“I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound”
Three weeks ago Bishop Chad mentioned St. Gregory of Nazianzus, who became the bishop of Constantinople. His fellow Cappadocian, St Basil the Great formulated four rules for prayer which are:
1) Glorify God
2) Give thanks to Him for His mercies
3) Confess your sins
4) Petition Him for what you need, particularly what is required for salvation
Gregory did not make it to his 50th birthday but he was a spiritual and intellectual colossus of the fourth century. Just for fun, I looked at the selection of psalms for this morning and wanted to see how they might be categorized according to this Gregorian schema. I think all of these criteria are met by Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God; * and the firmament showeth his handy-work.
One day telleth another; * and one night certifieth another.
There is neither speech nor language; * but their voices are heard among them.
Their sound is gone out into all lands; * and their words into the ends of the world.
In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun; * which cometh forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a giant to run his course.
It goeth forth from the uttermost part of the heaven, and runneth about unto the end of it again; * and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.
The law of the LORD is an undefiled law, converting the soul; * the testimony of the LORD is sure, and giveth wisdom unto the simple.
The statutes of the LORD are right, and rejoice the heart; * the commandment of the LORD is pure, and giveth light unto the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is clean, and endureth for ever; * the judgments of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; * sweeter also than honey, and the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is thy servant taught; * and in keeping of them there is great reward.
Who can tell how oft he offendeth? * O cleanse thou me from my secret faults.
Keep thy servant also from presumptuous sins, lest they get the dominion over me; * so shall I be undefiled, and innocent from the great offence.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be alway acceptable in thy sight, * O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.
Now the second lesson for morning prayer is Philippians (4:4-13). Let’s note the use of universal terms here—also remember Paul is in prison:
Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.
I am struck both by the extreme statements and by the contrasts that conclude this passage. They are not simply rhetorical. Paul is showing what his life in Jesus Christ looks like from the inside.
1) Always rejoice: The emotional posture of a saint is one who takes whatever comes with rejoicing because he is rejoicing before whatever comes.
2) “Let your moderation be known unto all men”: The word translated as “moderation” in the KJV is the Greek epieikes (ἐπιεικής, ep-ee-i-kace’) which is translated as “reasonableness” in the ESV and “gentleness” in other versions. Saints are moderate, reasonable, and gentle. With everybody…Even jerk-faces.
3) “Be careful…for nothing”: As CS Lewis pointed out, one of the duties of today is to plan for tomorrow. But after one does that, worry doesn’t do any good. The peace that God has—and willingly shares with those who abide in Him–passes all understanding and this peace can maintain our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Because it resembles the heart and mind of Jesus Christ.
For the rest of my time, I want to examine the contrasts at the end of this passage:
I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
I think that there is something critical here. There is a tension between fullness and emptiness that is spiritually fruitful. Too much of a “good: thing can be bad for a person and a certain amount of steady stress and hardship can be good for a person to endure. I think there are intimations of this in the Old Testament, sketches of it here in the New Testament (such as the letter to the Phillipians), and clearer examples in the discussions of the desert Fathers and the experiences of the monastic saints.
Old Testament Intimation
And it shall come to pass, when the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal.
In Deuteronomy 27 Moses commands the Israelites, when they enter the promised land, to build an altar on Mount Ebal and to conduct a ceremony where half the tribes are on one side of the valley and half on the other. The ones on Mount Ebal chant the curses that will fall upon the Israelites if they break the law while the other tribes on Mount Gerizim recite the blessings (including Levi, Judah, Joseph, and Benjamin) that will follow if they keep the law.
The modern city of Nablus (Arabicized from Latin Flavia Neapolis), formerly Shechem is built in the valley between the “place of blessings” in the south—Mount Gerizim (~2900 feet above sea level) and the place of cursings to the north—Mount Ebal (~3100). The Palestinian Ministry of Health and Jacob’s Well are both between them nowadays. A road runs through the valley between the mountains that extends west to east from the coastal plain against the Mediterranean Sea (passing Tel Aviv) to the Jordan valley. I discovered that over 90% of the worldwide population of Samaritans live in very close proximity to Nablus and they worship upon Mt. Gerizim where they think the Temple of God was supposed to be, in contrast to what it says in the Hebrew and Christian versions. I think the Samaritans (and many scholars) are mistaken in believing the Jewish version erroneous—though it makes sense, right? Why would you build an altar or a temple on the Mountain of Curses? Well? Why would anyone want to know how to be abased or to be hungry? One should want to abound and to be full all the time, right?
New Testament Times
The Desert Fathers of Egypt–there were some “mothers” there, too—were a mostly 4th century phenomenon. It largely began with Saint Antony (251-356) whose biography was penned by St. Athanasius. Abba Antony once said to Abba Poemen: “This is the great work of a man: always take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation until his last breath.” St. Antony was once sent by God to a cobbler of Alexandria who taught him to think: “All will be saved, only I will perish.”
St. Pimen the Great once said to his disciples: “Be sure, children, that were Satan is, there shall I be, also.”
St. Makarios of Egypt once gave this advice, “Descend into thy heart and there do battle with Satan.” There are stories in which St. Makarios is flying and the devils would chase him but not catch him. When they cried after him that he had evaded them, he would reply that he had NOT escaped. I have heard he answered thus because he kept his mind in hell.
I am manifestly unqualified to speak about such men. All I will say is that they seemed to live in a great spiritual tension between, let us say, blessing and cursing and between being abased and abounding. It might be well for us to follow their example and spend time dwelling more on the peaks of both blessing and hardship and less on the valley in between.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.