We have arrived at the First Sunday in Lent. Saying “we have arrived” keeps up the imagery that we are travelling – the spiritual journey of Great Lent. We are doing what Christ calls all of His disciples to do, as we heard at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson: “Follow me.” (John 1:43). We can follow Christ only by being on this spiritual sojourn. Spirituality, being a Christian, is not a state of mind or the soul, but our movement toward the kingdom of God. To follow Christ we have to move ourselves towards God.
We still have a long way to travel, just to get through Lent. At the midweek services this past week, I mentioned to you about how God’s call to Israel to leave Egypt behind was a wakeup call. For though we usually think of the Hebrew people as being slaves in Egypt, there is another spiritual reality there. They had voluntarily and willfully entered Egypt to escape their own poverty and famine in order to benefit from the wealth of Egypt. They left behind their lives of being desert nomads for a life in the great civilization of Egypt. And they had enslaved themselves to the all that Egyptian empire had to offer. Moses comes to awaken them from their dream and delusion, but he doesn’t call them to overthrow their Egyptian overlords in a slave revolt and to take over that society. Rather God calls them to leave society, culture and civilization behind and to go into the desert to worship God and to see the glory of God. It is not a civil war to which they are called but a war against the flesh, their own desires and comfort.
They are asked to leave behind the glory of human civilization – all that they knew about the world – and to walk into the great unknown of the barren, lifeless and desolate desert. They were called to leave the known and to seek the unknown. And all week long I’ve told you that is what Great Lent is supposed to be to us – leave behind all that you know and love about your lives – your food, your entertainment, your beds, all that comforts you, your couches and clothes, all that enriches you and attracts you and satisfies you – and practice the abstinence, the self-denial, the fasting which Great Lent, which the great desert demands of you. When we enter into Great Lent we are called to wake up out of the delusion that our lives are so wonderful and blessed and comfortable, and to see that there is an entire life available to us – a spiritual life, a life in God, which we miss because we are so busy pursuing comfort, careers, pleasure, the good life, the American dream. Great Lent reminds us this life we so value really is a dream and will pass away. The American dream does not last forever for it belongs to this temporary earth. One day we will awake from this dream because we hear Christ calling us to wake up and arise. And when we do we shall see God and realize all we so valued in this world was not that important or helpful. We in effect are called to join our spiritual ancestors to make an exodus into the desert of our lives.
This awakening happened to Moses as we heard at the beginning of today’s Epistle:
By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26)
Moses refuses the dream of being Pharaoh’s grandson and embraces the reality that the pampered life of the elite is really enslavement to the world. Moses looked to this spiritual reward, and to do so he had to see beyond the great empire of which he was in the ruling class. He lived a privileged life, and yet it was a dream deluding him. And here we see another great theme of Lent, besides sojourning, besides fasting, we are to see God.
So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “At evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD . . . And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. (Exodus 16:6-10)
It was only when these people looked away from the grand empire of which they were a part did they see the glory of God. God was not seen by them in the greatest nation on earth but in the wilderness where there was no city, no culture, no comfort, no power, no wealth.
At the end of today’s Gospel lesson we heard Jesus say:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)
The story of God’s people, of our exodus from Egypt, our sojourn through Great Lent is so that our eyes might be opened and so that we not be so dazzled and seduced by all the riches this world has to offer, and that we consider the glory of the Lord. We are called to see the depth and riches of the Kingdom of God which are invisible to us when we focus only on life in this world.
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-22)
That great cloud of witnesses to God’s glory is visible to us in the icons all around us. Icons open heaven to our eyes and our eyes to heaven. They tell us to see with the eyes of our heart, don’t just look at the external, but see the reality that these people and events represent. Look into the hearts of those who are filled with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said we will see heaven wide open but also that our eyes would be open wide by what we see.
Our eyes can be opened to God’s revelation, to understanding salvation, to the Kingdom of God if our hearts are open and receptive to what God reveals to us.
And what do we see with the eyes of our heart?
A loving God, a forgiving Father hoping for us to seek Him no matter how far away we may feel we are from Him.
We see where and in whom heaven and earth meet.
An icon shows us our salvation comes when God is united to humanity.
Icons remind us the Kingdom of Heaven is not a distant place but, rather, is right here right in our midst. As Jesus Christ said, “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)
Christ is in our midst!