Sermon – Sunday after Theophany

Sunday after Theophany

In one of the prophecies we heard at the Great Blessing of the Waters at Theophany, a verse from Isaiah, the Lord says the following:

“For as rain shall come down, or snow, from heaven, and shall not return until it have saturated the earth, and it bring forth, and bud, and give seed to the sower, and bread for food: so shall my word be, whatever shall proceed out of my mouth, it shall by no means turn back, until all the things which I willed shall have been accomplished; and I will make thy ways prosperous, and will effect my commands” (Is. 55:10-11).

In other words, God does not leave anything unfinished.

When God created the world, when he created man from the dust of the earth and blew the breath of life into his nostrils that he might become a living being, God did this in order to fulfil a particular goal; namely, man’s deification and union with God.

Thus, when man fell from paradise and from the grace of God on account of his free choice, God did not abandon him, but rather — as we say at almost every Divine Liturgy — he left nothing undone until he had brought us up to heaven and had granted us his Kingdom that is to come. He did everything in order to restore us, and to allow us to return to Paradise.

He sent his beloved Son, who for our sake took flesh of the Virgin Mary and became man, was crucified and buried, trampling down death by death, and ascended into the heavens, thereby opening the door to salvation for the human race.

These saving works of Christ constituted the general aspect of our salvation. Salvation, however, also has a personal aspect. The door to salvation has been opened, as we said, but each of us has to enter through it — Christ has stretched out his hand, but it is up to us to grab hold of it. Just as the first man fell by his own free choice, so we now have to freely choose to be saved, because God has absolute respect for human freedom, since this freedom is a prerequisite for the true love we were created to share in.

And this personal path to salvation is prepared in the Jordan River at the Baptism of Christ. It goes without saying that Christ did not need baptism, since he was sinless. However, the Lord did not descend into the waters of baptism to receive, as we do, but in order to give. Just as the cross sanctifies the waters when it is plunged into the water at the service of Theophany, so Christ sanctifies the waters when he enters the Jordan.

And these waters are not just a symbol of cleansing. Water is the most basic element of life, and in the biblical story of creation, everything begins and comes forth from the waters.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said…” (Genesis 1:1-3).

Do you see? God the Father creates, the Holy Spirit moved upon the face of the waters, and God said…in other words, God’s Word is also present.

Isn’t this precisely what we see at the Baptism of our Lord? God the Father speaks from heaven, his Word, Jesus Christ, is baptised in the river, while the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, moves upon the face of the waters.

This image of Theophany, then, speaks to us of a re-creation, a new beginning of things, and this is why God chose baptism to be the manner of our rebirth, the sacrament by which man is united to Jesus Christ and begins a new life in him.

Immediately after his baptism, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, and fasted forty days and forty nights” (Matthew 4:1-2). It was only after this that he “began to preach” (Matthew 4:17), as we heard in today’s Gospel.

As St James the Apostle tells us, “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). There was no way, then, that Christ could have succumbed to the devil’s temptations. And yet, Jesus allows himself to undergo also this in order to show the path of every person after baptism, and of course to fill this experience with his grace and presence.

After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, they did not immediately enter the Promised Land, but were tested for forty years as they wandered through the desert. In the same way, we do not enter Paradise as soon as we are freed from the spiritual Pharaoh through the waters of the baptismal font, but we must spend a lifetime wandering through the desert of this world, which is still shaped by the consequences of the Fall.

However, as we said, Christ has taken this experience of the desert unto himself, and has filled it with his grace. This is why St James the Apostle is able to say, “Count it all joy when you meet trials and temptations of various kinds” (James 1:2), for every temptation is an opportunity for us to build up our faith and to strengthen our relationship with the Lord.

We have now once again entered into a period of trial and temptation. After the bright celebration of Christ’s Baptism, we find ourselves in the desert, and the faithful are unable to be present at the sacred services on account of the pandemic, which has forced our Archbishop to make this very difficult decision.

(As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that the temptations Christ faced in the desert are very relevant to the present situation. We’ve seen many people who seem to forget that “man cannot live by bread alone”, and that we have to be concerned about the health of our immortal soul, not just our mortal body. On the other hand, we’ve seen people who seem to forget that “thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test”. And, of course, the precarious state of the economy and out future plans should make us rethink the value of material riches and who we are willing to serve to obtain them.)

Now, it goes without saying that we all feel great sadness for what is happening, as well as over church closures, but let us try to meet this trial with the joy St James speaks of, because even here Christ is not absent, and even here we can reach to a positive spiritual conclusion.

The summit of our worship as Christians is the so-called anaphora of the Divine Liturgy. The offerings we bring to the Divine Liturgy are not limited to bread and wine, or to the money we place in the collection plate. We bring as offerings all of the spiritual fruit that we have cultivated during our daily spiritual life. The sad truth, though, is that we often come to church empty handed — both the clergy and the laity.

Let us devote this period, then, to the cultivation of the virtues, the spiritual fruits — of love, patience, prayer, forgiveness, and charity — so that when we return to worship at church, we will not return empty handed, but will be able to bring a spiritual offering that will be well-pleasing to the Lord. Amen.

Fr Kristian Akselberg