Sunday of St. John of the Ladder, April 10, 2016
Hebrews 6:13-20; Mark 9:17-31
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
We are now on the sixth Sunday of our eight-part series asking the question, “Who is God?” We’re just a few weeks away from Pascha now, and it may be that some of us are a little weary from our Lenten efforts. And if we are not weary from our own efforts, perhaps we are weary from the slings and arrows hurled at us by our enemy the devil during this season. I have always noticed that, for many people, life gets tougher during Lent and other fasting seasons.
So today I want to focus especially on something said in the epistle appointed for this fourth Sunday of Lent, the Sunday when we remember St. John of the Ladder. In the epistle, again a reading from Hebrews, we read this passage:
“So when God, being minded to show more abundantly to the heirs of the promise the immutability of His counsel, He interposed it with an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, we, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope that is set before us; a hope, which we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and entering into ‘that which is within the veil,’ where Jesus entered as Forerunner on our behalf, having become a High Priest ‘forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’”
Having heard this, and having in mind the weariness that we may now feel, the answer today to our question, “Who is God?” is this: God is our hope.
Let’s walk through this passage together carefully. First, we see that God is “minded to show more abundantly to the heirs of the promise the immutability of His counsel.” That is, He wants to show us—“the heirs of the promise”—very clearly that His counsel is “immutable.” In other words, God is not changing His mind.
And notice what Paul calls us here—“the heirs of the promise.” This is key to our theme of God as our hope. We are His adopted sons and daughters and therefore heirs. As His children, we will receive what our Father has stored up for us and has promised us. And because He has promised this to us, and we are the heirs who will receive it, then we have something to hope for. And God’s word is “immutable,” meaning that it cannot be changed. You can count on it.
To strengthen this, Paul says that God “interposed it with an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation.” He said right before this passage, as we heard, that God swore an oath by Himself, so in addition to the unchangeability of God’s own word we also have God in some sense swearing an oath by Himself.
An oath is always sworn on something whose reliable character will guarantee what is being sworn—this is why people swear on the Bible, for instance. But the guarantee of God’s promise is Himself, because there is nothing and no one more reliable than God. And so we “have a strong consolation.” So if you believe someone who swears on a Bible or on his mother’s grave, etc., then we should all the more be consoled by the seriousness of God’s word, which is not only unchangeable on its own, but is also guaranteed by Him through this oath sworn on Himself. Paul calls this double guarantee “two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie.”
And so we have this “strong consolation.” Our hope is not just kind of wishing that we’ll receive what He’s promised us as His heirs—it is a “strong consolation” guaranteed by the unchangeability of God Himself.
Next, Paul says something about us. He says that we “have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope that is set before us.” We “have fled.” And what are we fleeing? We are fleeing the vanity of this world. We are fleeing death. We are fleeing corruption. We are fleeing our own sins. We are fleeing brokenness. We are fleeing meaninglessness.
And we are fleeing to a “refuge to lay hold of the hope that is set before us.” What is that refuge? This is that refuge! This holy place, this Church of Jesus Christ, this Body which is Christ’s Body—this is the refuge. We are safe in Jesus Christ.
And what do we do here? We “lay hold of the hope that is set before us.” We’re not just here to be safe. We’re here to “lay hold of the hope,” this hope that God Himself has “set before us.” We are here to do something, to work on something. We’re not just escaping the evil of the world. We see this hope set before us, and we lay hold of it. We grab tight and hold on through our prayer, our repentance, our fasting, our love for one another, our humility, our earnestness, our inner conversion. It’s not enough just to flee here for refuge. We have to lay hold of the hope.
And then this—and I love this language here—we have “a hope, which we have as an anchor of the soul.” There are a lot of souls out there right now that could use an anchor. There are a lot of souls out there right now that are drifting in the wind and waves of life, that are being tossed by the storms of the cares of this world. But there is “an anchor of the soul,” the hope that is Jesus Christ. Is this your anchor? Are you anchored in the Christian life? Have you stuck your anchor in that sure place through conversion and laying hold of that hope? It is the only way.
This anchor of the soul is, as Paul says, “both sure and steadfast.” What a beautiful, comforting, consoling passage this is! In the tempestuous terrors and trials of this life, Jesus is my soul’s anchor.
Paul now shifts his metaphor to another image, saying that once we have Jesus as that anchor for our souls, we lay hold of that hope now by “entering into ‘that which is within the veil,’ where Jesus entered as Forerunner on our behalf, having become a High Priest ‘forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’”
So our hope is not just for an anchor, but to enter with Jesus Christ our High Priest into “that which is within the veil,” that is, into the Holy of Holies in the heavenly Temple of God, where Jesus, Whose priesthood is of that apocalyptic and otherworldly character of the ancient Priest-King Melchizedek, has gone as our “Forerunner.”
Yes, a forerunner! That means He goes first, but then we follow Him in. He enters to make the sacrifice, but then we follow Him. We go with Him. We go with Him to that high altar to offer up the sacrifice and to be sanctified by the experience. We go with Him to become united with Him in that holy offering.
So, then, this is our hope: We are the heirs of God, made adopted sons and daughters of the Most High by our incorporation into Christ. And because we are heirs, we are given a promise, a promise of hope that cannot be taken away from us, guaranteed by the unchangeable counsel and character of God, a strong consolation. In Christ therefore we have fled for refuge, and in this safety we lay hold of the hope set before us. Jesus Christ is therefore the anchor of our souls, sure and steadfast. Having therefore been fixed in Christ even in the midst of the storms of this world, we now are able to enter into the inner holy place with Him, to sacrifice with Him and be united to Him.
This passage sings with so much beauty. We have fled here for refuge. God has made us His heirs according to the promise. Jesus is the anchor of my soul. He is my hope. He is my High Priest. All this is set before us by the One Who cannot lie, the One Who is perfectly sure and reliable.
We are tossed about by the rough winds and terrifying weather of this messed up world. But we have this as our souls’ anchor, the hope we have in Christ Jesus.
Today, we ask: “Who is God?” And today, we answer: “God is our hope.”
To the God Who is our hope, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.