world to life when it had fallen is His love and humility? And is not His power found in how it enkindles in the soul a longing—which even the creation shares, as St Paul says—to cleave to Him, because He first loved us and gave Himself for us in His extreme humility?
Two mountains are set before us in this morning’s Gospel, two tombs, and two paths that lead to one or the other of the two mountains and two tombs. A mountain is where the earth rises up to meet heaven, and where heaven stoops down to touch the earth. The mountain, then, is the same spiritual reality as the tomb; for, the tomb is where our life meets eternity as the top of the mountain meets heaven.
The one mountain in this morning’s Gospel is the mountain James and John are climbing, the mountain of worldly power. When you follow the path of lust for power that leads you to the tomb at the top of that mountain where you touch eternity, what is the eternity that you step out into? Is it not the eternity of that lust for worldly power your ego became one with in this life as it was pursuing that power? But, if the world passes away, where is that power you lived for; and, where are you?
The other mountain is Golgotha just outside of Jerusalem that the LORD Jesus was going up to. The Path that goes up to the tomb at the top of that mountain is the pursuit of humility, taken up out of a longing to deny oneself, to lose the life defined by lust for power and vainglory so that one can become as nothing and so receive the love of God into one’s soul.
It says, as we would hear next Saturday morning if we could come to the Church and hear the reader chanting the epistle in the middle of the nave, that Lazarus was Jesus’ dear friend. In fact, we never hear of Lazarus except for this was one time; and, the only distinctive thing we hear about him is that Jesus loved him. That suggests, does it not, that he was no one of any importance; nor are we given any reason to believe that he had any desire to be important, no aspiration to sit at Jesus’ right or left hand.
But now, if Jesus, even though He was the Son of God, had no desire to assert His divinity over anybody, but on the contrary, denied Himself in obedience to the Father to the point of losing His life for our sake (Phil 2.5), dying on the Cross between two thieves as He Himself chose to do because it was the will of His Father, then we must say that Jesus made Himself to be no one important. So, if Lazarus was the dear friend of Jesus, it must be, theologically, because Jesus identified with him, and Lazarus identified with Jesus. The LORD cannot identify with the proud whose lust is for power, because He is not proud; He has no lust for power. His wish is to do the will of the Father who sent Him, and that is to become one with us in love; and, for that, there is no room for lust for power. And so, He could become one with Lazarus, and Lazarus could become one with Jesus because there was no ego in either of them wanting to assert itself in power over the other.
The death of Lazarus, then, which marks the end of our Lenten journey, is the image of what we have been striving to become in these weeks of the Great Fast: no one of importance, dead to ourselves, having lost, voluntarily, our life defined by lust for power and vainglory out of our soul’s longing in love to become one with the LORD as He is one with His Father.
Here is the beautiful irony of this matter: if we would lose ourselves, in love, to the One who first loved us, we would find, precisely in our nothingness, our real self. For, we were not made in the image and likeness of Lucifer. We were made in the image and likeness of God who emptied Himself in His extreme humility. We were made in the power of extreme humility and the eternally self-denying, self-giving love of the LORD Jesus Christ. We were brought into being in the extreme humility of a divine Beauty and Goodness that melts the hardness of the proud soul and transforms her into a stream of tears longing to become one with this LORD Jesus Christ who first loved us and gave Himself for us.
I wonder if we can say from the biblical narrative that it is the soul who desires Him—who has fought to put to death her earthly members, her lust for power and vainglory to become, like Him, a ‘nobody’—that the LORD calls out of the tomb to Himself. For one thing, this is the soul who alone can even hear His voice. For, here is another irony. It is only in that death that we attain to by having worked throughout our life in this world to die to ourselves and to lose our life for His sake, so that the tomb in which we are finally buried is not the tomb of the lust for power but the tomb of humility and love, it is only in that death—precisely because it is death in the LORD, a death that is in the likeness, that is a participation, in His death—that our death thereby becomes the inner chamber in which our ears are opened so that we can hear the LORD Jesus Christ calling to us with a ‘great voice’ from His Cross—from the material emblem, the supreme manifestation of God as love (1 Jn 4.8): “Lazarus! Come forth!”
Our ‘Lazarus’ is our heart that is deep, beyond all things. It is the closet that is within us. As St Isaac of Nineveh tells us, the treasury of heaven is in your heart. The ladder of the Kingdom, he says, is within you. The ladder is the Virgin Theotokos by which the LORD God descended in His love to become one with us in our death. The Ladder is His Cross by which He ascended with us to heaven, having become one with us, in love, in the bridal chamber of His Tomb. And so, the Cross is the love of God for us, and our heart’s love for God. This love is the ladder that is within us.
We may be unable to come to the Church, for we are in exile and we feel our exile keenly. But, if the LORD is able to make even the evil to be good by His goodness—as we would be hearing in the anaphora of St Basil, if we could come to the Church--then, we can redeem even this time of exile by taking full advantage of the executive order to stay at home by using it to find the treasury of heaven, the Christ, within us, in the ‘home’ of our heart. Read the Scriptures, pray the prayers, keep the fast as much as you can. Contemplate the inspiring example of the saints, like St Mary of Egypt. Call on her and on your guardian angel, your patron saint, the Holy Virgin Mother of Our LORD, the LORD Jesus Himself, to help you attain humility, to be with you and help you become no one important so that you can begin to see, to feel in your heart, their love for you, and your love for them; and then let us practice the love and humility of God in our own homes. Let’s practice patience, respect and kindness with those around us. Let’s keep our mind trained on our heart and on our heart’s love for the LORD, for His Holy Mother and for all His saints. The choir of all the saints dancing round the Holy Virgin and her Son and our God in love and joy, this is the treasury of heaven that is within you. For they are not out or up there somewhere. They are within you; for, they are in the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Kingdom of Heaven is within you. Let’s keep our mind in the love of our heart, as Noah and his family kept themselves in the ark, that we may come out of the world defined by lust for power, which creates contention and strife, stress and anxiety, and begin to live in the Beauty of the LORD within us.
The LORD is with us and He will guard us and protect us from the floods—if we stay in the ark; if through meditating on the vision of God given to us in Holy Scripture, the prayers of the Church, the lives of the saints, the writings of the holy fathers, we lay hold of the ladder within us, the love of God that is within us, the love of our heart for God, and keep ourselves in the treasury of heaven that is within us. Amen!
Reflection on Sunday's Scripture Reading