Christians (and others) all over the world will be celebrating over the next few days.
Christmas matters because Christ the Eternal Word of the Father is born of a woman. This is part of the sanctification of every stage of human life. In the Spring we celebrate the events of the Passion and Resurrection when Christ not only endured human death; death itself was defeated.
Today we commemorate the righteous before the Incarnation of our Lord. The Orthodox Church has always regarded the saints of the Old Testament as saints as much as any born after Christ. Let us consider two of them briefly … Abraham and David. It is with Abraham that the history of salvation begins in some ways. They are also both ancestors of Christ in the flesh.
Abraham is the one who heard the call of God and left Ur (one of the earliest cities) and went to Canaan. I believe that we should stay as we are unless God tells us to do something in which case we should obey, as in fact Abraham did. We read in Genesis- Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing ... and in you all families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3) .
The people of God are always those who are in a personal relationship with Him. Genesis says again “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). It is not enough to be part of some organisational body, to be formally part of a nation or a group. The covenant works both ways. God said: “For your part , you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you, generation by generation” (Genesis 17:9). It is Abraham’s relationship with God that matters most.
Melchizedek - King of Salem and Priest of God - pronounced a blessing on him and we also have the visitation of the three angels, which begins: “The LORD appeared to Abraham at the terebinths (a sort of tree) of Mamre”. (This is taken in Orthodoxy as a revelation of the Holy Trinity.) It is at this meeting Abraham learned that he was to father a child with Sarah, despite the old age of both of them. God was very active in the life of the first of the Patriarchs. It is from Abraham that we trace our spiritual descent. The angel of God from Heaven (Christ Himself I suggest) called out from Heaven after Abraham had been prepared to sacrifice Isaac his son . We may read in Genesis 22:15 the promise to make Abraham’s descendants countless and a blessing. “ In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” Just as Abraham became the founder of the chosen people by obeying God, so we need to obey God too.
David is another of the great figures of the Old Testament history. He was taken from obscurity, rather like Abraham. He was the youngest son and did the work of a hired servant. [He was so obscure that he was not even present at the sacrifice when the Prophet Samuel came to seek one of Jesse’s sons to be anointed (1 Samuel 16) .]
Now the story of David and the kingdom is a golden age of Jewish history. There was tremendous military success, and great wealth poured into the Kingdom. He had two major falls from grace though which are recorded. One is written in 1 Chronicles 21 when David undertook a census done to count the wealth. In effect, this was his as king. He was given the choice of punishment against Israel for this. He chose pestilence. This sin was doing something unnecessary; David was counting the population as if he were a miser counting coins. He forgot that he held the kingdom as God’s anointed. Woe to any of us if we assume the position we hold is owed to us or is ours as of right! Sadly although a poor man’s sins are serious, the consequences of sin in a national leader may be disastrous. Even this sin led to a blessed lasting legacy, however, as David needed a place to make sacrifice and so purchased a threshing floor to build an altar and this was to become the site of the Jerusalem temple.
On another occasion we read of the affair of Bathsheba. It was spring, “when kings go to war,” although David did not! This looks like a sly dig as the story starts in 2 Samuel 11.
David was taking the air on the palace roof when he saw a woman who attracted his attention, who proved to be Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite. David seduced her and, when hopes of passing the child she carried off as her husband’s failed, David had him placed in the thick of a battle so that he was killed. The first child died but the second was Solomon, and the ancestor of course of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
So, David had frailties and sinned. But he was also a prophet, commemorated as such, and the author of the wonderful psalms we use in worship. Not least the great psalm of repentance number 50.
Now what can we learn from these examples?
The first is obedience to God. Obeying God leads to blessings. I do not mean the simple equation of doing things right in order to get rich, rather, that whatever you do will be blessed if it is done for the right reasons.
Next, let it be clear that the heroes of the Old Testament histories are human beings like any of us. They had their foibles and weaknesses and still achieved greatness. They serve as a warning as well as an encouragement. Like all the saints of the Church throughout the ages they are the same material and humanity as any of us. They were not and are not a race apart. It is worth remembering that Christ’s ancestry includes people who fell short, who sinned! Christ too shares the same humanity as we all do after the flesh. He though lived life on earth as it ought to be led and did not sin.
We see also whatever has happened can be transformed by repentance and God’s forgiveness. We see that even the sinfully arranged marriage of David and Bathesheba led to the birth of the great Solomon, who was permitted to build the Temple and whose wisdom was famous. Sin is not fatal if we repent and seek God’s support to do better.
The heroes of the faith before Christ were looking for a fulfilment which we can see. Now Abraham indeed has innumerable descendants, as St John’s Gospel Chapter 1 puts it “who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
The letter of St Paul to the Galatians Chapter 3:6f includes this:
“...Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.”
So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham. “
May we truly follow our Lord in being such a blessing to all those around us. May we as the inheritors of the Old testament saints truly be a blessing to the nations.