Sunday, November 29, 2015

Walking "as Children of Light" in a Darkened World: What We May Learn from the Rich Young Ruler in Preparation for Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 5:8-19
Luke 18: 18-27
            Every once in a while, it is good for something or someone to shake us up, to challenge us to see ourselves as we really are.  Just like our eyes adjust to the darkness, we tend to adjust to whatever we are used to, to whatever has become comfortable or routine.  That is why we need the lights to come on so that we will wake up and see reality.  Though it is not always pleasant, it is necessary if we want to improve in anything or to move forward with our lives.      
            The fellow in today’s gospel passage was certainly not looking for someone to shake him up, for he thought that he had fulfilled all God’s commandments since childhood.  So Jesus Christ challenged him to go well beyond what he was accustomed to.  He told the rich young man to sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Him.  That made the man very sad because he loved his money.  It had probably never entered the man’s mind that he had a problem with loving his wealth too much.  He had likely never thought that his riches posed any spiritual problems for him at all.  He was not aware that he was addicted to them.  But because of this hard teaching from the Lord, his eyes were opened to the state of his soul and he did not like what he saw.
            St. Paul told the Ephesians that they too had to open their eyes to uncomfortable truths.  In contrast to the shameful ways of living commonly accepted in their pagan culture, these Christians were to walk as children of light. They were not to be as sleepy as someone who has had too much wine and rich food, but wide awake and alert so that they could respond faithfully to the many challenges that they would encounter.  That is how they would be able to respond prudently to the opportunities that they had to shine with the light of Christ in stark contrast to the darkness of the world’s corruption.
            If we want to follow St. Paul’s guidance today, then we have to hear and respond to a calling from our Lord that is as stark, demanding, and shocking as the one He gave to the rich man.  For we too easily fall into a comfortable routine that keeps us from recognizing the truth about how we stand before Him.  For example, we can all come up with a list of religious activities in which we participate with some level of regularity.  Some we know so well that we could almost do them in our sleep.  We may at times say the words of our daily prayers, read the Scriptures, or attend services while our minds are elsewhere.  We may fast, give to the Church and the needy, or prepare for Communion and Confession by simply going through the motions that have become so familiar to us over the years.  To make matters worse, we may pat ourselves on the back for our religious observances and take pride in presumably being more faithful than other people we know.  If we have dozed off spiritually, it is all too easy to fall into a fantasy about ourselves that is really nothing but an illusion in which we are nowhere near seeing the truth about ourselves in relation to God.  If that is true of us, then we will lack the power to shine with the light of Christ in contrast to our darkened world. 
The Nativity Fast provides us all with a much-needed wake-up call.   For if we are to become fitting temples to receive our Savior at His birth, we cannot simply hide in the darkness and remain as we have been.  Instead, we must enter into the light.  We must shine with the heavenly glory like the star of Bethlehem that attracted the Magi.  They were Gentiles who were drawn to the Messiah of Israel by a shining light.  We must become that light for a world that thinks of Christmas as something between an outdated cultural celebration and an opportunity to improve the economy.  We must become that light for a world that wanders in darkness, looking for every distraction possible from truly encountering the One born for its salvation.  And if we have fallen into such a routine practice of our spiritual disciplines that our lives are no different from what is normal in our culture, then we will fail to make a credible witness to the world that the birth of the Savior really matters.
Christ showed the rich young ruler that he was spiritually asleep by telling him to give up his riches.  He showed us all how spiritually dull we are by how He interpreted some of the Ten Commandments, which He mentioned in today’s gospel reading.  The Lord said that “You shall not commit adultery” prohibits not only physical unfaithfulness to one’s spouse, but also the lust that so easily leads to it.  (Matt. 5: 27ff.)  He taught that “Do not kill” prohibits not only murder, but also the anger and insults that motivate people to kill one another. (Matt. 5:21 ff.)
In a culture which is ignorant of the dangers of lust, we must not been blind to trends that would form us as people enslaved to our desires for physical pleasure.  Scandalous images that not so long ago would have been illegal, or at least highly regulated, are readily available to everyone now through the Internet.  Popular music, films, and television portray depravity of various forms in a positive light and often present chastity, abstinence, and fidelity as unrealistic or oppressive.  Many have replaced any serious discussion of morality with an uncritical endorsement of anything related to romantic feelings or desires of whatever kind.  Our society’s rates of divorce, abortion, children born outside of marriage, and sexually transmitted diseases are sad indications of where these trends have led.  It is not hard to predict that these indicators, as well as their impact on future generations, will become even worse in years to come.       
            Orthodox Christians must be wide awake to the dangers posed for a life of holiness by our culture’s blindness to the moral and spiritual significance of sex.  We certainly must not allow that blindness to take root in our hearts and lives.  Instead, we must “walk as children of light” by identifying and rejecting all that would corrupt us in the relationship between man and woman.  It will not suffice simply to remind ourselves that unmarried people should abstain from intimate relations and that married people should be faithful to their spouses.  For if we are formed by our society’s celebration of self-indulgence, we will lack the strength to resist sexual temptation.  Instead, we must keep a close watch on our hearts and minds, refusing to welcome into them anything that fuels the passion of lust.  At the same time, we must fast, for the settled habit of gratifying the desires of our stomachs weakens our ability to control other desires for bodily pleasure.   We must respond prudently to the challenges posed by our culture, which means doing all we can to grow in mindfulness and appropriate forms of self-denial.  These practices are necessary to wake us up to the dangers of the uncritical celebration of pleasure that our society promotes.     
            The same mindset, of course, encourages the anger and hatred at the root of murder, for they grow from the refusal to let anyone stand in the way of getting what we want in any area of life.  Most fundamentally, we must refuse to be formed by ways of thinking and living that lead us to worship ourselves and our desires as the highest goods.  That was the basic problem of the rich young ruler, which was why He needed Christ’s hard teaching to open his eyes to how weak he had become spiritually, especially in relation to his possessions.

In the remaining weeks before Christmas, we need to take up the disciplines of the Nativity Fast with deep personal commitment and focus if we are to gain the strength necessary to enter into the salvation that our Savior brings to the world at His birth.  Advent is the time to be wide awake and devoted to prayerful preparation to receive the Lord into our lives in new and holy ways.  Now is the time to wake up and shine with light in a world all too comfortable with darkness.  At the end of the day, that is what it means to get ready for the birth of our Messiah.    

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