Thursday, February 23 (O.S., March 8) 2018: Thursday of the Third Week of Lent; Hieromartyr Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna († 167); New Hieromartyrs Priests Alexis, Nicholas, Michael and Martyr Sergius († 1938); Venerable John, Antiochus, Antoninus, Moses, Zebinas, Polychronius, another Moses, and Damian, Ascetics of the Syrian Deserts (5th C); Venerable Alexander the founder of the Monastery of the “Unsleeping Ones” († c. 430); Venerable Gorgonia, sister of St Gregory the Theologian; Venerable Polycarp of Briansk († 1620-1621); Venerable Moses of White Lake; Venerable Damian of Esphigmenou on Mt Athos; New Venerable Martyr Damian the New of Philotheou, who suffered at Larissa (1568).
St Ignatius of Antioch wrote that just as a ship needs a rudder to arrive safely in port, Christians need the conflicts and controversies of the present time to find God. To be honest, I don’t like to hear this. It isn’t that I think the saint is wrong; he isn’t. I just want him to be wrong.
The readings though for today–as well as several passages in the New Testament (Matthew 24:19, Luke 21:23, 1 Corinthians 3:15 and 11:19 come quickly to mind)–all attest to the truth of the saint’s word. Yes, as we read in Isaiah, God will redeem His People. Along the way to be redeemed, His People will make war against their oppressors.
God’s newly redeemed will know victory but not the absence of conflict. Instead “they shall swoop down upon the shoulder of the Philistines in the west, … plunder the people of the east…. put forth their hand against Edom and Moab” and subjugate by force “the Ammonites.”
The road they take from slavery to liberation will be swept by “scorching wind.” Droughts will dry up rivers so God’s People can “cross dryshod.”
They will be saved by they will also mourn. Family and friends will be left behind since only a “remnant” will escape. And like the Hebrew Children, the path to redemption will be through the desert.
For all the hardships along the way, God’s People are thankful. They aren’t blind to the suffering around them. Much less do they deny their own suffering. For all this they are still able to say as one People: “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”
I’m a fool to think redemption means that I am exempt from the consequences of sin. It’s bordering on blasphemy to think I won’t suffer because God loves me.
Look at how God saves Noah and his family. He places them in a ship tossed by storms. Everywhere they look they see death and devastation. They not only face the terrors of being on the open seas, they must labor unceasingly to care for the animals on the ark.
God doesn’t Noah or us from hardship. What he does is transform it; He uses it to for our spiritual and practical benefit.
This last point is the one Solomon makes not only in today’s reading but throughout Proverbs. Again and again, he places side by side examples of wisdom and folly, of diligence and laziness, and of righteousness and wickedness.
God doesn’t blot out the latter of these pairs in favor of the former. Instead, He contrasts the two paths to make clear our choices.
Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you today, to go after other gods which you have not known (Deuteronomy 11:26-28, NKJV)
While the details of each choice can at times be complex or vague, the actual choice is stark. Will I be obedient to God or will follow my own will?
Obedience doesn’t guarantee the absence of conflict. All of today’s readings–to say nothing of centuries of Christian history–make this clear. What obedience does bring is peace in the midst of the unavoidable conflict we will encounter on the way to the Kingdom of God.