All through Great Lent this year I have referenced to you the spiritual sojourn we have been on. God called us to leave behind the greatest nation on earth and go into the desert of Great Lent to find God, because God is not to be found in the wealth and the power of the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.
The abundance and the blessings of our country really can hide God from us – the humble God who is willing to die on the cross for us. Every year God calls us to Great Lent, to self-denial and abstinence, to charity for the needy, to prayer, to feed the hungry, to repentance, to clothe the naked and give housing to the homeless, to the desert so that we might wean ourselves out of enslavement to all those things of this world which we love so much, and cling to, and lust after and even kill for. God calls us to the desert so that we might see ourselves – naked human beings -standing before the Creator of the world – weak, defenseless, sinners, in need of God’s mercy. Abundance and prosperity can hide from us our own need for God’s mercy and our need to be merciful to others. And like the Israelites of old, in the desert, we too hunger for the fleshpots of Egypt and we even prefer to die enslaved to the pleasures of the world rather than to live with our God in the desert.
But every year, this sojourn into the desert also leads us with the disciples into Jerusalem which is a city which also wants to be great. And in Jerusalem, the chosen and holy city of God, the place where God’s temple stands, where heaven and earth come together, there the disciples are going to see their Lord executed on a cross. And we are there not to watch Christ die for us, but for us to die with Him. The sojourn into the desert is not a spectator’s game, but is a matter of life and death.
Yesterday, in our church a group of 9 people joined us in this sojourn. They were baptized here, dying with Christ to the world in order to live with Christ in this world. Jesus prayed in Jerusalem to His Father these words:
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. (John 17:11-16)
Despite the fact that Christ is condemned to death by the world and raised to life by God, despite the fact that Jesus says we will be hated by the world, He also says we are to continue living in this world, but now united to Him. In Communion with Christ, evil cannot take away Christ from us, and even death cannot separate us from the love of Christ.
My brothers and sisters, after all this sojourning in the desert, Jesus our Lord sends us back into the world, not to belong to the world or to be of the world, but to be with Him in this world. And it maybe at times that you feel you somehow don’t belong here, and that is good because you really do belong to Christ not to this world!
And this does mean we have to die to the world and die to ourselves in order to make room for Christ our God. Otherwise all the power and wealth of the world seduce us and we don’t see Christ nor do with live with Him in this world. And only with Christ do we see ourselves and each other as God’s children created in God’s image and likeness rather than seeing each other as the world defines us – as aliens, foreigners, competitors, enemies, strangers.
Yesterday, after we baptized our 9 newest members, Fr. Silviu mentioned in his words that after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus is content to sit with Jesus. According to today’s Gospel Martha and Mary prepared an expensive supper and a lot of people showed up causing a huge hubbub, but Lazarus says not a word but is content to be with Christ.
Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. … ( John 12:1-3)
Brothers and sisters, we all who have been baptized into Christ are sent by Christ into the world but a world in which Christ now allows us to sit with Him at His table, to eat His food, and to realize that all the power and wealth of the world really are addictions, temptations and enslavement – yet we love them so dearly. But we are invited in this life, in our daily life, in this world to be with Christ and to eat with Him and thus to be united to heaven itself. Don’t give up heaven no matter how alluring and seductive the world may seem.
In 2 Esdras 2:42-48, Ezra is given a vision of us – all as newly baptized, having shed our old clothes and put on new baptismal garments and holding palm branches:
I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude that I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. Then I asked an angel, “Who are these, my lord?” He answered and said to me, “These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and have confessed the name of God. Now they are being crowned, and receive palms.” Then I said to the angel, “Who is that young man who is placing crowns on them and putting palms in their hands?” He answered and said to me, “He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.” So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord. Then the angel said to me, “Go, tell my people how great and how many are the wonders of the Lord God that you have seen.”
The beauty of this vision is captured in the Epistle for Palm Sunday:
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)