Luke 24:36-53; Luke 14:16-24; Daniel 3; Colossians 3:4-11
Nativity, which is fast upon us, is a time of both confirmation and disruption. It answers to the longings of the prophets, and the hopes of all the years; but the answer it gives is surprising. Awe strikes us as we see its combination of the expected and the unexpected.
What else, after all, would we expect of our God, whose ways are both well demonstrated to us, yet frequently astonishing? He is the Alpha and the Omega, ever venerable and always new. This coming Sunday we remember in our worship together both the three youths in the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel’s friends, and all the forefathers of our Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to the hymns that we sing on their behalf, and consider how they detail both the expected AND the unexpected.
For the Three Children, we sing:
You did not worship the graven image,
O thrice-blessed ones,
but armed with the immaterial Essence of God,
you were glorified in a trial by fire.
From the midst of unbearable flames you called on God, crying:
Hasten, O compassionate One!
Speedily come to our aid,
for You are merciful and able to do as You will.
And, about the fathers, we sing to the LORD:
Through faith You justified the Forefathers,
betrothing through them the Church of the gentiles.
These saints exult in glory,
for from their seed came forth a glorious fruit:
She who bore You without seed.
So by their prayers, O Christ God, have mercy on us!
Both hymns establish the two contrasting characteristics of God’s action: we expect that He will have mercy, and that He will act in sovereignty. We expect that He will honor those who turn to Him, who are loyal to Him rather than putting their faith in idols. But we are surprised that He can turn the fire of a punishing furnace into glory! And many of the ancient people of God would have been startled that, through the seed of Abraham, the Gentiles would be brought in—even though God intimated as much to this forefather, when He promised the patriarch that by his seed, all the nations of the world would be blessed. God responds to our godly desires, fulfilling our expectations; but He also surprises us! He is merciful; He does as he wills! Taking a page from the book of the three youths who were friends of Daniel, we can say when we are in trouble, “Our God is able to deliver us.” Indeed, that deliverance is sometimes more abundant and astonishing than we ever might have anticipated.
Our readings for this Sunday, the twenty-eighth after Pentecost, and the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ, give us ample illustration of God’s faithfulness in responding to our expectations, and his characteristic way of surprising us with the unexpected.
Consider the Matins reading, in which Jesus appears to his disciples, huddled together in the upper room, just after He has made Himself known to the two on the road to Emmaus. In Luke 24:36-53, Jesus arrives in their midst, and gives them His peace: but they are troubled, wondering if He is a ghost. Indeed he is not! He shows them His hands and feet and eats in their presence. This is more than they—or we—might expect. It is not simply that His spirit lives on, and that He can communicate with them in an ineffable way. No, He is corporeal, solid, a perfect Human Being. Something, of course, is different, for He appears to be able to pass through locked doors—but He is no Phantasm, no mere spirit. Instead, He is more solid and more glorious than they are: it is a wonder that they can bear the splendor of His risen presence!
The risen Jesus, then, both startles and fulfills all hopes. As He reminds them, this is what “I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” His life, death, and resurrection are a fulfillment, a continuation and climaxing, of all that had come before. The forefathers looked for Jesus’ day, and were glad. But things were not quite as they might have imagined. Jesus has to open the Scriptures to His disciples so that they can recognize the promise and the fulfillment—for they certainly weren’t looking for a single resurrected human being, in the middle of time, and a continuation of history in which they would be, at least for quite some time, persecuted. They hadn’t been anticipating a suffering Christ; they probably had been anticipating a resurrection of everyone, but a resurrection much more like a resuscitation, a mere recovery of life (like the Jehovah Witnesses preach)—not a glorious risen body on a divine and unexpected level! And soon He will bless them, taking His humanity to heaven, as a sign that this new creation would become ours, as well! The risen Jesus, then, shows us continuity and discontinuity, fulfills expectations and brings something for which we are not entirely prepared.
The same pattern is seen in our reading for Divine Liturgy, Luke 14:16-24, that shocking little parable that Jesus tells about the great party:
Then He said to him, “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, ‘Come, for all things are now ready.’ But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.’ Still another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So that servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’ And the servant said, ‘Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.’ Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.’”
Here the Lord stays constant, always generous and beneficent towards us. He invites MANY to the supper. But when the MANY show themselves unworthy, he invites those that we might consider unworthy, until his house is filled. God is not stymied by human ungratefulness, but finds those who respond in unexpected places: and so He extended His calling to those outside of the covenant family, to Gentiles who had heard only rumors of a true God, and who had no personal knowledge of Him. All the marginalized, injured, poor and blind were to be brought in—and of course, those whom the LORD gathers do not stay injured. In the house of the LORD, in His presence, they are healed! Moreover, that healing goes far beyond what we might expect. As St. Paul so eloquently puts it, “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”
In that same passage, Colossians 3:4-11, St. Paul reminds us of the appropriate response we may give to such generosity, such hospitality, such faithfulness. He tells us,
Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.
So much has been given to us. God Himself is among us, and came intimately to dwell with our humanity in the Nativity. We may think that it is natural for human beings to engage in sexual immorality, ungodly passions, anger, blasphemy, idolatry and covetousness. But we have seen for ourselves what a true Human Being is like: we see this in the glory of Jesus Christ, the New Man. We see the One who responded to the promises of the prophets, we see Him collectively, as the Church, through the witness of the apostles: “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life — the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us” (1 John 1:1-2). Though not all of us have had visions, though not all of us are apostles, all of us together are God-seers, for we know Jesus, meeting Him in the Eucharist, and speaking with Him in prayer and worship. All of us have “put off the old Adam” in our baptism, and put on the New Human Being, Christ—all of us personally and together, for he is making of us one body in Him. Christ is, as St. Paul puts it, “all and in all.”
Instructions such as those that we receive here in Colossians both meet our expectations and burst out of them, like wine in new wine skins. We expect that the holy God will instruct us to abandon dirt, and lying, and anger, and thievery. But there is so much more—we are not simply to imitate Christ, but to “put on Christ.” We are to follow him, through death, and into a new glorified life. As we would expect, this won’t happen automatically: we are told to make an effort. But the energies of God, supporting, surrounding and within us through the Holy Spirit, actually are at work to make a new creation. It is not cheeky to picture ourselves as more blessed even than all those righteous ancestors of Christ whom we respect, and to whom we are indebted— Adam, Abraham, the Righteous Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, including the Holy Prophets Elias and Daniel, and concluding with Holy Prophet Zechariah (Zachary), Joachim and Anna, and the Holy Prophet and Forerunner John the Baptist. As Jesus reminded His disciples, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Luke 10:23-24) But, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb 11:40-12:1 RSV). And THERE is the surprise: that we, with them, should be made “perfect”, “complete,” “whole,” “mature,” even, God-like.
This week, then, let us think back on all the righteous of the Old Testament, especially those who were the forefathers and mothers of our LORD. They trusted in God without seeing what we have seen! Even John the Forerunner died without seeing the fruit of his labor—a galvanized people of God, inbreathed by the Holy Spirit, doing the great things that Jesus had in store for them to do. Consider the courage of the three, Ananias, Azarias and Misael, who stood, with Daniel, for the true God—even when they did not see that God as we have, in all of His beauty. Remember how they said to the tyrant, “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up” (Dan 3:17-18). Those three little words, “But if not!” are poignant. They had no assurance that they would survive bodily—but they still trusted God. In a way, these words are the motto of all the OT righteous, who had God’s promises, and knew God’s character (at least in part), but did not yet see the “day” of Christ. They waited, with loyalty. And from them came our dear Theotokos, who said, “Be it unto me” though she did not know all that it would bring.
We have so much more. We have seen the dawning of the new Day. We have seen His light burst upon our world. We have seen the drawing of the Gentiles to be His people. We have seen wonder upon wonder. God lives up to our expectations—indeed, our expectations are not high enough. For He has promised more than we can ever ask or imagine. Among us has been the One begotten in a manner that defies description! Among us has been the One who made His Father OUR Father. And with us abides the LORD, the Holy Spirit, leading us into all truth and transforming us, with all of those who love the Father and the Son.