Monday, March 5, 2007

You Remain the Same

This post is an adaption of the first half of the sermon that I preached this past Sunday, the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas. The second part will appear tomorrow.

You, LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth,
And the heavens are the work of Your hands.
They will perish, but You remain;
And they will all grow old like a garment;
Like a cloak You will fold them up, And they will be changed.
But You are the same, And Your years will not fail.
Hebrews 1:10-12, NKJV

When I first decided to become a teacher, I had to pick a subject to teach. My background was in math and science, and so when I first began teaching in a private school, I taught both of these subjects. But when I made the move to the public school system, I had to choose one of the two areas to focus on. I decided on math, because I thought teaching it would be easy. All I had to do was stand up, work a bunch of problems on the board, explain them as I go, and I would be done! But when I actually began to teach, I found that this did not work very well. And, as I went through various training courses, I was repeatedly told that my style of teaching, the style in which I had been taught, was old-fashioned. Kids had changed from when I was in school. The technological revolution of the last couple of decades had changed the way that kids think and learn. So, I had to go back to the old drawing board and learn how to teach all over again.

Change is a part of our lives, and now more than ever. It is true that change has always been part of human society, from its very beginning. But experts tell us that the rate of change in today’s world, particularly in technology, is constantly increasing. In my relatively brief life, I have seen us go from records and 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs to MP3 players, and who knows what is next? Computers are constantly getting faster, smaller, and more powerful. By the time a computer appears on the shelf, it is practically obsolete already.

All these technological changes are forcing us to change as well. I recently heard that the average child in school today will change careers 10 times in his or her lifetime. That is CAREERS, not just jobs. And those of us who are working stiffs today are having to constantly learn new skills and new technologies, lest we find ourselves out of a job tomorrow. Another thing that is constantly changing is the morals and values of our society. Behaviors that were considered shameful not too long ago are now considered valid, alternative lifestyles. Things that use to shock us now barely provoke any comment.

Yes, change is all around us. For some of us (especially those over 35), the ever-increasing rate of change in our lives sometimes makes us want to run and hide. We long for stability, something that we can count on to be the same, day in and day out. Thankfully, we DO have something, or rather someONE—our God. And I am thankful for that! Today’s epistle reading speaks to us about God’s unchanging nature, and what we must do in return.

Hebrews is an epistle written to Jewish converts to Christianity who were experiencing great pressure to return to their traditional faith. The writer’s purpose is to reaffirm the idea that Jesus is the promised divine Messiah of the Old Testament and that he is superior to angels, to Moses, and to the Aaronic priesthood. He also speaks of how Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross both completed and did away with the old system of animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple. Most importantly, the author urges the Hebrew Christians (and us today) to remain steadfast in their ways, not reverting to Judaism or falling into unbelief and spiritual apathy.

Today’s epistle reading picks up at the end of a section in which the author uses the Old Testament to demonstrate Jesus’ superiority to the angels. In verse 10, he quotes part of the 102nd Psalm (101st in the LXX), which he applies to Jesus: You, LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, /And the heavens are the work of Your hands. /They will perish, but You remain; /And they will all grow old like a garment; / Like a cloak You will fold them up, And they will be changed. /But You are the same, And Your years will not fail. (quoting vv. 25-27)

No one knows how quickly garments wear out better than the parents of young children. Since the beginning of this year alone, our daughters Beth (5) and Courtney (8) have worn holes in nearly every pair of jeans that they own. Things wear out; they break down and become no longer useful. This is one of the irrefutable laws of the universe. Verse 10 reminds me of one of my pastor Fr. Matthew’s sets of gold vestments. This particular set is very special to him, because it is the set in which he was ordained to the priesthood. But, as he told me recently, these vestments are starting to wear out, and he will soon be forced to fold them up and put them away, never to be worn again until he wears them one final time--at his funeral.

In the same way, the heavens and the earth, at least as we now know them, will be no more. Despite what Carl Sagan said, the cosmos is not all that is or ever was or ever will be, for there will be a day when the cosmos will grow old like a garment and will be folded up and then will be changed by its Creator. Heaven and earth will pass away, but our Lord and his word never change. I take great comfort in this fact, because I don’t have to wake up each day wondering if God is still going to be in control, or if he still loves me, or if his will for our lives will change. If you have read much mythology, you know that the pagan gods, regardless of the culture, were anything but constant. They were essentially glorified humans, fickle beings with ever-changing emotions and desire. But our God is not like that. As the author of Hebrews writes in another place, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8).

The fact that our Lord and God and Savior Jesus does not change is the reason why the Orthodox Church does not change. Many people in the world today say “the Church needs to keep up with the times and adapt its doctrine and worship accordingly.” But if Christ does not change, why should his body, the Church? Why should the Church adjust itself to the world? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? I once heard a joke: “How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Change? What does that mean, change?”

That is not to say that there have not been some minor changes to Orthodox worship and practice over the centuries. But the core of Orthodox theology and worship are the same today as they were in the fourth century, the third century, the second century, and yea, even the first century! That is one of the many things that attracted me to the Church in the first place: its timelessness, its constancy. And that is what continues to attract more and more people to the Church today. Unlike most other Christian traditions, we Orthodox don’t have to wonder what our Church will believe and teach in ten, twenty, or one hundred years. And I say “Amen” to that!

Soli Deo gloria!

The unworthy priest,

James

3 comments:

Celina Monks said...

This is wonderful Father James. I look forward to reading more....

Celina Monks

katy said...

I was brought to this blog by my cousin Celina, who I see has also written a comment. With which I am totally in accordance.
I want to say is that if Christ told his apostles and his disciples to tell everyone of the great news. It is our obligation as His Church to do this. We must go as fast as the slowest person; so as to save everyone. So, what happens to the advanced people. Should we loose them?
I know what you are going to say. If they stray they are no sooo advanced.
If we would have stayed in the 1st century we would not have had the advances we have today. So if the world changes in its mondus oporanti, shouldn´t we?
I am not saying to change our foundations, but yes our methods.
Well.... I could go on but this is a comment not an essay. Hope to here from you.
Katy Orozco

Fr. James Early said...

Katy,

Thank you for your comment. I agree with what you said: "I am not saying to change our foundations, but yes our methods." As I mentioned in this post, the Orthodox Church has changed in some minor ways, but it has not changed its doctrine, or its "foundation," to use your words. For example, when the Church has taken the Gospel to other nations, it has adopted the language of the native people, and in some cases, it has adapted the style of music used in worship. For example, an Orthodox service in Kenya sounds very different from one in Russia. I hope that this has helped. If not, ask again.