I preached this sermon on October 23, 2011, at the Dawson Creek Church of the New Jerusalem in Dawson Creek, BC.
LEAVING THE LAND OF OUR BIRTH
A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn
“Get thee out of thy land, and from thy birth, and from thy father’s house, to the land that I will cause thee to see.” (Genesis 12:1)
When Abram was seventy-five years old, he left his home. He left his father and mother, his siblings and most of his family, and began a journey to a land where he had never been before. He and his wife Sarai and his nephew Laban left the land of their youth to begin a new life.
The literal sense of this story, when we take the time to reflect on it, has some deep emotions in it. It would not have been easy for Abram to leave everything he knew – but the story does not focus on that. It rather focuses on Abram’s total faith – the Lord says to go, and Abram goes.
We don’t have to dig very deep to see a clear message in this story: a message about trusting God, and being willing to go to uncomfortable and unknown places simply because the Lord has told us to go.
But there is a lot more to this story than first meets the eye. Abram is a model for us – but in a deeper sense, he represents the Lord Himself, Jesus Christ, when He was in this world. By learning about the deeper sense of this story, we can get to know the Lord better.
This might sound like a startling statement to make, that Abram represents the Lord, since it’s not at all clear from the literal sense of the story. But even the earliest Christians knew that everything in the Old Testament prefigured the life of Jesus Christ. On several occasions the Lord referred to passages from the Old Testament that referred to David or Israel, and showed how in a deeper sense, they were about Him. For example, the prophet Hosea wrote, “When Israel was a child, I loved Him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1) – but in the gospel of Matthew, this is revealed as a prophecy of the Lord, who would go down to Egypt as an infant with His parents, and return at the death of Herod the king. And so it is not at all a stretch to suggest that Abram’s travels into Egypt also represent something about the Lord’s development.
From passages like this, it is clear that the Old Testament stories represent different aspects of the Lord’s life. What is not so clear is exactly what part of the Lord’s internal life all these different characters and stories represent.
Fortunately, the Writings for the New Church – and in particular the work Arcana Coelestia – reveal what it is that these stories teach us about the Lord. And this story, in its deepest sense, is the story about the Lord’s first progression, when He was child, toward becoming completely Divine.
This is a story about the Lord’s early childhood. The Word makes it clear that the Lord, in His soul, was always God, from the moment he was conceived. But although His soul and the internal elements of His mind came from God, His body and the external elements of His mind came from His mother Mary. From His mother, the Lord inherited tendencies toward earthly and worldly things, including tendencies toward evil – although He never gave in to these tendencies. Throughout His entire life, the Lord was going through a process that the Writings call glorification – the process of replacing those parts of Himself that were merely human, that He had from his mother Mary, with things that were Divinely Human, from His soul, the Father, God.
Why does it matter that we know about this process, though? Is this practical knowledge? Why does Arcana Coelestia focus so much on the Lord’s process, when this process for the most part is above even the comprehension of the angels?
The reason it is practical and useful to learn these things is that they help us to love God, which is the first and great commandment. Think about it – how can you come to love someone until you learn about what they are like – not just their external actions, but some of what goes in on their minds and hearts? The story of the Lord’s internal life, told in the spiritual sense of the stories of the Old Testament, helps us to know Him better and love Him more.
But more than this, the Lord’s process of glorification is the model for a process that every person must go through to reach heaven: the process of regeneration. Now, the Lord went through His process much more thoroughly and completely than we go through ours – but by looking at the Lord’s process, we can see how he is present with us as we go through that process of our own rebirth.
So to return to the story of Abram. The story begins, “And Jehovah said to Abram…” That voice of Jehovah was the Lord’s first mental awareness of the Divine that was within Himself. And that voice told Abram, “Get thee out of thy land, and from thy birth, and from thy father’s house, to the land that I will cause thee to see.” That land where Abram was told to leave was a land of idol worship, and because of this, in the internal sense it represents a state of relative blindness or obscurity. It represents the lower levels of the mind. And Abram was told to go to a new land.
The Lord felt within Himself a calling to leave behind the things He had inherited from His mother – the merely natural things – and to begin the journey that would last throughout His entire life, the journey towards becoming completely Divine – and yet still completely human. And the first step in that process was to leave behind those comfortable things of his infancy and move toward something new.
This specifically is describing the Lord’s mind as an infant and young child. But in general terms, it is also an image of a call that comes to us over and over again: to move from lower things to higher things, from where we have been to somewhere new – from what is comfortable and known to what is uncomfortable and unknown.
We see this call in several places in the Lord’s Word. From the creation of Adam and Eve, the Lord said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife.” In our reading from the New Testament this morning, the Lord went even further: He would not even let a disciple return home to bid his parents farewell. What did He mean by that?
We know that in other places the Lord did command His disciples to honour their father and mother. But what He was telling His disciples in this case was that they would have to let go of things that they had from their past, and specifically from their parents. They would have to move on to new things.
What are those things that we have from our parents that we need to leave behind? The Writings tell us that from our parents – even if they are very good people, even angelic people – we inherit inclinations toward evils of every kind. We are born with a tendency toward selfishness. Little children are clearly selfish – they have to be taught to share with others. This is not to say that they are bad, because their selfishness is from innocence, and can even be lovable because it’s so sincere. But at some point we have to move beyond that childhood desire to have everything the way we want it to be. We have to leave behind the land of our birth.
But the truth is that it is not only bad things that we need to leave behind in our childhood. There are many things that are very good and absolutely necessary for us in our childhood states, but that we need to leave behind, or at least to change, as we get older. No matter who we are or what religion we were raised in, at some point we have to let our faith develop into something new, something deeper, than it was when we were children.
The Writings describe this process, and we read a passage this morning describing the way this takes place. And again, this does not necessarily mean we reject our childhood faith. In fact, that is not the ideal way for it to happen. Abram leaves the land of his father – but he does not cut off ties. He sends his servant back to this land to find a wife for his son Isaac. Isaac’s son Jacob, too, is commanded to return to this land, to Abram’s relative Laban, to find a wife to marry. But the person’s relationship to that childhood faith changes – it grows and deepens.
The faith we have as children is based primarily on things we have been taught, especially by our parents. It is good for us to learn this way – this is the orderly way for things to happen. The Lord, too, learned things in the way we do. But at some point, as a child grows up, he begins to question things. This is often strongest when a person is in their teen years – but if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us still have things that we believe simply because we were raised to believe that way.
But there are different ways of progressing on our journey, some ways better than others. Sometimes a person will look within himself, and ask, do I really believe this? Or do I only believe this because this is how I was raised? For some people, when they realize that they’ve never really believed in God, or angels, or life after death, they say, “I’m going to start being honest with myself – and that means not pretending to believe these things that I don’t really believe.” Many people who reject faith in this way say it is freeing, because they are no longer lying to themselves.
But this is not the only way to journey on from childhood faith – or even the ideal way. The essential thing in developing our faith is always to remain committed to loving others. If we continue to make charity to the neighbour the primary thing, the Lord will keep leading us toward Him, no matter what the path may look like. And so, when we realize that we are not sure of the things we’ve always believed, we can at least hold on to this: we should love others.
Love for the human race was always the thing that motivated the Lord. It was never love for Himself. Right after Abram was told to leave the land of his father, he was given a promise: that he would be made into a great nation; that Jehovah would bless him, and make his name great. From these things, it could sound like the motivation for Abram – and thus the Lord – was to be selfish. But the promise continues – that Abram would be a blessing, and that in him all the families of the ground would be blessed. And in a deeper sense, this prophecy is about the people who the Lord would reach, and draw into His kingdom. The great nation that would come from Abram represents all the people who would have faith in the Lord. And the Lord would be a blessing to the whole world. It is for this reason – and not for Himself – that the Lord willingly pushed Himself to fight against the forces of hell that assailed Him.
And so the primary thing we can do to ensure that our faith will develop is to focus on loving others and living in charity. Charity is the life within faith, and our faith will never feel real if it isn’t connected to love for others and love to the Lord. And when we see that the faith we have within ourselves doesn’t seem real to us, rather than saying, “I’ve been lying to myself,” we can ask, “How can this faith come to life in me so that it is real?”
But that’s not the only thing. The truth is, what we actually believe will change, even if we don’t throw it out. For example, the passage we read this morning described important things that we learn as children and that form the core of our faith – but it included the teaching that God rewards the good and punishes the evil. We do need to have this idea as children – but as we grow, we come to understand it in a deeper way – that the Lord punishes no one, but evil punishes itself.
It is important for our childhood faith to be joined to charity, and so to come alive; but there are also ways that in this process, it will change. How do we know what to believe? How do we know what parts of our faith are from God, and what parts are merely from our culture or our parents or our ministers? Again, the primary thing here is to focus on love: love to the Lord, and love to the neighbour. And when we are focusing on love, then we can move to the next step – seeking what the Lord actually says.
This means turning to the Lord’s Word, and seeking for truth there – seeing if what we’ve been taught actually measures up to the Lord’s revelation. In our story, Abram journeys down through the land of Canaan. His stops along the way represent a growing perception in the Lord, a perception that came from His celestial love. But it represents a dim perception, because even though He had the love, He had not learned the truths He needed to clearly see and comprehend that love. In that state He could not stay in the land. He needed knowledge as a vessel for that higher love within him, to clarify His perception. And so He continued down to the land of Egypt.
Egypt was well known in the ancient world as a storehouse of knowledge. And so Egypt itself came to represent knowledge, and sojourning there came to represent being instructed in that knowledge. And in the Lord’s case, all that knowledge came from the Word.
This exploring of knowledge helps develop a person’s faith if he is approaching knowledge for the sake of love, for the sake of usefulness. Abram would not stay in the land of Egypt, nor would his descendants. The Lord did not learn knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but for the sake of using that knowledge to serve. And so in the course of developing our faith, the right order is for us to first learn the doctrine of our church from parents and teachers and ministers – but as we get older, to seek what the Word really says when we look to it in the light of the two great commandments – to love the Lord, and to love our neighbour.
Learning truth from the Lord’s Word does not only deepen our faith – it also gives us the ability to fight against the tendencies toward evil that we develop. In the story of Abram, we read that as Abram first passed through the land of Canaan, “the Canaanite was then in the land.” The Canaanites – the enemy of the people of Israel – represent those evil spirits who tempted the Lord and attacked Him through those merely human things he had acquired from His mother. Here Abram is not able to fight them – he merely passes through the land and goes down to Egypt. And for the Lord, it was only later, after He had gained knowledge from the Word, that He knew enough to be able to resist those evil spirits, to do battle against them.
And so if we want to develop our faith, we can turn to the Lord’s Word, and ask, “What is the Lord really saying?” It can be a difficult process, as ideas we’ve grown up with may be overthrown. But if we approach the Word always seeking for ways that we can live by it, for ways that it can help us grow in love to the Lord and love to the neighbour, it will always be leading toward a place where we have a more and more real faith, and truer and truer love. And throughout this process, it is really the Lord who is fighting for us, fighting to give us a place in heaven – just as He fought for the entire human race when He was in the world. “And I will make thee into a great nation; and I will bless thee, and will make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing.” Amen