Sermons

February 25, 2024 - Repentance, part 2

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 18:10-14

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today is the second part of the 5-part series on repentance. Repentance is a process, it’s a journey that we take over and over in our life. Repentance is what reconciles us with God, when our sins separate us from Him.

Repentance is also what brings us into His Kingdom, as the Lord Himself said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repentance brings us closer to this Kingdom not some time in the future, after we die, but now, today we may draw closer and experience God’s Kingdom.

Last week we began with looking at the story of Jericho’s chief tax-collector by the name of Zacchaeus. He showed us that repentance begins with an acknowledgement. He also revealed another quality of a repentant soul – humility or even humiliation, in the way he was willing to run and climb a tree, something that grown men did not really do in those days.

Just a side note – all the parts that make up the process of repentance may happen simultaneously. This is not a step-by-step kind of process, where we first acknowledge our sins, then humble ourselves, then turn around, then repent. Things happen together when we repent.

So, from Zacchaeus we learned that we need to acknowledge our sinfulness and that we need a Power greater than ourselves to restore us to proper spiritual, and even physical, health. And that Power is the one true God, Who was willing to send His Only-begotten Son, Who died for our salvation and liberated us from sin and death, and Who heals and sustains us by His Holy Spirit.

And from today’s parable about the Tax-collector and the Pharisee we gain two more qualities necessary for repentance, namely remaining in the present moment and humility.

As most of us were growing up, when we hit a certain age, somewhere in the teens probably, we would fantasize about being grown-up because grownups do whatever they want, unlike the teenagers, who are constantly told what to do. But as we get older and older, we become nostalgic of the good ol’ days, when we were perhaps a bit slimmer, healthier, younger…

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, when he was describing one of his characters in the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia, “We waste our youth trying to grow up, and then we waste our adulthood trying to stay a certain age.”

The point is that very often we spend more time in the past or in the future, but not enough in the present. And the present is the only time we have. Yesterday is gone; it will never come back. Tomorrow will never be here because when we get to tomorrow it’s already today.

The present moment, today, right now is all that we have. And that’s all we need because God is known only in the present. He is everywhere present and fills all things, as we say in the “O Heavenly King” prayer, but we are not. We exist and experience time only right now. If God interacts with us, it will be right now.

This past week I saw someone post on facebook something that seemed nonsensical at first. I thought, hey, it’s facebook, of course it’s nonsense. But it stayed with me. Here’s what the post said, “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”

It got stuck in my head for some reason. Maybe for a day or two it would return and make me think. And then I realized why it bothered me – who has the present, then?

If saints have a past, whatever that means, and sinners have a future, who has the present?

Repentant sinners, that’s who.

Repentant sinners are in the present because that’s the only time that we are given to repent – in the present, right now.

The Pharisee went up to the Temple to pray and began with, “God…” very good! He immediately identified Who he’s praying to. “I thank You…” excellent! Thanksgiving is one of those things we do not do enough when we pray. But then, “I am not like other people…” (facepalm).

Once we start comparing ourselves with others, we exit the present moment because we begin looking at what they did or might do – dishonest, unrighteous, adulterers – but not what we are doing right now.

And if you remember from two Sundays ago, when we talked about Saint Paul’s words about being the first among sinners, when we say that, we mean it in comparison with the One Who died for us, not with the people we look down upon.

And even when the Pharisee spoke about the good things he’s done – fasting twice a week, giving a tenth of his possessions – even that took him out of the present moment because he was gloating about what he had done, and not giving thanks to God for the gifts God bestowed upon him.

On the other hand, the prayer of the Tax-collector is simple, but full of repentance. “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” He immediately identifies the Power greater than himself that can heal him, and acknowledges himself as the sinner, as first among sinners, because in the presence of God all of us are sinners.

Just like Zacchaeus, the chief tax-collector, humiliated himself on his way to repentance and reconciliation with God, so the man from today’s parable, another tax-collector, shows extreme humility in coming to the Temple to acknowledge his sinfulness.

Saint Ephrem the Syrian says that “the confession of sins of the Tax-collector was more pleasing to God than the acknowledgement of the almsgiving of the Pharisee, because it is more difficult to confess our sins, than our righteousness. God looks on the one who carries a heavy burden.”

And Saints Peter and James, one the chief apostle and the other the brother of the Lord, both said that “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5, James 4:6).

The Tax-collector received grace because of his humility and because he stayed in the present moment. Yes, he sinned greatly before God and before everyone he collected tax from through extortion. But he does not dwell on these things; they happened in the past. He can’t do much about them now.

Approaching God in humility and acknowledgement of the wrong-doing is the only thing he can do. The next step is righting the wrongs. Saint Basil the Great advised to never place ourselves about anyone, not even above great sinners. “Humility often saves a sinner,” he said, “who has committed many terrible transgressions.”

Stay in the present in all humility, while acknowledging our sinfulness before the Power greater than ourselves, the God Who saves us when we repent.

And to the One Who humbled Himself to our lowliness to bring us up to His Kingdom, our Lord Jesus Christ, together with His Father Who has no beginning and His Most Holy Spirit we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

February 18, 2024 - Repentance, part 1

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 19:1-10

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Last week, based on the letter of Saint Paul to his spiritual son Timothy (1 Timothy 1:15-17), we looked at what it means to be first among sinners, what we are to do about it, and what God does with it.

Just to refresh our memories, when I say that I am first among sinners, I mean it in comparison with the ideal, the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ; not in comparison to my fellow sinners. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity humbled Himself to become like me, in all ways but sin, so that I might have a chance to become like Him – a deified, but not divine, person.

And as first among sinners, I am to examine myself on regular basis, in order to know what I need to repent of. Meaning, which aspects of my life I need to reconcile with God and with my fellow neighbor, what I need to cut off as unfruitful, and what I need to start doing to acquire the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self- control (Galatians 5:22-23).

And as I do this, like Saint Paul, I hope that “Jesus Christ might show His mercy, making me an example to those who would come to believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).

And today we are beginning a 5-part series on repentance – an essential part of being first among sinners.

Before we get into it, let me clarify a couple of things. Repentance is not confession. Our individual confessions, whether they are done at home during our prayers or in church with a priest being a witness, are part of this process we call repentance.

Confession helps us to do an internal self-examination in order keep working on aligning our life with the will of God. But repentance is much more than confession, it’s a whole process, a way of life even. That’s why the first word Christ spoke at the beginning of His entire earthly ministry and preaching was, “Repent...” (Matthew 4:17).

And we need to establish a simple definition of repentance, which is – realize that we are doing something wrong, that we have problems, and don’t do it anymore; or, realize that we are going the wrong way, stop, turn around, find the right way, and take that path.

We all have issues, problems, destructive behaviors, sins; it’s just a matter of seeing and acknowledging them.

A human being, in some ways, is predisposed towards bad, even evil, behavior, that’s why we spend the whole life putting in effort to be good, to be decent, to be not evil. We constantly learn to be good. We are taught what is right, what the proper behavior should be.

On the other hand, we do not need anyone’s help or example to do the wrong thing. We can do that very well on our own, most of the time. ...

Doing the wrong thing came quite naturally to a man who was in a position of serious authority in Jericho. He was the chief tax-collector by the name of Zacchaeus. He was a Jew, but he worked for the Roman government. Working for the hated Gentiles, who conquered and occupied Israel, was seen as a complete betrayal of their faith and their country in the eyes of Zacchaeus’ countrymen.

As his title implies, his job was to collect taxes and hand it over to the Romans. But, tax-collectors were notorious was ripping people off, their own people. Romans did not care how much tax was collected, as long as the government got what it was supposed to get and there were no riots.

As you can imagine, being a traitor and a cruel tax-collector, Zacchaeus did not have many friends. In the eyes of the Jewish society, he was written off along with other great sinners such as murderers and prostitutes. But hey, at least was rich, right?

Well, not really. Turns out Zacchaeus was pretty disgusted with his own life. As the saying goes, all the money in the world won’t buy you happiness. Like a lot of people, Zacchaeus loved money, but somewhere along the way he came to a realization that having money won’t buy him friends, or at least good friends, it won’t buy him acceptance, and it won’t buy him love.

He realized this, but he had no idea how to fix it. And so the story of Zacchaeus illustrates what we innately know, but don’t always think about, namely: we all have problems – ranging from small to destructive; and, we are unable to fix and change ourselves on our own, especially if we are refusing to see our problems.

In the 12-Step recovery programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which have been so effective over the decades, Step 2 says, “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

For an alcoholic or any other addict, their addiction is not the problem. Addiction is a symptom of the problem. Recognizing and acknowledging the symptom can be very hard. Getting to the root of the problem itself requires serious work, self-examination, and help. Help from the Power greater than ourselves.

For Christians, this greater Power is God, Who is present everywhere, all- powerful, all-knowing, and loving, greatly merciful, and able to heal our wounds.

We often question the need of God’s help in improving our behavior, well- being, and attitude. After all, we are living in the most technologically and ever- advancing society ever. If we put our mind to it, we should be able to achieve almost anything we want, especially here, in the United States. ...

Yet, that’s not true; it’s more like wishful thinking. As advanced a humanity as we are today, but as the 12-Step recovery programs have been saying for the last 80 years and as Christians have known for at least 2000 years – we are still powerless to change ourselves on our own.

There is an industry out there that is making $10 billion annually. The whole point of this industry is to help people become better (because this industry has figured out that we can’t do it on our own). We are living in an age of self-help gurus and personal coaches and influencers.

With the ubiquity of the social media, literally anyone can become a self-help guru and make money. What’s really interesting is that people are actually buying into this stuff. They are following these gurus, shelling out loads of cash, to the tune of $10 billion a year.

(But don’t get me wrong here, not every self-help personal coach is a scam artist. Some of them are very talented and know what they are talking about.)

The point of all of this is that our society, whether knowingly or unknowingly, consciously or subconsciously, admits that we need help in order to improve, get better, grow up, or kick the destructive habit. We can’t do it on our own. The rise of self-help industry is the prime example of it.

But self-improvement coaches, as good as they may be, will not get us over the hill. They are still just like us – fallen, broken, sinful human beings. They may excel at some things, but they do fail and struggle at other aspects of their life. In other words, they are limited.

We need a Power greater than ourselves; Someone Who is unlimited in His power and in His love; Someone Who loves us the way we are, but wants us to become what we are meant to be; Someone Who is willing to lay down His life for us.

And this Someone began His public ministry with, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Repentance gets us beyond this existence into the “something more,” into that Kingdom. And the beautiful thing is, we can partly experience God’s Kingdom here and now...when we repent.

So, in order to get on the road of repentance, we first acknowledge that we have problems. We don’t have to be addicts to have problems. Are we struggling with anger issues, spending our days in grumpy mood? That’s a problem. Are we aggressive or even abusive to our loved ones? That’s a problem. Are we indifferent, lazy, or despondent? That’s a problem. Are we in depression? That’s a problem. Are we overworking and pushing ourselves beyond our limits? That’s a problem.

Zacchaeus knew he had problems, he did not like his life, he was tired of his miserable way of living, otherwise he would’ve stayed home when Jesus was walking through his town. Tax-collectors were so disliked that it was dangerous for him to be in the crowd that followed Christ, because someone inevitably would’ve taken a shot or two at him.

But, realizing his problems, and not knowing how to change his life, Zacchaeus must’ve felt powerless; he was seeking that Power that is greater than himself. So, he took a huge risk – he gambled by outside, by outside his comfort zone.

To do what? All he wanted was just a glimpse of Jesus. But he went even further outside his comfort zone by running and climbing a tree. Two things that were considered to be embarrassing for a grown man to do in those days.

And he not only saw Jesus, but the Lord requested to be a guest at his house. The Lord came inside when Zacchaeus was seeking and ready to go outside himself to Someone greater than himself, when Zacchaeus acknowledged his problems.

Yes, we do trust and hope that God helps us with our inefficiencies and issues, but there is also a self-help aspect in Christianity – God helps those who desire to change, who are ready to put in the effort, become uncomfortable, to struggle, maybe even suffer a little for that change for the better.

The process of repentance on the way to the Kingdom of heaven begins with a realization that I am a sinner, the first among sinners. And I am powerless to restore myself to sanity on my own, otherwise self-help industry wouldn’t exist, we wouldn’t be seeking the help from other people, who are just like us. Therefore, we need a Power greater than ourselves; we need the One Who is willing to stoop down to our lowliness, in order to bring us up to His heights – the all-powerful and all-merciful Lord.

Next Sunday we will hear a story about another tax-collector and a Pharisee, as they come to the Temple to pray, and we will look at what they teach us about ourselves and repentance.

But for now, we give glory and honor and worship to the only One Who is greater than us and Who is able to help us, to heal us, and to save us – One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

February 14, 2024 - First among sinners

A few thoughts on what it means to be a sinner, and first among sinners...

Audio of this sermon is available: here

February 4, 2024 - A lesson on faithful investments

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Matthew 25:14-30

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

There is a common misconception among people, especially Christians, who read about the Bible, but do not read much of the Bible, that money is bad and that God will condemn all rich people who do not give everything away to the poor.

This, of course, is not true. God is not some kind of a communist who wants everyone to be absolutely equal, to have the same things and equal amount of money. That’s not how God created us and that’s not how He deals and interacts with us.

And money in itself is not the problem. It is neither condemned nor promoted in the Bible. People who have a lot of money, as well as those who have none have the same chance to experience God’s grace. God shows no partiality to the rich or to the poor. He does not see our bank accounts; He only sees our actions with what He has given us.

It all depends on how we use money and other things in our life, for what purpose, to what end. For this reason, we often see the Lord in the Gospels teach using money as example. Money and wealth have been a driving force for humanity for a very long time now, so Jesus incorporated money into His teaching because that’s the universal language that people across multiple generations and backgrounds understand.

Today’s Gospel lesson is no different. At the center of the parable we just heard is money. And the parable itself is a great lesson on investments – how to properly and faithfully invest our money.

We may not necessarily catch it right away, but the word ‘talent,’ in this reading, does not mean a ‘natural ability’ or ‘gift’ that we may possess, like singing or dancing or woodworking or cooking that God bestows on us. The word was left untranslated, just simply transcribed from Greek.

Talents that the three servants receive is money, or simply cash. One talent was about 6000 denarii (with a single denarius being a daily wage for a common laborer). So a single talent was about 16.5 years of wages. It’s a lot of money, considering that one servant received five talents, another two, and the third one.

Each servant received exactly the measure required of them to accomplish the goals of their own calling. It’s not like the master was prejudiced against the third servant and gave him less than the others to spite him. Each received what they had to receive, and each had the same job – multiply it.

We see that both the first and the second servant, doubled their money, even though each received different amounts, yet the reward was the same, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful over a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.”

The amount of talents, money, received was irrelevant, what they did with them was what influenced the master’s reward them.

As servants, they were wholly dependent on their master. If they had anything, it was only because he decided to give it to them. As their master, he knew well that some of them were more capable than others, yet each of them received something; the master did not leave anyone empty-handed.

And they could not complain of being unfairly treated. I mean, they could try to complain, like the third servant did, but it immediately backfired. His failure to multiply his money was not due to him being a bad investor or his master being a harsh man, but because he was imprudent. He worked very hard, perhaps as hard as the other two, but instead of investing he was digging a hole in the ground to hide the money, unknowingly investing his time (and money) into the preparation of his own grave. And that’s exactly what he got.

As servants of the Lord, the one true God, who have been chosen by Him (remember, He said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you” (John 15:16)) we are likewise completely dependent on Him. He also entrusts us with many talents (and here I do mean money, not the natural gifts, because it makes the analogy easier).

God invests in us; He is invested into our destiny. God has skin in the game, so to say, and He pours everything into that investment. He gave us His Spirit Who breathes life into us, He gave us salvation, He gave us His Son Who died on the Cross and rose again, He gave us His Church, the community of the faithful. He has entrusted us with all of this, and He expects us to shrewdly invest what He has invested into us, to multiply it, increase it, make profit on it.

One thing we absolutely cannot do is pocket this investment and hide it because it becomes unprofitable for others and useless to us. Money is meant to be used socially. If I take money and put it under the mattress or even invest it, but never use it for anything it remains utterly useless. It only becomes useful when I do something with it.

But why, for what purpose, to what end should we use God’s investment into us? By saving us, Jesus showed mercy on us, and He expects us to show mercy on everyone. So we are to invest money socially.

Today’s parable is followed immediately by another one, the one that gives a practical application as to how we are to use our money, how to properly and faithfully invest it. That second parable we will read in a few weeks on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the last Sunday before the start of Great Lent.

That parable is about the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). If you recall, it talks about the Last Judgment, when all nations will be gathered before Christ and He will separate them like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And the sheep will be put at His right hand and the goats at the left.

And what is the difference between the sheep and the goats? The difference is in how they invest the money entrusted to them by God.

“I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you gave Me clothing, I was sick and you took care of Me, I was in prison and you visited Me” (Matthew 25:35-36).

And when they are unsure of when they did all these things for Him, the Lord clarifies, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of My family, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40).

Jesus saved us and showed mercy on us, so that we would show mercy on everyone. God invests in us for us to multiply His investment and make profit. And no, He will not be checking our bank accounts when He is sitting on His Great Judgment Seat. He’ll check to see whether we invested faithfully into loving our spouse, children, parents; whether we were kind and patient, especially in situations when we were most irritated; whether we were humble, when it was so tempting to take all the credit for a completed project; whether we forgave, even as Christ forgave us; whether we fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, visited the shut-ins and those in prison.

This is how we socially use our money, how we faithfully invest and multiply our Master’s investment into us. …

Perhaps some of us had a thought creep in with something like, “Man, if only God gave me a bit more money, then I’d be doing so much good with it!” (I know I had those thoughts as I was writing these words.) But that’s a losing mentality, those are losing thoughts. If thoughts like that entered into our minds right now, then we completely missed the meaning of the parable.

This is exactly what the third servant thought, “One talent is not enough for anything. If only my master gave me a bit more… I am better off hiding it and returning to him what I got.” And he lost! He lost everything. “From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 25:29).

And notice who got more. Is it the one who was nagging his master that he divided the talents unequally? No. It’s the one who invested faithfully, and multiplied what belonged to his master.

It’s often been remarked that Orthodoxy is paradoxy. If you want to live, you must die. If you want to be first, you must be last. If you want to gain, you must give away.

Because it’s not how much we have, it’s what we do with it. Everyone receives enough to accomplish the goal of their calling.

I hope all of us yearn to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” when the time comes. We all have received talents from our Lord, upon Whom we depend.

And here I mean, again, money. Money in our wallets and our bank accounts.

He gave it to us. Learn to invest it faithfully.

To the One God in Three Persons, Who has fully invested Himself into us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we give all glory, honor, worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

January 29, 2024 - Love of God and neighbor

Two of the greatest commandments

Audio of this sermon is available: here

January 14, 2024 - Three points from the blind man

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 18:35-43

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today’s account of Jesus healing the blind man is one of about five or six occasions we find in the four Gospels where the Lord heals blindness. If we wanted to figure out God’s approach to healing this disease, we would not be able to do it based on the information given to us because there is no consistency.

In couple of instances Christ touches the blind men and heals them (Matthew 9:29, 20:34). There is also the time where He spit onto the man’s eyes and laid His hands on him (Mark 8:23). Or how about that time when Jesus made mud with His saliva and spread that mud on the blind man’s eyes (John 9:6)? And couple of times He did what we heard in today’s Gospel lesson – the Lord simply healed by speaking, “Receive your sight. Your faithfulness has saved you.”

Why such radically different approaches to, what seems to be, one illness? I would not be able to tell you; trying to guess what and why God does is futile, at best, for mere mortals like us.

But, we can risk to make at least one assumption about the way God works. Each of us is unique before God. There are no two human beings who are exactly alike in everything. And God does not see us as one human condition. Rather, He sees, He knows us as unique individuals with our unique conditions. And the relationship He has with each of us is also unique.

And the journey that each of us is on is, likewise, unique. The end of this journey, however, is one and the same – to be in communion with God and to experience His Kingdom both in this life and in eternity – but how we get to this end is different for all of us.

So the way Christ approaches us is different for each of us, but this does not mean that we can’t share our experiences or be encouraged by each other.

As unique as our experiences are, let’s look at some common points from today’s Gospel lesson that might help us in our journeys. I will offer three points. There are, of course, more, but let’s limit them to three today.

First, the man in the story is clearly physically blind, but that’s not the only kind of blindness that plagues humanity. In the Bible, we encounter a lot more spiritually blind people, than physically blind ones. Seeing is not just for the eyes.

Even the way we use the verb see points to this greater meaning. Do you see what I mean? For example, “listen to this song and see if you like it.” Or, as we sing in church during the Communion at the Presanctified Liturgy, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

There may be times when we are able to see with our eyes, but completely miss the point. Therefore, we need to be able to see with our physical eyes in order to comprehend with our mind and heart. See what? See God’s work around us and see the work God desires to do through us.

What if we can’t see it? Then we need to shout persistently like the blind man shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Let me see!”

This persistency led to something interesting, almost shocking. And this is the second common point from the Gospel lesson. When Jesus heard the man, He stood still in His tracks. Can you imagine God hearing our cry and standing still?

In the Bible this is the only instance where the Lord stands still. Usually, it’s the people who are ordered to stand still by God. But here, it’s the stubborn will of the blind man that forces Christ to stand still.

This is the persistency and stubbornness that we should have in desiring God’s attention. Instead of giving up or losing hope after one attempt, shout until there is no strength left to shout anymore.

I have a friend, who is a priest, who said that he shouts to God and at God more often than he talks to Him. And guess what, shouting is prayer. Read the Psalms for good examples of shouting at God. A good chunk of the psalms are King David shouting at God.

And the third point is Christ’s response to the blind man. “What do you want Me to do for you?” Jesus asks the man. “Lord, let me see again.” “Receive your sight,” the Lord commanded, and immediately the man regained his sight.

The commands of God are life-giving. “Receive your sight” is a direct command from God to the man. Christ did not tell him, “I hope you can see some day.

Thoughts and prayers.” Rather He commanded the man to see. And he saw.

The man had to obey the command in order to see.

We also have commands from God. Be they the Ten Commandments, or “sell everything that you have and follow Me,” or “take up your cross, deny yourself, and follow Me,” or “love your neighbor as yourself,” or whatever else Christ has commanded through the apostles and through the saints and through His Church, all these commands are life-giving.

These commandments were not given because it’s nice to do some of them. We need to do them because they are life-giving, because they give our life a meaning, because they give life and lead to the life in Christ. The blind man’s faithfulness saved him, as the Lord tells him. Our faithfulness in the One and to the One Who gives us life-giving commandments will save us.

And so, to God Who guides us to Himself on our unique journeys, we give glory and honor and worship today, always, and forever.

Amen.

January 7, 2024 - People Who Sat in Darkness

Sunday Sermon on the Gospel lesson from Matthew 4:12-17

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

On the Sunday after Theophany, we remember the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, the passing of the baton, if you will, from John the Baptist to Jesus Christ.

After He was baptized in the Jordan by John, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert praying and fasting. At the end of which He was tempted, unsuccessfully, by satan.

During these 40 days John was arrested. So as Jesus returned from the desert, He continued, it looked like, the work of preaching that John began. But in reality, John was always going to pass the baton to Jesus. John’s job was to prepare the way for the Lord. And as John himself said, “He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease” (John3:30).

And Jesus began His preaching, His public ministry, in one of the most unexpected places, as Saint Matthew tells us today, “He withdrew to Galilee.” Galilee was not a good place. Galileans might have considered themselves to be Jews, but no good Jew would call a person from Galilee a Jew. Galileans were not allowed to visit Jerusalem and worship in the Temple. The Jews, when traveling, would travel around Galilee, even if it was a longer route, just to avoid walking through the region.

And Christ begins preaching there. As Saint Matthew quotes prophet Isaiah prophesying about this moment, “Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sat in darkness have seen a great Light.” It is on this phrase, on this verse that I would like to focus today.

In Galilee of the Gentiles, in the land of pagans, the people sat in darkness, and for them the Light has dawned, they saw a great Light.

How much are we today like those people who sat in darkness? It is significant, I think, that they are described as sitting. You can’t really walk around in darkness. The safest thing to do is sit.

Sitting also suggests idleness, there is no effort undertaken to look for something other than darkness. And it suggests being content to be there. The people may not be satisfied with being stuck in darkness, but it sure is safer to sit and do nothing, than risk unnecessary movements.

But the main point about darkness is that we do not know that we are stuck in it until light appears. And the arrival of light may seem something of an intrusion, at first, and an unexpected change.

This is exactly what the coming of Christ was, and still is. His arrival, incarnation, His saving works, His light are all unexpected intrusions into our darkness.

Once in the light, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that light is better than darkness, that light reveals everything that we couldn’t see, that light reveals truth. And truth is more satisfying than any lie.

It just so happens that this great Light has illumined us at least once already, at our Baptism, which was made possible by the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.

This light lives in us, but it is up to us to keep it burning, to keep it going. So the very important question to ask ourselves is what light has illumined our hearts and actions over the past couple of weeks or months or even the whole year?

What light do we allow to illumine us, our souls and bodies?

Is it the light of our TVs and phones and ipads? The light that, let’s be honest, does nothing but contaminate our soul. Or is it the light of a candle during prayer, the light of Scripture that enlightens our mind as we read, the light of good deeds?

What light illumined our hearts and actions during these days and months? With what light do we intend to brighten our corner of the world going forward?

And if we find ourselves in darkness or illumined by the wrong kind of light, that’s not OK, but that’s not the end. Because, as we see from today’s Gospel lesson, the Lord goes into these dark places that we tend so often to visit, and pulls us out.

So, how do we get out of this darkness? How do we find that Light that has already been planted within us at Baptism? How do we rekindle the light that illumines our senses and shows us the right way?

The key lies in the first word Jesus said as He began His public preaching, “Repent.”

Repentance is hard at times, especially when we are stuck in darkness or illumined by the wrong light. It’s hard because it requires humility.

Repentance involves acknowledging our sinfulness and brokenness, but that’s not all that there is to it.

Repentance is a wholesome action. The word repent means to turn around, as in turn around from walking in the wrong direction, figure out the right direction, and walk there. Which means that repentance is not just turning away from evil, ceasing to do some bad things, but more importantly turning towards the Lord, beginning to follow His commandments and letting Him enlighten us.

And sometimes the mere act of realizing that I am in the wrong, that I am walking the wrong way, may be very hard to accomplish. That’s where humility comes in. Acknowledging my fault, my lack of sense of direction, my sinfulness is like eating a humble pie – it’s sour and hard to swallow, but it is necessary for my repentance, for my salvation.

When Jesus began His public ministry after His Baptism, He went to the worst place in that region – Galilee. In some way, where we are right now is the worst place because where sin prevails there can be no good place. And we are all sinners and promulgators of sin. We need Him to visit us.

And so, as He illumined the people who sat in darkness long ago, let Him illumine us today with His light, so that we may be led by it, and reflect it in our hearts and actions. For Christ’s glory and the glory of His Father and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

December 25, 2023 - Where is God?

Christmas Day sermon (December 25, 2023)

Audio of this sermon is available: here

December 10, 2023 - The war is here

Sunday sermon on Saint Paul’ letter to the Ephesians 6:10-17

“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, by land, and by air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalog of human crime. That is our policy.”

These are the words Winston Churchill said to the House of Commons as the French retreated from Hitler on May 13, 1940.

Don’t you know that we are at war?! Our enemies surround us all the time. There is no time to relax or lose focus. And we have no choice but to fight this war.

Therefore, put on your soldier’s uniform – the helmet, the bulletproof vest, the pants and shoes, and take up your shield and weapon. And stand firm.

This is Saint Paul’s exhortation to us.

Just like Churchill in 1940, Saint Paul some 1,900 years earlier was also aware that we are at war, and that our enemies are very real and dangerous, and that we need serious and proper protection to fight them.

And Paul specifies who exactly our enemy is. He is very precise so that we would not confuse and fight the wrong foe.

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” he says. In other words, our enemy is not a human being. Let me repeat that, we are not waging war against other people. If you read the Bible, you’ll notice that it talks about the enemy, a lot. If you read the Bible really closely, you’ll realize that by the enemy the Bible almost never means another human being. There is only one instance (at least that I can recall) where Jesus refers to the enemy that is human, and He says, “Love your enemy.”

It’s true that we may have arguments and disagreements between ourselves, but our ultimate fight is not against flesh and blood. Our struggle, rather, is “against the principalities, against the powers, against the cosmic powers of the darkness of this age, and against the evil spirits in the heavens.”

Principalities, powers, and cosmic powers are all names of spiritual beings. Initially these were the names of angels, who were assigned by God to oversee and guide different aspects of God’s creation. They were part of God’s government, His Divine Council.

However, when they saw God’s plan for humanity, humanity that was created in God’s image, humanity that is to rule and guide and oversee God’s creation along with the angels, when these angels saw God’s plan, they rebelled because of envy.

So these angels, principalities, powers, cosmic powers, evil spirits in the heavens, our true and only enemies, have been waging wars against humanity for ages. They afflict the creation with death and suffering.

How many of us actually believe that we are at war with evil? Not with evil people or with evil ideas, but with evil spirits? How many of us take evil seriously today?

The devil has become a comic figure. He is the red guy with a pointy tail and two horns, who whispers naughty things into our ear. That’s all we think we when we generally think about evil.

Do not underestimate demonic powers because they are dedicated to our downfall and ruin. Sin exists because human beings, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and mortal. And through their mortality, through death, sin entered into the world.

But sin exists also because satan pushed Adam and Eve towards disobedience. He promised unsurpassable knowledge and he planted seeds of doubt towards God.

Evil spirits have not stopped planting lies into our hearts. They even willingly work with us, but never for our benefit. Their goal always is our doom.

It’s safe to say that every time we are tempted, it’s the doing of evil. But every time we sin, it’s our own action because we succumbed to the whisper of evil.

And so Paul directs us to have our soldier’s equipment always ready. We can’t go to war wearing jeans and t-shirt. I mean, we can, but we won’t last 5 minutes. So, how do we fight an enemy that is mostly invisible?

First, stand firm, be on guard. Not all fighting involves throwing punches or swinging a sword or shooting bullets. Sometimes we just need to be on guard. How many of us left the house door unlocked or even flung open when we left for church today? No one, right? Unless now you’re thinking, “Did I lock the door? I knew I should have gone back and checked.”

It’s not very smart to leave the door open when nobody’s home. But what about the door of the mind, the door of the ears, the door of the eyes, the door of the heart?

We leave them unlocked and wide open a lot more than we care to admit, so that any enemy can pass through without a problem. And the enemy we are talking about is far more serious than a house robber or an enemy a soldier might encounter on the battlefield.

Therefore, stand firm, be on guard, do not leave the doors to your soul carelessly opened, and put on the soldier’s equipment.

Saint Paul describes two categories of this equipment – defensive and offensive. The defensive equipment consists of helmet, breastplate, belt, shoes, and a shield. Helmet in particular, which Saint Paul calls the helmet of salvation, guards our heads.

We must guard the content between the two ears. What comes in here can be seriously influenced by the evil spirits in the heavens. And this includes what content we consume from TV, books, newspapers, social media, internet in general, and conversations we have.

That’s why it’s essential to read good books, to watch good movies, to have deep and thought-provoking conversations, to counterbalance the garbage that so easily enters into our heads.

And one offensive equipment we are to have, one weapon, is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” The Word of God is also what we call the Scriptures.

In order the wield the Scriptures as the sword of the Spirit, we need to know the holy Scriptures. Read them daily, even if only a verse or two. Memorize parts of it, especially the Psalms. Keep it in your mind constantly.

The Scriptures constitute the sword that drives away our enemies – the real enemies, the evil spirits, the devil. His whispering won’t be so sweet when we know the truth, when our heads and hearts are filled with good content, when we know the Word of God, while we stand firm and continue the fight.

The war is here, we are the soldiers, Christ’s soldiers. Let us not fight unprepared and untrained.

To Jesus Christ, our Sovereign Leader and Commander, we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

December 3, 2023 - Capacity for more

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 18:18-27

Audio of this sermon is available: here

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

What is our capacity? What is our capacity to grow, to learn, to love, to serve, to be? Do we have a limit to our capacity? Can we ever max out our goodness? Is there a ceiling to how much we can love?

These are some of the questions that are prompted by a conversation between Christ and a young rich ruler. The ruler came to the Lord desiring something that we all want, otherwise we wouldn’t be here – he desired salvation, he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

If this is not the question we are asking ourselves daily, then we are wasting our days. – What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Christ replied by quoting five of the Ten Commandments: do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not bear false witness; and, honor your father and mother.

All five of these have one thing in common – our relationship with others. Not one of them is about our relationship with God. At least none of them talk about it directly.

I think Christ is trying to say here that the path to eternal life is not a lonely one, we walk this path together with others. Why? Because eternity is not a lonely place, it is full of other people. So we need to learn not only to co-exist, but to live together today.

And the ruler claims to have kept all of these commandments since his youth. He wasn’t just looking for eternal life, in other words, he was already working towards his destination. And we have no reason to doubt him. Jesus doesn’t doubt him.

Instead, the Lord says, since you’ve kept these commandments, you have a capacity for more. He kept all those commandments? Great, he will be able to do more and greater things! In Christ, our capacity to grow, to learn, to love, to serve never reaches its limit. God is infinite, His gifts for us are infinite, therefore, what we can do in Him and He through us is also infinite.

If I have kept five commandments, then I can keep five more. If I fed one hungry person, then I can feed one more. If I can learn to love someone even a little bit, then I’ll be able to learn to love them a bit more. If I can dedicate one day of the week for the glory of Christ’s Gospel, then I can dedicate one more, in whatever I do.

The work we do to inherit the eternal life is not just a bunch of rules we have to follow in order to go to heaven or to hell. We do this in order to become something, something more than we are right now. Again, in Christ we never stop growing, we never stop learning, we never stop loving or serving.

The Lord offered three more steps for the ruler, in order for him to keep growing and not stagnate – sell everything, distribute the money, follow Christ, become His disciple. It’s important to keep in mind here that Christ offered these three steps to the ruler because he had kept the commandments, he was supposed to have the capacity for more. It’s like Jesus is telling him, “Don’t get too comfortable with what you’ve achieved. There’s more. There’s always more, and it will unlock more in you.”

But the ruler was not yet ready to continue growing because he was very rich, we are told, he was not yet ready to let go of the possessions that possessed him. Just in case any of us sneered at the rich people when we heard today’s Gospel lesson, it’s not only the rich people who struggle to let go of their possessions and follow Christ. The pain of abandoning things that we possess is the same whether we abandon a lot or a little.

Christ often talks about money, or wealth, or possessions. And the theme is very clear – our wealth is not the problem, it’s what we do with it that concerns the Lord. It’s how we use it for His glory or not. It’s whether the things that we have (again, doesn’t have to be a lot) become our little gods or whether we look for ways to glorify the one true God through them.

Christianity is very simple and direct when it comes to our things – everything we have, possess, or own is not ours, not even life itself. Everything is a gift, and we are the stewards of these gifts. Therefore, Christ is calling us to possess what He has given us, to possess it, not be possessed by it. And more than that, possess it not for our sake, but for the sake of others because that’s how we glorify God. How we grow with, live with, love, and serve others is how we grow with, live with, love, and serve God Himself.

Unfortunately, the ruler was possessed by his wealth, he was not yet ready to continue growing. He didn’t reach his capacity, he had to continue growing. He kept some commandments, he was striving for the right thing, he was asking the right questions. But he needed more time.

When other things possess us, we are left with less space for Christ and our growth in Him. We stagnate once we allow ourselves to be possessed.

And so, what is our capacity? Is it limited at the present time by the things that possess us? Are we content with where we are or do we want to continue growing, learning, loving, and serving?

No matter where we are today or what we are capable of right now, this is not the end. In Christ, the capacity to do more, to be more is infinite.

What must we do to inherit eternal life? Keep it simple – do one good thing a day. And grow from there. Keep Christ’s commandments, use what He has given us for His glory, and follow Him.

Amen.

November 12, 2023 - Neighbor

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 10:25-37

Audio of this sermon is available: here

“And who is my neighbor?”

That’s such a loaded question. English language is somewhat limited here because when we think of a neighbor, we often imagine those who live next door to us or on the same street or our family members. But that’s not what the word ‘neighbor’ means in the Christian context.

The expert in the Law, the lawyer, who asked Jesus this question, was a religious teacher, he already knew the answer. We are told that he came to test Christ; he wanted to see how well the Lord knew His own Law.

In response, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s such a popular parable that even the secular people, who have nothing to do with Christ and His Church, often refer to it. The Good Samaritan is a person who helps those in need, simply because that’s the right thing to do, no strings attached.

Today, I would like to focus on two characters from the parable and discuss what their actions tell us about the nature of the Law with its commandments, and how we can properly apply the Law to understand what it means being a neighbor to others.

In the parable we have five different characters – the man who was beaten and robbed, the robbers, a priest, a Levite, and the Samaritan man.

I want to look at the priest and the Levite. They are often glossed over because they do not help the man, intentionally avoiding him. Usually, right away we switch our focus to the Samaritan. But let’s take a closer look at who the priest and the Levite are and why they did what they did.

The priest was someone who offered sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. There were thousands of priests in the Temple, and they would take turns serving, usually a week or two at a time. Levites also served in the Temple, but they did not offer sacrifices. You can think of them as today’s deacons – they served, but more as helpers to the priests.

Both the priest and the Levite, separately, walked down the same road where the beaten and robbed man lay half dead. Both saw him. And both “passed by on the other side,” as we are told. In other words, they wanted to have nothing to do with the man, even if he was alive, which, by the way, they had no way of knowing because we are told that he was half dead.

On the surface of things, they seem to be completely justified in the eyes of their own Jewish Law. Some of the commandments clearly state that coming into contact with blood of another person or a corpse made a person unclean.

Becoming unclean meant that you had to separate yourself from others, essentially you had to go under a self-imposed quarantine, which lasted a week or two. While in this quarantine, the person had to bathe, wash their garments, and pray. And then afterwards, offer a sacrifice.

In the times when there was no hand sanitizer or hand soap, this kind of precaution is understandable. We can also understand why the priest and the Levite would be extra cautious – if this was their turn to serve in the Temple, they couldn’t afford to become unclean and miss their turn to serve, because their next turn would come in a few years.

As the lawyer was listening to Jesus tell the parable, in his mind both the priest and the Levite followed the Law to the last dot by keeping themselves clean. They did exactly what they were supposed to do.

The lawyer came to test Christ, but the Lord turned the situation back onto the lawyer by testing his knowledge of the Law. If you pay attention when you read your Bibles, you may notice that Jesus never answers provocative, nonsensical questions. He simply does not engage with them. But He does entertain some stupid questions, if they are important. One such question, coming from a guy who already knew the answer, is “who is my neighbor?”

Let’s get back to the priest and the Levite. They did everything correct according to the Law … or so they thought. When the Jews were given the commandments about cleanness and uncleanness, and rituals of purification, God did not tell them to make sure to avoid unclean things. Rather, in case they had to become unclean by coming into contact with blood or a corpse, or anything else unclean they had ways of purifying themselves.

For example, if someone had a wound, it had to be treated. It wasn’t left alone. Whoever did that had to clean themselves afterwards. Or, when people died, their bodies had to be prepared for the burial, they were not abandoned. After the burial, people would clean themselves to prevent the spread of any possible disease.

Therefore, these laws did not forbid helping wounded or half dead people. By passing by the beaten man, both the priest and the Levite chose to focus on the unimportant part of the Law – avoid the contact with blood or a corpse. Technically, they followed the Law, but they chose the easy way out.

However, when it comes to our relationship with others, there is no easy way out. And that’s the point the Lord is making here to the lawyer who came to test Him.

God’s Law guides us towards the worship of the One True God and the love of our neighbor. And this love includes taking care of someone who is sick or mistreated or half dead or even dead.

When the lawyer asked who is his neighbor, he wanted to know what group of people qualified as such, and who did not. Who did he have to love and whom could he disregard as non-essential. Because that was very much a thing at that time; and wouldn’t you know it, it is still a thing today.

Is my neighbor someone of a particular social status, nationality, skin color, physical appearance, sexual orientation, political party, or some other criterion? That’s how they looked at people in those days, and that’s exactly what so many of us still do to this day.

At the end of the parable, Christ asked the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The way the Lord phrases His question is absolutely important to the point He is making. He did not ask, “Who was the man a neighbor to?” As in, which of the three guys who walked by him considered him to be their neighbor?

Christ uses the word ‘neighbor’ in a fundamentally different way here. The lawyer wanted to know who is a neighbor to him, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus says, “Who are you a neighbor to?”

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

Meaning, I can choose to be a neighbor to you or choose not to be a neighbor to you. It’s not how you relate to me; it’s how I relate to you. We can live under the same roof and not be neighbors. Likewise, we can live two hours apart, and be neighbors, based on how I treat you.

To Christ’s last question the lawyer answered, “The one who showed mercy on him.” To which Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise.”

A neighbor is the one who is merciful to specific people, not just humanity in general. If I claim to love humanity, but hate the person in front of me, then I’m just a liar. If I can’t be a loving neighbor to the person in front of me, then there is no way I can love at all.

“Go and do likewise.” Go and show mercy, be a good neighbor. Don’t look for neighbors, but be one to others. Let us go, then, and find someone to show mercy on; let us be a neighbor to the person right in front of us, no matter who they are, how they look or act.

And let us always give glory, honor, and worship to the One Who shows us mercy to us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

November 5, 2023 - I want a miracle (11.05.23)

Sunday Sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 8:41-56

Audio of this sermon is available: here

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

I want a miracle! I want a miracle, so that I would come to believe, that I may have faith in God.

I do not know about you, but these are the thoughts that I might sometimes have. I want a sign; I want God to show Himself in a miracle, to strengthen my faith.

Demanding things from God, daring Him even, is nothing new. In Matthew’s Gospel account, the scribes and Pharisees demand a sign from Jesus (Matthew 12:38). But He does not indulge them. Rather, He tells them to get lost (roughly paraphrasing).

But there are people who approach Him and receive the miracle, sometimes even without asking for it. Today we heard about two such miracles – the resurrection of a 12-year-old girl and healing of a woman with hemorrhages. So, what’s the difference between me or the Pharisees asking for a sign and not receiving it, and others who do receive a miracle?

Today’s Gospel lesson picks up right after Jesus left the country of the Gadarenes, after the people there did not appreciate His miracle-working among them and asked Him to leave them alone.

Once He crossed the lake and got onto the shore, people crowded around Him, as they routinely did when Christ was in public. A man named Jairus approached Him and begged Him to heal his severely ill daughter. As Christ set out for Jairus’ house, a woman, one of many in the crowd, anonymous and unnoticed, came up behind the Lord and touched the fringe of His robe.

That’s it, that’s all she did – quietly and lightly touch Jesus’ robe, without begging Him for anything or demanding a miracle. We are told that she was bleeding, hemorrhaging for twelve long years. She spent all her money on doctors, but no one was able to help her. So Jesus, in a way, was her last resort, the final hope at healing.

Why didn’t she ask Christ for a healing openly? Why did she have to be so secretive and discreet? According to the customs of those days, hemorrhages made her ceremonially unclean, which meant that by the Law of Moses, she was not allowed to be among people, out in public, because anyone who came in contact with her was also made ceremonially unclean and risked getting infected, in case her disease was contagious.

She had no choice but to be quiet because if others found out that she was in their midst while still bleeding, she easily could’ve been spat upon, kicked, or even stoned. However, upon touching Jesus’ robes, she instantly received a miracle – a complete healing.

Christ’s divinity made His humanity incapable of getting sick, even when He was touched by someone unclean. Instead of getting infected after touching someone unclean, His holiness goes out to people He touches or touch Him and they are healed.

Church Fathers point out that Jesus, by taking on Himself our humanity and living through all the stages of human existence, from conception to adulthood to death, sanctifies and makes holy all those parts of our life. Jesus blesses, makes holy, purifies, and heals our world from sin and death by His presence in it. And as we come closer to Him, we become more aware of our own sickness, but we are also transformed by Christ’s presence and are healed.

But there is one key ingredient that we need to bring to our encounter with God in order to experience this blessing, purification, and healing – faith. Or rather, faithfulness. The word that’s usually translated as “faith” from both Hebrew and Greek is actually “faithfulness.”

What’s the difference, you may ask? Faith has to do with warm, fuzzy feelings, while faithfulness requires action. For example, a husband does not say, “I have faith in my wife.” That just sounds weird. He has faith that she can cook, or something? Rather, he says, “I am faithful to my wife.” And that faithfulness is expressed in various ways, from treating her with love and respect, to providing for the family, to actually not cheating.

And that’s what God wants from us. He does not need a mere faith, a belief in His existence or a belief that He can do something. He wants faithfulness to Him. Faithfulness that is expressed in the way we live, in the way we worship, in the way we interact with others, in our fidelity to Him and no other god.

So what kind of faithfulness did the woman show? Not much, right? She comes to Christ as a last resort, it seems, which in itself is not a bad thing because she is there risking her well-being, seeking healing. And that’s an important detail here. instead of despairing after all those doctors failed to help her, she turns to God.

And he is not scolded by the Lord for not being faithful enough up to that point. But what does He say to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” Her faith, her faithfulness made her well. Faithfulness to Whom? To God; to God, Who through her faithfulness healed her.

Christ never does miracles to make people believe in Him. He never does miracles to prove to the faithless that He is God. Miracles always happen because of people’s faithfulness and for their repentance. And that’s why He heals some, and tells those who challenge Him for a sign to get lost.

Often, we ourselves demand miracles from God, so that we would believe. “God,” we say, “If You want me to believe in You, then You need to do this.” That’s not how it works. Our faith and faithfulness are prerequisites, even if they are feeble, for God’s miracles.

If we test God and dare Him, we will remain faithless, like the Pharisees. If we are faithful to Him, even a little bit, even after a life full of unfaithfulness, even if as a last resort, He will find a way to do a miracle that will lead to our repentance and healing.

To God, Who desires our faithfulness to Him in everything we do, and Who does miracles through that faithfulness: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

October 29, 2023 - Four Reactions to XC

On the Gospel lesson from Luke 8:26-39

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Before we can have a relationship with a person, we need to react or respond to the them first. A lot of times, our first reaction to them can determine how the relationship might go.

For example, if I react negatively to a person I just met, especially if I do it to their face, then chances of us developing any sort of relationship are bleak. If I keep an open mind when meeting others, and if I give them, and myself, time to get to know them better, to see who they actually are, instead of coming to conclusions right away, then there is a chance for further relationship.

In other words, our first reaction is very important. In today’s Gospel lesson we heard four different reactions of people coming face to face with Christ. In all four cases we see how the initial reaction to Jesus either opened up the door for a relationship or shut it completely.

We see Christ arriving by boat to a country of the Gadarenes, which was a Gentile region, meaning there were no Jews there. Christ often took breaks from preaching and teaching and healing; even though, fully God, He was also fully human, so He needed to rest, to pray, and to regain His physical strength. Very likely He came to this country for this purpose.

As soon as He stepped out on land, He met a man of the city, who was possessed by demons, and who lived, basically, in the cemetery, in the tombs. Immediately, upon seeing Jesus the man reacted, or rather the demons in him reacted. They fell down to the ground before Him, called Jesus by His Name – the Son of the Most High God, and begged not to be tormented.

This is the first reaction of demons to Jesus Christ; and this is the only reaction they could have because the job of demons is to destroy and defile anything that is good, beautiful, pure, and godly. The mere presence of Christ tormented them.

It is also interesting that they were able to recognize in Jesus not just a great man, but the Son of God. In the Gospel accounts, we see only the righteous people, such as Saint Symeon, who received Him in the Temple, and prophetess Anna, who was also there, and demons recognize right away Jesus for Who He is – that is God.

All others are confused and scandalized by Him, even, in some cases, after the Resurrection. So if we are struggling to recognize Jesus, there’s still hope for us. All it means is that we are not yet holy enough, nor are we, thankfully, that evil.

As Christ was having a conversation with the possessed man and healing him and sending the demons into the pigs, the swineherds, who were supposed to be in charge of those pigs, saw everything. After seeing all the pigs run off the cliff and drown, the swineherds also ran, but in their case to the city to tell everyone..

In it we see the second reaction to Christ. The swineherds very likely were shocked for having lost all the pigs, and having witnessed an apparent exorcism. But we never see them engage with Christ, they never approached Him – all they did was witness a miracle and tell others about it. They just remain in the background, hesitant to choose a side between awe and amazement or anger and rejection.

The people, who had come out to see what had happened, however, did choose a side and they had a very strong reaction. They were afraid. Fear is a natural reaction to something supernatural. In the book of Psalms, in the book of Proverbs, and in the book of Job we are told that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

The initial reaction of fear to Christ for these people was a great beginning. They were about to develop a relationship with Him, they were about to welcome God, they were about to grow in wisdom…but instead, they react very much like the demons.

The demons begged Jesus not to be sent to hell (imagine how bad hell must be that even the demons don’t want to go there?), but to be sent into the pigs. And the people begged Him to leave them alone. Very similar reactions, “Do not torment us, Jesus, Son of the Most High God!” and, “Go away, leave us alone.”

The demons had no chance at relationship with Jesus Christ because they stand against everything that He stands for. But the people had that chance and they wasted it. Notice that the Lord obeys the wishes of both the demons and the people – He sends the first into the pigs and leaves the second alone. Therefore, we must be careful what we ask God because He just might do what we ask for.

And finally, the fourth reaction to Jesus Christ was from the man who was healed from being possessed by demons. As Jesus was getting into the boat to leave that country, without finding the much-needed rest, the man came up to Him and also begged Him. But he begged to be with Jesus.

His life was transformed, he was free from the awful demon-possession, from slavery, he was free to return to the society, but all he wanted was to be with Jesus, to become one of His disciples.

Here, however, Christ does not obey the wish of the man. Instead of taking him on as a disciple, Jesus sends him out as an apostle, saying, “Return to your home, and proclaim what great things God has done for you.”

The Gospel that the apostles began to proclaim in the first century is still proclaimed today, and the message is exactly what the man was told to say, “Tell everyone what great things God has done for you.”

And what is that message? It is the message of liberation, of being set free from the slavery to the demons and their evil works. It is the message of being saved through the works Christ accomplished upon the Cross. It is the message of us becoming the sons and daughters of the Most High God. And as His sons daughters, it is the message of us inheriting His eternal Kingdom.

So, four reactions, four very different reactions to Christ, and only one real relationship developed. Only the man who was healed walked away from his interaction with Christ having now a relationship with God.

Why? Because he was the only one who did what Christ told him to do, the man followed the will of God. Even though, he had a request of his own, he wanted to do something different, he wanted to be with Christ; yet he followed a command of Christ to proclaim the great things Jesus had done for him.

That’s exactly what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done.” Not my will be done, even if I am asking for things all the time, but Your will, O God. When we say “Thy will be done,” we are asking God that He does His will through us, and not the other way around, not our will through Him.

When the people of the country of the Gadarenes woke up on that day, they probably did not expect to lose the full herd of swine and come face to face with God. But they did. Maybe we do not expect to come face to face with God every day we wake up and go about our business. But we do.

Every single day, we come face to face with God. We react and interact with the Lord. We do it in our prayers, or lack of them. Omitting to pray is a reaction to God, it’s not a very good one, but it is a reaction. Our interactions with other people – at home, on the streets, in the store, driving on the highway – are all opportunities to react and interact with God. And our desire to see that our life, in whatever we do, is incomplete without Christ, like the man who was healed realized, is our reaction to Christ.

Our relationship with the Lord depends on how we react to Him. It’s not about how He reacts to us because we already know how He reacts – He reacts with love and patience; He reacts by dying for us; God is literally dying to have a relationship with us.

How do we react? Today, right now, having gathered together, sitting in this church, in these pews – how do we react to Him? What kind of a relationship do we want to have with Him? From now till the end of the Liturgy, we will have multiple opportunities to react to Jesus.

May we beg Jesus that we might be with Him, like the man who was healed begged Him. And may His will be done through us, just like we ask Him every time in the Lord’s Prayer.

To Christ, Who desires to have an eternal relationship with us, we give glory, honor, and thanksgiving, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages..

Amen.

October 15, 2023 - Strength in Weakness

Sermon on Saint Paul letter to the Corinthians 11:31-12:9

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

We are weak. Maybe individually some of us are strong physically or mentally, but collectively, as human beings we are weak.

We are weak compared to the machinery we have built, we are weak in the face of nature: we are helpless against a storm or fire or any other natural disaster.

We look ridiculous while boasting about our non-existent strengths. But when a strong man boasts of his power, or rich man boasts of his wealth, or a smart man boasts of being a genius, this bragging, even if justified, is the result of something we all face – the inevitable death. Even when we are strong and confident, even then we are weak because our strength and confidence can’t prevent death.

We are weak because we are full of passions and temptations. These also lead to death, but expectantly, if we give in to our temptations, we are destroying ourselves, no matter how much pleasure we get in the process.

Saint Paul talks today about his own temptations and weaknesses. He doesn’t name them, but says that he has a thorn in his flesh, something that constantly bothers him, something that makes him realize that he is, like us, weak.

No one is immune from temptations. No one who has ever lived avoided hot passions. Even Christ was tempted, but He, as God, did not give in to them. Instead, He took all of our temptations and weaknesses to the Cross.

Whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not, but all of us have some serious passions and temptations. And I do not mean a passion to draw or a passion for photography or a passion for chocolate chip cookies at midnight. In a Christian sense, passion is a nasty desire, a lust; something that makes us passive in our own life (hence, passion), something that, in a way, takes over us. And we all have them because we are weak.

Sometimes we fight our passions, and sometimes we give in to them. But the problem is, fighting or giving in means engaging, when the goal is avoiding. Because, when we fight something, we give it energy.

Maybe we are like Saint Paul, who asked God three times to be healed from the thorn in his flesh, and we plead and ask, but our lusts remain. Through Paul God answers why our temptations persist. Paul says today – God’s strength, His power, is made perfect in weakness.

How can power be made perfect in weakness? How can anything come out of weakness? Everything in today’s culture says that only the strong survive. We should be ashamed of being weak, we are told, always look to avoid it like a disease. Weak is undesirable, weak is shameful. And that’s why we are scared to admit the obvious – we are all weak.

Yet in being weak we share something with Christ. Did He descend with His heavenly army and demolish all of His enemies? Did He build an army of His disciples and overthrow the Roman rule? What was His weapon? What was His sign of power?

Christ defeated His enemy, He conquered Death by going to the Cross – the ultimate sign of weakness and shame. He showed His power by dying. Christ showed us who God truly is – God is not Someone who gives us moral teachings, but Someone who dies for us. True God is the One who through death and resurrection brings us to salvation.

We are weak…because we die. And God’s power is made perfect in death. Our weaknesses, our passions and temptations are constant reminders that we live by drawing on the Lord for strength and through faithfulness to His commandments.

Christ’s power rests on us when the weaknesses and persecutions that torment us make us rely completely upon Him. God’s grace is sufficient for us. We have nothing to boast about because we are weak. And our weakness is a reminder of humility.

God does not desire a boastful heart, but a humble one. A heart that is open to receive His grace and give back to Him our weaknesses. A heart that prays to God, “Make Your power, O God, perfect in my weaknesses.”

And therefore, to One God in Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.