In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
The time from the Nativity at Christmas to today, is the story of offerings made in two directions. At Christmas, we commemorate God’s offering to us His Son, the One who Malachi refers to in the Epistle – “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple.” But that’s a prophecy of the second coming, rather than a prophecy of the first. Because the first coming of Christ is very gentle, very calm, almost hidden, not too many people know about it. Oh, some shepherds get the word and eventually the wise men show up, you know, things like that. It’s undoubted that that couldn’t happen without people in the area picking up on something. But the fact is, He didn’t show up with a big “G” on His sweatshirt announcing whom He was. Very quiet, almost stealthy, as He comes into the world that He Himself had made.
The first offering, of course, was the making of the creation itself, and our being planted to dwell within it. God offers the creation to mankind, specifically to Adam and Eve, but to all the world. And He says, “You can live in this garden in which you will have everything in it that you will ever need. And the only thing you have to do . . . you don’t have to work, you don’t have to punch a clock, or anything like that. You don’t have to wear clothes. You’ll be totally relaxed and whatever. And we’ll talk to each other, we’ll have this close relationship. The only thing, the only rule I’m giving you is that we got this tree over here, it’s called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and you’re not ready for that yet.”
There is no indication that that kind of knowledge (which is what it’s talking about when it says, ‘eating of the fruit’) would not eventually be something that we would not participate in. But as is so often the case, patience is a problem. And Adam and Eve just couldn’t wait. And when Satan tempts them and says, “He’s treating you like children, really,” (which was perfectly appropriate for them emotionally). “I mean, if you want to be grown ups, if you want to be like Him, you gotta eat of that fruit, and that’s why He doesn’t want you eating it. Because once He knows that you eat that, you’re going to know what He knows.”
And so for that one breaking of the rule, the relationship between God and man changes. And the close intimacy that we had is gone. No longer does the Scripture talk about God walking in the garden in the cool of the day and Adam and Eve conversing with Him – anything like that. The whole thing changes. There was a gap. There is a great gap between us and God and from that point on, we engage in this practice of trying to get close to God again, in any way that we can. And we tried several different covenants – You know, several different agreements, in other words with God – We’ll do that. It’s always, “I’ll be God; you do this . . .” and it was never a negotiation on His side; it should not have been. We’re always trying to figure out how to get back to where we were, but because of the fall, because of this separation that now existed between ourselves and God, it became almost impossible for us to even hear His call.
There’s a part in our soul which is called in Greek, the nous. (You don’t have to remember that, but it has a special name) And the nous is that part of our soul – See, there are two parts of the soul. Part of it just keeps us breathing and moving, because the body needs the soul to live. That’s why when at death the soul leaves the body, the body dies. . . . And everything has that kind of soul. Your cat Fluffy has that kind of soul. But what Fluffy ain’t got is the nous, unless she gets really out of line. But, the nous being that part, which is the reasoning part of the soul, that part of the soul which can perceive God, that part of the soul that can hear God’s faint persistent call to mankind to respond ever since the fall.
But the problem is that the reasoning part of our soul, and Biblically that’s called the heart. The heart is the nous; it’s that reasoning part. It’s not Biblically the organ which pumps blood, although it does do that. It’s the center of where you are spiritually. It gets distracted. It gets cut off. It gets covered over. Our sins, our passions, our angers, our resentments, our aggressions, our acts of revenge, our thoughts of vengefulness – All of these things darken the nous. And Jesus refers to it as the eye of the heart. He says if your eye is not sound, the whole heart is dark. That means the eye of the heart, the soul, cannot perceive God.
See that eye? [Fr. Michael points to one of his eyes] I can’t see much out of it. I’m lucky to be getting along on one and a quarter eyes, which is why I don’t drive a lot anymore at night. I’ve got a cataract. It’s called a cataract and it’s gradually covering over my eyes. But eventually, if I’m going to be able to see anything at all, they’re going to have to do some sort of surgery, and I don’t even want to think about it. That’s what happens to the soul. All the things we do that lead away from God cover it over and we can’t see clearly any more than I can see clearly out of this eye. So if you see me coming down the road doing that [weaving hands in and out], get off!
But God kept offering. God sent people like Moses and the other Prophets to call us back to Him. He sent people like Joshua to lead His people to a special place. He sent Kings like David. He eventually, through Moses, sent the Law, the Old Testament Law. You’re familiar with the Ten Commandments, more than anything else, but there was a lot more to it. But none of that could change us. None of that could change. So to kind of get our attention – and basically that’s what His purpose was – there was never any suggestion that the Law would save us. That a law cannot do. It can tell us how to act, it can tell us the difference between right and wrong. Whether we follow it is obviously up to us. It can show us the kind of life God wants us to lead. But in of itself, whether it’s words chiseled on stone or written on paper, they cannot change us. They can only kind of point us in a certain direction. And some people unfortunately miss that point. Some of the Jews, not all, but some of the Jews felt that if you kept the Law strictly in every part, that you were living a righteous life. When all you were doing was bringing yourself to the point that maybe God could do something with you. That’s what we call justification.
Being justified, that Paul writes about, means just putting yourself in the relationship with God so that God can really start working with you. The hard stuff comes after that. But you gotta get to a point where God can work with you. I’m sure that all of us at one time or another have had problems with friends, or co-workers or maybe some family members that you just couldn’t seem to get through to. And if you’re wise, you come to the point that you can’t change them. They can change themselves with God’s help, but you can’t. And all you’re doing is beating your head constantly against that wall. It drives them and you nuts!
Well, that’s what was going on. The Jews kept beating their heads against that wall – “Why can’t we get closer, why can’t we get closer, why can’t we get closer?” – And the fact is that we have lost the ability and the power to move towards God. And so God took the final step, not the final offering that was to come, but the final step in that offering by implanting Jesus in the womb of Mary, who becomes the first temple He dwells in, by the way. Precisely because we have lost the ability, the direction and the power to move back towards God, we were just stuck marking time. He sent His Son to become one of us, so that as one of us, He could begin to lead us back, and empower us to cross that gulf that existed between ourselves and God. All of that is the story of God’s offering to us.
But also at Christmas, at the Nativity, comes the story of our beginning in a real manner to respond to God. First, with the Virgin Mary. This young girl, not much older than some in this Church. You have an Archangel appearing. You have that happen lately? I haven’t. It would have gotten my attention. It would have gotten more than my attention. And she listens to what the Angel has to say – “You’re going to bear God’s Son.” Right! She didn’t just fall off the tater truck yesterday – She asked questions. “How? I’m not an idiot; I’ve had biology. How is this going to happen?”
She asked questions, and then after this, after he says everything he’s going to say, she says, “OK. If that’s what God needs, that’s what I will do.” That’s the first act of offering back. Joseph’s act of keeping her as his spouse when he could have easily put her away and simply driven her out of the village. And accepting a role in which he would never be physically intimate with her, but would be legally responsible for her raising this kid, is the second act of offering. And after that, the shepherds coming. After that, the wise men come with their offerings, and slowly, gradually, the light begins to dawn in some hearts that God has moved. And we need to respond.
And so finally on that fortieth day after His birth, according to the Law, according to the people, after already having been circumcised according to the Law, they take Him to the temple. And here we have Simeon [and] Anna . . . who have basically spent their entire lives hanging out in the temple waiting for this guy to show up, waiting for Jesus to be brought. Simeon had been promised by God he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ, and he believed the promise. And he waited faithfully in the temple, until Divine insight reveals to him this couple that walks in – Because you gotta remember that people are bringing kids in all the time. They had babies just like we do. So they are constantly bringing babies if they are close to the temple. If it’s synagogue, they would do that, but in Jerusalem, the place to do that was in the temple. So you got them coming in all the time, “You need two pigeons, thank you. Okay, sacrifice those.” – But this couple walks in and Simeon, who is blind, recognizes who they are. I don’t know that I would have had the patience to wait [so many] years for something we think God told us a long time ago. Or for Anna to do the same thing. Those are acts of offering back to God.
And then Jesus Himself begins His own act of offering on our behalf back to His Father, dragging us sometimes, kicking and screaming, closer to an intimate relationship with God, the same blessed relationship we were supposed to have at the very beginning and couldn’t hang on to! He is giving us a second chance at it. No one is forced to.
Lightening doesn’t strike from the sky. Jesus just goes around by example and teaching, drawing people back to His Father, gradually gathering a crowd until He’s arrested; then they all bug out on Him. But His act of offering continues until on the altar of the Cross He offers Himself as the ultimate sacrifice.
See, people have a strange idea about what sacrifice is supposed to be. They assume it is with a knife and with blood. And of course in the early days of the Old Testament, it was. But actually, making a sacrifice – There were other kinds of sacrifices that were made in the temple. There was the bread offering, the pure bread. There was the wheat. Oil had to be the purest virgin olive oil you could get, to be worthy to be offered up to God. And they would bring those to the temple just like we do now sometimes. Or offer the candles or what have you. You know, all kinds of things. But they had to be the best to be offered. Otherwise, they were rejected. That’s what the Levites were for. You know you had the temple priests, but the Levites were kind of like the Deacons of today – a lot of brawn and no brain – and they would be there waiting for people to bring stuff to Church, and they would say, “Oh good. Well, this goes over there, and we’ll put this over here.” You know, like Deacons were in the Early Church. They weren’t expected to do a lot except wait tables and tote barge and lift bale.
So, all of that had to be the best you could offer. And that’s what a sacrifice is. You take the best you have and offer it to somebody else, or ultimately to God. Jesus was perfect God, and a perfect human being. You and I haven’t seen this. I’ve got my fans, but nobody in their right mind thinks I’m perfect. None of us are this. But Jesus is perfect God and perfect man, so He is the perfect offering to His Father. Not because His Father is mad and somebody and has to punish them. Not because His Father likes the sight of blood. But because only in Jesus can heaven and earth meet.
God is completely uncreated. We are created. Those two aren’t going to come together. We’re never going to become God, and He’s never going to become human except through the mediation of His Word, of His Divine Word, of His perfect, godly and human nature. And so He makes that offering of Himself. And as I said last week, it continues today.
24 hours, 7 days a week, He’s in the presence of His Father, offering Himself, showing His wounds that He bore at the crucifixion, so that He could take on Himself all our sins, the sins of all the world. Not just the sins of the past. Not just the sins of the present. Every sin that has ever and will ever be created from the creation until the end of time. This Jesus takes on Himself. It’s all wiped out!
And He stands before His Father and says, “Remember this. They are with me, because I’m one of them now. I’m human; they’re human. We stand before You, and we offer ourselves to You.” And we say that. We’ll say that in a couple of minutes in the prayer of the Liturgy. I will pray that we may offer ourselves as . . . a pure and holy and living sacrifice to God. And this is the continuation of the offering that began with Mary and Joseph, that began with the shepherds and the wise men, that continued on with all of those faithful who got on board with Christ and continued to offer Him, all of those who continued to offer themselves.
We can carry candles in Church and that looks pretty, and that’s a pretty offering. But all we can truly offer is a sincere and repentant heart. All we can do is fall on our knees before God in tears, and ask for His forgiveness, for His overwhelming forgiveness and love. [We ask Him] to continue to come to us, and that we may continuously offer ourselves to Him. I said this before. You can come here every Sunday and Feast day. You can come to me to confession or to some other Orthodox Priest. You can be anointed with oil; you can come forward and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. But if you do so with a hard and impenitent heart, you will go to hell.
Continue the offering. Every day, every moment of every day that you can consciously bring it to mind, offer yourself to God. Say, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. Lord have mercy. God accept my heart and make it Yours.” Continue to offer yourself always to our Father in Heaven, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, God is One. Amen.