An Extra Message

Do You Believe in God? Do You Trust God?

Several people in my parish asked me for a copy of my sermon from Palm Sunday, and I would like to humbly share it with you as well. I hope Holy Week is off to a great start for everyone. Kali Anastasi!

Before I ever wrote a sermon, I had to learn to write a paragraph. Before writing a paragraph, I had to learn to write a sentence. Before writing a sentence, I had to learn to write a word. And before writing a word, I had to learn the alphabet. What if all I ever learned was the alphabet? That knowledge by itself is not useful. The alphabet comes to life when we write words, sentences, paragraphs and sermons. However, no one can write a sermon without knowing the alphabet.

Christianity works in the same way. Before one can commit himself or herself to Jesus Christ, one has to know Christ. And I don’t mean knowing facts about His life. I mean knowing HIM. When I was a kid, and even as an adult, I love learning about the space program. I could tell you a lot of things about a lot of astronauts. But I’ve never actually met an astronaut, never had lunch with one, never asked one what it was really like up there in space. So, I know a lot about astronauts but I don’t actually know any of them.

The Bible consists of two parts. The Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is mostly a history book—the history of how God created the world, how the world fell through sin, how God established a covenant with Abraham and his descendants, how God gave the Law to Moses so that there would be order and structure in the lives of the people, how prophets foretold of a Messiah coming to redeem the fallen world. The New Testament recounts how all of those prophecies were fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. The New Testament also includes how the church was founded, as well as how the church is supposed to function. I encourage you to read the Bible.

In the Old Testament Book of Exodus, we read how the children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, were enslaved in Egypt for 430 years. That’s a long time. Long enough for the people to feel despondent and hopeless, to feel like God had abandoned them. We learn throughout the Bible that God’s time and our time are two different things, and that’s what faith is all about, believing in God even when things don’t happen in the way we want in the time we hope. God called Moses, a man almost 80 years old with a pronounced stuttering problem and told him that God had chosen him to lead His people out of Egypt. Moses initially balked at the idea, but eventually accepted the call, even though he was probably never comfortable with it. God inflicted ten plagues on Egypt, and after each one, the Egyptian Pharaoh told Moses the people could leave, but then his heart would harden and he would change his mind. God told Moses that the tenth plague would seal the deal, the death of the first born of Egypt. God told the children of Israel that the angel of death would pass over Egypt and that if they took the blood of a lamb and put it over the doors of their homes, the angel would pass them over, sparing their first born. The lamb had to be without blemish, had to be killed without a bone being broken, outside the city wall on a Friday afternoon. The Lord told the children of Israel that they were to remember this day in all their generations for seven days, that on these days no work was to be done but everyone was to eat of unleavened bread. This is what the Jewish feast of Passover is about, and they celebrate it to this day, as God commanded.

During the Passover, two thousand years ago, Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, riding on the back of a donkey. Identified by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God, Jesus fulfilled the hundreds of prophecies of the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. The Prophets said that hundreds of specific things would be done by the Messiah, that when one man did all these things, that people would know that this was the Christ. And then Jesus did all of those things.

Jesus entered Jerusalem that day and children ran to greet Him, people spread branches of palms on the ground, waved them in the air, and cried Hosanna. There were thousands of people in the crowd that day, many of whom had journeyed to Jerusalem for the Passover feast, many of whom knew that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead the previous day. Five days later, these same people demanded Jesus be crucified. The lamb of God, killed outside the city wall on a Friday, not a bone of Him broken, and by His blood we pass over from death to life. If you’ve ever wondered why the crucifixion happened on a Friday, well, now you know.

Christ is the New Passover, and that’s why we call next Sunday Pascha, because that is the Greek word for Passover. See, we still celebrate Passover, but our feast is not a commemoration of freedom from slavery in Egypt, it is a commemoration of freedom from sin and death. And like the children of Israel, we are commanded to set aside seven days each year, that’s what Holy Week is, and to eat of the Body and Blood of Christ, which is why the Eucharist is offered each day and is central to our feast. We are supposed to put aside what we do each evening and come and remember what Jesus did for us. We are supposed to do this in all our generations. Because Fox News, CNN, ESPN, Disney, Amazon Prime, they are not talking about Jesus. Neither are the pop-up ads on our phones, or the endless retail emails we receive. The crowd outside the church is looking more and more like Good Friday and not like Palm Sunday. Which is why we need to stop and learn, why we need to stop and recommit.

Someone said something profound to me the other day. They said, “If you ask me if I believe in God, I would say ‘yes, I believe in God.’ But if you ask me if I trust God, I’m not so sure.” I was so moved by this comment, I asked them if I could use it for the sermon today and they said I could. I pose these questions to you.

Do you believe in God? There are, of course, two answers to this question. Yes, and no. I would assume that most people in church this morning would answer this question with a “yes,” you believe, that’s why you are here, even those who don’t come here often. Someone might say “no,” I don’t believe, but I’d like to learn more. There is a possibility that someone doesn’t believe but is here because it beats being outside or they had nothing else to do. I digress. Let’s presume that most of us answer this question with a yes, we believe in God.

Now to the second question—do you trust God? This one is a little bit harder to answer. See, trust is an all or nothing proposition. If I say I trust God, that means I trust Him 100% of the time. If I say I trust God 90%, then if this is a yes/no question, the answer becomes no. Because when we trust, it’s 100% and if it’s less, then there isn’t trust. If we trust God 100%, that means we go along with God’s will, not matter what it is. If God has given us a difficult circumstance, either by His intentional will, or His permissive will, then we trust and remain faithful even in the difficult circumstance. If God has called on us to do something very difficult, like forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it, or love someone who is not worthy of it, or help someone we’d rather not help, or endure a setback that seems unfair, or overcome a challenge we didn’t want to face, if God calls us to something like this, it means we go along and we trust Him, 100%.

Why might we not feel like we trust God? Trust is based on experience. If someone introduces themselves and says “trust me”, I would respond, “how can I trust you, I don’t even know you?” Trust is based on experience. Some of us don’t trust God because we don’t really know God. We know about Him, maybe we remember His story from Sunday school, but we don’t really know Him. We haven’t invested the effort to know Christ—the kind of effort that involves prayer, worship, time, sacrifice, humility, perseverance. And before we get to any of this, we have to get to knowledge.

Nicholas and I were driving somewhere recently, and we saw a tent by the side of the road and under the tent, there were a couple of people screaming in microphones about how we needed to get saved. Nicholas asked me “do you think that is really an effective way to spread the Gospel to someone who doesn’t know who Jesus is?” I answered, no I didn’t think that was very effective, to the contrary, it is kind of a turn off, many people think Christians are weirdos when they see that. If I wanted to share Jesus with someone who had never heard of Him, I would do something nice for someone, some act of Christian love and charity. And if someone asked me why did I do that act of charity, I would say “because Jesus said that people will know who His disciples are because of their love.” And then maybe they might ask me about Jesus and then I would tell them.

As Christians, we need knowledge of Christ, and then we need Christ-like action. This is how we spread the Gospel. Knowledge and action. Holy Week is about acquiring more knowledge. After Holy Week, we are to put that knowledge in action. This week is about recharging, so that next week we can recommit.

Do I believe in God? One hundred percent yes, I believe in God. I believe that Jesus Christ died on a cross two thousand years ago and that He rose from the dead. I believe that God called me to be a priest. I even believe that God called me to be a priest in Tampa nearly 20 years ago. Do I believe in God? Yes.

Do I trust God? I’m struggling with that one. I can’t say I trust Him 100% of the time because I don’t follow Him 100% of the time. I take my own paths, my own detours, even try to justify them, sometimes because I think they are right, and sometimes even when I know they are wrong, but they feel good. I can’t see the big picture, none of us can, and sometimes I wonder why my small corner of the picture is the way that it is.

Had I been in the crowd in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, I’m sure I would have waved palm branches and shouted Hosanna. Everyone was doing it, it would have seemed appropriate, good, wholesome, and popular. Had I been in the crowd on Good Friday, I hope I would not have shouted “Crucify Him!” But I’m also not sure I would have said “I believe, you can crucify me next to Him.” I probably would have stayed silent. I don’t think I would have fled like the disciples, but I would probably not have stayed at the foot of the cross like John the beloved disciple did. I might have hung back near the women, looking at the whole scene from afar and trying to figure it out. I believe, for sure. But do I trust, all the time? I don’t think so. Which means if “do I trust God” is a yes or no question, then it’s a no. And that’s hard to say.

Jesus died after saying the words “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” It’s hard to say we commit our spirits, our very souls to Christ, when we can’t commit our time, our thoughts, our mouths, our words, our relationships, our jobs, our finances, and so many other things. In Romans 6:5, we read “For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” This verse is read at every baptism. For everyone in this church who was baptized Orthodox, this verse was read over you. For everyone who baptized their children into the Orthodox faith, this verse was read over them. Let’s read this verse in reverse. If we want to be united with Christ in a resurrection like His, then we have to be united Him in a death like His. Which means, we have to utter those words “Into Your hands I commit my spirit,” and before we get there, we have to commit ourselves on a much smaller scale, starting off with our thoughts, our words, our actions, our time, our relationships, our jobs, our finances, etc. Our word of the year for our parish is the word “commit.” We hear that word “commit” 6 times in the Divine Liturgy today, and four more times if you came to Orthros. I will hear ten times, let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God. Which means, commit ourselves, and then work the crowd and start committing them. Not everyone in the crowd Palm Sunday knew who Jesus was—many were convinced by others to shout Hosanna. Just like not everyone in the Good Friday crowd got up that day hating Jesus—many were convinced by others to shout “Crucify Him!”

Before we get to commit, we have to get to trust, and before we do that, we have to get to knowledge, and that’s one of the reasons why Holy Week is so important. That’s also one of the reasons why weekly worship and daily Scripture reading is important, because both bolster knowledge, both reinvigorate awareness.

The crowd outside is not helping knowledge, faith, trust or commitment. That’s why it is vital to your life, and to my life, to your entrance into eternal life, and my entrance into it as well, that the crowd in this community be supportive and encouraging. We need to be like the children shouting Hosanna, and not like the stiff-necked Pharisees sitting in judgment. We need conviction, not being lukewarm. We need a focus on Jesus Christ, and we can still have the fellowship, the culture and the other things, but He comes first. I need your help in moving my personal trust in God needle and I bet some of you need that too. But I don’t only need it on Palm Sunday, we don’t only need it during Holy Week, we need it all year round, I need it all year round.

The Resurrection opens the path to eternal life. If you don’t understand that, come to the services this week and learn what it means. Without the cross, there is no resurrection. Without the total commitment of Christ, there is no cross. Without our total faith and trust, we will never be able to utter those words “Into Your hands I commit my spirit.” I want those to be my last words on this earth, and I want to mean them, because if, as we heard in Romans, we want a Resurrection like His, we need a death like His. And that’s why we need to commit, not just when the calendar says Palm Sunday, or when the crowds pack the church and it’s the thing to do, but on every day of the year, and especially when the crowds outside are screaming “Crucify Him” instead of “Hosanna.”

I’ve spoken to many people this Lent in the sacrament of confession, and with many I have shared the need to be a good steward of our lives, and how our lives consist of what we are doing at this very moment. We can’t be a steward of yesterday or tomorrow, only today, in this moment. At this moment we are engaged in worship, in a moment we will pray “We entrust to You loving Master, our whole life and hope.” Before we can commit all of it, we have to commit today, this moment. It is time to make this journey, to remember what He did for us, to remember what sacrifice looks like, to relearn what real love is, so that we can go and live that, so that we can bring to fulfillment the petition, “let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.” Do I believe in God? Yes. Do I trust God? I want to trust more! I hope you do as well!