David the Righteous One

In the weeks before the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, quite a few Old Testament prophets and saints are commemorated in the Orthodox Church calendar.  Some have their individual feast days and some are commemorated among the forefathers and ancestors of Christ on the Sundays before Christmas.  On the Sunday after the Nativity one of our commemorations in the Orthodox Church calendar is of King David the Righteous One.

David exclaims, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” A David who achieved so much, who won so many victories, who slew Goliath, strangled a lion barehanded, received great favor from the Holy Spirit, yet imploringly cries out: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy loving  kindness, according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.” One could imagine what the great king was thinking; I was a simple farmer and you made me a king, and when I became a king you appointed me to be a prophet. You made me victorious in war, victorious against Goliath. Not according to my own physical strength, but through the power of faith, which You also gave unto me. You vested me with royal garb and appointed me to a royal throne. You gave me wealth. That which sin hath destroyed, You O God, through Your Grace, gave back to us. “Then will I teach transgressors Thy ways, and ungodly men shall turn to Thee.” You ranked me so high that You gave me the ability and vision to know and prophesy Your only begotten Son. I have been taught that You have a Son begotten of woman, with the same authority as you have. I told of the good news of His crucifixion, His death and descent from the heavens and of His glorious resurrection. I spoke of His trial, of man’s salvation. I foretold of the apostles’ calling.

David thunders, “For behold, Thou lovest truth; Thou has manifested to me the secret and hidden things of Thy wisdom.” The prophet testifies of the Lord’s descent upon the earth: “He shall come down as rain upon a fleece; and as drops falling upon the earth.” (71:8). And truly, when the Son of God descended, He did not arrive via earth-shaking thunderous clamor, He did not bear a pure divine form, He came as a man. Had He come in a pure divine form, neither could the mountains, nor the Sun endure the same. Its light would have been blown out, the earth – destroyed, and all those who dwelleth upon it perished. He came quietly without fanfare. Even his birth was humble, in a Virgin‘s womb with shepherds and adoring animals as witnesses.

 (George Dimopoulos, Patristic Orthodox Sermons on the Psalms, p. 37-38)

How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever?

O LORD, do not rebuke me in Your anger,
Nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure.
Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am weak;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled;
But You, O LORD—how long?
Return, O LORD, deliver me!
Oh, save me for Your mercies’ sake!
For in death there is no remembrance of You;
In the grave who will give You thanks?
I am weary with my groaning;
All night I make my bed swim;
I drench my couch with my tears.

(Psalm 6:1-6, Of David, A Prayer of Faith in Time of Distress)

King David, was loved by God, and yet in the Psalms he composed, he offers woeful lamentations about the suffering he experienced in his lifetime.  His Psalms certainly speak to those of us who have suffered, as well as expressing the sorrows of our hearts.  Distress, pain, sorrow, and suffering can all seem to go on forever with no end in sight.  We do wonder with David, how long will God let the suffering go on?

We can also have the same experience of endless suffering just by listening to the news.  And depression itself can come upon us like a darkness which will not go away.

What brought this all to mind was the words of St. Paul:

“It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

As I mentioned in the previous blog, Light Shines in Darkness, I realized what hope we have in the God who shines out of darkness.  God is there present in the darkness.  God doesn’t have to shine light into the darkness, for in the darkness we will find God, even if hidden, and we realize we don’t have to get out of the darkness to find our Lord.  He is there where we are.  The darkness is not darkness to God (Psalm 139:12)

I also realized that while suffering and worry seem to go on forever, there is another scale of time within which I can understand my own existence or even the times we are in.  It is the time of the The Cosmic Calendar.  The Cosmic Calendar tries to give us a graphic view of time from the beginning of the universe (the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago) as science calculates it, to the present day.  It takes this long history of the universe and puts it all into a 1 year calendar.  Assuming the Big Band occurred at 1 second after midnight on January 1, and then showing when other things appeared in the universe, based on scientific calculations and assumptions.  Here is just a very brief glimpse at when some things appeared in our world:

January 1 – 13.8 Billion years ago The Big Bang

 

dsc_2244

Not until
December 25  –  is the Age of the Dinosaurs
December 31, 23:59:49 –  Invention of the Wheel
December 31, 23:59:55  –  Jesus Christ walks on earth
December 31, 23:59:59  –  The past 500 years

When viewed in this perspective of the universe, we realize that relatively speaking nothing we humans have experienced has lasted all that long.  In fact all of human history and experience lasts less than a minute on the Cosmic Calendar.  Even if one doesn’t believe in the Big Bang, or thinks the universe is younger than these scientific claims, still we come to realize how whatever we experience in the world is still a very small part of the whole, no matter how much of our thinking and lives it occupies.   When we think things last “forever”,  or when we worry about why God lets some event happen, we can see things from the perspective of the Cosmic Calendar and realize on the grand scale of things, our troubles are a minuscule part of time.

In the perspective of eternity or of the eternal God, we begin to understand the wisdom of Scripture:

“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”   (2 Peter 3:8-9)

Helix Nebula
Helix Nebula

In the absolute immensity of space and boundlessness of time , God shines forth out of the darkness.  God is there.  The darkness may obscure God to us.  The vastness of space and the of enormity of time, may hide God from our eyes, causing us to see only darkness.  Sometimes events occur which make us feel the darkness will last forever.  But out of this darkness God will shine, illuminating all of time with eternal light and divine love.

The Psalter in the Early Church

The Psalms, in Orthodox thinking, are often represented as being “the mind of Christ.”

They are read from this perspective – as prophecies of Christ as well as helping us to see the world as Christ sees the world.   It is precisely because they can be read in this way that they became so popular in the worship of the early Church.  Jean Danielou notes that it is the messianic nature of the Psalms which made their appropriation by the early Church so complete.   They became the basis for early Christian worship because they were read as being primarily messianic.   Their historic value was not their main appeal to the early Christians.  It is not their Jewish nature which gave them their authority; rather it was their messianic nature.

Danielou writes:

“But the fact is this: the whole of ancient tradition concerning the liturgical use of the Psalms rests on their messianic significance.  For one thing, it is the significance which constituted all their value for the primitive Christian community.  It adopted the Psalms, not because of their religious value nor because of their inspired character, but only because it thought that they were concerned with Christ.  Their whole use in the Church rests, therefore, on a messianic meaning.  If this is no longer their real meaning, their liturgical use is based only on an accommodated symbolism and loses all dogmatic significance.  This use is of value only to the extent to which the christological interpretation  is not something added, but truly corresponds to their literal significance.”   (THE BIBLE AND THE LITURGY, p 315)

In other words, their use by the early Christians was not because David wrote them, nor was their meaning best discovered through researching their original historical context and purpose.  They were valuable because for the early Christians the Psalms literally were about Christ.   Whatever their original context was or their author’s intentions were, the early Christians understood them to be about Christ – they revealed Christ and were revealed by Christ.  They were chanted and sung by the early Christians because they brought the believer into a relationship with Christ.

Jesus said: “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in … the psalms must be fulfilled.”  (Luke 24:43)

Envisioning the Temple

“For great is the distance and many are the levels of knowledge through which the soul must pass before it reaches ‘the place of the miraculous tabernacle, the house of God itself, with the voice of exultation and thanksgiving, and the sound of feasting’ (Ps. 42:4. LXX). It advances continually from one hymn of praise to another, from one level of divine contemplation to another, full of joy and thankfulness for what it has already seen. For all those who have received the Spirit of grace into their hearts celebrate in this festive manner, crying ‘Abba, Father’ (Gal. 4:6).”   (St. Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15491-98)

The words above from St. Maximos (d. 662AD) offer a vision of moving toward and into the heavenly and mystical Temple of God.  This “miraculous tabernacle” is the goal of the soul moving through the heavens towards God.  And as creature we encounter God in a Place, heaven, the house of God, the Temple which God had created His world to be.  The original Temple fell with Adam and Eve when they were expelled from Paradise and they lost that Place where God dwelt with His human creatures.   In time, the Israelites would be given a glimpse of that Temple, that Holy Place.  In Exodus 24 we read (emphases is mine and not in the original text):

“After this, Moses went up, along with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and the seventy of the elders of Israel; and they saw the place where the God of Israel stood. Under His feet was, as it were, a paved work of sapphire stone and the appearance of heaven’s firmament in its purity.  And of Israel’s chosen men not one was missing. So they saw the place of God, and ate and drank.”  (Exodus 24:9-11, OSB)

And what they glimpsed, God commanded Moses to remember and to build:

“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.  According to all that I show you, that is, the pattern (Greek: paradigm) of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so you shall make it.”  (Exodus 25:8-9)

Moses is given the pattern, paradigm or blueprint for building the exact temple which God desires.  So it is easy for us to understand what the Temple meant for the Israelites.  It was the Place that God commanded them to build so that He could have a space to be with His people.  “God does not need space in order to exist…  Human beings, however, need physical space to move around in, to live in.”  (Adolfo Roitman, ENVISIONING THE TEMPLE: SCROLLS, STONES, AND SYMBOLS, p 11).  God does not need space to exist, but if He is going to dwell with His people, He must enter into space and have that Place where He can be with them.  Humans need space to exist and place so they can be with God.

Temple

David, King and Prophet, gave his son Solomon the plan (design,pattern) to build the place for God as recorded in 1 Chronicles 28:19:

“All this he made clear by the writing from the hand of the LORD concerning it, all the work to be done according to the plan (Greek: paradigm).”

The Temple built on earth was thus a copy of the true prototype which exists in God’s heaven.

“…it was in the Tabernacle – the ‘Tent of Meeting’ – that the Divine Presence revealed itself to Moses (Exod 25:22; 30:6).   . . . Significantly, David like Moses at Sinai (cf. Exod 25:9), was said to have received a ‘blueprint’ in God’s own hand (1 Chron 28:19).”  (Roitman, ENVISIONING THE TEMPLE, p 50) [For further reflection on the above points see my blog Dead Sea Scrolls: Alive to Us  In which Bishop Alexander comments on the significance of the temple in spirituality.]

And yet as David knew, God does not live in houses built by men.  There would exist in Judaism a tension regarding exactly what the Temple represented and how exactly it connected the chosen people with the God who chose them.  This tension becomes more pronounced in Jewish history at the time of the Qumran community and with the rise of Christianity.

“‘The tent of witness in the wilderness’, made by Moses in accordance to God’s direction, ‘according to the pattern that he had seen’ (Ex 25:9, 40), had been brought in to the promised land, and remained the focus and medium of Israel’s worship right up to and throughout the reign of David, ‘who found favour in the sight of God’, Israel’s golden age (Acts 7:44-46).  But David had not been permitted to build a temple; it was Solomon who did so (Acts 7:46-47).

‘Yet the Most High’ does not dwell in houses made with hands (Acts 7:48).  That was the word used by Hellenistic Jews to condemn idolatry; Gentile gods were human artifacts, ‘made by hands’.  The idol was by definition to cheiropoiēton, ‘the thing made by human hands’; an implication which any Greek speaking Jew, and Luke too, could not mistake, since the word had already been used with this disparaging overtone in 7:41.  For just that word to be used of the Temple would certainly have sent shock waves through any Jewish audience or readership—the Temple itself a breach of that most fundamental axiom of Israelite/Jewish religion, that God’s presence cannot be encapsulated or represented by any physical or man-made entity!—the Temple itself an idol!”  (Dunn, James D G, The Partings of the Ways, 89)

“Thus it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these.  For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”   (Hebrews 9:23-24)

Next: Envisioning the Temple (II)

Christmas: A Poetic Treasury of Theology

Some of the hymns from the Forefeast of Christmas give insight into the theological depth of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.  They also reveal the mastery of Scripture which the ancient hymn writers had.  Here are two examples taken from the Canon of Compline for the Forefeast, December 22.  

The Magi

1]    St. Matthew mentions the Magi (Matt 2), wise men from the East who studied the stars and were brought through their search for wisdom to Bethlehem to the Christ Child.   There is a truth being proclaimed that whether one studies astrology or astronomy, if one is seeking wisdom, one’s studies will lead to the knowledge of the Creator.  As Psalms 19:1 says,

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

It wasn’t the stars that brought the Magi to Christ, but rather  Christ who is God’s Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24), guiding the universe,  whose hand and message was made visible through the movement of the stars.

The Wisdom of God summons the Magi,

Initiating them as the first fruits of the Gentiles.

He who lies in the manger of dumb beasts

Feeds them with the mystical food of the knowledge of God.

They hasten to the crib as to a banquet, journeying with gifts,

Led by the light of the star.

(Canticle 1)

A wonderfully playful image, for Christ is the wisdom of God, and thus the infant moves the stars and thus the Magi toward the Eternal God, now a little child.  And the child in the manger – an animal feeding trough – feeds the Magi “with the mystical food of the knowledge of God.”  What delightful poetry.  Star light leads them to a mystical banquet – the knowledge of the Triune God and the Incarnate God!

One could say it was the light of Christ – the Incarnate God lying as a baby in a manger – which attracted and directed them.

2]  In this hymn, the hymnographers makes a wonderful play on images using a story about King David recorded in 2 Samuel 23.   David is at the cave of Adullam, and sees that Israelites enemies have occupied Bethlehem.   “And David said longingly, ‘O that some one would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem which is by the gate!’” (2 Samuel 23:15)   The hymnography weaves this into the Nativity hymn:

King David

The new drink for which David thirsted of old

Is flowing from the fountain of the cave in Bethlehem

To satisfy the thirst of all,

To fulfill the yearning of Adam and David

From whose seed Christ is born in the flesh.

(Canticle 4)

This poetic use of Scripture gives us the insight as to how well the ancients knew their Scriptures, and what creative use they made of them.  For they saw hidden in the stories of the Old Testament, connections and insights into the new.

The ABC’s of Why We Need Christmas: F

The ABC’s of Why We Need Christmas: F
Forgiveness
This is the final in a series of sermons I gave on the Sundays of the Nativity Fast in 1995. You can read the previous sermon at The ABC’s of Why We Need Christmas: E Eve and the Ever-Virgin

There are many popular ideas about how confession and forgiveness of sin works and whether or not we really need to confess to someone at all. In as much as the forgiveness of sins is foundational to the Gospel Lesson of Christ’s Nativity (Matthew 1:21) and since repentance is both an initiating experience into Christianity (“Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand”) and at the center of the Christian life (“that we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance”), it is proper for us to consider the nature of God’s forgiveness, the manner in which we receive it, and its connection to confession.

In the bible, sin is portrayed as a debt that is incurred. A sinner is one who is a debtor to God. Our sin is the action which causes our debt. Debt as portrayed in scripture is not something merely to be repaid. Rather, debt separates the two parties involved from each other. It creates a disruption in relationships. Relationships become abnormal and unhealthy. Sin separates us from the Holy God. It builds a wall of separation between us and God. There is a debt that needs in some manner to be cleared away. Settling a debt is having the debt canceled and forgiven.

Feeling separated or isolated or alienated from God can be a good thing. Only when we experience the alienation, that sense of loss and separation from God, will we begin to seek reconciliation with God, to recover what has been lost, disrupted and diseased in our lives. That feeling of separation from God is a good warning symptom that something is wrong and needs attention. What is wrong is that our sins have made us debtors to God. We are not God’s equals, but rather we are His debtors. We are separated from Him and our debt alienates us from Him.

God in His love for us, His creatures, ends this separation and allows us to return to Him by His gracious, loving forgiveness. The image of the New Testament is that God remits the debt by His pardon. Jesus has made this reunion possible by His own life, death and resurrection. He has pardoned our debt making reconciliation with God possible. So Christmas, the birth of Jesus the Savior is the beginning of God reconciling Himself to us by pardoning our debt of sin. He pardons all of those who readily admit they are sinners, who are sorry for their sin and who beg his pardon by changing their lives (repentance = metanoia = a change of heart/mind). The goal of the Christian life is to enter again into the Divine presence, God’s holiness. We cannot do this on our own, no matter how good we are. We only have to accept the pardon by our own repentance. We demonstrate our own repentance and begin our life of reconciliation with God in Confession.

Let’s consider an example of how this works. King David is considered in one prayer of the Orthodox Church to be a model or image of repentance. He was God’s chosen King, yet he lusted after another man’s wife (Uriah was a loyal soldier of David’s as well as a God fearing man). David committed adultery with Uriah’s wife and she conceived his child. Ultimately David ordered the murder of Uriah so he could take her as his wife and hide his sin. David, however, was confronted with this sin by Nathan the Prophet and admitted his fault and repented. (see Psalm 51) Nathan told Kind David that he deserved to die as a result of his sin, but that God forgave him.

Forgiveness is the opposite of justice. Justice would demand that David die. Kind David betrayed the trust God bestowed upon him as king, he committed adultery and murder. God however does not decree justice but forgiveness. God says he will not die but will continue as King. This forgiveness does not undo the painful and grave consequences of the sin: an illegitimate child was conceived of the adultery, Uriah was dead, the child dies. Forgiveness cancelled the debt which justice demands from David – a life for a life. Thus David really is an important figure to what the Christmas story is all about. And we do remember King David the forgiven sinner on this the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ.

Forgiveness does not undo the painful consequences of sin. Think about Jesus upon the cross – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” They were forgiven yet the consequence of their act remained, Jesus still died at the hands of his murderers.
Confession is not a garbage can where you can dump your sins and forget about them and assume they have no consequences. I remember when I was a child that milk came in glass bottles which had to be washed and returned to the store. Sometimes those glass bottles were dropped and broken. They were in several ways inconvenient. Then came the plastic milk container. Once you used it, you simply threw it away. And I thought this is great, why would anyone ever use glass bottles again? I thought that plastic was a painless throw-away object. What I did not think about was that all those plastic throw away bottles had to go somewhere. I thought they went into the garbage can and magically vanished. However, there was a consequence of those plastic milk containers. They did not magically disappear. They were still there only now out of my sight. They were gathering in the landfills in my neighbors backyard. Though they were invisible to me, they were still there.

Sin is the same. Confession is not a garbage can which magically carries away sin so it’s consequences disappear. Our nativity3lives and the world are covered with the landfills of our sinfulness. The amazing thing about God is that He reaches over all of these landfills filled with our sins and reaches out to touch us, to embrace us and to forgive us. The landfills don’t disappear, God overlooks them to save us. Despite our sins, God forgives. In spite of the consequences of our sins which continue to impact our lives and the world, God forgives. He cancels the debts, doesn’t make us pay for the cleanup of the toxic wastes of our sinful landfills. We only need to accept His forgiveness by repentance. We repent and come to confession to admit our sins, to acknowledge that we created and filled these landfills of our sins.

The gift of God to us at Christmas is His forgiving the grave consequences of our sin. Christ is born! Glorify Him!