NB. Didn't get to preach this one tonight at OLR. I'd forgotten that we had a mission-preacher scheduled.
22nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
Desiring God is not always a pleasant experience. Jeremiah wails b/c God has duped him into being His prophet. So forceful is Jeremiah's need to preach, it actually hurts him to do so: “Whenever I speak, I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message; the word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day.” The Psalmist is likewise stricken with desire, a desire for God: “. . .for you [O Lord] my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.” And Paul, urging the church in Rome not to bend itself to the will of the age, demands a needful sacrifice, one bound to haunt Christians for centuries: “. . . offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. . .” Offer your bodies in sacrifice. Not animals or money. Offer your whole self to God. Then, Jesus rebukes Peter for his selfish love and teaches the disciples what it takes to walk with him: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Our desire for perfection in Divine Love can be painful. It can leave us thirsty. It can drive us to sacrifice. To self-denial. Whatever else our desire for God accomplishes, it empties us so that He might find a place with us.
Jeremiah's desire for God – the desire he regrets ever having noticed – causes him pain. Not just spiritual pain but actual physical pain. His love for God drives him out into the world to preach the Word and preaching His Word is costly. Jeremiah tells God, “All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.” He considers never preaching again, never again mentioning God's name. That doesn't work. Jeremiah cries out, “But then [your name] becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” Imagine a desire trapped in your bones, a desire so powerful that you grow exhausted trying to keep it trapped. Now, imagine that desire set ablaze. Everything else you want, everything else you need, everything else, all of it, is burned and blown away, leaving you empty for nothing and no one else but God Himself. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself. . .” Denying yourself means desiring nothing and no one more than you desire God. Even if desiring Him is painful, even if desiring Him means giving yourself up to holiness.
The Psalmist feels Jeremiah's pain. These two share a need, a lack that only God can satisfy: “O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.” His flesh yearns, his soul thirsts – body and soul, he needs God like a drought-stricken land needs water. The God our Psalmist is yearning for is not Santa Claus – a cheery, once-a-year present-bringer. He's not the Cosmic Watchmaker – that distant, uncaring mechanic of the universe. Nor is his God the god of the therapist's couch – an affirming, well-meaning facilitator of human self-discovery. The Psalmist's God is the god of power and glory; the god of living and dying; a god worthy of praise and thanksgiving and shouts of joy! And the Psalmist's desire to give God praise and thanksgiving and shouts of joy is God's gift to the Psalmist. God gifts to us all the desire, the need to offer Him worship. Not b/c He needs our praise but b/c we need to praise Him so that we might grow in holiness and find ourselves – at the end – with Him forever. “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God. . .and with exultant lips my mouth shall praise you.” When we pick up our cross, it's in praising God that our cross is made lighter; it's in the shadow of His wings that we follow Christ.
The first cross we pick up and carry as followers of Christ is the cross of bearing up under the pressures of this world to submit to the desires and needs that the world tells us are true and beautiful. Paul urges us, “Brothers and sisters. . .Do not conform yourselves to this age. . .” Do not bend to the Will of this age. Do not get caught in the Enemy's trap and come to believe that there is nothing more to creation than what we see and hear and touch. Instead, Paul writes, “. . .be transformed by the renewal of your mind. . .” Be changed, be transfigured, get turned around by renewing the way you see and hear and touch the things of creation. By renewing your mind with the mind of Christ, be forever pointed – body and soul – toward the only One Who can ever truly bring your needs to peace, your desires to completion. Why be renewed? If finding the ends of your desire is not enough, then be renewed so “that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” Be renewed in Christ so that you may more clearly discern the will of your Father and come to know all that is good and pleasing to Him, all that is perfecting for your growth in holiness. The first cross we pick up and carry is the burden of being in this world but not of it; of living in this world but not for it.
Paul understands this subtle distinction and urges us to resist the temptations of this age, to be transformed by renewing our minds in Christ, and to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice. Here is the second time we pick up the cross and carry it: being in the world but not of it, living in the world but not for it means that we are dependent on the world for our bodily needs. Never are we charged with hating creation, or hating our bodies, or our physical appetites. But when the world tempts us, it tempts us through our appetites, our disordered desires. With our minds renewed/reordered in Christ, our appetites are transformed from mere animal cravings into a means of sacrifice, a way for us to be holy by giving back to God all that He has given us. His first gift to each one of us is life. So, we make our bodies a living sacrifice by giving our lives back to Him – in service to others, in service to goodness and truth, in service to Christ's Body, the Church. By serving God in serving His people, we “make holy” the same world that tempts us with disorder and disobedience. We sacrifice ourselves in Christ in order to make the world holy for Christ. “Whoever wishes to come after me must take up his cross. . .”
We must take up our cross once, twice, three times. Our service to the world sanctifies the world; we become servants in the world, living a life of constant “making holy,” sacrifice. Such a life of sacrificial service is not natural to the human animal. So, Christ calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. His way is the way of supernatural graces, divine gifts that poke and prod and lift and cajole us into seeing and hearing our supernatural end – eternal life. When Jeremiah cries out to God, “You duped me, O Lord!”, he is accusing God of seducing him. How else could God move His stubborn prophet to prophesy? How else would any of us deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow Christ except by divine seduction? We were made by God to be seduced into a life of participation, a life of freely entered entanglement with His re-creating love. That hunger you feel, that thirst that plagues you, that gnawing sense of frustrated-perfection – all of that is your built-in longing for God. We need God. We desire God. Often that need hurts. Sometimes it torments. But you can ease that pain by turning to Christ, denying yourself, taking up your cross and following him. Turn to Christ and turn into Christ, offering yourself as a living sacrifice in praise and thanksgiving to God.
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