Getting Ready to Receive the Lord

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, December 14, 2008

          He must increase, but I must decrease (JOH 3:30).

One of the things that stands out about the Jewish church is the number of different prophets that brought God’s word to those people. God personally guided the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, He led the 12 tribes of Israel through Moses, Aaron, and Joshua. In later days there were many prophets to bring God’s messages, instructions, and warnings to the Judges and the kings.

Then, after more than a thousand years of personal guidance, there was a great silence. Once Israel was returned from the Babylonian captivity, God did not speak to them through the prophets for 400 years. This was a cause of some concern and anxiety on the part of the leaders of the Jewish church, because the ancient prophecies were quite clear that the Messiah was coming — but they had no way of knowing precisely when. Constantly seeking for a sign, there had been no answer, no indication that God was still with them.

This helps explain why Zacharias found it so difficult to understand or believe what was happening to him when the angel appeared to him in the temple to announce the impending miracle of John’s conception and birth. The gospel tells us that Zacharias was struck dumb by the angel because he did not believe the angel’s message. The Heavenly Doctrines tell us further that he was made speechless to represent the fact that because of his ignorance of spiritual things, he was unable to understand the great promise well enough to believe it and to talk about it. The concept was so enormous that he was literally speechless

As a priest, Zacharias stands as an example of the spiritual state of the whole Jewish church at that time, serving as a graphic example of the desolation of internal thought about spiritual things.

Yet the Lord chose to be born into just such a state, for it was there that He could do the most good, it was among the fallen states of the Jewish Church where He could meet the evil spheres of hell on their own terms, and conquer them. But before the Lord could come into the world to begin His great work of salvation, the way had to be prepared, and this was the reason for John’s birth.

John was to be a prophet, and as a prophet, he represents the Word itself. The miraculous nature of his birth represents the miraculous way that the Word had been given to the world through the Divine inspiration of the various prophets. Both the written Word and John prepared the way for the Lord; the scripture by recording the prophecies given over a period of 2,000 years, and John by calling people to repentance and telling them that the time of fulfilment was near.

Luke tells us that immediately after the vision in the temple, Zacharias returned home to his wife Elizabeth, and as the angel said, in spite of her age and years of barrenness, she did conceive. Some six months later, the angel appeared to Mary to announce the coming of the Lord Himself through her. At the same time, the angel told Mary about Elizabeth. Mary travelled to see her cousin, and we are told in Luke that as soon as Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary “that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit”[1] Both women saw this as another miracle, a Divine confirmation of the promises that had been made to them by the angel.

A further miracle occurred when John was born and eight days later taken to the temple for circumcision, as was the custom in those days. Those who were to conduct the ceremony assumed that the child would be named “Zacharias” after his father, but Elizabeth insisted that he be named “John.”   This was such a departure from usual practice that they had to consult Zacharias for approval, who then indicated that the child was to be named “John.” At this, his acknowledgement of the miracle of John’s birth and calling, he was able to speak once again, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied that John would be called the “prophet of the Highest[2], and that he would “go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins[3], and that he would “give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death[4].

Such a dramatic occasion was certain to be noted and spoken of for some time to come, and scripture tells us that people noted that the hand of God was upon John[5].

John the Baptist was a prophet, like Elijah, to whom he was frequently compared. Everywhere in the Word, a prophet represents the Word itself, for just as a Prophet carried the word of the Lord to His people, so the Word itself carries God’s word to His people today. Therefore, everything that is said about John the Baptist can also be understood to refer to the Word itself, or some aspect of the Word.

We can see in this the way that the different elements that stand for the different parts of the Word have been carefully drawn together in this story. Elijah was the great prophet of the Old Testament, John the Baptist the great prophet of what was to become the New Testament. Each of these was a rough man, living in the wilderness, calling people to repent from their evils, to turn once again to a live in obedience to God’s law. Elijah, stands for the letter of the Old Testament, while John stands for the letter of the New Testament.

These prophets particularly represent the letter of the Word because they were rough, simple people. The Word, when regarded in its letter only, is a rough, simple document, chronicling the travels and battles of a blood-thirsty and disobedient people.

The beauty and gentleness that is contained within the Word in its internal, spiritual sense, was yet to be revealed by the Lord’s own teaching. The prophets served the use of creating the letter of the Word, but it was Jesus Himself who came to open it up for all to see as He fulfilled all the prophecies, one by one.

Of course, the reason John was known as “the Baptist” was because his ministry was focused on baptizing people in the Jordan river. The baptism was a ritual that was a carry-over from the ritual washings that were commanded by the Lord through Moses, and which made up a significant portion of the laws regarding worship and sacrifice in the Tabernacle. John’s message was received by those who had enough spiritual awareness to recognize that the water of baptism was a symbol of spiritual washing, that they were symbolically washing away their sins and so beginning a new life.

John was not calling them to or baptizing them into the Christian church, of course, because the Christian Church did not yet exist. John taught no new doctrine, but instead he taught and encouraged them to becomes good Jews! At the same time, he was also encouraging them to obey the Mosaic law with compassion for others and with what would in the future be called a “Christian” spirit; that is, he told the tax collectors that they must not collect any more than their just due, and he told the soldiers that if they wished to earn their reward they must do their duty and be content with their wages.

John’s purpose and use was to get people ready to receive the Lord’s new doctrine by getting them into a state of relative order and therefore ready to listen to the new doctrines. This was a necessary pre-requisite, for as Isaiah said, we must “cease to do evil, [and] learn to do well[6].

Human beings have the capacity to have many truths in their minds, and loves in their hearts. From the descriptions of the way the Lord helps us change our loves as we learn to live according to the truth, it appears that each particular love has a particular place prepared for it in our hearts. From our hereditary nature, that spot is filled with an evil love, but it has the potential of being replaced by the opposite, heavenly love. Before we can do what is good, we have to remove the evils that would prevent it; we have to make room for the good love by removing the evil love that sits in that particular place. Before we will listen to the Lord’s teaching about being unselfish and kind to the neighbour, we have to first realize that there are bad things in us and work to rid ourselves of them in order to make room for good from the Lord.

We have to prepare ourselves to receive the Lord in our hearts by shunning evils as sins. Baptism, a spiritual washing, is the sign that we wish to be purified and receive the Lord; so John baptized all those who came to him with the wish to turn away from the evils of their past and to begin anew, looking to the Messiah about to come.

For ourselves, the process is the same. We must first make room for the Lord in our lives by first removing all those things which are contrary to His will. We must learn to follow His example, for we are not really Christians unless we follow His example. We receive Him when we get rid of our selfish ways and allow His unselfish love to enter our hearts and work through us in the world. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another[7].

John was born before Jesus. John entered his public ministry first. John was the first to proclaim the Lord, which was then confirmed by the voice and sign from heaven. Historically, John had his greatest following before the Lord’s baptism. After that, Jesus Himself began to baptize, and more and more people turned to him. This even caused some concern among John’s own disciples.

Then, as the Lord’s ministry became established, John’s came to its end, as he prophesied: “He must increase, but I must decrease[8].

Why did John have to decrease? Why couldn’t he have joined up? Why was it necessary for him to decrease in the first year of the Lord’s ministry, be imprisoned in the second, and executed in the third?

As before said, John represented the sense of the letter, and Jesus represented the spiritual sense. We all must begin with the rough, simple sense of the letter. And, like children, we love it. But our minds mature, our needs become more complex, and we need something more. We are no longer satisfied with the simple solutions and stories of the Old Testament, and move on to the moral lessons of the New. We move from John to Jesus.

Eventually, we move to a more interior understanding of the Word; it is as if the letter is in prison; and finally removed entirely:   the more we study the Word, the more we learn about the internal sense, the more the sense of the letter begins to fade away and we begin to see the Word as the angels do, just a little at first, but more and more the internal sense becomes apparent while the letter fades away.

As we enter the Christmas season, we begin to make plans to celebrate. We bake, clean and decorate the house, make plans to visit with family and friends. We do this as a symbolic preparation to receive Christ and His teachings into our hearts and lives. But to do this properly, to genuinely receive the spirit of Christmas in our hearts, we have to prepare by “cleaning house” spiritually. The things of the world of nature, although extremely important in their own time and place, must decrease so that the things of the spirit can grow in their place, so that there can be a place prepared in our hearts for Jesus to be born there, so that a home in heaven can be prepared for us, prepared by our own choices and actions in this world.

There was nothing subtle or mysterious about John the Baptist, or his message. He told us that we must prepare for the Lord by shunning whatever is within us that is contrary to the Lord’s laws. Isaiah said of John, and our own preparation for the Lord, that “every valley shall be exalted,” that we will be lifted up out of our states of humility and repentance; that “every mountain and hill shall be made low,” which tells us that those who exalt themselves will be humbled; “the crooked places will be made straight and the rough places smooth” tells us that with the Lord’s help our efforts will be able to overcome the rocky and sometimes difficult road that leads to heaven.

If we shun evils as sins, and study the Word, looking for the Lord to reveal Himself within the letter, then The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken[9]. Amen.

First Lesson: Isaiah 40:1-5

“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” Says your God. {2} “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the Lord’s hand Double for all her sins.” {3} The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the LORD; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God. {4} Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth; {5} The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Second Lesson: Luke 1:5-25, 57-66

(Luke 1:5-25) There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. {6} And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. {7} But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years. {8} So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, {9} according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. {10} And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. {11} Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. {12} And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. {13} But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. {14} “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. {15} “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. {16} “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. {17} “He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” {18} And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.” {19} And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. {20} “But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.” {21} And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. {22} But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless. {23} And so it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. {24} Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, {25} “Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

(Luke 1:57-66) Now Elizabeth’s full time came for her to be delivered, and she brought forth a son. {58} When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they rejoiced with her. {59} So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him by the name of his father, Zacharias. {60} His mother answered and said, “No; he shall be called John.” {61} But they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.” {62} So they made signs to his father; what he would have him called. {63} And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, “His name is John.” So they all marveled. {64} Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God. {65} Then fear came on all who dwelt around them; and all these sayings were discussed throughout all the hill country of Judea. {66} And all those who heard them kept them in their hearts, saying, “What kind of child will this be?” And the hand of the Lord was with him.

Third Lesson: AC 5620:12

As John the Baptist represented the Lord as to the Word, which is the Divine truth on earth, in like manner as Elijah (n. 2762, 5247), he was therefore the “Elijah who was to come” before the Lord (Mal. iii. 23; MAT xvii. 10-12; Mark ix. 11-13; Luke i. 17); wherefore his clothing and food were significative, of which we read in Matthew: John had his clothing of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loin; and his meat was locusts and wild honey (iii. 4; Mark i. 6). The “clothing of camel’s hair” signified that the Word, such as is its literal sense as to truth (which sense is a clothing for the internal sense), is natural; for what is natural is signified by “hair,” and also by “camels;” and the “meat being of locusts and wild honey” signified the Word such as is its literal sense as to good; the delight of this is signified by “wild honey.”

[1]Luke 1:41

[2]LUK 1:76

[3]LUK 1:76, 77

[4]LUK 1:79

[5]see LUK 1:66

[6]Isaiah 1:16 ,17

[7]John 13:35

[8]text

[9]Isaiah 40:5

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