Archive for December, 2009
I Will Bring You Home
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 13, 2009
Zephaniah 3:14-20 Luke 3:7-18
Our readings this morning bring up a topic called “apocalypticism.” In various places in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, this theme appears. Apocalyptic writings refer to a great world-shattering event that is expected in the future. The world-shattering events that apocalyptic writers refer to precede the great day of the coming of the LORD. When the Messiah comes, the world will be shaken up radically. Last Sunday, we heard an apocalyptic passage from Isaiah. There, mountains were going to be made low and valleys raised up.
This Sunday we have two very interesting Apocalyptic passages. Our Old Testament passage is from the prophet Zephaniah. Most of Zephaniah is filled with dire prophesies about the destruction of the known world preceding the Lord’s coming. There, God says that He will, “Sweep away everything from the face of the earth, . . . I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea” (1:2). It will be a day of great darkness. “That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (1:15). This prophesy is for the whole world, “I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger” (8). We see suggestions of this great apocalyptic day of judgment in the Gospel of Luke. John the Baptist tells the crowd, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (3:7). He talks about the day of judgment in metaphors, “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:9). His reference to the coming of the Messiah is dreadful likewise, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (3:17).
Apocalyptic prophesies were very much in the air around the time of Christ’s coming. The general Jewish population were expecting the Messiah and the great day of judgment at any time. So Luke tells us, “The people were waiting expectantly and were wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ” (3:15). In Greek, the Hebrew word Messiah is rendered Christos. So this passage tells us that the people were waiting for the Messiah. Some waited in dramatic ways. The Qumran community pulled away from society and were awaiting the day of judgment in a monastery. They were expecting a great cosmic battle in which the angels of light would fight the angels of darkness. The residents at Qumran were observing rituals of purity the Old Testament described for holy war, and they were prepared to fight alongside the angels of light.
But John the Baptist’s teachings were very moderate about how to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. When he tells the people that the axe is already at the root of the tree, the crowd asks, “What should we do then?” John’s teaching is not radical. He points to life in society, and instructs people to perform their work with justice. So a man with two tunics should share with a person who has none. I find this teaching striking, since the man with two tunics is sharing, not giving up all he has. Tax collectors are told not to collect any more money than they are required to do. Soldiers are told not to extort money or falsely accuse people. So rather than flee from society and await a cosmic battle in monastic communities, John the Baptist tells his followers simply to perform their work in society honestly.
But in the middle of all this dreadful expectation, we find a beautiful passage of comfort in Zephaniah. The apocalyptic terror breaks suddenly, and the prophet says, “Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! . . . The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. . . . He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (3:14, 17). And rather than scattering the people all over the world, this section has the comforting prophesy that God will bring us home, “At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home” (3:20).
When the Messiah did come, it was more like this comforting prophesy than the dreadful day of doom. Jesus came gently to bring love, healing, food, teaching, and salvation to the whole human race. Because the great earth-shattering prophesies didn’t come true, Jews today don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah. In fact, much of Jesus’ teachings were aimed at reshaping the image of who and what the Messiah was.
Throughout our lives, we encounter the gentle God who is bringing us home. Our true spiritual home is in God’s kingdom, and God is gently leading us all there. The ways in which we are brought to God are many, indeed. Sometimes we go through earth-shattering events in our lives that change our outlook on things. Sometimes we grow slowly by discovering spiritual truths and by applying them to our lives. But whatever course we take, we can find comfort in the fact that God is bringing us to Himself gently, but unceasingly.
We can’t always see God’s hand in our spiritual development. God works secretly to bring us to Himself. God works secretly because His aim is to break our ego, greed, self interest, and pride. If we saw Him doing this overtly, we would resent God and perhaps even resist and work against Him. Swedenborg gives us some examples of how God gently lifts us upward toward Himself and Heaven.
Man by inheritance has the desire to become great; and he also wishes to become rich; and so far as these loves are unrestrained, he wishes to become greater and richer, and at length to become the greatest and the richest. . . . This longing desire lies most deeply hidden in hereditary evil, and consequently in man’s life and his life’s nature. The Divine Providence does not take away this evil in a moment, for if He did, man would not live; but it takes it away too quietly and gradually for man to know any thing about it. . . . If, therefore, man were to see and know that the Lord by His Divine Providence is so working against his life’s love from which he has his chief enjoyment, he could not but go in the opposite direction, become enraged, bear witness against it, say hard words; and finally from his evil remove the operation of the Divine Providence (DP 183).
We can see the operation of God in our lives in hindsight, but not as it is happening. When we look back on our journey in this world, we can see how the Divine Providence of God has brought us to Himself by incremental spiritual advances and by what appear to be miraculous accidents. Swedenborg tells us that,
It is granted to see the Divine Providence in the back and not in the face; also, in a spiritual state and not in his natural state. . . . All who receive influx from heaven and acknowledge the Divine Providence, and especially those who by reformation have become spiritual, while they see events in some wonderful series, from interior acknowledgement they as it were see the Divine Providence, and they confess it (DP 187).
God is continually and gently drawing us to Himself, so that he may give us the joy, happiness, and blessedness of heaven. Again from Swedenborg,
Spiritual love is such that it wishes to give its own to another; and so far as it can do this, it is in its being, in its peace, and its blessedness. Spiritual love has this from the Lord’s Divine Love, which is such infinitely. From this it follows, that the Divine Love, and hence the Divine Providence, has for its end a heaven, consisting of men and women who have become and who are becoming angels, to whom the Lord can give all the blessings and happiness of love and wisdom, and give these from Himself in them (DP 27).
The coming of God into our lives is as quiet and gentle as was Christ’s birth in that manger on that quiet night. There was no world-wide cataclysm. There was no world-wide destruction. There was only the birth of a helpless baby in a village unknown to the great leaders of the Roman world. And so God comes to us, quietly and gently, leading us always upward into heaven, and into greater and deeper heavenly love and joy.
Preparing the Way for the Lord
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 6, 2009
Isaiah 40:1-11 Mark 1:1-8
Both of this morning’s readings deal with the coming of the Lord. From the prophet Isaiah, there is the famous passage about the whole world transforming before the coming of the Lord. A highway will be made in the wilderness. Valleys will be raised up and mountains will be leveled. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed. This is a cataclysmic prophesy. It relates to the whole world, not just the children if Israel. It is an earth shattering event, like those disaster movies that Hollywood produces. But the passage we read concludes with one of the most beautiful and tender prophesies about the coming of the Lord.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
And carries them close to his heart;
He gently leads those that have young (Isaiah 40:11).
This Isaiah passage is quoted in the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. It is used to talk about John the Baptist who prepared the way for Jesus’ coming.
There are a couple things to say about these two passages. First of all, it is true that there is great turmoil preceding the coming of the Lord. Obviously this doesn’t happen in the material world. When Jesus came, the mountains weren’t leveled and the valleys didn’t raise up. So these cataclysmic events take place inside a person’s soul. Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is within (Luke 17:21). Second, when John the Baptist talked about the coming of Jesus, he baptized people into repentance. It is in that nature of repentance and preparation for God’s coming that all the cataclysmic events in Isaiah take place. This can be seen in the internal sense of the two scripture readings we heard this morning.
How would you prepare to meet God? What sort of feelings would you have? Happiness? Love? Fear and trembling? Tears? Joy? Are you ready now to meet God? We say that God is always with us, but what if God came to you as a person that you could talk with face to face?
The first thing that the Bible talks about to prepare for the coming of God is repentance. To be ready for God, we would probably want to be in a good spiritual condition. There is a process that the Presbyterians talk about called “sanctification.” I heard it explained that it is if God is shining a flashlight on our soul. Our true nature would be seen in the light.
But there are different levels to who we are. Swedenborg talks about an internal and an external. Our internal is opened to heaven, and into our internal are all our higher aspirations, our desire to do good, our beliefs about spiritual things, and our loves for God and our neighbor. Then there is our external. In our external resides our lower nature. There we find selfishness, the desire to control others and make them do what we want them to do, the drive to feel better than others, the wish to have things our way, and other unhealthy passions. When we look at the internal and external parts of our personality, we can look like very divided people.
Swedenborg teaches that we have these two levels from birth. From conception, there are two levels to our personality. He writes,
The angels also showed me that inwardly this composite structure of a miniature brain was in the design and form of heaven with respect to its setting and its flow, while the outer composite structure was opposed to that design and that form.
. . . the angels said that the two inner levels, the ones that were in the design and form of heaven, were vessels of love and wisdom from the Lord, while the outer level, the one that was opposed to heaven’s design and form, was a vessel of hellish love and madness. This is because we are born into all kinds of evil because of our hereditary imperfection, and these levels are located in our outermost natures (DLW 432).
The goal of repentance and spiritual rebirth is to make our external cooperate with our internal. That is to say that we act outwardly the way our higher self wants to act. So we read,
These flaws cannot be eliminated unless out higher levels are opened, the levels that are vessels of love and wisdom form the Lord . . . (DLW 432).
Swedenborg inherits this doctrine from his Lutheran origins. And Luther inherits this doctrine from Augustine, who clearly teaches that our will has been corrupted and is oriented toward evil. Well, is he right? Here, we need a little self-examination. We need that flashlight to shine on our souls and illuminate our true nature. I know people who tell me that they find no spiritual shortcomings. I have a different picture of myself. I can see that I have aspects of my lower nature that I would like to do away with, or to render quiet so that my higher nature can shine through. There have even been times in my life when I was angry with God, and did things just because they were opposed to Godliness. I’m not proud of those times. And I’m glad that I have been miraculously brought out of that state of mind. But It happened.
Swedenborg tells us that subduing our lower nature can be a very difficult process. Our lower nature is very stubborn. It doesn’t give up its desires easily. In order to break up the hold our lower natures can have on us, we need to go through some earth-shattering changes. Sometimes we are brought into despair about our own spiritual welfare, when we look at ourselves. Sometimes we feel very removed from God’s love and the life He would have us lead. These trials are what Isaiah refers to when he talks about the mountains being leveled and the valleys being raised up. These earth-shaking phenomena symbolize the desires of our lower nature being torn apart in order to let God shine through us. This is the repentance that John the Baptist calls for in preparation to meet Jesus.
But there is more to the story than what I have said so far. We also have hereditary good in us. Our lower nature can possess positive tendencies and a good natured disposition. These hereditary tendencies to good, however, need to be made spiritual, as well. If we are doing good just because it comes natural to us, we are not doing spiritual good. We need to make these tendencies spiritual by doing them from a spiritual motive. We need to do good because God is good and we love God. We need to do good to our neighbor because it is good to love our neighbor.
Actually, it takes effort to do the kind of evil that blocks God’s influx. The kind of evil that condemns is a conscious choice. If a person is mean or cruel, or selfish from a principal, then he or she is in trouble. Only evil chosen because it is opposed to God and we want to oppose God is damning. Now that’s hard to do. We can’t just blunder into that kind of evil. And I would suppose that all of us here are doing our best to follow in God’s footsteps. And that makes a big difference.
I found an interesting passage when I was studying Swedenborg’s account of the spiritual world. He claims that in the world of spirits, where we first go after we pass over, our true nature comes out. Our inner person is revealed. We return to the life we have cultivated on earth. If we have cultivated good, and Godliness, that state returns. If we have denied God and opposed the influx of His love, we are the same way there. But there is a most interesting escape clause in this. I found out that the evils that good people have committed on earth don’t return in the next life. This is because they didn’t commit evil from deliberate purpose. Swedenborg discusses this in Heaven and Hell,
But good spirits are never punished, though they had done evils in the world, for their evils do not return; and I have learned that their evils were of another kind or nature than those of evil spirits, not being done purposely contrary to the truth, and not from any other evil heart than what they received hereditarily from their parents, into which they were carried from a blind enjoyment when they were in externals separate from internals (HH 509).
Swedenborg keeps his doctrine of internal and external in this passage, but tells us that the internal intention is what matters. Good spirits are trying to do good, and they are not acting intentionally contrary to truth. So when they do commit evil, it is of an entirely different nature than those who do wrong because they choose to. For the good spirits, the evils they commit happen when the external person takes total control of their personality. This would not be a permanent condition, as good people are trying to act in a Godly manner. There are normal alternations in everyone’s condition, when we are in externals and when we are internals.
This tells me that while we live here on earth, we can expect conflict in our inner life. If Swedenborg, Luther, and Augustine are right, we have a lower nature that opposes heavenly life. And it is this level of our personality that has to be broken up in order for our inner person to shine through. This is the repentance that John the Baptist calls us to. This is the cataclysmic upheaval Isaiah prophesied about. This is how we prepare a place in the wilderness for the coming of God.
All the while this upheaval is going on, God is leading us like a shepherd. Through troubles and conflict, God is bringing us nearer to Himself. Even when we feel most distant from God, He is closest to us. In the midst of our struggle, God gathers us in his arms like lambs and carries us close to His heart. This, too, is in the Isaiah prophesy. This tender image was captured so beautifully by Handel in the Messiah. He shall lead his sheep, like a shepherd. And so in the midst of turmoil, we will meet the gentle God Jesus Christ, whose birth we anticipate in this holiday season.