September 10, 2014 Length: 12:46
Fr. Dn. Emmanuel says often God’s purpose is not immediately clear to us in our own lives or in the lives of others. We are aware that God is there—that God is present in our lives and in the world, but what exactly is God’s purpose for us and for the world? How can we order our lives?
The Gospel reading for today from the third chapter of the Gospel of St. John contains a very famous Biblical verse—a verse that Christians whether they are Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant think is very important. Verse 16 of this third chapter of the Gospel of St. John says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” What does this verse mean to each of us? How does God love the world?
Now, often God’s purpose is not immediately clear to us in our own lives or in the lives of others. We are aware that God is there—that God is present in our lives and in the world, but what exactly is God’s purpose for us and for the world? How can we order our lives? That’s a difficult question—certainly for me, and perhaps for you. In order to understand God’s purpose for us and for the world, let’s look at the verses immediately before verse 16.
Verses 14 and 15 are about Moses and how some 1,500 years before Christ—about 3,500 years ago—Moses dealt with his people who were complaining about how tough their lives were. Perhaps we can have some sympathy with the Israelites in the book of Numbers in the Old Testament, Chapter 21, Verse 5 who said bluntly to Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.” Now, the complaint is not entirely clear, because on the one hand, certain Israelites are saying, “we have no food,” and yet at the same time they are saying the food is “miserable.” Children, do you ever think the food in front of you is miserable? What foods do you not like to eat? . . . Well, whatever food was there or not there in the wilderness, the Lord was rather rough with the Israelites. Verses 6 and 7 tell us what happened: “The Lord sent fiery serpents [that’s big, poisonous snakes] among the people; and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” Now happily, the Lord is not going to send poisonous snakes to us if we don’t like certain food. We can just not eat that food, but we might get hungry, especially if we don’t snack between meals.
Understandably, faced with poisonous snakes the people in the desert became even more upset about their situation, but they did admit they should not have complained so much; and they said to Moses: “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and [against] you [Moses]; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses removed the poisonous snakes. How did he do it? Moses listened to the Lord who told him: “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard [that is, a big pole]; and it shall come about that everyone who is bitten,” when they look at it, they “will live.” And that worked—the bronze serpent that Moses had made cured everyone who looked at it.
Now why is the evangelist St. John telling people this story of what had happened with snakes 1,500 years ago—and why should we want to understand this story 2,000 years later? St. Bede in his Homilies on the Gospels says the meaning is quite clear: “This [passage] provides an excellent example of . . . what a great calamity [that is, what a great disaster, a great harm] a person might suffer inwardly by murmuring [against God—by complaining]. Furthermore, St. Bede points out that the raising up of the serpent is a sign of Christ’s “suffering on the cross, for only by faith in Him is the kingdom of death and sin overcome. . . When we look at the mystery of the Lord’s passion [and suffering on the cross], preached St Bede, “by believing, confessing [and] sincerely imitating” Christ we too “are saved forever from every death [that threatens us].” In a sense then, if we raise Christ up in our lives and seek to understand His purpose in the world and His life in us, we are saved from any problem we are experiencing.
In other words, I say to myself exactly what I say to you today: “Let’s not complain to God about our problems. Instead, let’s trust Him to tackle those problems.”
Like the Israelites in the desert, I can’t always order my own life. Sometimes I don’t know what action would be the best way to solve a particular problem. However, I do know that the Lord can guide me and you—that the Lord can give each of us, whatever our ages, a sense of calmness and peace about a particular course of action. I’m not talking about a mystical vision; I’m talking about trusting God to guide each of us into His purposes for our lives and for the world because He loves us, because He has sent Jesus Christ to give us eternal life.
The Israelites repented because of their fear that poisonous snakes would kill them. There was a similar fear in the early Church with its Tradition of public penance, so that people often did not sin because they feared the consequences of public penance, of confessing their sins to everyone else in their local church and receiving firm punishment from their confessors. That would be difficult, if we each confessed all of our sins to everyone else in church. However, Metropolitan Kallistos has pointed out that from the fourth century onwards, penance was no longer public, but private—no longer emphasising punishment but rather forgiveness, as well as avoiding sin, of seeking help from a spiritual confessor such as Father Gregory and of becoming aware of how we can each grow closer to Christ.
In a talk given to the Orthodox Peace Fellowship called “Approaching Christ the Physician: The True Meaning of Confession and Anointing,” Metropolitan Kallistos tells a story about how when he was a student at Magdalen College in Oxford, “there was a formidable guardian of the chapel, the verger,” a man named Mr. Tallboy.” Metropolitan Kallistos relates how when “a new Dean of Divinity arrived, Tallboy explained to him . . . with some severity . . . all the traditions and practices of the college chapel. At the end of this, the new Dean of Divinity said, a little nervously, ‘Thank you, Mr. Tallboy, [do] put me right when I go wrong.’ ‘Sir,’ said Tallboy, ‘I’ll put you right before you go wrong’” (see the website: http://www.incommunion.org/2004/10/18/approaching-christ-the-physician/ ).That is precisely how the Lord relates to us today in confession: He can put us right before we go wrong.
Make no mistake: God loves each of us; and each of us is part of the world. We can each make a contribution to the world; and often that contribution is unique, something that’s special for each of us. Rather than complain about our problems, it is our awareness of those problems and our looking at our sins—just as the Israelites looked at the snake that Moses raised up on the staff—that guides us into a closer relationship to Christ, a greater trust in God.
That staff with its bronze serpent has become both the universal symbol of medicine and healing, as well as the form of the bishop’s staff as used in the Orthodox Church. So for us as Orthodox Christians that staff with its bronze serpent reminds us not only that the Church punishes us when we sin, but especially that when we confess we are forgiven for our past sins, and we slowly learn to avoid future sins.
St. Augustine preached a single powerful sentence about this verse from the Gospel of St. John: “Whoever has been bitten by the snakes of sin need only gaze on Christ and [they] will have healing for the forgiveness of [their] sins.” Now, we are all sinners, like the Israelites, but we are each capable of gazing on Christ—of looking at Christ—seeking Him and finding His presence in each of our lives, finding out how Christ wishes to order our lives. We can each pray, “Lord, order my life to your purposes.”
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen
Deacon Emmanuel Kahn