Comments on First Vesper reading.
Genesis 17:15-17, 19; 18:11-14; 21:1-8
06/24 – 07/07 2009. Nativity of John the Baptist.
Whenever I read the scriptures, I try to “cut to the chase”. You should too. We do not read the scriptures like we read Time Magazine, just for the sake of gaining information. Information is useless unless it is used, indeed, unless it is used to increase understanding. The Scriptures and service texts and prayers are always telling YOU something. Many messages are the same every time, since historical events and dogmatic truths are being mentioned, but these truths may touch us in new and different edifying ways every time we read them.
Just remember, the Scripture ain’t the newspaper! Read it with expectation, as you are the one who has chosen the good part, and is sitting at the feet of Jesus. There is something you need to know today – what is it?
I sometimes share some of my personal feelings when I read the scriptures, in order to encourage you to learn to think about the scriptures personally. They will not tell you what school to go to, or whether to look for a new job, but they will tell you intimate, personal things about yourself, things you need to know. As they say in the car ads, “your mileage may vary”. The Holy Spirit speaks to us all individually.
When I had my short sojourn in the wilderness of Protestantism, all I had was personal interpretations. Without the guidance of the church, it is inevitable that we will fall into false doctrines, ideas and priorities. We must have a proper dogmatic understanding of the scriptures, and then these truths will touch us all in a personal way.
The OT readings for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist are full of prophesy, Christological meanings, and miracles. Whenever I read about Sarah (and Abraham!) laughing cynically when they were told by the Engel of the Lord that they would have a son, I feel transported into that tent with Sarah. She was barren and past the age of child-bearing. The news she heard seemed too fantastic to believe. There is a lot of news that is hard for me to believe too.
For the Christian, belief is action. With action comes hope, which is a certainty of “things not seen”. I know the promises, and that they apply to me, and to my flock, but at this moment, I am living fully according to that promise. There are many more mountains to cross.
The following is a short, non-comprehensive! survey of the Vespers readings (parables) for the Nativity of John the Baptist.
Reading 1: Genesis 17:15-17, 19; 18:11-14; 21:1-8
The reading is actually part of a much longer story; it omits the beginning and skips around a bit. The entire story is summarized here.
To get the whole context, one must start at the beginning of the 15th chapter, and read through chapter 18. The “word of the Lord” came to Abram (his name had not been changed yet) and promised him that:
And after these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram, I shield thee, thy reward shall be very great. (Gen 15:1, Brenton)
Abraham, true to the Jewish tradition, considered greatness an impossibility, because he had no heir:
And Abram said, I am grieved since thou hast given me no seed, but my home-born servant shall succeed me. (Gen 15:3)
The Lord makes a first promise that he would have a son:
And immediately there was a voice of the Lord to him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come out of thee shall be thine heir. (Gen 15:4 Brenton)
And then makes a mystical reference to the all encompassing salvation of man, which will be wrought through Christ, Who will be of course, a descendant of Abraham:
15:5 And he brought him out and said to him, Look up now to heaven, and count the stars, if thou shalt be able to number them fully, and he said, Thus shall thy seed be. 15:6 And Abram believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6, Sept)
Note that although Abram “believed God”, he still had his difficulties along the way. We will see that he also joined Sara in “laughing” when promised a son, as well as assented to Sara’s plan for an heir (see below).
Faith for us is not perfect, but it leads to perfection. I think sometimes we make the Saints superhuman. That Abram was righteous is a fact stated by Scripture (and this before the law – St Paul would go to great lengths to point this out in Romans), but he was also a human being, who struggled. I do not know who said it (I believe I read it in “The Orthodox way”), but faith is a “dialogue with doubt”. We should not be afraid of minor doubts and depressions which rush into us, like the wind whistling through the trees. The trees will still stand; as long as we strive for righteousness in spirit and truth, we will not be deterred by the doubts and difficulties inherent in the human condition
Lets us skip ahead a little bit and see Sara’s request of Abram:
And Sara the wife of Abram bore him no children; and she had an Egyptian maid, whose name was Agar. (2) And Sara said to Abram, Behold, the Lord has restrained me from bearing, go therefore in to my maid, that I may get children for myself through her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sara. (Gen 16:1-2 Brenton)
Interesting! Abram had been promised to have an heir who would inherit all the land of Palestine, but he did not quite understand. The heir would not come though Sara’s maid, but through their union. So many times, we think we know the right way, but we cannot understand it until Gods reveals it.
Here is where your “mileage may vary” – I see a bit of desperation here, in both Sara and Abram. Sara is clearly beside herself because she does not have a child, but nowhere in the Scripture up till now does it indicate that Abraam told her of the promise he had been given. He might have been a little nervous too. This reminds me of decisions I have been tempted to make in my personal life, or ministry. I am aware of a few that I have not made, and seen as temptations, but as for the ones where I succumbed, time will tell.
It is hard to always do things the right way. It gets lonely; there is anxiety.
Waiting is usually hard. We have just gone through a long waiting period to get started building our new temple, and I freely admit that I have had moments of negativism, depression and perhaps even a moment or two of stark terror! I know God will prevail; we as a community will do His will if we only pray and work. Because I am human, and still in the process of becoming holy, my passions and sins contribute to an inadequate understanding of many things, but in general, I know myself, and my flock to be on the right path.
We will skip the part about Agar, Sara’s maid, and Ishmael for our purposes today. It is very instructive to read, especially in light of the fact that God’s plan for an heir was different that Sara’s actions. Notice how Sara became jealous and hated Agar. One may chalk this up to simple human weakness, but I think that when we do not trust God, out weaknesses are magnified. The man MOST at risk is the one who doe not trust God and follow His will (even when this will is not understood).
This brings us to chapter 17, just before the Vespers reading begins. The “Angel of the Lord” tells Abram that:
And thy name shall no more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraam, for I have made thee a father of many nations. (Gen 17:5, Sept Brenton)
“Abraam can also be rendered “Abraham”, which means “Father of many” The Septuagint rendering is interesting, because “Abram” differs from Abraam” by one letter only in the Hebrew, which indicates plurality. “Abram” – “great father” becomes Abraam – “Great father of many”.
The first verse of the Vespers reading begins with the Angel of the Lord changing Sara’s name:
And God said to Abraam, Sara thy wife – her name shall not be called Sara, Sarrha shall be her name. 16 And I will bless her, and of her I will give thee a son, whom I will bless, and he shall become nations, and kings of people shall spring from him. (Gen 17:15-16, Sept, Brenton)
In the Hebrew this change is also accomplished by the insertion of the same Hebrew letter used above letter, and also indicates plurality. The old name means “princess”, but the new one means “princess of many”.
There is a general principle concerning names in the OT – they usually mean something! Here we have the name changes of Abraham and Sarah indicting the mystery, ultimately, of the coming of Jesus Christ, Who came to save all men.
Abraham, “whose faith was accounted to him as righteousness”, even though he had already heard the promise before, has trouble believing it fully this time:
Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, saying in his heart: Shall a son, thinkest thou, be born to him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sara that is ninety years old bring forth? (Gen 17:17)
Later, Sarah would laugh too – these were cynical laughs, of disbelief, or better, partial belief. It is hard to believe tremendous things, such as an old woman bearing a child, or a sinner, such as us, finally putting off our anger and laziness and other passions, and becoming holy. “Lord I believe; help Thou mine unbelief”.
That Abraham is really having trouble here is exemplified by his next words (omitted in the Vespers reading):
And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee! (Gen 17:18)
It is taking Abraham time to understand God’s will. He is still seeing things from a more mundane, human perspective. So it is with us. He eventually got it right. I have great hope for all of us (and “hope” in the bible is not “wishful thinking”, it is “believing in things not seen” (or understood)).
Remember that names mean something? “Isaac” means “laughing”.
And God said to Abraham: Sara thy wife shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name Isaac, and I will establish my covenant with him for a perpetual covenant, and with his seed after him. (Gen 17:19)
The reading skips the imposition of the circumcision as a sign, and some things about Ishmael (Genesis 17:20-27), since they do not have a direct a bearing on the feast of the Nativity of St John, where another barren woman bore a child.
It also skips the incident at the oak of Mambre (a plant that still lives to this day!), where the three angels visited Abraham, just prior to the destruction of Sodom. We have an icon of this even, which some call “the holy Trinity”, but more properly is called the “Hospitality of Abraham”. One of those angels is clearly the “angel of the Lord”, which one of the names for the pre-incarnate Christ. That one of the angels IS God is clear from the context:
And God appeared to him by the oak of Mambre, as he sat by the door of his tent at noon. (2) And he lifted up his eyes and beheld, and lo! three men stood before him; and having seen them he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and did obeisance to the ground. (Gen 18:1-2 Brenton)
Abraham feed the angels and the angel of the Lord again promises Abraham and Sara a son, and Sara again “laughs”. It is difficult to believe that nothing is impossible for God, even when we believe!
“And he said, I will return and come to thee according to this period seasonably, and Sarrha thy wife shall have a son; and Sarrha heard at the door of the tent, being behind him. (11) And Abraam and Sarrha were old, advanced in days, and the custom of women ceased with Sarrha. (12) And Sarrha laughed in herself, saying, The thing has not as yet happened to me, even until now, and my lord is old. (13) And the Lord said to Abraam, Why is it that Sarrha has laughed in herself, saying, Shall I then indeed bear? but I am grown old. (14) Shall anything be impossible with the Lord? At this time I will return to thee seasonably, and Sarrha shall have a son.” (Gen 18:10-14 Brenton)
And Sara denied laughing:
But Sarrha denied, saying, I did not laugh, for she was afraid. And he said to her, Nay, but thou didst laugh. (Gen 18:15 Brenton)
We need to be able to admit to ourselves who we are. We “laugh” too, because we are weak. I feel better about possibilities for me and all my loved ones every time I read this account. Perfection is achieved in a million imperfect steps. It will all come together for those who “love God and all called according to His purpose”
The reading skips Abrahams fascinating bargaining with the angels and the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 18:16-20:18), and then restarts at the beginning of chapter 21.
And the LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did unto Sarah as he had spoken. (2) For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. (3) And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac. (Gen 21:1-3 KJV)
How many “Isaacs” do we have in our lives? I preach about “Isaacs” all the time. We believe but we do not believe enough. How to believe more? We live, and struggle, and the murky way becomes light. With gradual moral change comes greater understanding. The Lord will do to us “as he (has) spoken”.
So it will be for us too, as it was for Sara, that we will laugh too:
And Sarrha said, The Lord has made laughter for me, for whoever shall hear shall rejoice with me. (Gen 21:6 Brenton)
Priest Seraphim Holland 2009. St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas
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 “And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. (40) But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. (41) And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: (42) But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” ()Luke 10:39-42 KJV
 Of course, we know many “Parables” that the Lord taught, and this word means some kind of instructive, metaphorical, allegory story. The Greek, “parabola” means to throw forward or against, or to compare to or against (which exactly what allegory and metaphors do) Actually, As all the Vespers readings illuminate the feast being celebrated, usually in an allegorical way (the readings are often not directly about the feast being celebrated) the church refers to them as “Parables”. The OT parables are a treasure trove of allegory and typology.
 “And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” (Mar 9:24)
 “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:” (Phillipians 1:6)
“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28)