Preparing the Way of the Lord

Sermon: Preparing the Way of the Lord

I preached this sermon in Dawson Creek, BC on November 21, 2010.

PREPARING THE WAY FOR THE LORD

A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, To give knowledge of salvation to His people in the remission of their sins.” (Luke 1:76-77)

When John the Baptist was born, his father Zacharias prophesied that the child would “go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways.”  In every gospel, John is said to fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.”  Three months before the Lord was born into the world, John was born to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth; and before the Lord began his ministry, John went before Him to prepare His way.  The children of Israel had to be prepared before they could accept the Lord – and in the same way, we have to prepare ourselves for the Lord to be born into our hearts, as He was born into the world at His first advent.

The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that John would go before the Lord in the “spirit and power of Elijah.”  Elijah was the greatest prophet of Israel, and like all the prophets, he represented the Lord’s Word – he told the people what the Lord’s will was.  John, too, was a prophet, and so he also represented the Word.  Like Elijah, John clothed himself in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.  The people of Israel would have recognized this clothing as the sign of a prophet: Elijah had worn similar clothing, and the book of Zechariah speaks of false prophets who wore garments of hair to deceive people into thinking they were true prophets.  In all of these cases, the garment of hair represents the power of the literal sense of the Word.  Thus, John represented the Word, and especially the literal sense of the Word.

But why did John have to come as a representative of the Word, when the Lord, who was the Word itself made flesh, was about to come?  One of the primary reasons that John had to come before the Lord was that if he had not come, the children of Israel would not have been able to withstand the presence of the Lord Himself among them.  In the prophecy we read from Malachi this morning, the Lord said that one would come “to turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”  The angel Gabriel revealed to Zacharias that John was the one who would fulfill this prophecy.  And if John had not come, the children of Israel would literally have been cursed – diseases would have broken out – when the Lord came to them.

The book True Christian Religion says,

John made ready the way [of the Lord] by baptism, and by announcing the coming of the Lord.  Without such preparation all on earth would have been smitten with a curse and would have perished. (TCR 698)

The passage we read from True Christian Religion this morning explains how John’s preparation kept the people from being cursed – it associated them with angels from heaven who could protect them from the evil spirits who would kill them.  Whenever the Lord draws close to a person, the evil spirits are stirred up in reaction – and so when the Lord came into the world, the evil spirits who were present with people at that time were stirred up.  Their power at that time was so great that if the people had not been first prepared, the evil spirits could literally have killed them.  But when a person is baptized, the symbolic act actually brings a person into connection with certain angels – and John’s baptism brought people into connection with angels who could protect them against the forces of hell.

But it was not just John’s baptism that served to prepare the way of the Lord.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias in the temple, he told him that his son would “turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  John would teach the people to turn away from evil.  And so besides baptism, the primary way that John prepared people was by preaching repentance.  The waters of baptisms represented a washing away of sin; but our evil habits and desires are not actually washed away by the water of baptism.  The deeper way that we prepare for the Lord is shunning evils as sins.

A passage in the book True Christian Religion says, “Repentance is the first thing of the church in a person.” (TCR 510)  What is repentance?  Repentance is more than simply feeling bad about the things we have done wrong.  Another passage in True Christian Religion says, “The question therefore is, How ought a person to repent? And the reply is, Actually; that is to say, he must examine himself, recognize and acknowledge his sins, pray to the Lord, and begin a new life.” (TCR 530)  Repentance means not only feeling sorry, but also making a commitment to change our lives.

So John’s primary teaching was a teaching of repentance, and the first step we take in our spiritual lives is to flee from evils as sins, or in other words, to shun them.  There was a very specific purpose behind John’s teaching of repentance.  Several times the gospels tell us that John was preaching repentance for the remission of sins.  Often this is translated as, “the forgiveness of sins”; but the word used actually means a “taking away” of sin.  When we fight against our inclinations toward hurting other people, toward selfishness, we gradually create new habits of serving others, of kindness.  Our desire to do harmful things lessens.  That’s what it means to have our sins “remitted” or “taken away.”

Now, the word “repentance” can sound very weighty.  The idea of battling against evils can sound intimidating.  But what we are talking about is a very down to earth, everyday thing.  John was not asking impossible things of the people.  When the tax collectors asked him what they should do, he simply told them not to collect more than they were due.  When the soldiers asked him what they should do, he told them that they should not intimidate anyone or accuse them falsely, and that they should be content with their wages.  Repenting of evils means looking for the everyday things that we might do that are contrary to the Lord’s commandments – tearing people down behind their backs, for example.  We can get into habits of hurting other people in little ways – sometimes just in the way we talk to someone who has done something that frustrates us.  Repentance means noticing that we do those things, praying to the Lord to help us stop, and making a conscious effort to break those habits.  When those evil habits are broken, that is the remission of sins.

And in the remission of sins, we get a glimpse of heaven.  We’re able to feel love and peace in ways that we were not able to before.  In our reading from Luke this morning, we read Zacharias’s prophecy – and in this prophecy, Zacharias declared that John would “give knowledge of salvation to [the Lord’s] people in the remission of their sins.”  In being freed from their sins, the people that John baptized would taste the Lord’s salvation – they would know salvation, not just in the sense of knowing about it, but in the sense of experiencing it.  In the same way, when the Lord puts our sins off to the sides, we experience a taste of salvation.  That is the effect of repentance.

But a question arises: if John was baptizing for the remission of sins, why did the Lord need to come after him?  Why did those who were baptized by John need to be baptized again into the name of the Lord Jesus Christ?  The passage we read from True Christian Religion this morning answers this question.  That passage said, “The baptism of John represented the cleansing of the external man; while the baptism of Christians at the present day represents the cleansing of the internal man, which is regeneration.”  The same passage goes on to say that those who were baptized by John became internal people when they received the faith of Christ.  This is important for us to keep in mind – John, who represents the Word, prepares the way for the Lord – but the end in view, the purpose of it all, is that the Lord may be born into our lives with His love and His wisdom.

When we first start to repent of the sins we see in ourselves, it is often for worldly, external reasons.  We don’t want people to think badly of us; we want to get along with people; we’re afraid that we’ll get in trouble if we do not.  This is good, and it is important for our development.  The book Heaven and Hell says, “For everyone from his childhood is initiated into a moral and civil life, and learns what it is by living in the world. Moreover, everyone, whether evil or good, lives that life; for who does not wish to be called honest, and who does not wish to be called just” (HH 530). Living a life in accordance with the laws of morality – rejecting the evils of stealing, murder, theft, dishonesty – begins as an external thing.  But this external life prepares us to receive spiritual life.  The passage in Heaven and Hell continues:

The spiritual person ought to live in a similar manner, and can do so as easily as the natural person, with this difference only, that the spiritual person believes in the Divine, and acts honestly and justly, not solely because to so act is in accord with civil and moral laws, but also because it is in accord with Divine laws.

The difference between an external repentance and an internal one is that one comes from external things – from fear, from desire for reputation – but the other comes from a desire to follow the Lord, to live in accordance with Divine laws.

As we saw before, John represented the literal sense of the Word.  The repentance of John was a repentance in following the literal sense of the Word.  This kind of repentance is a step beyond repenting simply for worldly reasons – but even this kind of repentance is relatively external when we first begin to do it.  We follow the literal commandments of the Word because we are afraid of going to hell, or because we want to earn heaven as a reward.  John asked the people who came to be baptized, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  It was in some ways baptism for a repentance that came from fear, which is an external thing.

This is not to say that simply obeying the literal sense of the Word is a bad thing.  Not at all.  In fact, it is absolutely necessary – John had to precede the Lord.  But we should always keep in mind the purpose of repentance – we’re repenting so that the Lord can be born into our lives.

When we follow the literal sense of the Word partially for external reasons, it is like we are undergoing the baptism of John.  But when we do this, a wonderful thing happens.  When we are striving to put away evil and to do good, we are able to recognize the Lord when He comes into our lives.  The gospel of John says, “He who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”  Those who do the truth are able to embrace the Lord when they see Him.  When Mary came to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the babe leaped in Elizabeth’s womb.  John’s leaping in the womb represents the joy that comes when a person who is living by the truth feels goodness and love flowing into them and recognizes that this is from the Lord.  Something in John leaped for joy at the presence of the Lord in Mary’s womb.  When we are living by the basic external truths of the Word, which John represents, and suddenly we feel the Lord in our lives or in His word in a much deeper way, there is a feeling of joy.  We realize that the external actions are there to contain something internal.

And what is that internal thing that they contain?  The passage we read from True Christian Religion said that those who repented according to John’s words were not able to become internal until they received faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  In the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, God shows us who He is.  If we do not know the Lord, we feel as if our will to repent comes from ourselves.  We take credit for resisting the evils in our lives, and we can look down on other people.

But when we acknowledge the Lord, the case is entirely different.  We begin to recognize that none of the power we have to resist evil comes from ourselves – we can’t do it on our own.  When we know the Lord, we know that He is an infinitely loving, Human God who wants nothing more than to conjoin people to Himself in heaven to give them happiness.  We know that he gives us the opportunity to be vessels for that love for the human race.  We know that he gives us the will to resist evils not so that we can feel superior, but because evils are impediments to His love acting in us and through us.

True Christian Religion says, “A person should shun evils as sins, and fight against them as if of himself. If anyone shuns evils for any other reason than because they are sins, he is not shunning them, but merely ensuring that they are not visible to the eyes of the world.”  To shun evils as sins means to shun them because they destroy our ability to act from the Lord.  And as we shun evil loves, good loves replace them.  That’s why Zacharias prophesied that John would give knowledge of salvation in or by the remission of sins.  In the remission or taking away of sins by external resistance, we make a way for the Lord to flow in.  John’s preaching of repentance opened people up to loving the Lord when they saw Him.  Just as John told people that the Lord was the Christ, our efforts towards shunning evil allow us to see that the Lord Jesus Christ is God.  When we see the Lord, we rejoice – because in Him we see God Himself, the source of all our love, as a real person, a Divine Human God.  With His aid, we are able to come into true love for our neighbor – out of darkness and into light.  “The people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, Upon them a light has shined.”

Amen

Lessons: Malachi 4; Luke 1:68-80; TCR 689-690

TCR 689. The way was prepared [for Jehovah the Lord to descend into the world and accomplish redemption] by the baptism of John, because by means of that baptism … people were introduced into the future church of the Lord, and in heaven were inserted among those who were there looking for and longing for the Messiah; and they were thus guarded by angels, that devils from hell might not break forth and destroy them. … From all this it is clear that unless a way had been made ready for Jehovah when He was descending into the world, by means of baptism, the effect of which in heaven was to close up the hells and guard the Jews against total destruction [they would all have been struck by a curse and perished].

TCR 690. As to the baptism of John; it represented this cleansing of the external man; while the baptism of Christians at the present day represents the cleansing of the internal man, which is regeneration. It is therefore written that John baptized with water, but that the Lord baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and therefore John’s baptism is called the baptism of repentance. The Jews who were baptized were merely external men, and without faith in Christ the external man cannot become internal. Those who were baptized with the baptism of John, became internal men when they received the faith in Christ, and were then baptized in the name of Jesus.

GOD OF THE VALLEYS

GOD OF THE VALLEYS
A Sermon by Rev. Lawson M. Smith
Cataloged May 4, 1997

“And there came a man of God, and spoke to the King of Israel, and said, Thus says the Lord: Because the Syrians have said, 77ie Lord is God of the mountains, but He is not God of the valleys, therefore I will deliver all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (I Kings 20:28).

The Syrians’ insolent claim that the Lord was God of the mountains but not God of the valleys represents a false persuasion that the hells often inject into our minds. This persuasion is the feeling that we cannot reform our external life. Either we don’t see how the Writings apply to actual life, and religion seems to be something only for Sunday thoughts and good intentions, or when we do see the application, we don’t seem to have willpower to live up to it. We go right on making the same mistakes, slipping back into the same selfish habits. Then the hells can insert the thought that externals aren’t very important anyway as long as we mean well and our heart is in the right place. So we acknowledge that the Lord is God of the mountains, with authority over the higher parts of our minds, but we do not acknowledge Him to be God of the valleys, with the power to reform our lower, day-to-day thoughts, feelings and habits.

By the New Church doctrine of life, the Lord leads us to cut down and destroy the influence of these falsities, represented by the Syrian armies. The Writings show that we have to fight them first in the internal man, spiritually “in the mountains,” and then in the external man, meant by the “valleys and plains.”

To see the difference between the internal and the external man or mind, we are taught to think of the private thoughts we have when alone, as compared with the more superficial thought that guides what we say and do in public. In the private thought of the internal man, we form our philosophy of life and our intentions. Here is where we can see what we really think about things we’ve done and said, and why we did them, apart from any public pressure. In our private thoughts we can see ourselves as we really are.

Some people never look into their private thoughts, either because they are simple people or because they are afraid and unused to taking a good look at themselves. The Writings say that for such people it is enough for them just to think, when an evil inclination comes along, “I shouldn’t do that because it is against the Divine commandment,” and then not do it (HH 533, TCR 535-7). But most of us are able to explore ourselves and more fully cooperate with the Lord in our regeneration.

Our private thoughts are the mountains and hills of our mind’s geography. The true function of this part of our mind is to see how the spiritual things of heaven ought to govern the natural things of the world in our lives, while the lower part of our mind manages the day-to-day things themselves. The internal man is like a master, and the external man his faithful servant, who runs the household according to his master’s directions. The internal man is where the Lord forms a conscience in us, by which He leads us, according to our knowledge of the Word. So the Psalm says, “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains, from whence comes my help” (1 2 1: 1).

The first step in regeneration is an act of the understanding. It is the reformation of the internal man. This is to see and acknowledge for ourselves that evil is evil, and good is good, and to think that good ought to be chosen over evil (see TCR 587). Our natural will from birth is inclined to evils of all kinds, loving ourselves and the world more than the Lord and the neighbor. But the Lord enables us to raise our understanding into the light of heaven, so that we can see what we ought to will and do to be happy and content in this world, and to be blessed to eternity. From parents and teachers, sermons, books and conversations, and especially from our own reading and reflections on the Word, we learn how to be civil, moral, and spiritual. The first step is to come to understand what good and evil are, and to make up our minds to shun evil and do good. This determination forms a conscience in the internal man, the beginning of a new will (see TCR 588).

So the first battle is fought in the mountains. Although the Lord is not merely a God of the mountains, and in the spiritual sense the war cannot end there, still our intentions have to be reformed first, and then by means of them our external lives can be reformed too. If we avoid an evil simply to look good in the eyes of the world, without ever taking an honest look at it ourselves and recognizing that it is evil in the Lord’s eyes and shunning it as a sin, we are merely hiding it from other people. It is still there in our intentions, and it comes out openly after death, when the social and civil pressure is off. The Lord cannot remove the love of the evil from us when we never reject it, or admit that it’s wrong. We become like an egg that is rotten on the inside but encased in a fine, white shell. Or we are like the Israelites farming the plains and valleys as a conquered, subservient nation, while the Syrians held the capital city and demanded tribute. This is why it is important at the times when we are examining ourselves, such as before the Holy Supper, to take an honest look at our intentions as well as what we’ve actually done, and try to imagine what we would do if no one would ever find out (see TCR 591-5).

The young princes of the provinces led the army of the Israelites into the first battle. Princes in the Word represent the primary truths that govern our lives, which can bring comfort in temptation. Such truths give strength to our affections for the truth and for doing what is right (see AC 5044). For example, we know that the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Writings are the Lord’s Word, the Divine doctrine of life. We know that we have to look to the Lord and shun the evils listed in the Ten Commandments as sins against Him. We know that we ought to do our daily work at home or on the job sincerely, justly and faithfully, for the good of others. If we keep hold of these basic laws of life, we will usually be able to fight through the clouds of confusion and see our way. “So these young princes of the provinces came out of the city with the army which followed them. And each one killed his man; so the Syrians fled; and Israel pursued them; and Benhadad, the King of Syria, escaped on a horse with the cavalry” (I Kings 20:19,20).

So the army of Israel was victorious; but the prophet warned that with the return of the year, the king of Syria would come up against Israel again. The return of the year signifies the return of a similar state, for evils are not conquered all at once but over a lifetime. The second battle was in the plains or valleys. The reformation of the lower mind is harder and takes longer than the reformation of the inner or higher mind (see AC 3469, NJHD 186:7). It’s one thing to face up to the truth that, from religion, we ought to change the way we think and act, and another to actually change, “For what is nearer to the world and to the body,” we read, “cannot easily be compelled to yield obedience to the internal man, except over a considerable length of time, and through many new states into which a man must be introduced. These states are states of self-acknowledgment, and of the acknowledgment of the Lord, namely of one’s own misery, and of the Lord’s mercy, thus of humiliation by temptation combat” (AC 3469).

The stiffened resistance of the will of the natural man, once it comes down to making an actual change, seems to be represented by the Syrians’ taking the ineffectual kings away, and replacing them with military captains, commanders. The war begins again in earnest. We can picture how much more effective the vast numbers of Syrian horses, chariots and infantry would be down on the lowland plains and broad valleys instead of up among the hills. Horses and chariots in the negative sense represent the arguments and reasonings of a false understanding of the Word – excuses and justifications of evils. Our natural minds are full of so-called facts, full of the illusions of the senses. These facts can seem very real and compelling. Any fact or reasoning that favors the appetites of our love of self and our world we are inclined to call true (see AC 3321).

So the Syrians came up, “… and the sons of Israel encamped before them like two little flocks of kids; but the Syrians filled the countryside” (I Kings 20:27). The Writings teach that the evils which we are allowed to see in ourselves are like the tip of an iceberg, being connected with myriads of other lusts. It is not possible to change one thing in our character without affecting countless other things at the same time. The Lord seldom lets us glimpse the overwhelming odds against us, except to some extent in temptations. He then lets us see the real picture so that we may know from the heart that only the Lord can save us. The Lord sends word: “I will deliver all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (text).

All that the Lord asks us to do in the fighting is to pick out one or two problems and work on them. The two flocks of kids represent innocence in the external man, such as when we compel ourselves not to do or meditate evils because the Lord has asked us not to. If we compel ourselves to remove some of the few evils that we see in our conscious life, the Lord can drive out the huge host of evils in the internal man, mostly unseen. Then at the same time, the Lord removes the desires and delights of evils from our conscious life. But He can do it only with our cooperation, when we fight against evils that we are aware of as if of ourselves, because otherwise we defend and protect them and don’t want the Lord to remove them (see DP 100- 128, the second law). Our good intentions have to conquer our natural inclinations, and descend into actual life, or they die, like a bird flying over a vast poisonous swamp, finding no safe place to come down and rest (see TCR 600).

The Syrians, like many other peoples in the ancient world, did not acknowledge one omnipotent God who ruled all things Himself, but thought of the many gods of the nations as local deities, whose power was limited to a certain area. We should not let ourselves slip into a similar feeling about the Lord, that He has power to help us and authority to direct our ways only in “the religious part of our lives.” Our whole lives can be and should be led by the Lord, by the ideals we see from His Word.

The process of reformation and regeneration alternates between the internal and the external man. We get a sight of how we can improve our lives, and then we work to live up to it; and as we do, the Lord lets us see something more of the ideal. We don’t need to have a complete understanding before we start, nor a spotless life. The important thing is to be willing to face up to those few things we see clearly, and to be willing to look for a few things more. So when the Israelites bravely went out … they killed a hundred thousand foot soldiers of the Syrians in one day,” because the Lord was fighting with them. When we look the evils with us in the face, and make the effort to resist them, the Lord always gives us victory and peace in the end. He gives us control of our external habits and thoughts, as well as of our intentions. The Lord becomes for us God of the valleys and God of the mountains. Amen.

Lessons: I Kings 20:1-30, John 13:1-17, TCR 587, 591 (headings only), 596

True Christian Religion 596

WHEN THIS TAKES PLACE A CONFLICT ARISES BETWEEN THE INTERNAL AND THE EXTERNAL MAN, AND THEN THE ONE THAT CONQUERS RULES OVER THE OTHER.

A conflict then arises because the internal man is reformed by means of truths; and from truths he sees what is evil and false, which evil and falsity are still in the external or natural man; consequently disagreement first springs up between the new will, which is above, and the old will, which is below; and as the disagreement is between the two wills, it is also between their delights; for the flesh, it is well known, is opposed to the spirit and the spirit to the flesh, and the flesh with its lusts must be subdued before the spirit can act and man become new. After this disagreement of the two wills a conflict arises; and this is called spiritual temptation. This temptation or conflict does not take place between goods and evils, but between the truths of good and the falsities of evil. For good cannot fight from itself but fights by means of truths; nor can evil fight from itself but by means of its falsities, just as the will cannot fight from itself but by means of the understanding where its truths reside.

Man is not sensible of that conflict except as in himself, and as remorse of conscience; and yet it is the Lord and the devil (that is, hell) that are fighting in man, and they are fighting for dominion over him, or to determine who shall possess him. The devil or hell attacks man and calls out his evils, while the Lord protects him and calls out his goods. Although that conflict takes place in the spiritual world, still it takes place in man between the truths of good and the falsities of evil that are in him; therefore man must fight wholly as if of himself, for he has the freedom of choice to act for the Lord, and also to act for the devil; he is for the Lord if he abides in truths from good, and for the devil if he abides in falsities from evil. From this it follows that whichever conquers, the internal man or the external, that one rules over the other, precisely like two hostile powers contending as to which shall be master of the other’s kingdom – the conqueror takes possession of the kingdom, and places all in it under obedience to himself. In this case, therefore, if the internal man conquers, he obtains dominion and subjugates all the evils of the external man, and regeneration then goes on; but if the external man conquers, he obtains the dominion, and dissipates all the goods of the internal man, and regeneration perishes.

THE GRACE OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST

THE GRACE OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST

A Sermon by Rev. Donald L. Rose Preached in Bryn Athyn November 6, 1994

The book of Revelation begins with the salutation of John: “Grace be unto you … ” and it ends with the blessing: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”

There is a saying in True Christian Religion that warns us lest we make the Divine grace of no account. The word “grace” has become so associated in religious circles with arbitrary election and associated ideas that we might shy away from thinking of grace. The same might be applied to faith. It can be associated with notions of “faith alone.” But we should not undervalue faith. Nor should we undervalue the beautiful gift of grace. The hymn that begins “O praise ye the Lord” says in the final verse, “O tell of His might, O sing of His grace, whose robe is the light, whose canopy is space” (p. 439).

“The Lord will give grace and glory. No good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11). The frame of mind that belittles grace or the kind of feeling that belittles grace is a feeling of self-merit, a feeling that we deserve everything we have, that we have earned it.

Here is the way the passage in TCR begins: “It is harmful to ascribe merit to works which are done for the sake of salvation, for in this lie concealed many evils of which one is unaware. These hidden evils are: a denial of God’s influx and operation with us; trust in one’s own power in matters concerning salvation; faith in oneself and not in God; self-justification; trust in salvation by one’s own strength; making of no account the Divine grace and mercy; rejection of reformation and regeneration by Divine means” (TCR 439).

If you asked an angel of the highest heaven a celestial angel how he came to be in heaven, what might the answer be? Would it be: “I put in a lot of hard work, and I made the right decisions, and I deserve to be here.” Or would it rather be, “I am here of the Lord’s mercy.” If you asked an angel of a lower heaven, or asked a spiritual angel, the emphasis would be on grace. All angels are averse to praise or credit for themselves, and they are in the acknowledgment that all good is from the Lord. The celestial speak of mercy and the spiritual of grace (see AC 981).

When the Writings say that the celestial speak of mercy and the spiritual of grace, they say that this comes from the difference in the humility (see AC 598, 5929). Those who are in deep humility think of the Lord’s mercy, and those less humble speak of His grace. And those who are not humble think rather of their own strength and their own credit.

Where do we fit in, we who are neither celestial nor spiritual angels? Let us start with an example of a person who died and went to the other world. It is a short striking story and happens to be the first time “grace” is mentioned in the Writings. Grace is mentioned more often than is usually realized, both in the Writings and in the Sacred Scripture. The reason this is not realized is that different English words are used. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word that is translated “grace” is also frequently translated as “favor.” In our lesson from Genesis 33 we twice have the phrase “find favor in your sight.” We also have the phrase “God has dealt graciously” (v. 11). The fifth Psalm ends with the saying, “For You, O Lord, will bless the righteous; with favor You will surround him as with a shield.” This could also be surrounded with “grace” as with a shield.

In the New Testament we have the same situation with the Greek word charis. It is translated “grace” for example “grace be unto you” and “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” It is also translated “favor.”

In the Writings the Latin word gratia is sometimes translated as “kindness.” If you look up “kindness” in the Swedenborg Concordance, you will be told to turn to the word “grace.” And “kindness” has been the familiar rendering of the little story early in the Arcana Caelestia when the word “grace” is first used.

It is a story that is deservedly well known, because it is the only full example of someone who virtually went directly to heaven after he died. Generally speaking the interval between awakening to life after death and going either to heaven or hell is considerable, often lasting for years. But there are exceptional cases of being “elevated to heaven immediately after death” (AC 317).

In this case, described in n. 318 of Arcana Caelestia, a man who died first realized that he was in the other life. And then it struck him that he owned nothing. He had no house or possessions, and anxiety came upon him, as he did not know what he would do. One might be reminded of the story in our lesson from Genesis 32 and 33. Jacob first crossed the Jordan owning nothing except the staff that was in his hand. Years later he was a man with a large family and many possessions, and he said, “I am not worthy of all the mercies … You have shown Your servant” (33:10). “God has dealt graciously with me … I have enough” (33:11).

We are told in this Arcana story that the man was left for a time in his state of anxiety “that his thoughts might take their wonted direction.” And while he was in this state of anxiety he was brought into association with some celestial spirits from the province of the heart. They lovingly provided him with anything he might need. To quote: “They showed him every attention that he could desire.”

Then he was left to himself, and his reaction was the key. The thoughts that came to him were to the effect: “How can I repay such great kindness?” It is translated “so much kindness,” and we may render it tantam gratia, “so much grace.” That reaction to the Divine grace was the sign of his charity and faith, and “he was therefore at once taken up into heaven” (AC 318).

What about ourselves? Do we feel that we are objects of the Lord’s grace? Do we feel we are recipients of His mercy? The question is not whether the Lord has been merciful to us, for He certainly has. The question is not whether the Lord has been gracious to us, for He most certainly has. The question is whether we have any realization or acknowledgment that this is true.

What if you are asked whether you feel lucky or fortunate? Those words are not ideal, because they might be used with the idea of some random fortune. Better to say, Do we feel blessed? Our feelings vary in this. They vary through different stages of our life. They vary from week to week. They vary in the states of a single day.

Suppose you were to be asked, Has the Lord been kind to you? Has He favored you? Has He granted you grace? And suppose you were to answer in the affirmative and say some words about the Lord’s grace. You can say the words, and sometimes they are hardly more than words, whereas at other times you might have deep feeling about it. A passage about this in the Arcana ends by saying that anyone can know this about himself by observing his state when “he uses the expression `the grace of the Lord'” (AC 981).

Can you control the degree of sincerity you have in this respect? If you are a cocky and self-assured person you might say you cannot transform yourself. But circumstances can set the stage for a peeling away of some of our veneer, and room can be made for a more full feeling.

What, for example, is the classic phrase when you see another person far less fortunate than yourself? “There but for the grace of God go I.” You might for a few minutes observe someone on television losing his home in a flood or fire. You might see someone bereaved or handicapped or suffering. And you might have experiences in life in which you really sense the experience of someone less fortunate, so much so that you are so thankful for what you have, be it your health or whatever.

Do you have a husband or wife, a loving relationship? If so, how did that come about? Was it the result of your intelligence or effort? Do you take the credit for conjugial love? The Writings tell us that love is a deliberate gift of the Lord, a gift into which He has gathered delights from first to last.

There are intervals in life when we do deliberately put ourselves into a state of appreciation. They can be anniversaries or even birthdays in which a train of thinking sets the stage for a state of appreciation, a state which you might be able to express in words and you might not.

The Holy Supper has something of this characteristic. It is not merely that you take the bread and the wine, but what is your acknowledgment as you do so? If you have not honestly looked at your life, you might not feel that you have any need of repentance. As you take bread and wine, do you have a sense that every good feeling your heart has known and every truth your mind has enjoyed is a gift of the Lord alone?

When we speak of the Lord’s mercy and grace, the important question is the humility that is involved. Part of the path we follow involves states of temptation that are so humbling. They are states in which we feel wretched, sometimes sensing a despair that we can ever be saved. The lessons we learn in those states are precious.

One passage on them ends: After despair “they can be led into a true confession, not only that all good is from the Lord, but also that all things are of His mercy; and at last into humiliation of heart before the Lord, which is not possible without self-knowledge; and when they are in that state even to despair they then first receive comfort and help from the Lord” (AC 2994).

We have spoken of a man who died and went straight to heaven in confession of the great grace that he received. Let us conclude with another individual who died and in the world of spirits showed no concept of the Lord’s loving Providence. “Afterwards the same spirit was reduced into the state of his infancy, and the Lord showed the angels what his quality had been at that time, and also what was the then foreseen quality of his future life, and that every detail of his life had been led by the Lord, and that he would have plunged into the most atrocious hell if there had been even the least cessation of the continual providence of the Lord” (AC 6484).

There are many things of the Lord’s mercy and grace in our past lives that we do not even know about. And fortunately there are things that we can know about, acknowledge and rejoice in. Of His fullness have we all received “and grace for grace” (John 1:16). Amen.


Lessons: Genesis 32, 33; TCR 439, 440; AE 22; DP 330

True Christian Religion 439

To ascribe merit to works that are done for the sake of salvation is harmful because evils lie concealed in so doing of which the doer is wholly ignorant. There also lies hidden in it a denial of God’s influx and operation in man; also a confidence in one’s own power in matters of salvation; faith in oneself and not in God; self-justification; salvation by one’s own abilities; a reducing of Divine grace and mercy to nought; a rejection of reformation and regeneration by Divine means; especially a limitation of the merit and righteousness of the Lord God the Savior, which such claim for themselves; together with a continual looking for reward, which they regard as the first and last end; a submersion and extinction of love to the Lord and love toward the neighbor; a total ignorance and lack of perception of the delight of heavenly love as being without merit, and a sense only of self-love. For those who put rewards in the first place and salvation in the second, and who value salvation for the sake of the reward, invert order and immerse the interior desires of the mind in what is their own, and defile them in the body with the evils of the flesh …

THE PRODIGAL SON

THE PRODIGAL SON
A Sermon by Rev. Thomas L. Kline
Preached in Bryn Athyn November 8, 1992

“This my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24).

Jesus said that a man had two sons. The younger son went to his father and demanded his inheritance. It says he went to a far-off country, and there he wasted all that he had with riotous living. A famine arose in the land, and the young man had nothing to eat. And so he hired himself out to go into the fields to feed the swine. He was so hungry that he would have eaten the food of the pigs. But suddenly, he came to himself. He said to himself, “I will go to my father and ask him for forgiveness, and I will become as a hired servant to him.” We can picture the young man coming back after a long journey. Will his father forgive him? Will his father be angry with him?

His father is waiting for him! His father sees him at a distance, runs to him, and embraces him. The father has compassion on his son. And at the end of this story, we hear those words of the father to the older brother: “It is right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.”

There is something in each of us that is touched by the power of this parable. This is because it is a story of hope. We might have a friend or relative that seems to turn from the Lord. We might have a friend that for a time seems lost, spiritually wounded, a person in a time of spiritual crisis. And the everlasting message of this parable is that there is a way back. The Lord gives us a path to restore our souls no matter how hopeless the situation.

The father figure in this parable is so important. It is a picture of the Lord Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ as our heavenly Father. And what we see is a picture of the Divine love. When the young man returns, we don’t see the father demanding payment or retribution for the son’s sins. We don’t see anything that suggests the traditional dogmas of Divine atonement or punishment for sin. No, those old-fashioned, traditional ideas of God are not based on Scripture. In this parable we see only forgiveness after the long journey of repentance and reformation. The father celebrates his son’s return. The Lord rejoices when we come back to our spiritual home.

There is a message in this parable for a church congregation. The reason why Jesus even told this parable was that the church leaders of that time came to Him complaining that He was spending too much time with sinners. The scribes and Pharisees were murmuring because Jesus was associating with sinners, drunkards, and tax collectors. And the Lord’s answer was simple: “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” This is why He had come to bring sinners to repentance, and to restore their lives.

And so we ask the question of ourselves: What is the purpose of our church? What is the purpose of this congregation? Certainly the church is for the worship of the Lord. Certainly it is for the proclaiming of the Lord’s Word. It is for the life of charity and service. But the church also exists for something else.

In the book of Revelation, the New Church is said to be the “healing of the nations.” The leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. It is a vision of the church as a hospital, the church as a place for spiritual healing, the church as a place where the sick and wounded come. There is a battle going on in the world today. It is a great battle between heaven and hell. And, as in any battle, there will be casualties: our sons and daughters, our friends and neighbors, our family. And the church is the place for those who are hurting, those who at times have failed, those who are dying spiritually, to come and receive support in the road that leads back to a restoration. It is a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Divine physician.

But there is a more interior meaning to this story. It is a level of meaning opened by the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Jerusalem. This story of the prodigal son is the personal story of our rebirth and regeneration. It is the story of the Lord’s healing our troubled heart. And in this story, we find, step by step, the journey that we take as the Lord leads us on the path to heaven.

Let’s just look at the steps of regeneration outlined in this story.

Number one is permission, what the Writings of the New Church call the “doctrine of permission.” In this story the father allows his son to leave and go to a distant land. It almost seems that the father willingly gives his son all of his inheritance knowing that this will lead to grief and pain for the son. And how can this be? Why would a loving father do this?

The Writings of the New Church say that this permission to leave is a picture of the magnitude of the Lord’s love and wisdom in our lives. The Lord loves us so much that He will even allow us to turn from Him at times if this is what we truly choose. He will allow us to turn from Him and even experience the consequences, the pain and suffering of that turning away. And this is said to be of His permission, not of His will.

He grieves when we turn and suffer the consequences of evil. The pain of evil is not the Lord’s punishment; no, the Lord weeps for us. And still, in His love He allows this because in His infinite wisdom He foresees that sometimes it is only through the process of the journey that we can finally choose what is good, fight for what is good, and make what is good our own. So number one: the Lord permits us to leave.

And step number two: If we do choose to turn from Him, He is not passive. If we do choose to turn from Him, He protects and guides us every step of the way. He is with us on the perilous journey.

We have a beautiful teaching in the Writings of the New Church that during times of temptation and despair it seems as if the Lord has left us, whereas in fact He is closer than ever. The Lord is closest to us in times of temptation.

In this parable it seems that once the son left home and went to the distant land, his father was out of the picture. It seems that his father just stayed home and worried. It is important to realize that this is written from the viewpoint of the son: When we turn from God it seems as if He is distant from us; that’s how it feels to us.

But from the Lord’s perspective, He never leaves us. If we could re-write this parable from the Lord’s viewpoint, the father would be with that son in that distant land, actively protecting, guiding and leading.

How does the Lord protect us when we are in the distant land? First is the famine. The Lord allows us to hunger in the distant land. He allows us to hunger for righteousness. The Lord will never let us be completely satisfied with evil. No, something inside of us will hunger for a life that is higher. And it is this hunger that finally causes us to turn back to the Lord. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

Another thing He does when we are in the distant land: He withholds us from further evils. In the parable, it says the son was almost to the point where he was about to eat the food of the pigs, but he didn’t eat it. A person who has been in a state of disorder will often say, “Yes, I was in terrible disorder, but somehow there was something preventing me from going all the way down to hell. Something was holding me back.” The Lord’s hand is there protecting us from the hells even when we are in active evil.

A third thing He does when we are in the distant land: The Lord causes us to remember our home; He lets us remember our spiritual home. In the story the son remembered his father’s house. We hear the words, “I will arise and go to my father.” It’s a memory of heaven. The Writings of the New church speak about heavenly memories that stay with us always. Memories of heaven that remain with us sometimes we call these “heavenly remains.” No matter where we are in life, we all have a memory of heaven (sometimes from our earliest childhood) stored up in the interior parts of our minds. And that memory of heaven tempers and bends our life back to our spiritual home, when we are in the height of temptation and despair.

But then we come to the climax of the story, the turning point, and it is the turning point in our lives. The story says that the young man was in the field, far from his home, hungry. The young man, when he was at his lowest moment of despair, came to his senses. One translation says, “He came to himself.” It is the beginning of true repentance. For the first time we find him thinking the words, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.”

The young man suddenly sees his life in a new way. It is as if his eyes are opened. It is interesting that the Writings of the New Church use the word “inversion” when they talk about this change. When it seems as if things can’t get any worse, suddenly we come to this turning point; we come to this moment of change, and our lives are totally inverted. Everything is changed from top to bottom. The love of self that used to be at the top is now at the bottom, and in its place is a love of the Lord and the neighbor. We hear the words, “I will go and serve my father; I will hire myself to him; I will be as servant to him,” and we begin to lay down our lives. Jesus said, “He that shall lose his life for my sake shall find it.”

And we find that there is a road back home. That’s the young man journeying back home, retracing every step that He had taken. The Writings of the New Church call this “reformation.” And notice the power of that word: the Lord literally “re-forms” us. He makes us anew.

And then there is a time of rejoicing. Here are some of the internal meanings revealed in the Writings of the New Church: The ring the father put on his son’s finger pictures “internal conjunction.” The robe pictures “truths of our faith and trust in God.” The sandals picture our life changed even to the most “down-to-earth” parts. And the fatted calf pictures our life of charity.

So this entire 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke deals with the subject of lost things and the Lord’s rejoicing over what is lost being found again. Let us take these wonderful teachings and apply them to our lives. Let us reach out with hope and forgiveness to those who are hurting, supporting them on the Divine path of restoration. Let us express this love of the Lord Himself as He comes to restore our own lives toward heaven, realizing that in His sight we are all in need of the Divine healing. This is a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Divine physician, and tells His everlasting message of hope: “It is right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.” Amen.

Lessons: Psalm 84, Luke 15, TCR 394-5

True Christian Religion 394, 395

THERE ARE THREE UNIVERSAL LOVES THE LOVE OF HEAVEN, THE LOVE OF THE WORLD, AND THE LOVE OF SELF.

These three loves must first be considered for the reason that these three are the universal and fundamental of all loves, and that charity has something in common with each of them. For the love of heaven means both love to the Lord and love toward the neighbor; and as each of these looks to use as its end, the love of heaven may be called the love of uses. The love of the world is not merely a love of wealth and possessions, but is also a love of all that the world affords, and of all that delights the bodily senses, as beauty delights the eye, harmony the ear, fragrance the nostrils, delicacies the tongue, softness the skin; also becoming dress, convenient houses, and society, thus all the enjoyments arising from these and many other objects. The love of self is not merely the love of honor, glory, fame, and eminence, but also the love of meriting and seeking office, and so of ruling over others. Charity has something in common with each of these three loves because viewed in itself charity is the love of uses; for charity wishes to do good to the neighbor, and good and use are the same, and from these loves everyone looks to uses as his end, the love of heaven looking to spiritual uses, the love of the world to natural uses, which may be called civil, and the love of self to corporeal uses, which may also be called domestic uses, that have regard to oneself and one’s own.

… That these three loves are rightly subordinated when the love of heaven forms the head, the love of the world the breast and abdomen, and the love of self the feet and their soles. As repeatedly stated above, the human mind is divided into three regions. From the highest region man looks to God, from the second or middle region to the world, and from the third or lowest to himself. The mind being such, it can be raised and can raise itself upward, because to God and to heaven; it can be extended and can extend itself to the sides in all directions, because into the world and its nature; and it can be let downward and let itself downward, because to earth and to hell. In these respects the bodily vision emulates the mind’s vision; it also can look upward, round about, and downward.

[2] The human mind is like a house of three stories which communicate by stairs, in the highest of which angels from heaven dwell, in the middle men in the world, and in the lowest one, genii. The man in whom these three loves are rightly subordinated can ascend and descend in this house at his pleasure; and when he ascends to the highest story, he is in company with angels as an angel; and when he descends from that to the middle story he is in company with men as an angel man; and when from this he descends still further, he is in company with genii as a man of the world, instructing, reproving, and subduing them.

[3] In the man in whom these three loves are rightly subordinated, they are also coordinated thus: The highest love, which is the love of heaven, is inwardly in the second, which is the love of the world, and through this in the third or lowest, which is the love of self; and the love that is within directs at its will that which is without. So when the love of heaven is inwardly in the love of the world and through this in the love of self, man from the God of heaven performs uses in each. In their operation these three loves are like will, understanding, and action; the will flows into the understanding, and there provides itself with the means whereby it produces action.