Lenten Vespers Sermon – “The Joy of The Cross”
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here we are brothers and sisters, at the midpoint of this Great and Holy Lent. And as usual, on this day, the Church in her Holy Wisdom, has set this day aside to commemorate and exalt the Holy Cross. Now as many of us who have been striving to fast, pray, repent, and love more, I think it is safe to say we can all see where we fall short. We can all see where we need improvement in our walk with Christ. But this is the very purpose of Lent, and this is the very purpose of why we fast, pray, repent and strive to love more. But what does this all lead to? It should lead us to a point where we feel completely helpless without God. Ultimately we are learning the embrace the understanding of what our Lord says, “I am the Vine and you are the branches. Without Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5). I remember when I was at seminary, which was Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary, (fitting for today) this verse was put in the window of our dormitory chapel, so you could always see it as you walked into the dorm. Now looking back on that, I see why this verse is so important for us to remember. It was important for us as seminarians, but it is important for us as followers of Christ. If you are laity or clergy or monastic. Because it is from Our Lord that we are given anything and everything, except for our sins. But it is now, at this midpoint of Lent, that we should be coming to the realization of how much we need Christ, and when He asks us to take up our cross and follow Him, He is not saying to do it alone, but to do it WITH HIM. But not just during Lent, but throughout our lives, but we must do it. There is no way around it if we are going to follow Christ.
Now if we look at what the world says, and what we are to focus on in this life, it is an opposite message. It is a message of pleasure, selfish gain, and self-love. But this leads no where and ultimately leads emptiness and no life. Our Lord said, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospels will save it.” (Mark 8:35). Now this may seem hard to comprehend, but it is fairly simple. God wants us to change, and constantly be made anew. We must ever strive towards Him says, “be Holy for I am Holy.” This is ongoing, and at times it can be difficult, but this is how we learn and this is how we grow. Sometimes its so hard it doesn’t feel like its worth it. You may have said during this Lent even, “whats the point of fasting, its to hard. Or maybe something in your life is just become so burdensome and hard to handle, and you just don’t understand why God would allow this to happen. But we can’t put the blame on God. We put the blame on ourselves and the evil one who is trying to keep us from growing closer to God. This is where our faith comes in. This where our trust in God must come in. I’m sure many of us can look back on times in our life that were difficult and we didn’t understand why God allowed it to happen, but in His Holy Wisdom, we can now recognize how God allowed it so that we could learn
It says the Epistle of James, “my brethren, count it all JOY when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4).
Now when I was preparing for this sermon, I came across another persons analogy on this, so I can’t take credit for it, but I really liked the symbolism and also because I loved the movie as a kid growing up. I’m sure many of you have seen the movie “The Karate Kid” Well, in the movie Mr. Miyagi agreed to teach Daniel Karate but when he showed up for his first day of lessons, Mr. Miyagi had him wax a yard full of antique cars. Remember, “wax on-wax off Daniel-san” Well, he worked all day waxing those cars and when he showed up the next day ready to learn a few Karate moves, Mr. Miyagi had him paint a fence. The third day dawned and still there were now lessons. Instead Mr. Miyagi had him sand his deck by hand. Finally Daniel had it- he wanted to learn Karate and was instead being treated like a hired hand. He began to quit but Mr. Miyagi stopped him and said, “Daniel-san, show me wax-on, wax off” Daniel did and then Miyagi said, “show me paint fence.” Then “show me, sand deck.” Next Mr. Miyagi began to punch and kick at Daniel and to his amazement, by using the motions of waxing car, painting fence, and sanding the deck, he was able to block every hit. Without knowing it, his three days of preserving through the suffering had actually been a secret Karate apprenticeship. Daniel had learned Karate without knowing it.
Well that’s the way it is with us. When we are focused on Christ and the Cross and His Resurrection, we look back on our lives and see that sometimes God allows us to go through tough times in order to teach us things that make us better Christians. Sometimes these hardships we take on voluntarily, and sometimes not by our own choice. But we must remember that when times are tough, God is with you and God is also teaching you. It is during this time of year that some of us may be learning some hard lessons. Yet, all this difficulty of fasting, praying, and fighting against the evil one is not for us to do alone, but we do it together and we do it with Christ, because as I mentioned in the verse earlier, our Lord says, “without Me we can do nothing.”
Now if we turn our attention to real life examples, we can see may holy men and women who carried their cross. All the Saints of our Church are prime examples. However recently I read a short book about the life of a holy elder from Romania. His name is Elder Justin Parvu. In this book you read about the his life and hardships he faced in communist prison camps in Romania, but then also about the wisdom and love he shared with so many. At the end of the book he is quoted saying, “The experience of patient endurance makes you stronger, more confident; it builds your character.” He also says, “let us put on the humility of the Cross and the sweetness of the Crucified One.
Where is the, the peace, where is the joy, some might ask? At the Resurrection Matins we sing “Come all ye faithful, let us venerate Christ’s holy resurrection, for behold, through the cross JOY has come into all the world. Let us, ever blessing the Lord, praise His Resurrection, for by enduring the cross for us, He has destroyed death by death.”
If we stay on this path of salvation brothers and sisters; If we continue to fight the good fight and finish the race, the joy will be there. The everlasting joy that is given to us from God alone. The joy or forgiveness, the joy of mercy, the joy of peace. So all the fasting, all the praying, during in lent will lead you to joy. All the sickness in life, all the trials of life, will lead us to joy. Let us focus on the cross, which for us as Christians is not a symbol of defeat, but a symbol of victory. Not a symbol of death, but of life. Not a symbol of sadness, but ultimately joy. Yes, it is truly sad the Our God had to suffer on the cross as He did. It is sad that we all must suffer in this life. But our focus is not on this life but the eternal life beyond the crosses we carry and the Cross Our Lord forgave us on. So brothers and sisters, receive that forgiveness with joy. We look to the Resurrection, and ultimately to the Eternal Heavenly Kingdom. Where I hope and pray that all of us hear the most wonderful words from Christ after this life is over, as our Lord said in the Gospel of Matthew, “His Lord said to him, Well done, you good and faithful servant: you have been faithful over a few things, ……. enter you into the joy of your Lord.
By Priest Vladimir Lange
Sermon was given at St. George Church in New Gary, Duluth, MN on March, 15, 2015