PREPARING FOR ETERNAL LIFE
A Sermon by Rev. Kurt Horigan AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn November 20, 1994
“Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is” (Mark 13:33).
What is the most important thing we have to do during our life on this earth? Prepare for eternal life. But how often does this need get pushed to the bottom of our list of things to do?
Our life is so full of many urgent things. We spend long hours, even sleepless nights, preparing for a 35- or 40-year career in the world, but how much time and effort do we devote to the spiritual career that we will have for thousands of years? We spend many dollars and rush frantically until the last minute getting ready for a single holiday celebration, but how urgently do we consider preparing for the celebration of our resurrection which is coming inevitably at a time we cannot foretell?
This sermon is an appeal to listen to the Lord: to learn what we should be doing about our spiritual life before it is too late.
The Scriptures give clear advice: “Watch … for you do not know when the master of the house is coming … lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping” (Mark 13:35f). The image of sleeping is used in the Word to describe a person who is in merely natural life. Here, the “master of the house” is the Lord, who has given us responsibility for our life. For Him to “come suddenly” and find us sleeping means that at the time of our death He finds us unprepared
Another passage warns: if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come …” (Rev. 3:3). As the thief steals valuable things from a home, so valuable things of our eternal life are taken away from us after death if we have neglected to cultivate and use them. This idea of the Lord’s coming as a thief in the night, by surprise, is also reflected in another teaching: Here, we read if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into” (Matt. 24:43f). “This means that if man knew the hour of his death he would get himself ready …” (AE 193:5).
Why doesn’t the Lord give us a warning about death so that we can take time to prepare for it? For good reason we are not given that knowledge. If we knew the end of our natural life it would certainly motivate us in spiritual things; however, “not from a love of what is true and good,” we are told. By a premonition of our death we would act “from a fear of hell. …” but this would make no lasting change in our character. Our doctrine teaches that last-minute repentance or spiritual reform motivated by fear alone is of no effect. Instead, we are told, we should by our own free choice and desire be “getting ready all the time (Ibid.; AR 164). “Therefore, you also be ready,” the Lord said, “for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect Him” (Matt. 24:44).
The danger of neglecting spiritual life is also taught in the Lord’s parable of the foolish rich man who built larger barns for his many worldly goods. Because of his riches he thought he had nothing more to do than to “eat, drink, and be merry. ” “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?”‘ (Luke 12:16-21)
The need for spiritual preparation during our life may be outlined from the doctrine: First, we are not born good. Second, we can change only during our life in this world. Third, no change can take place without our active participation. Fourth, the change must be from our free choice, not by compulsion.
As we examine these needs, we should keep in mind that the Lord is a constant companion and source of strength and protection. As our Redeemer and Savior, He does all that He can to bring us into His heavenly kingdom. But He will not force us.
As to the first proposition, that we are not born good, the Writings make the startling assertion that “man is born a hell.” However, it is added that although he is born a hell, “he is not born for hell but for heaven” (AE 989, emphasis added). If we take no action against our hereditary inclinations during our lifetime, we will remain a hell. Only infants who die and others of simple or irrational mind have their hereditary tendencies nullified. The rest must be watchful, that is, consciously aware and actively in combat against them.
The latent dangers of hereditary nature are deceptive. While gross and violent crimes have become all too common in our society today, clearly demonstrating the existence of evil, still the great majority of people we know about seem God-fearing, moral, and useful citizens. However, we are told that moral life may spring from two possible origins – a heavenly origin or a totally selfish origin – and appear just the same. To such as are hypocrites, acting well from evil intent, the admonition is given: “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die …” (Rev. 3:2).
The doctrine applies this text to “those who live a moral but not a spiritual life, because they have little regard for the knowledges of spiritual things” (AE 182). They act well outwardly from inwardly selfish ends. The appearance of morality and good will in their actions and our own is not necessarily a sign of true goodness or heavenly character. It is simply the way we have learned to get what we want. “A man may indeed live like a Christian without truths,” we are told, “but this only before men, not before angels” (AR 706)………. all things that are with him are in themselves dead,” we are told, “that is, are ‘about to die,’ unless they are made alive by truths and goods …” (AE 188).
As to the proposition that our life can be changed only while in this world and therefore is a matter of urgency, this is commonly accepted in Christian doctrine. The basis for it is to be found in the Lord’s statement to Nicodemus about rebirth. “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). While there are differing interpretations of what is meant by being born again, there is agreement that this conversion or change must take place during a person’s lifetime. In this the New Church is no exception. Our doctrine teaches that “if evil is not removed in the world it cannot be removed afterwards” (DP 277), consequently that the person cannot be saved. “This is what is meant by the common saying that as the tree falls, so it lies; or as man dies, such he will be” (AC 4588). “It should be known that man remains to eternity such as his whole life is, even to the end, and by no means such as he is at the hour of death: repentance at that time with the evil is of no avail, but with the good it strengthens” (AE 194).
Where the doctrine of the New Church differs from other Christian doctrines is in the third proposition: that our change in life takes place only according to our active personal involvement in it. Why else would the Lord have asked people to be watchful and awake unless they were to have some part in the process? To “be watchful,” we are told, “signifies that they should be in truths and in a life according to them” (AR 158). This is our part in the process. “He who learns truths and lives according to them is like one who is awakened out of sleep and becomes watchful, ” we are told. This is possible only by means of truths from the Word which have been accepted and applied.
In the book of Revelation, we find this warning: “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments lest he walk naked …” (Rev. 16:15). This statement is regarded as a prophecy of the second coming of Christ. But what more does it mean? We have shown before that the coming of the Lord as a thief refers to our loss at our death of any goodness or spiritual virtue which we have merely pretended to exercise. The “garments” mentioned here mean truths of faith from the Word by which we learn to live well.
The meaning of the text is described as follows: “He who has not acquired [truths] from that source, or he who has not acquired truths or semblances of truths from his religiosity, as the Gentiles, and applied them to life, is not in good, howsoever he supposes himself to be.”
Such is the one who is found naked. It is a person with no religious truths or principles. The same would apply to the man cast out from the wedding feast because he did not have a proper wedding garment. A person who has not acquired and acted on some truths of religion simply cannot enter heaven. Truths are the basis of rebirth or regeneration. This reason is given: “… as he has no truths from the Word, or from his religiosity, he suffers himself to be led by means of reasonings equally by evil spirits as by good spirits, and thus cannot be defended by the angels” (AC 5954:8).
We cannot enter heaven apart from some means of living a heavenly life. Although the Lord is Mercy itself and desires everyone’s salvation and eternal happiness, He cannot give us eternal life apart from the orderly process He has provided, which includes our participation.
We know from living experience that success in this world requires education, application, persistence, concentration, patience and many other things which are our responsibility. For success in spiritual life the Lord requires the same things of us. What is remarkable is that we seldom seem to act that way.
The Lord’s exhortation to “take heed, watch and pray” is given for good reason. He has told us to “be awake!” because it is so easy to sleep. He urges us to be “watchful” because often we are not. All of these urgings are to remind us of the most important goal of our life.
At times, circumstances in our life are a powerful reminder of our mortality. We have a brush with death. Someone we know dies. We are brought up sharply, perhaps make some resolutions for ourselves. This is from fear. It soon wears off and we go on with our natural life. So we read: “… whatever a man does from fear does not remain with him, but what he does from love remains; therefore he should be getting ready all the time” (AE 193:5). What a powerful statement! This most important process of our life, in which we have such a part to play, should be ongoing, not sporadic. We should be getting ready all the time! The challenge is to make this something done from love, not from fear.
What then of your life? Do you fail to engage in the useful steps of spiritual learning and new life because you don’t feel inspired to do it? Do you stay home from worship because you don’t find it inspiring? Do you rarely turn to the Word in any of its forms because it doesn’t seem to touch you or apply to your states of mind? Do you find greater excitement thinking about advancing your career than thinking about the needs of your spiritual life? The list could be lengthened, but suppose you already feel guilty. How can you change deep-seated habits, youthful aversions, a sense of inadequacy? How can you renew the commitment to “be getting ready all the time”? What love can motivate a change?
The love to do this will not come naturally. What comes naturally to us is the desire to avoid anything spiritual. We should realize that strong forces are at work to obscure and dampen our efforts to follow the Lord. The Writings reveal that troops of sensuous spirits abound in the other life, spirits loving self-indulgence and scoffing at spiritual things. Their presence drags our lives down. It is said that to be uplifted from their influence, we must “think about eternal life” (AC 6201). Our daily concern about material things also has its dampening effect. Material things are said to be like weights which draw the mind down from spiritual thoughts and immerse it into earthly things (see AC 6921). We cannot “sell all that we have,” but can we try to gain perspective on what is truly important in our life, not placing our love on material things alone? (See Life 66.)
The love of spiritual things is an acquired love. It may be developed. With self compulsion and a sincere intention to obey the Lord, it can grow in your life.
Obviously the spirits of hell will do all in their power to discourage us from taking positive steps to free ourselves from their influence. If we are aware that this is one reason we may lack inspiration for spiritual things, we may succeed in rising above that influence to find a new excitement in daily spiritual efforts.
We are familiar with procrastination as a common natural failing. It is putting off doing things we don’t enjoy or that are difficult. This is certainly a spiritual tendency as well. Almost any excuse will seem good enough to defer or put off the next spiritual step. Unfortunately, spiritual procrastination is the easiest of all, for its consequences are not apparent to our friends or enemies. We can easily hide it from the world, but we can never hide it from the Lord. Its results are just as serious, even more so, than the results of any natural procrastination. The longer we neglect spiritual responsibilities, the more difficult it will be to face up to them.
One example of this is given in the Heavenly Doctrine. There we are told that those who have not practiced self- examination find it an almost impossible task, as terrifying as the prospect of storming an enemy trench full of armed soldiers (see TCR 562).
Here the Writings speak also of the power of habit, perhaps because the cultivation of habits can be a useful tool to combat procrastination. We would do well to institute regular habits of spiritual endeavor even if it requires serious self- compulsion. I think of such things as a time for prayer and reading of the Word, self-examination, reflection about the deeds and thoughts we have had each day. “Everyone becomes imbued with the end he has in view and the habit arising therefrom” (TCR 563).
If you persist in the intention to overcome spiritual indifference or neglect, the Lord will strengthen your efforts. If you make a beginning, it will become ever easier to meet your spiritual responsibilities. The kingdom of heaven can grow within you as a grain of mustard seed which is so small, yet becomes a tree (see Matt. 13:31).
You are never alone in your spiritual efforts for, behold, “He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep …. The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; He shall preserve your soul” (Psalm 121:4,7). “I lay down and slept,” wrote David in a crisis of temptation. “I awoke, for the Lord sustained me” (Psalm 3:5). Let us all embrace this resolve of spiritual vigilance: “Watch, therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming” (Matt. 24:42). Amen.
Lessons: Psalm 119:57-72; Mark 13:24-37; AE 187a
Apocalypse Explained 187a
“Be wakeful” signifies that they should acquire life for themselves. This is evident from the signification of “being wakeful” as meaning to be in spiritual life; but here, since those whose life is moral and not yet spiritual are treated of, “Be wakeful” is that they should acquire for themselves spiritual life. This life is meant by “wakefulness” and “being awake,” because spiritual life is to moral life, apart from spiritual life, as wakefulness is to sleep, or as noonday light is to the evening, yea, to darkness. But that this is so is not known or perceived by those who are in natural life alone, neither by those who are in moral life apart from spiritual life, for this life also is natural life. They do not know or perceive this, because they are in natural lumen only, and this lumen in comparison with spiritual light is as the darkness of evening to the light of noonday. Moreover, to such the darkness of evening seems like light; for their interior sight, which is that of the thought, is adapted to that darkness, just as the sight of bats, owls, and other birds that fly by night, is adapted to the shade. Consequently they believe themselves to be in light because they are able to reason, when yet they are in darkness. That this is so is manifest from the state of such after death, when they become spirits. They then believe, when with their companions, that they are in light, because they not only see all things that are about them, but also are able to think and speak about any matter whatever; and yet their light, when the light of heaven flows in with them, is changed into darkness, and they become so blind in respect to the understanding as not to be able to think at all. Moreover, when angels who are in the heavens look down on those who are in such lumen, they see nothing there but mere darkness. That spiritual life compared with moral life apart from spiritual life is as wakefulness compared with sleep can be further seen from this, that those who are in spiritual light are in angelic wisdom and intelligence, which is such as to be incomprehensible and ineffable to those who are in natural lumen alone, and this not only with men while living in the world, but also with the same when after death they become spirits, and when intelligence and wisdom constitute wakefulness. From this it can now be seen that “Be wakeful” here signifies that they should procure for themselves spiritual life.