Dormition of St. Anna / Fifth Sunday of Matthew, July 25, 2021
Galatians 4:22-27; Matthew 8:28-9:1
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today with the feast of the Dormition of St. Anna, the Grandmother of Christ and mother of the Virgin Mary, we hear a passage from St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, chapter 4. In it, he makes an allegorical application of the story of the two sons of Abraham—Isaac by his wife Sarah and Ishmael by Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar.
Today I would like to do the same thing with the same story, though I will apply it differently than St. Paul did. But first, we have to know the story.
If you read chapters 12 through 21 of Genesis, you see the events that St. Paul references. God promises to Abraham that He would make him the father of many nations and that his descendants would be as many as the sands of the sea and like the stars of heaven. And God tells him that this would be accomplished through a son who would be born to him and his wife Sarah.
The problem was that Abraham and Sarah were well past their child-bearing years. So Sarah, wishing to see the promise to Abraham fulfilled, gives her slave Hagar to Abraham and tells him to have a child by her, that this would fulfill God’s promise. And so Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, is born.
Yet God comes back to Abraham and says that that is not what He had promised. He would bless Ishmael for the sake of Abraham, but that is not the son of the promise, who would be born through Sarah. Abraham had to return to faithfulness to God and show that he believed in God’s promise in the way He promised it. He did so, and Sarah, at age 90 or 91, and Abraham, at age 100, became parents together when Isaac was born.
In St. Paul’s application, he demonstrates to the former pagans of Galatia how they were now, like Isaac, sons of Abraham through faithfulness. And they are being persecuted by those who insist that these Gentile converts to Christianity ought to be circumcised and keep all the kosher laws. These false teachers thus prove themselves to be like Ishmael who is a symbol of bondage.
Since no one is teaching you these things that were being taught to the Galatians, I want to apply this same story for us but in a different way, yet still using the same themes of freedom in faithfulness and slavery in unfaithfulness.
The promises made to Abraham included that he would have many descendants, who would inherit this same promise. Yet these are not those we would normally think of as descendants. Abraham’s descendants are all those who are faithful to God, and it is to them that the promise comes, as St. Paul says in Romans 4. So if we are faithful to God, then we are also Abraham’s children and have him as our father in faithfulness.
But the promises were not only about the number of Abraham’s descendants, even understood properly as his descendants by faithfulness rather than by genealogy. Remember that he was promised that they would be as the stars of heaven. This promise gets made three times in Genesis (Gen. 15:5, 22:17, 26:4).
Being as the stars was understood by ancient peoples to mean being like the angelic beings who were closely associated with the stars. And if we understand this promise within the context of Christ’s own words in Luke 20:36, that the sons of the resurrection are “sons of God” and “equal to the angels,” then we understand clearly that this promise is about what we call theosis—becoming like God, becoming deified or divinized, just as the angels are.
From this, we understand that the destiny of mankind is to become the children of Abraham by faithfulness and therefore to become equal to the angels, being filled with God’s grace by adoption as the sons of God.
So how does the story of the two sons of Isaac apply to us?
Deep within every human person is the desire to be like God—to be immortal, to achieve and experience the fullest possible potential, to see reality as it truly is, to be elevated above the mundanity and struggle of this earthly existence. We all want this, though we express it variously.
God places the path before us to receive what we desire as a gift from Him—and that path is faithfulness. This is the second path that Abraham takes when he trusts God’s providence and conceives a child with Sarah, even though biological law told him that that was impossible. Isaac, the child of promise, is born by God’s gift and through the faithfulness of Abraham and Sarah.
Likewise, we follow the same path of faithfulness even when it does not make sense to us, even when we do not see how the life in Christ actually leads to becoming like the angels. How many times have we worshiped over and over in church, given our tithes and offerings to the Church and to the poor, given our time in sacrifice to others’ needs, and yet wondered, How can this really be the right path? This seems so hard. Yet this is indeed the path of faithfulness, to receive the promise.
Before Abraham was faithful in this, however, he took the easy path, what seemed like the sensible path, and he conceived a child with Sarah’s slave Hagar. This was not what God had told him to do.
When we pursue this promise by our own “sensible” means—looking to fulfill our need for immortality, for happiness, for true vision, for elevation above the mundane by pursuing earthly success, amassing possessions, gluttony, sensual pleasures, and so forth—then we are like Abraham looking to Hagar for the answer. And even though all those pursuits feel good in the moment, they are a pursuit of slavery. And the offspring of this slavery is addiction and strife.
Abraham and Sarah both laughed when God told them they would have a son together. That is a super-cringey thing to do—to laugh at God’s promises. Yet God did not smite them in response. Rather, He reiterated to them how to be faithful. And they repented and became faithful again.
Ishmael was not the son of the promise. Isaac was that son, born out of grace and through faithfulness.
Likewise, even if we have spent time pursuing our deepest desires through the means that were not set up by God, even if we have become addicted by them, we can also repent and turn to Him in faithfulness.
It is not wrong to do the things necessary for survival and even flourishing here on earth, but if we put our trust in those things to satiate the hunger for eternity that God has planted deep within us, then we will find ourselves in slavery to those pursuits. There is never enough success, enough money, enough food, enough pleasures to give us true immortality, true vision and elevation to the heights of human possibility.
But if we put everything in life in service to faithfulness to God—using all our blessings not for ourselves but to serve the purpose of worship, of almsgiving, of self-sacrifice, of active love—then our faithfulness to God will be met with His grace. And that grace gradually transforms us in this life, even if incompletely, and accompanies us into the life of the age to come. And there, the faithful do indeed become the sons of God, equal to the angels, heirs of the promise, as the stars of heaven.
To Jesus Christ in Whom we receive the promise, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Blessings upon you, Father! Thank you so much for this gentle reminder that our eyes should be fixed on Christ, not on this world. A couple of weeks ago, I attended my very first Divine Liturgy at St. Andrew Antiochian Orthodox Church. For his homily, Fr. David spoke on trusting God for all of our needs. This article seemed to coincide quite well with that homily. Again, thank you!
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