Sermon for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers (2017)

December 24, 2017

Sermon for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers (2017)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

INTRODUCTION

The Holy Scriptures teach that, in the beginning, the curse of Adam would be overturned and that Adam’s heel would crush the head of the serpent. We have already begun to hear the echoes of this: the Virgin shall be with child. This will only become more thunderous as we draw closer to that august day when we celebrate the Nativity of God in the flesh, the second person of the Holy Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ.

But today, today we recall the path which the fulfillment of this promise took and the people through which this miracle came to pass – the Forefathers, that is, the ancestry of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

As exemplified by the lives of the Forefathers of Christ, despite the circumstances and the family environment they were born into, there is nothing outside of ourselves which can stifle the life of virtue, that life wherein we are called to fulfill the commandments of Christ. Our families and our baggage are not an impediment to living the Christian life, Whether someone is an INFJ or an ISFJ; whether they were raised by both parents or one parent, two mothers or two fathers, or neither; whether one’s parents were abusive, someone had no friends; whether one is privately educated or enrolled in public schools or has little to no schooling at all; if relationships and jobs have failed; none of this needs to be an obstacle to the Christian life.

Although this thought may be contrary to much public opinion, let us examine the lives of the Forefathers of Christ in order to prove our point.

PHAREZ, RUTH, AND SOLOMON

Without enumerating each person, to the detriment of our attention, let’s consider Pharez, the son of Judah, Ruth, and King Solomon.

Pharez

What sort of family was Pharez born into? We read in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew of the genealogy of Jesus Christ wherein “Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah (1.2). We then read that Judah begot Pharez and Zerah by Tamar, and Pharez begot Hezron and the genealogy continues. Stopping at Tamar, we note that Tamar is not an Israelite and yet became Judah’s daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Er. She desired not marriage, as St. Ephrem the Syrian says, but the blessing which is hidden in the Israelites.”[1] Er died before having any children with Tamar and she, therefore, did not contribute to the lineage of Abraham. Looking to appease her desire to raise up a child from the seed of Abraham, though usually dressed as a widow, Tamar chose to dress in common attire and to cover herself so as not to be recognized. Judah was fooled and had relations with her from which she bore two sons, one of them being named Pharez (Genesis 38.26, cf. Genesis 38.6-30).

Why is such a woman named in the Messiah’s genealogy? Because of her righteous desire to be united to the children of Israel by giving birth to one of this lineage. Christ was not ashamed to have her as an ancestor.

Ruth

What about Ruth’s circumstances? Ruth was a Moabite, descended from the children of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and an alien to the promises of Israel. Ruth was the daughter-in-law of Naomi. Naomi was married to Elimelech and had two sons, one whom Ruth married. As it happened, Naomi’s husband and two sons died. Naomi encouraged Ruth to go back to the land of her parents. Instead Ruth, being virtuous, whose virtue St. Ambrose of Milan says “exceeded the limits of the law” says to her mother-in-law,[2]

Do not oppose me, to make me abandon you or turn back from after you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. And wherever you die, I will die – there will I be buried. Thus and so may the Lord do to me, and thus and so may he add – for death alone shall part me from you (Ruth 1:16-17 Lxx).

There she met a man of great wealth by the name of Boaz. One night when he slept, she lay by his feet. Startled, he awoke, and she vowed her allegiance to him. When Boaz learned of her virtue, of her holiness in relation to her mother-in-law, and her respect for the dead and her reverence for God, he took her as his wife, and together they had Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David the King.

Though widowed, childless and in a foreign land, outside of the promises to Abraham, and of no small soul, through her virtue, she attained to be in the lineage of Christ’s earthly family.

Solomon

And what about the birth of Solomon? King David seeing from his rooftop a woman bathing, was wounded in his heart. He sent for her, and they had relations from which she bore a son. When he learned of this, David placed her husband, Uriah the Hittite, a citizen of loyalty and faithfulness to the King and the ark of the covenant, who slept at the door of the palace instead of enjoying food, drink and his wife; David sent him into the fiercest part of the battle and their he was killed. Upon his death, David sent for Uriah’s widow and took her to himself. Though their first child died, she would give birth to a second child, Solomon, the author of the Proverbs and builder of the Temple.

Even those born out of adultery are acceptable in the sight of God if only they strive towards virtue.

The reason to enumerate such lives is not to draw attention to the sinfulness of humanity, even as renowned a lineage as Christ’s but to show that God was pleased to come into this family despite their sinfulness. Where is the boasting of the children of Abraham and where the despondency of those so surrounded by fallen mankind? On the contrary, despite such sins and vices and circumstances, it was not a hindrance for those who wanted to become the children of God. Instead, as St. John Chrysostom writes, “For it cannot, nay, it cannot be that a man should be good or bad, obscure or glorious, either by the virtue or the vice of his forefathers; but if one must say somewhat even paradoxical, he shines forth the more, who not being of worthy ancestors, has yet become excellent.”[3]

EXAMPLES AND EXPLANATIONS

It is not a hopeful or optimistic perspective. Instead, God has revealed to us through the Scriptures, in the lives of Pharez, Ruth, and Solomon, but also through tax collectors (Apostle Matthew), harlots (Martha), and persecutors of the Church of Christ (Saul) that truly the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of Heaven for they believed and repented (Matt. 21.31).

If our genetics or social, psychological, or environmental situation is justification for not obeying God, how is it that Lazarus entered the bosom of Abraham and the Rich Man did not? How is it that the poor, crippled, blind, and lame are received into the banquet when the previous guests all made excuses for themselves? Alternatively, are these the same excuses that we make for ourselves so as not to pray with attention, or to be kind because I woke up late and am grumpy, etc., etc. ? “So long as we assign the causes for our weaknesses to others, we cannot attain perfection in long-suffering,” writes St. John Cassian.[4] Or perhaps we doubt whether we can attain anything in the spiritual life and are given more to despondency? Yet, referring to the attacks of the demon of unchastity, St. John writes, “No one ceases to be attacked by this demon until he truly believes that he will be healed and reach the heights of purity not through his own effort and labor, but through the aid and protection of God. For such a victory is beyond man’s natural powers.”[5] But do we not believe that we can be healed?

We are told in the Synaxarion for today that like Abraham we are in the land of the passions, and when we hear the voice of God we need to decide to leave and with faith, seek the promise land, not turning back. In so doing, Christ will be born in our hearts. As He was planted in us through Baptism, He grows through our keeping of the virtues. These are the children of the promise who have the faith of Abraham and who become the sons of God through the Holy Spirit.[6]

Perhaps, some people still disagree and would say, “But they became amazing saints and I can’t even get out of my own way. My mother this, my father that, when I was young, I can’t help this or I can’t help that…” Yes, but we mustn’t make excuses for our passions and sins. Acknowledging the difficult situation we may be in, do we also acknowledge our own faults. St. Peter Damascene, emphasizing the need to repent despite our circumstances, writes, “We are punished for our lack of repentance, and not because we had to struggle against temptation; otherwise most of us could not receive forgiveness until we had attained total dispassion.” But as St. John Klimakos observes, “It is not possible for all to achieve dispassion, yet all can be saved and reconciled with God.”[7]

CONCLUSION

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Saint Paul, in describing the God-man Jesus and His coming in the flesh, says, He was made a little lower than the angels (2.9), taking on flesh and blood (2.14), and not the nature of angels (2.16) but the seed of Abraham, being made like us (2.18). Elsewhere, the Apostle, writing to the Philippians, says that, although he is God, He humbled Himself and took on the form of a servant, that is the likeness of mankind (2.5-8). Moreover, He is not ashamed to call us His brethren (Heb. 2.11,17). There is no shame to be had from the ancestry from which we have sprung and these envirnoments in which we find ourselves. “For such a man, though he have an alien for an ancestor, though he has a mother who is a prostitute, or what you will, can take not hurt thereby,” St. John Chrysostom writes. “For if the whoremonger himself, being changed, is nothing disgraced by his former life, much more will the wickedness of his ancestry have no power to bring to shame him that is sprung of an harlot or an adulteress, if he be virtuous.”[8]

Dear fathers, brothers, and sisters, struggle; struggle to obtain the Kingdom which is the Father’s good pleasure to give you and Christ will be born in your hearts.

Through the prayers of the holy Forefathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.


[1] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Old Testament). Sheridan, Mark (ed.). (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 2:243f.
[2] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Old Testament). Franke, John R. (ed). (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 4:182f.
[3] Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew. Prevost, Rev. Sir George. (trans.), in NPNF, 1st series. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), 10:17ff.
[4] St. John Cassian, “On the Eight Vices” in The Philokalia. Palmer, G.E.H, Sherrard, Philip, and Ware, Kallistos (trans.). (Faber and Faber: Boston, 1979), 1:85.
[5] Ibid., 1:75.
[6] Synaxarion for the “Week of the Forefathers” @ http://www.holytrinityorthodox.com/calendar/los/Epiphany/e12111-WeekofHolyForefathers.htm
[7] “Book I: A Treasury of Divine Knowledge”, in The Philokalia. Palmer, G.E.H, Sherrard, Philip, and Ware, Kallistos (trans.). (Faber and Faber: Boston, 1979), 3: 207.
[8] Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew, 10:16f.




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