Sunday, December 17, 2017

Choosing to Enter the Banquet: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Colossians 3:4-11; Luke 14:16-24
Think for a moment about the choices that we make.   Each day of our lives, we decide to do this instead of that.  Sometimes we are pleased with our choices, but other times we look back on our decisions and wonder what we could possibly have been thinking at the time.  All too often, we choose poorly and end up the worse for it.
            Today’s gospel lesson describes people who made the foolish choice of excusing themselves from a great banquet, a glorious celebration that anyone would want to attend.  Their excuses for doing so are mundane:  buying land and animals and being married.  In light of their refusal to attend, the master of the house insisted that his servants bring the blind, lame, and maimed from the streets to the party. Then he told them to go out “to the highways and hedges” and bring those passing by into his house so that it would be filled.  
            We read this parable on the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ as we remember the choices that the righteous people of the Old Testament made across the centuries in preparing for the coming of the Savior.  This line of Hebrew patriarchs and prophets who prefigured or foretold the coming of Christ leads to the Theotokos, who freely chose to welcome the Messiah into her life in a unique way as His virgin mother.  But even as we remember their faithful decisions, we must also recall false prophets, wicked kings, and numerous other characters in the Old Testament who chose poorly.  Like the people who excused themselves from the great banquet in the parable, they made idols out of the things of this world and worshiped their power, possessions, and pleasure instead of the one true God. 
            Those who rejected the Savior did exactly the same thing, for they could not accept a Messiah Who challenged the self-righteous religious pride that fueled their power over others.  They could not serve a Lord Whose kingdom was not an earthly one of conventional political or military conquest.  They had no interest in a Savior Who told them to take up their crosses and follow Him.   Since they worshiped themselves and the things of this world, they literally hated the One for Whom the righteous of the Old Testament had prepared across the centuries.   
      In the midst of their rejection of the Messiah, it became clear how God would bless the entire world in fulfillment of the ancient promise to Abraham.  (Gen. 22:18)  Though often ignored, Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah envisioned all the nations being drawn to God’s Temple. (Isa. 2:2)  To use the imagery of the parable, we Gentile Christians are the blind, lame, and maimed found in the streets, the strangers brought in from the highways and hedges so that the master’s house will be full.  As St. Paul teaches, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.”  Through faith in our Savior, we are all the children of Abraham, rightful heirs to the fulfillment of the promise.
            Today’s parable reminds us, however, that it is not enough merely to be invited to accept the great blessings that are ours in Christ.  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  Like those who shut themselves out of the great celebration because of their obsession with the earthly cares of everyday life, we face the choice of how we will respond to the invitation that is ours through Christ to enter into the great joy of His heavenly banquet.  In order to answer the call, we must avoid the poor choice of convincing ourselves that whatever daily responsibilities we have are somehow more important than participating personally in the eternal life that our Savior was born to bring to the world.  Instead, we must view the challenges of our lives as opportunities to enter more fully into the holy joy of our Lord.
            In order to “appear with Him in glory,” we must follow the advice of St. Paul to the Colossians “to put to death what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”   He warns us clearly against what happens when we look for our fulfillment as human persons simply in the things of this world.  As those created in God’s image and likeness, we will remain slaves to our self-centered desires as long as we worship what can never satisfy us.   That is a path that leads to such spiritual blindness that, like the characters in the parable, we will actually think that the common concerns of life are good excuses for not uniting ourselves to Christ in holiness.   That is the way of “the old nature” corrupted by slavery to death, which is powerless before deeply ingrained tendencies to “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.”
            Let us be perfectly honest.  We all know from personal experience what happens when we embrace evil thoughts, act according to our disordered desires for pleasure and power, and speak out of anger and self-righteous judgment.  We all know what results from making our possessions and relationships false gods.   We all know what happens when we make our life an offering only to ourselves. To choose to indulge our passions is nothing but a path to greater slavery to them.  It is to enter into a captivity that ultimately leads only to despair and the grave.  It is to separate ourselves from God, from one another, and even from our own true selves.
            We pray often in services that we will live the rest of our lives in peace and repentance.  That is not a petition for others to stop bothering us so that all our problems to go away, for the problems are deeply rooted in our own souls.   As St. Paul knew, we will find peace only when we deliberately embrace “the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.”  In other words, we must mindfully pursue the healing of our souls by offering our daily cares and our deepest desires to the Lord.  Instead of allowing them to become excuses for disregarding Him, they must become opportunities to enter more fully into the joy of His Kingdom.  That is how repentance leads to peace.
            The forefathers and foremothers of the Lord prepared the way for His salvation through lives that were by no means easy.  The Old Testament makes clear that they struggled with every problem known to humanity in our corrupt world. Despite their challenges and failings, those who accepted the invitation to prepare for the coming of the Messiah remained faithful to the Lord through repentance.  If those who looked forward to His coming in hope did so, how much more of an obligation do we have as those who have received the fullness of the promise?  Indeed, we enter mystically into the Heavenly Banquet at every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, nourished by His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  Christ offered Himself fully for our salvation and, if we are truly in communion with Him, then we must offer ourselves to Him each day of our lives.  That is the only path to peace for those created in His image and likeness.
            In the coming days, let us all mindfully prepare to welcome the Savior at Christmas by refusing to think that we have more important things to do.  Following the example of the Old Testament saints in their preparation for Him, let us respond enthusiastically to the Lord’s invitation to the great feast of His Incarnation.  He is born to bring every dimension of our life and world in the holy joy of His Kingdom. Absolutely nothing is worth excluding ourselves from that tremendous celebration.  There is still time to get ready, even for us who are blind, lame, and maimed in so many ways.  Let us make good use of it for our salvation.       

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