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So that We Perish Not
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 25, 2015
Jonah 3:1-10 Mark 1:14-28 Psalm 62
We are taught to repent in the Bible readings for this morning. In Jonah, the whole city of Nineveh repents after hearing Jonah’s preaching. And God does not destroy the city because God sees that they repented of their evils. This message of repentance for forgiveness of sins is in the New Testament, too. Some Christians think that Jesus undid all the Old Testament, so that the Old Testament teachings are no longer valid. But in this pairing of readings, we see the same teaching in the Old Testament that we do in the New Testament. In Jonah, God does not destroy Nineveh because the people repent. And very early in Mark, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” So as for the residents of Nineveh, Jesus’ message for us is to repent and believe.
In case we don’t know what repentance is, Jonah makes it clear. The prophet says that God saw that the people of Nineveh, “Turned from their evil way.” That’s it! To repent is to turn from evil ways. That is half of the message of Jesus. The other half is to believe. Believe in God. So the message is clear, “Turn from evil and believe in God.”
The message is clear, but is it easy? We need to know what evil is, and we need to know what to believe in. These two questions point to our need for spiritual education. After Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John he immediately goes into a synagogue and teaches. The people in the synagogue are astonished at Jesus’ wisdom. There is much to learn about in spiritual life, and we need to learn what is right for us to learn. Each one has a different path to walk, so we have truths that are unique to us to learn.
There are certain basic truths for everyone in this church. Some of these truths are that there is a God, that we need to learn what is good, that we need to learn what is bad, and that we need God’s help in doing all this. Those are the basics for this church. Other Christian Churches have different core teachings. And other non-Christian Churches have still different core teachings.
While these teachings are basic for everyone, how to apply them is unique to everyone’s journey. Everyone’s relationship with God is personal. Everyone perceives God in a way that fits their own life’s experiences. Therefore everyone’s journey is different. Swedenborg writes,
All may be regenerated, each according to his state; for the simple and the learned are regenerated differently; as are those engaged in different pursuits, and those who fill different offices . . . those who are principled in natural good from their parents, and those who are in evil; those who from their infancy have entered into the vanities of the world, and those who sooner or later have withdrawn from them . . . and this variety, like that of people’s features and dispositions, is infinite; and yet everyone, according to his state may be regenerated and saved (TCR 580).
For me, God is Jesus as I find Him in the New Testament. But the New testament is so rich a body of literature that the Jesus I find there may be different than the Jesus you find there.
In addition to learning about God, our spiritual development depends on learning what is the good life. And, again, I find that in both the New Testament and the Old Testament are teachings for the good life. In the Old Testament are teachings that are just as real and valid for us as are teachings in the New Testament. In no way has Jesus undone the teachings in the Old Testament. At least not all of them. Where would we be without the Ten Commandments? There are commandments that teach us what to do–such as honoring the Sabbath and honoring our parents. And there are commandments that teach us what not to do. These are things we are to repent of. There is the teaching that we shall put nothing before God, we shall not commit adultery, we shall not steal or pronounce false testimony, and not desire what belongs to our neighbor. And in the book of laws called Leviticus, we find the teaching that many attribute to Jesus. In Leviticus we find the teaching to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is Leviticus 19:18. Again, many of the teachings in the Old Testament are upheld in the New Testament. It is part of our spiritual life to find teachings for how to live spiritually and then to put these teachings into action.
What I have been talking about is the process Swedenborg calls repentance and reformation. Repentance is seeing some evil in us that we need to get rid of. Reformation is the process of changing who we are. From an image of the world we change into an image and likeness of our Creator.
Swedenborg says that we are born into an image of the world. He uses metaphor to describe this. He says that our natural mind is a spiral that turns downward. Our spiritual mind is a spiral that turns upward. I have heard bits and pieces about the formation of the mind from birth. I have heard that synapses are formed from birth. These are neuron pathways that become hardwired into our brains. These nerve pathways are formed from birth up to adulthood. Are these nerve pathways the natural mind that turns downward toward the world? Some brain experts say that our brains are hardwired to make us behave in certain ways. This is particularly evident in addictions. But Swedenborg gives us hope that if our brains are hardwired to turn in certain ways, that there is a process that can untwist the nerve pathways. We can reform ourselves. If we are hardwired to behave in certain ways, we are not condemned to continue this pattern of life. We can change, we can overcome addictions and cravings for worldly things, and become new people. In rather mysterious language, Swedenborg describes this process,
For the natural mind is by birth in opposition to the things belonging to the spiritual mind; an opposition derived, as is well known, from parents by heredity. Such is the change of state which is called reformation and regeneration. The state of the natural mind before reformation may be compared to a spiral twisting or bending itself downward: but after reformation it may be compared to a spiral twisting or bending itself upwards . . . (DLW 263).
This language is fairly mysterious. I’m not sure just what this spiralling of the mind is all about. But it is an example of how our minds change when we repent and reform our lives. Swedenborg says that our minds change their state. The mind actually changes. I think we can say that the brain changes. I think we can say that the nerve pathways change. Old pathways are changed into more effective, new pathways. Our brains are changed; our minds are changed; our loves and thoughts are changed.
It is the same with the natural and with the spiritual mind. When the natural mind acts from the enjoyments of its love and the pleasures of its thought, which are in themselves evils and falsities, the reaction of the natural mind removes those things which are of the spiritual mind and blocks the doors lest they enter, and it makes action to come from such things as agree with its reaction. The result is an action and reaction of the natural mind opposite to the action and reaction of the spiritual mind, whereby there is a closing of the spiritual mind like the twisting back of a spiral. But when the spiritual mind is opened, the action and reaction of the natural mind are inverted; for the spiritual mind acts from above or within, and at the same time it acts from below and without, through those things in the natural mind which are arranged in compliance with it; and it twists back the spiral in which the action and reaction of the natural mind lie (DLW 263).
This is what repentance is. It is relearning how to live. It is letting the good things we learn in religion modify our behavior when it needs to be modified. It means twisting back the spiral of worldly cravings and spiraling upward in heavenly loves. Our higher mind than can act in harmony with our lower mind. For our lower mind now loves good things and does not shut out the influx from God and from the heavens.
This all happens by re-education. Re-education comes from religious teachings, and it comes from experiences that jar us out of worldly complacency. We see that our life needs amendment and we act upon it. That is what the people of Nineveh did. That is what Jesus means when He says, “Repent and believe.”
Lord, we thank you for your gospel message of hope. You teach us that if we turn and follow you that we will be saved. You give us the good news of the coming of your kingdom and the promise of new life through repentance. You teach us that we are not fated to follow always the ways that have been thrust upon us in this world of competition and strife. You have shown us the ways of compassion, forgiveness, and rebirth. You teach us that there is promise of new life in you.
And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.