This morning we celebrate the memory of the Holy Prophet Elijah, the second forerunner of the coming of Christ, the earthly angel and heavenly man. Saint Elijah saw the apostasy of the people of Israel and how they followed after the prophets of Baal. He challenged them to choose between the false god and his prophets who could provide them with nothing and the one true God whom he served. When the prophets of Baal could not bring down fire from heaven to consume their sacrifice, Saint Elijah called upon God to bring down fire and it consumed the sacrifice as well as the wood, the stones, the dust of the earth and twelve barrels of water which had doused the sacrifice, the altar and a trench surrounding the altar. Saint Elijah put to shame the 450 prophets of Baal by this demonstration of the power of God. Aflame with zeal, the Prophet Elijah slew the 450 prophets of Baal. It was for this that Jezebel sought to kill him. Afterwards, he spoke these words of lamentation: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”
We are called to be zealous, even very zealous, but are we called to be zealous like the Prophet Elijah? Do we really believe that zeal like this can be a good thing, or do we find such passages uncomfortable or difficult to come to terms with? The Prophet Elijah murdered 450 people, while Our Lord Jesus Christ taught love and forgiveness. Why is he called the second forerunner of the coming of Christ? Why was Christ compared to Elijah? Why did the people think He was calling out to Elijah during His crucifixion? Why did our Lord converse with Elijah on Mount Tabor? And why was Elijah taken up into Heaven when our Lord says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword?
We must first put aside the western, modernist, and false notion that all religions are equal and good. Saint Paul tells us “the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord's table and of the table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?” The Prophet Elijah knew that while idols themselves are nothing more than lifeless and powerless images, that don’t know whether we show them honor or dishonor, the gods that the people were sacrificing to are really demons. This Holy Prophet could not allow the prophets of Baal to live and continue to take God’s children away from Him and give them over to the worship of demons. His zeal was not for murder, but for true worship and union with the true God of all creation.
We also celebrate this weekend our parish feast. Our father among the Saints the Venerable Seraphim the wonderworker of Sarov is also described as an earthly angel and a heavenly man. He too is described as being aflame with desire to serve God. And yet when he was assaulted while chopping wood, he did not fight back despite having a weapon on hand. This too was an example of great zeal a zeal which left him hunched over for the rest of his life.
We must seek in our lives to have zeal for God, but we must first and foremost make certain that our zeal is actually for God. The prophets of Baal were zealous as well. They prayed from morning until evening for their god to send fire from the heavens. They cut themselves until blood gushed out, but they received no answer from their god. All of their prayers, all their actions, even their suffering was for nothing because their zeal was directed toward the demonic instead of toward the living God.
True zeal for God, the flame in our spirit is given to us in our baptism. It must be kindled and protected, encouraged to grow, but it must grow properly. Our zeal must be directed toward the keeping of the Lord’s commandments, and the worship of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the Church, toward showing mercy toward others, and looking forward to the Kingdom to come. Zeal which is directed in some direction other than this will consume us like wildfire rather than set us aflame for service to the Lord.
Zeal that is focused on God and the Kingdom doesn’t necessarily look the same for every person. This week we celebrated the memory of Saint Pambo of Egypt. A group of monks asked him whether the path of asceticism or the path of acts of mercy was the greater path. In answer to this he pointed to two brothers, Paisius and Isaiah who inherited a large estate from their parents. The one gave all that he had to the poor and lived as an ascetic in the wilderness. The other became a monk but used his inheritance to build a monastery with a hospital and fed the hungry and provided housing. Saint Pambo was granted a vision of the two brothers together in paradise.
When we look at the great saints of the Church, we must emulate their zeal, but not necessarily their exact path. One does not need to slay false prophets, or spend a thousand days in prayer on a rock like Saint Seraphim. True zeal may lead us along a path that is similar to some saints, but will be unique to our situation in life. The beginning of this path is that Christ must become everything for us so that we might learn to do everything for Him in return. Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk calls us to consider the reasons we should make Christ the center of our lives with a series of questions and responses:
"Do you desire good for yourself?
Every good is in Me.
Do you desire blessedness?
Every blessedness is in Me.
Do you desire beauty?
What is more beautiful than Me?
Do you desire nobleness?
What is more noble than the Son of God and the Holy Virgin?
Do you desire height?
What is higher than the Kingdom of Heaven?
Do you desire riches?
In Me are all riches.
Do you desire wisdom?
I am the Wisdom of God.
Do you desire friendship?
Who is a kinder friend than I Who lay down My life for all?
Do you desire help?
Who can help except Me?
Do you seek joy?
Who will rejoice outside of Me?
Do you seek comfort in misery?
Who will comfort you outside of Me?
Do you seek peace?
I am the peace of the soul.
Do you seek life?
In Me is the source of life.
Do you seek light?
'I am the Light of the world'"
Every good and perfect gift is from above. When we recognize the truth of this statement, we begin to live for Christ in response to these gifts. As we move more toward Christ, we recognize that everything that is not from Christ is a distraction. We must slay the demons who would pull us from this path and lead us toward perdition. When this world beats us down we focus on Christ rather than defending ourselves or seeking vengeance. We can’t put anything or anyone before God and still seek after Him. We cannot even let our ideas of what we want our spiritual life to look like get in the way of actually following Christ. If we try to emulate the specific actions of the Saints rather than the zeal that led them to those actions, we may find ourselves acting in ways that look similar but are not done for the love of God and our fellow man. If however, we let Christ become everything for us, if we follow Him where He leads us, He will direct us in godly actions for our salvation and the salvation of others.
In the words of our Saint Seraphim "The Lord seeketh out the heart, overflowing with love towards God and neighbour; here is the throne, upon which He doth love to preside and appear in the fullness of His supra-heavenly Glory. "Son, give Me thine heart, – sayeth He, – and all else I Myself wilt provide thee", – wherefore it is in the human heart that the Kingdom of Heaven can be realised".
Today in the Gospel we heard how our Lord healed many people who came to Him. In the Gospels, we hear of many healings and it seems as if everyone who came to the Lord was healed immediately. (In fact I can only think of one instance where the healing was not complete and that was the blind man who after the Lord’s first touch could only see “men as trees walking” and who was then fully healed by our Lord as He touched him the second time.) We also hear of miraculous healings in the lives of the saints and of the holy God-bearing elders, but then it also seems that we ourselves do not always experience such healing, even when we believe that our faith is strong. What is the reason for this? Why do we as Christians get sick and when we are sick why are we not healed?
First we have to look at our “black and white” and “either or” mindset. Just because a person gets sick, or even dies from the sickness doesn’t mean that God did not see their faith and hear their prayer. God loves us – this should always be our starting proposition. God is unchanging and His love for us is boundless and so if it ever seems to us that God doesn’t love us, or that He doesn’t care for us, then the problem is not with God’s love, but with our perception of His love. We are seeing the situation incorrectly and so, like the blind man, we need to have our eyes opened. We need to see ourselves and our situation with God’s eyes, not according to our own blind fantasies of what we think should be.
So, why do we get sick then? Remember first that God’s perspective is a lot longer than ours – He sees not only what happens today and tomorrow – not only next year or even for the rest of our life. He sees from the perspective of all eternity and it is in this perspective that He intervenes in our lives. Let us then take this from God’s perspective for a moment. God loves me and cares about me on such a detailed level that even the very hairs of my head are numbered by Him. If I get sick, therefore, it must somehow be a manifestation of His love. Perhaps He sees that I am full of pride and false bravado thereby putting God to the test to “prove” His love by protecting me from my ridiculous self. And so He allows me to suffer the consequences of my foolish pride in order to help break it down and to bring me to humility. Perhaps He sees that I am impatient and demanding and so He allows me to experience this sickness that requires me to be patient and to depend on others. Perhaps He sees that I have the seeds of patience in my soul, but they need to be nurtured so that they will grow. Perhaps He sees that my plans and intent will lead into danger (whether physical or spiritual) and by this illness I am stopped and the danger averted. Perhaps God sees the seeds of some sin in us, and as a loving parent punishes us in order that we might turn away from our sin. Such examples of how God’s love might manifest in this manner are endless once you begin to consider the situation from His perspective.
In the life of St Varus, it is recounted how, after his martyrdom, his relics were taken by a Christian widow who buried them in her own city and built a Church in honor of the Martyr. This widow, Cleopatra, had an only son who she entrusted to the care of the saint and she would pray every day that the saint would protect her son and preserve him in the Christian life. To her great sorrow, her son, John, died suddenly. Cleopatra, in grief, turned to the relics of Saint Varus, complaining bitterly that he had not heard her prayers and had ill-treated her. She begged the saint to return her son. After this, in a dream, Varus and John appeared to her in radiant bright attire with crowns upon their heads. St Varus then asked which she would rather have – a son who was in service to an earthly king (for John had been a soldier), or her son who was now enrolled in the service of the Heavenly King. Cleopatra realized that the saint had indeed heard her prayers and that the death of her son was not a denial of God’s love, but was rather a greater blessing than she had realized.
Sometimes, however, healing is just what we need in order to consolidate the work of God in us and allow us to work with full strength to incorporate the glory that He bestows on us. Sometimes we suffer to the limit and then are healed when, at the last moment, God finishes His work in us. God knows that we are weak and that we have our limits and when we reach the extent of our endurance, He will stretch out His hand and provide relief, giving us a rest or even complete respite so that we can regain our strength and again engage in the labor of working out our salvation.
God loves you and wants the best for you. That best, however, is defined not in human or worldly terms but in heavenly terms. That best that God wants to provide for us is for us to live throughout eternity in the light of His presence and to share in the grace that flows from His being. That “best” requires suffering and struggle to help us to repent and completely rid us of the taint of sin in our heart. It is as if there is a deep stain on the cloth of our divine wedding garment (that is the soul) which needs to be scrubbed with vigor in order to remove it and perhaps even repaired where it was damaged. Such struggle and repentance then opens the door for great blessing and encouragement when we see the great care that our Lord bestows upon us by bringing us through these difficulties.
Whether we get sick or not, whether we are healed or not is of no real consequence. What is important is whether or not this sickness (or lack of sickness) leads us to God in repentance and thanksgiving and opens the door for His grace to work in us. What is important is what we do with our sickness. Whatever cross we are given – health or illness, care giver or care receiver, joy or sorrow, etc. – we must learn to bear with unwavering grace and trust in God. And always remember that God loves you and He wants the best for you.
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