MP3 Audio: WS330330_Fr-Michael_Heavenly-Worship.mp3
This homily was preached on Sunday morning, January 26, 2014,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Fr. Michael Keiser.
Gospel Reading: John 2:1-11
From a book in the Bible I know you are all intimately familiar with – Habakkuk –
in the second chapter, the twentieth verse:
But the Lord is in His holy temple.
Let all the earth keep silence before Him.
Silence . . . in the sense of awe.
You know, sometimes we see something that happens and it is either so weird, or so spectacular, or so incredibly different from what we are expecting, that we can’t find anything to say. We’re just kind of . . . you know . . . words won’t do anything. And when it says, therefore, in fact the King James says, “Let the whole earth stand in awe of Him,” which I think is a much better translation, the point it’s making is that if God is God – and here we kind of operate on the assumption that He is – If God is God, if He is in His holy temple, with all that magnificence and all that glory, about the only thing you can do is kind of stand there just in awe.
And human words can’t describe it. Now, we try obviously, because that’s what God gave us. Words are the tools that He gave us to try to communicate with one another, to describe, to share our ideas and what-have-you. But the fact of the matter is that it is often very, very difficult.
I remember the one time since I’ve lived in Florida that we went to a space shuttle launch. Many years ago, we just moved down there. And when you first move there, you go to Disney World four times the first year and anything else that’s out there. You prove that you are enjoying yourself, you know. And this behemoth, even though you are far away from it, the ground shakes as these engines start up and go! You know, you’re standing on ground that’s doing this ::shaking::, and your ears are being buffeted by waves and waves (you know, you’re a couple of miles away from it), but waves of sound. And eventually it just kind of very slowly, with great dignity and great patience, lifts off the ground and climbs up into the air. And I understand it’s going very fast (it didn’t look like that, because it has a long way to go). And most of us just stood there. You know, you’ve got some chatterbox that wants to ruin the moment, but most of us just stood there with our mouths hanging open because it was an extremely awesome thing to see.
Well, that’s basically what Epiphany is about. The season of Epiphany in the Church here, is the one time that we absolutely focus upon God’s glory. The word epiphania in Greek means to manifest, to show forth, to basically let it all hang out and let the creation see it.
During Advent, we commemorate God’s grace in preparing us for the birth of His Son.
At the Nativity, of course we commemorate the Incarnation. During Lent we focus on repentance and Christ taking our sins upon Himself. Easter, the Resurrection. These are things that He has done. But during Epiphany season, the emphasis is really upon just God being God. And if you look through the Gospel readings which we have for the six Sundays after Epiphany (you don’t always use all six; it depends on when Lent starts), but if you look at that, today is the wedding at Cana of Galilee, the first miracle that Jesus does when He establishes, He approves His sovereignty over the creation. The baptism by John in the Jordan, when He is baptized and is at least manifested to John as, “This is my beloved Son, hear Him.”
All of the things that we go through emphasize God showing His glory forth to the world, and originally, of course, with the coming of the Wise Men. The Magi, these pagan priests coming from – at least in the those days – so far off, didn’t even have to connect through Chicago. But they rode their camels all the way from what was then Persia, Baghdad, to Bethlehem and Nazareth.
That was a manifestation of God of the Gentiles. By rights, they probably shouldn’t have had any idea about this at all. The Jews as I mentioned last night for those that were here, were prepared for this. The prophets told them a Messiah was coming. For an angel to show up and say, “There’s a Savior born,” this did not come to any great shock. They may not have been expecting Him that night, but they knew it was going to happen. And these pagan priests come because God is the manifestation not just of Jewish expectation, but of all expectation. It’s the fulfillment of every pagan concept of God there ever was. Because all concepts of God, be they pagan or Christian, are inadequate to the reality.
We can explain until we are blue in the face, but as I said, words aren’t going to do it. It’s important to recognize this about Epiphany because so much of Orthodox Worship is rooted in this concept, not of seeing God far away, but of being in His presence, in His Kingdom in heaven. And that is absolutely not a new idea. This didn’t show up with Jesus. It is rooted in the Old Testament. If you go back and read in the book of Exodus, (and sometimes it is handy to bring a Bible to Church, by the way) if you go back and read from, say the 25th chapter to the 30th chapter of the book of Exodus, what you have is essentially six chapters in which God tells you, “This is how you should worship!” The idea that God is somehow indifferent to what we do is a non-biblical idea.
The idea that God encourages us to make it up as we go, is a non-biblical idea. The idea that you don’t even need to be here in order to experience the worship of God is a non-biblical idea. God is very specific about how He wishes to be worshiped.
And when the Lord comes to fulfill, there are only a couple things that need to be changed. Everything else stays pretty much as it is. He says in chapter 25, verse 9, “According to all that I have shown you concerning the pattern of the Tabernacle, and all its furnishings, so you shall make it”. So He gives some blueprints. He said, “It ought to be this tall, it ought to be this wide, it ought to be this deep . . . That’s how you make it. That’s how I want it.” He does that with the Tabernacle itself. The Tabernacle was kind of a porta-church. It was a big tent. That’s what the Tabernacle was before they got to Jerusalem.
It was a big — You know, I remember sometimes when I was going to University in California and Oral Roberts used to pitch his tent right behind the campus. It was a place where he had . . . Devonshire Downs. And it was nothing more than a big tent. They traveled with it, they’d get some place, they’d put it up, they’d have their services, they’d take it down and haul it out of town. That’s what the tabernacle was. It was a traveling, portable church.
And yet God is extremely, extremely detailed – “You shall make a Mercy Seat (Mercy Seat was for the throne of God) of pure gold, 2 cubits and half shall be its length. A cubit and a half breadth. You shall make two Cherubim of gold, of hammered gold. The Cherubim shall spread their wings above all over showing the Mercy Seat with their wings.” These are images, by the way. These are images of angelic beings which God specifically said should be made and put both in the tabernacle and in the temple. The idea that icons are a “recent invention” are again not biblical.
So He gives very detailed description as to how you build it, and how it should look, because He is not indifferent as to how He is worshiped. He gives specific instructions. I love this in the 28th chapter, because one of the first things that people notice when they come into an Orthodox Church is that a lot of people are in drag. He says in chapter 28, verse 2; “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty.” You know what earthly good these are? None. You know why God wants them? He likes them. That’s it!
He says you wear the vestments for glory and for beauty, for no practical purpose whatsoever. But that in Your creation, it represents the glory of the ones we are going
to see in heaven: the angels, the archangels, all the heavenly beings. None of them are
in T-shirts and sandals at any time! They are always gloriously, beautifully, transfiguratively dressed, in garments that shine like Jesus did on the Mount Tabor
at the time of the Transfiguration when He’s shown, not just white, but it says “white and glistening.” He was so white that you really couldn’t look at Him, and they couldn’t, they’re doing this: ::hiding face with hands:: “See that?” “Cool…Yeah, I can’t look at Him. No. Neither can you . . .”
So, it’s all a question of beauty. God is all about beauty. Not being pretty, that’s a different thing, although being pretty is okay, I’m not putting that down. But beauty – And again, all of us at one time or another have seen things – Maybe the first time you saw Mount Rushmore, or maybe the Grand Canyon, or you wandered into a glorious cathedral or seen a museum of great art or what have you, and you come across something, and again you go, “Whoa!” And you don’t have the words. You just don’t have the words. This is what God’s worship is all about. It is about the presence of glory and of beauty, a glory and a beauty which if we are not attempting to prepare ourselves to encounter it, it could be dangerous. You know, Moses had a pretty close relationship with God. You know it says in the Bible that God spoke to Moses as a friend. Being a friend of God is a pretty big thing, you know? And one time Moses, he said, “I want to see You. I’m going to push the envelope on the friend thing here. Can I? Let me see You.” And God says, “No one can look on Me and live. It’s not going to happen. But, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’m going to hide you inside this cave, and I’m going to put My hand over the cave, and as I go by, you can come out and see Me, see My glory.” That’s as close as Moses’ unprepared eyes could come to seeing God.
Think of it this way. I grew up in the Star Trek generation. God is anti-matter. We’re matter. You know what happens when those engines mix the anti-matter and the matter. it goes KABOOM! It’s a very dangerous thing to have happen. So, this is as close as we’re ever going to come to seeing God, even in the kingdom, even in heaven. “He who has seen me, has seen the Father.“ Christ is God in human form. That’s what we’re going to get, even in heaven, because God is so totally beyond anything that you and I can think of or describe that it would blast us, just blast us back.
So, the beauty and the glory are the presence of God that we can actually see. That we can get. That we can absorb. That we can be surrounded by. And this is why as far as back as the Old Testament – Although it was a pale copy of what the reality of the beauty of what heaven is going to be – God said, “Do this. Do this. Do this, I want it beautiful, I want incense, I want prayers, I want chanting, I want the whole ball of wax. Do it this way, and you are being faithful to me.”
Another one I like to throw out here: At the end of the vestment thing, it says: “This shall be a perpetual statute for Aaron and for his descendants.” In other words, they’re going to wear vestments in the temple forever, until the end of time. It’s never going to change!
So Jesus comes, and then at that point, some people would say, “Well, gee. That’s cool, we get that. That was all Old Testament. They were kind of primitive, not terribly educated people. They needed the light and sound show, the dogs and the ponies. They needed all that to get their attention kind of thing.” And Jesus shows up, and He says, “I have not come to destroy. Not one jot or tittle (those were tiny letters and accent marks in Hebrew) will pass away . . .” (Matthew 5:17-20). All things will pass away, but the law will not pass away. The things that God has given us that reflect the kingdom of heaven shall not pass away. He said, “I come to fulfill.” So what would change?
Well, it’s no longer needed to sacrifice animals, because Christ is the one pure, perfect sacrifice given on behalf of humanity. We don’t need anymore blood of bulls, pigeons, goats, doves and all that cool stuff. So that’s done. But the other offerings, Jesus participated in. The other offerings, Jesus went to the temple for the worship for and shared in. The other offerings, like the mercy offering, all of this offering continues within the life of the Church. And so it’s not stopped. It’s simply fulfilled. And to fulfill something means to transform it, you give it, you fill it with new meaning. So in the Old Testament, God winds up saying, “Your sacrifices are an abomination to me.” But that’s because they were unworthy sacrifices. That’s because the people were living in sin and not following God. He tells the Jewish priest, “You keep making these offerings of incense, and I tell you, the Gentiles would make offerings of incense, pure offerings until the end of the age. And those, I’ll accept! But not yours” (cf. Malachi 1:6-11).
So, the way in which the worship is done, it’s tempered somewhat depending on your culture, your music, that sort of thing. But the concept that undergirded — Glory and beauty and the presence of God — those remain and will be fully revealed in the kingdom of heaven. And for that, you go to the book of Revelation, which is our book of worship. It starts in the Old Testament, but we finish with the book of Revelation.
“And now I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals and I heard one of the four living creatures say as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come.’ And I saw and behold, a white horse and his rider had a bow and the crown was given him and he went out conquering and conquered . . .” (Revelation 6:1-2). The angels sing, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and open its seals. Thou hast been slain and thy blood doth ransom men for God” (Revelation 5:9). And here is Christ the Lamb at the head and center of all of this. Again, you don’t see the Person of God, even in the book of Revelation, because we can’t see God. Even in heaven, there is going to be a distinction. We’re going to be as close to God as we’re ever going to be, but He is still absolutely different, because He’s God! He’s not a human being. His Son became a human being, but God the Father is not.
So again, the concepts that are given to us in the Bible that divulge His presence are the glory and the beauty. And the Seraphim and the jewels and the bowls of incense that it says are going up in heaven with the prayers of all the saints! (Revelation 5:8, 8:3) And this is why when you come to worship in an Orthodox Church, no matter how many times you’ve been there — maybe it’s one of your first times, maybe it’s not — if you don’t get a little overwhelmed, something is wrong with you! I mean, we’re doing a really bad job of offering God’s worship if you’re going to stand there and say, “Man, what are they doing?” That’s a perfectly acceptable response. That’s a perfectly good response. Because this is not out there. We don’t believe that when we come to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy for example, God comes down to us. We believe we ascend to Him. We believe that when the church, when the priest is standing, we’re all gathered before the altar, we’re making the offerings, what we’re doing is not something that we ourselves have put together. But we are entering into the one sacrifice that Jesus Christ Himself is making before His Father in heaven 24/7.
Because when He returns to His Father in heaven, how does He go? He goes as God and Man. He is the first human being because He ascends in His humanity to be in the presence of God His Father and that was the whole point. The reason He came into His own creation, the reason He came here, the reason He shared every aspect of human life with us — death included — showing us how we’ll be resurrected, was so that we could get back to the presence of His Father in heaven. And that is the promise that is given to each and every one of us who try to be faithful, who try to pick up our cross and follow God daily. Falling down a lot, that’s cool; He gets that. But the fact that you’re persevering and trying, this is what returns us to the presence of your Father in heaven.
And this liturgy is not being offered in Omaha, or in Harrisburg, or in Chicago, or in San Francisco, or in Teran. Here, we stand in the presence of the angels and the archangels and the Cherubim and the Seraphim, which is why we depict them. We’re doing a renovation now, we’re not back to where we’re going to be eventually, but all of the icons, all of the images, all of those things tell us of those who are in heaven, who have preceded us before and are living to make intercessions for us: Headed by the Virgin Mary, who prays for us all the time. Led by Jesus, who stands before the throne and says, “Okay, I get it, they’re not much, yeah, but We made them! And I went and died for them. These wounds are proof of that. And I am offering myself to You.”
And He does this every single day, all the time, because you see, in heaven there is no time. For God, there is no time. God is completely beyond our concepts of time. For God, there is no yesterday or tomorrow. For God, there is now. Only now. And He sees everything, from the creation of the world until the second coming, in one second, one flash of time, because for Him, everything is going on now. Christ’s birth is happening now, Christ’s death is happening now, Christ’s ascension is happening now, Christ offers Himself to the Father now, now and now and always! And when we die and are eventually through paradise and at the second coming into heaven, we move into that same timeless state. So you and I have this experience whenever we come here, and sometimes by the grace of God in private prayer prayer and things like that. But in heaven, this is going on absolutely all the time.
Now the next week, I understand the archangels take a break and watch the Super Bowl. But other than that, they’re not bound by what’s going on in the world. And when we are here, neither are we. If we are, we will not have eyes to see. We will not have ears to hear the presence of the kingdom of heaven.
One of the things we sing in the Eastern Rite liturgy of course at the offering of the Eucharist is, “Let us now lay aside all worldly care.” And that we must do. Whatever you’re bringing with you, you either offer it to God here and ask Him to take it, or you leave it out there. If you had an argument with the wife and the kids on the way to church, you leave it out there, or you come in here and offer it to God and ask Him to transform it. But you don’t stew about it. You don’t think about it. You don’t allow that to become a distraction to divert your attention from focusing on the one thing that is needful here, and that is the presence of God on His throne, in the kingdom of heaven, surrounded by all of the heavenly hosts, Mary and all of the Saints, all of those who have gone on before us, praying that you and I here today will begin to experience a brief foretaste of what God will offer us for all eternity.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, God is One.
This homily was preached on Sunday morning, January 26, 2014,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Fr. Michael Keiser.