Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
Our Lord addresses us as a little flock. Why this terminology? It is not that we were once part of a great flock and have been diminished to something that is small, but rather that we have begun from small beginnings. It could also be in reference to the fact that in this world the saints seem little because they choose to live a poor lifestyle or frugally.
The kingdom is promised, therefore, we are to give alms. We must remember that almsgiving or giving to the poor is something that is required of us as believers. Christ is not making a suggestion that it’d be a good idea, but He is commanding us. St. Gregory of Nazianzus reminds us that in St. Matthew 25 that the goats are placed on the left not because they were guilty of robbery but because they failed to minister Christ among the poor.
We receive the kingdom of heaven and treasure there in exchange for our giving to the poor here. Giving is required even if it is against our natural will. Through lending our wealth to God, we become truly rich. We may not have many things in this life, but God will bless us in the resurrection.
Wealth has the ability to either draw our souls and hearts up to heaven or to bury them here on earth. St. Peter Chrysologus explains,
O man, send your treasure on, send it ahead into heaven, or else your God-given soul will be buried in the earth. Gold comes from the depth of the earth – the soul, from the highest heaven. Clearly it is better to carry the gold to where the soul resides than to bury the soul in the mine of the gold. That is why God orders those who will serve in his army below to fight as men stripped of concern for riches and unencumbered by anything. To these he has granted the privilege of reigning in heaven.1
We receive the kingdom through giving and St. John Chrysostom also tells us that it is impossible to even see the kingdom without alms. Our lifestyle of generosity is crucial to our spiritual development.
We are first instructed to sell and give because God is pleased to give us the kingdom. Second, we are instructed to gird our loins and light our lamps and prepare for the return of Christ. So, what does it mean to gird our loins and light our lamps?
First, to gird our loins means to have our minds in readiness to work hard at anything that is worthy of praise. It is to put a guard on or to restrain our lustful desires. It is to live a life of self-control.
Second, to light our lamps means to have an alert mind. We shine and glow with good works. It is concerned with doing justice. With the two working together, we live a life of self-control and justice. The Didache encourages us to meet together frequently so that we can search together what is good for our souls. It encourages us to continue in pursuit of faith to the very end, since a good start and a lifetime of faith is worthless unless we remain faithful until the end.
In this pursuit until the end, we are to watch for the return of Christ. There are three watches of the night. St. Cyril of Alexandria compares these three watches to the three periods of our lives – childhood, youth, and old age.
In the first watch, or childhood, not as much is called into account by God because of the innocence of our minds and the weakness of our understanding. Our minds have not been shaped by maturity yet. However, in the second two watches, we must look to the conduct of our lives. Are we faithfully following God and living a life of self-control? Are we doing justice and loving mercy? Is preparing for his return, the mindset we have?
Whoever is found watching and ready will be counted blessed whether they are young or old because they will be counted worthy of receiving Christ’s promises. Indeed, it is the mark of a Christian to watch daily and hourly for the return of Christ, walking in a manner worthy of our calling.
For the passage from the prophet Isaiah, our lectionary has the theme – Worship without Right Living is in Vain. This builds on the instruction that we just had from our Gospel portion that we must live rightly.
We see Israel was very faithful in offering sacrifices, keeping sabbaths and festivals, but they were missing the right lifestyle that was to accompany it. This problem continued on into the time of Christ when Jesus said,
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
The things prescribed in the law are important, but if they are not coupled with a right life of justice and mercy, they are worthless. God would no longer accept their sacrifices because they had forgotten to serve Him with their whole heart. In the new covenant sacrifice and a right lifestyle are related even closer, as St. Augustin says,
…the Christian’s sacrifice is alms, or kindness to the poor. This is what makes God lenient toward sins.2
St. John Chrysostom tells us it doesn’t really matter what we do or how good it seems, if it is not done with an intention of Godliness it is worthless. As St. Paul also states,
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
So whether we pray, fast, or give to the poor which is our spiritual sacrifice, we must begin with a pure intention to please God. This is how we will be pleasing to God. Otherwise we will run the risk of being like those at the end of St. Matthew seven.
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
If we have fallen and have been overcome by sin and we are in a place where our prayer will not be heard, what must we do? We must cleanse ourselves through repenting, apologising to those we have offended so that we might be reconciled, weeping over our sin, giving alms etc.
You see we don’t need to despair when we have been overcome and stumble and fall. God is merciful. The problem is if we remain on the ground and in our sin. St. John Chrysostom expounds,
Let us not therefore give up in despair; for to fall is not as grievous as to lie where we have fallen; nor to be wounded as dreadful as after wounds to refuse healing….These things I say not to make you more negligent but to prevent your despairing.3
In the movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell is running a race and gets knocked down. The one observer says, “Get up lad, get up.” Eric gets up and not only finishes the race, but also wins. We are going to be tempted. Falling is inevitable, but we must purpose to repent quickly and finish the course and be faithful until the end.
We can also look at the life of King David. He sinned with Bathsheba, didn’t manage his house real well, commissioned a census of the people etc. However, after each sin, he repented, and God restored him. No matter what sin we fall into, there is mercy with God if we will repent.
As we see, Isaiah has first a call to repentance, then he promises a cleansing. The fathers understand this cleansing to be speaking of baptism. After repentance we are baptised into the household of God. We go into baptism with our old nature and come out with our new nature as a new man. We are cleansed from every wrinkle and spot and our formers sins are washed away and pass into nothingness.
In our Psalm reading we again focus on the importance of right sacrifices in the new covenant. In verse two we see that our God shines forth from Zion. This tells us both that Christ was manifested or revealed in the flesh and that it happened in Zion.
After his manifestation or his incarnation, the animal sacrifices quickly ended. The sacrifices that are now required are a godly and holy lifestyle. We are to be completely on fire with God’s love as a burnt offering before Him continually. To be a sacrifice of praise is for our words, deeds, doctrines, habits, and disciplines to be the cause of God being praised and blessed.
He was revealed in Zion. There he was crucified and rose again and from there the teachings of the church began to be spread. In the end, Christ will return with the apostles, martyrs, and teachers who will have proclaimed the gospel of His kingdom throughout their lives. These will be the heavens that declare the glory of God. When God begins to judge, they will announce his righteousness and mercy.
As we have mentioned the saints will come with Christ, who have died in the hope of coming kingdom we will now take a look at a few in specific as well as at faith. The saints died in faith. What does this mean?
Faith is seeing the unseen. It is the aid to believe what we are not yet able to see. It is what enables us to lay hold of what we hope for. We are hoping for the resurrection. We are hoping for the return of Christ with His saints. It is something that we cannot see, but by faith it is a reality for us.
We have hope and confidence that our faith and hope will be fulfilled because we have the testimony of saints in the past who lived by faith. As St. Ephrem the Syrian tells us,
“By faith Abraham” obeyed and left His Father and family “to go” not to his private estate but to “an inheritance” prepared for him. Constantly supporting himself “by faith” through his wonderings, he “sojourned” and lived in the land of promise as in a foreign land, that is, as in a foreign inheritance, “living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise”. Through the promised inheritance, which they did not receive, it became evident that “they looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”4
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all died in faith without seeing the fulfillment of the promise. We also may die in faith without seeing the return of Christ, but we know it is coming by faith. Because we believe and hope that Christ is returning, we live in a certain way as we have been discussing. This is why we gird up our loins and light our lamps.
We are to begin the lifestyle of the heavenly country now, here in this present life. We are to live a virtuous life a life of generosity and holiness. Let us purpose to live a life of:
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
~ Fr. Matthew
1 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 211-212
2 Thomas C. Oden and Steven A. McKinion, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament X (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 13
3 Ibid. 18
4 Thomas C. Oden, Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament X (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 184-185
Rubens, Peter Paul, 1577-1640. Sacrifice of the Old Covenant, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55531 [retrieved August 13, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sacrifice_of_the_Old_Covenant_Rubens.jpg.