In last week’s homily, Father David said “God has come into the world, He has taken our flesh and become man. And with His coming, everything is changed.” Our Lord’s Incarnation has changed everything, and this week we will celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, and the manifestation of the Most Holy Trinity as Christ is baptized by the hand of Saint John the Forerunner, the Father speaks from the Heavens declaring Christ to be His beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove. Everything changed that day. The Lord sanctified the waters by entering into them, making the waters of our baptism the means of our regeneration, of our death and resurrection. God acts and everything changes.
But we must also act. God didn’t become man, he didn’t undergo circumcision, dedication in the temple, endure insults and accusations, suffer betrayal, crucifixion and death, rise from the dead, ascend into the heaven and sit at the right hand of the Father or send to us the Holy Spirit so that we could stay mired in sin, slaves of the evil one, and subject to the corruption of death. Our imperative is to see God’s great and marvelous acts, and to be changed by the grace of God which is poured out upon us.
This morning, the Church celebrates the memory of a man who was changed. This morning we remember the Eunuch of the Queen of Ethiopia mentioned in Acts Chapter 8. As he was returning from worshiping in Jerusalem, he was reading from the Prophecy of Isaiah. Specifically he was reading: “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: In his lowliness his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.” These words speak so clearly of Christ that we still use them in the preparations before the beginning of Liturgy. Our Lord is there in the passage for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. And yet this god-seeking Eunuch did not know what the words meant, or of whom the prophet might be speaking.
For his salvation, the Holy Apostle Philip was directed by the Spirit to approach him, and to speak with him, and to ask him if he understood these words. The Eunuch replied with an open heart, “How can I unless someone should guide me?” And so the Apostle Philip proceeded to explain the words to him, to teach him about all that Christ accomplished. The man was baptized and went away rejoicing.
In this small passage, we see how we must approach the things that Christ has done for us, How to be changed in ourselves by the things that Christ did which changed the whole universe. First, we must be lovers of God, we must desire to worship Him, to understand Him and to be seeking after Him. This is not easy in a world which presents us with many enticements. We often fail to seek God if we are too comfortable, too content with our lives, or too distracted by the things of this life. If we ask God to give us love for him, to give us a desire to be united to Him and to seek after Him, we should not be surprised or dismayed if it seems that life gets worse instead of better, for whom the Lord loves, He chastens. If we are stuck in our sins, if we are too comfortable in life, we need affliction to call us to repentance. This doesn’t mean we have to afflict ourselves, but we also should not disdain the afflictions that are there for our salvation.
Second, we must keep watch for those that God sends us to draw us to Himself. This could certainly be our bishops, priests, or deacons; but it could just as likely be our parents, godparents, children, godchildren, spouses, friends or family. It could also be the stranger who walks up to us and engages us in conversation. The Apostle Philip walked up to the Ethiopian Eunuch by the direction of the Holy Spirit, and after the man’s baptism Saint Philip was caught up by the Spirit and carried many miles away. The Ethiopian Eunuch truly understood what Saint Paul said, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels unaware.” This stranger gave to Him the first steps into eternal life by sitting with him and explaining to him. This was an educated man listening to somebody who walked up to his chariot, and doing so with humility. In his desire to know God, he didn’t trust in his own understanding, but sought with humility the teaching of others.
Finally, this man sought the grace of God through Holy Baptism. He understood by his conversation with the Apostle Philip that it is not enough to seek God, to desire to understand Him, but we must actually receive God through the sacramental life of the Church. In the gospel of Luke, we are told that after the resurrection of our Lord, two of His followers were on the road to Emmaus. As they are walking Jesus walks with them but they don’t recognize Him. They speak to Him about the things that happened to Jesus, and He explains all the things in Scripture that spoke about Him. While He spoke to them about these things, their hearts burned within them, and yet it is only in the breaking of bread that they recognize Him. We can know a great many things about our Lord if we are diligent about seeking Him, but it is in the life of the Church, in the mysteries of the Church that we encounter Him, that He unites us to Himself, and gives Himself to us.
Saint Paul tells us this morning that he fought the good fight, that he finished the race, and that he kept the faith. Indeed we cannot expect to enter into the glorious things that our Lord has prepared for us without effort. But first we must have the desire to be changed. We must remember to ask the Lord to draw us to Himself, to give us love for Him and a desire to seek Him even if it means that we must endure affliction on account of our requests. We must remember to watch for those messengers who will come to us to help guide us and open our hearts and minds to God, even if they are strangers who come to us and are here now and gone soon after. And we must remember that the fulfillment of all that we learn, and all that we understand is found not in our reason, but in the pouring out of grace into our hearts transforming us. A Christian is not one who can quote scriptures or writings of the fathers, or catechisms with ease, a Christian is one who seeks God and is joined to Him, who is born by water and the spirit, who is sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is nourished on the body and blood of our Lord. All of the great things that Christ accomplished are not so that we can know about Him, but so that we can know Him and receive Him.
A few days ago (Thursday), everything changed, the whole world became different. God took our human flesh and became man, was born of the Ever-Virgin Mary and the world changed. Last night at vespers we heard some of the hymns of the feast repeated again: listen to just a little of what was sung. “Come let us rejoice in the Lord, telling of this present mystery: The middle-wall of partition hath been demolished, the fiery sword is removed, the cherub withdraweth from the gate of life, and I partake of the food of paradise, from whence I was driven away because of disobedience; for the immutable Image of the Father, the Image of His eternity, doth assume the form of a servant, issuing forth from the Mother who knew not wedlock without undergoing change … and He hath received what He was not, becoming man in his love for mankind.” “When the Lord Jesus was born of the Holy Virgin, all things were enlightened…for God appeared in the flesh, the Savior of our souls.” Just those few lines are enough to leave me breathless as I contemplate the great Mystery of the birth of the God/man Jesus Christ.
With one great movement, God has healed the breach which separated us from Himself and has opened again to us the path into His Kingdom. Where Adam had been exiled from paradise, now the second Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ, welcomes us back in with open arms. Where an angle with a flaming sword was set at the gate of paradise, now God Himself the source of all light invites us to come and be enlightened. Where the gate was locked now it is again opened to allow us access to the Tree of Life. Adam was prevented from eating of the fruit of the Tree of Life because of his disobedience and now He Who is Himself Life offers us the divine food of His own most pure Body and His own precious Blood. Indeed everything has changed and the world is different.
Seeing this great condescension and gift of God to us, how do we respond. Again we turn to the hymns of the feast sung at Vespers to help us out: “Every creature that hath breath praiseth Thee … What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, in that Thou hast appeared on earth as a man for our sake? For every creature fashioned by Thee offereth Thee thanksgiving: the angels, hymnody; the heavens, a star; the magi, gifts;, the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, a cave; the wilderness, a manger; and we, the Virgin Mother.” God has given to us the greatest of Gifts – He has given us Himself – and out of our thanksgiving we all offer to him what we are able. What then do we offer to our Lord Jesus Christ? We heard already of the gifts of the angels, the heavens, the magi, the shepherds, what can we offer. Like these mentioned in the hymn we offer to God what we have. The angelic hosts hymn God continually and this then is what they offer – a hymn. The heavens are full of stars and so the brightest and most beautiful star is offered to Christ. The magi were kings of great worldly possessions and so they offer all their wealth. The shepherds were poor and simple but still they offer their wonder at the coming of the promised Messiah. Even the earth and the wilderness offer to God a cave and a manger. The human race itself, even though fallen and broken, offers something of the greatest value – the most perfect human being ever produced by humanity – the Virgin Mother. Each offers what he has to God in thanksgiving for the great Gift He has given to us.
What about us then, what do we offer to God? What can we offer to God that would be worthy of such a Gift? Everything that we have is broken and corrupted, even our very nature has fallen and is spoiled by sin. We have nothing to offer worthy of God’s love to us. But of all the gifts noted above, some might seem greater than others – the hymns of the angels, a star in the heavens, the wealth of the magi would seem greater than simple wonderment or a cave in the earth or a rude manger. And yet, God did not refuse any of these gifts but accepted them all without prejudice or judgement. Each gift is valued by God because it was given out of what the giver possessed and not in comparison to what he did not have. So it is then with us, we offer to God what we have – our own self, as dirty, broken and corrupted as it may be and if we do so with an open and humble heart He will not turn away from us but will receive and accept our gift. It is as the Psalmist tells us, “with whole burnt offerings God will not be pleased – the sacrifice for God is a broken heart, a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise.” It is our very brokenness that God desires. The content of the gift is not important but rather that it is given with humility. We offer to God what we have – our own broken, sinful, dirty and corrupt selves – and He, seeing our humility, receives this gift with joy.
Today we also remember the three righteous ones; David the King, Joseph the betrothed and James the brother of the Lord. These three also offer their gifts to God. David as the ancestor of the Lord offered his own royal lineage (which of course he had received from God): “Let us praise King David, the ancestor of God, for from him sprang forth the rod of the Virgin, and from her blossomed the Flower, even Christ…” Joseph offered his obedience, accepting the call of God in his old age to take on the role of the protector of the Virgin and her Divine/human Child. “In old age, Joseph the betrothed beheld the things foretold by the prophets manifestly fulfilled, having received a strange betrothal and a revelation from angels…” James the brother of the Lord offered himself in prayer and service as the first bishop of Jerusalem and as a martyr: “Let us all praise the brother of God, for he is a holy hierarch who shone forth nobly also in martyrdom…”
These three also represent for us all of time: David the past, Joseph the present and James the future. David looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and many of his Psalms are prophetic in nature pointing toward Christ. Joseph saw the fulfillment of the coming of Christ and took Him in his own hands and into his own heart as though He were his own son. He lived with Christ day by day, each day giving to God the same humble offering of obedience and faith. James the brother of Lord, as a hierarch stands in the place of the Church, the Body of Christ. As a martyr he also shows us our own future that we must lay down our own lives for Christ.
God has come into the world, He has taken our flesh and become man. And with His coming, everything is changed. The door of paradise is opened and God stands waiting for us to enter and receive again the divine fruit of the tree of life, His own Body and Blood that we might have His life within us. In our joy, we offer to Him gifts, each of us as we are able. It is David the King, Joseph the betrothed and James the brother of the Lord who show us how to access that newly opened paradise – by placing all our hope in God as did David, by living with God every hour of every day as did Joseph and by giving up our own lives as did James that we might have instead the life of Christ.
Let us rejoice in this new world, let us look with awe and wonder at the mighty miracles of God who has opened for us again the gates of paradise and let us give ourselves as gifts of thanksgiving to God that we might in return enter through the open gates of paradise into a new life in His Kingdom.
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