Archive for December, 2012
Gifts for Our Heavenly King
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 30, 2012
Isaiah 60:1-6 Matthew 2:1-12 Psalm 72
According to Church tradition, this Sunday is called Epiphany. It celebrates the visit of the Magi to Jesus and the gifts that they bring. We have just celebrated Christmas—a day of gift giving and receiving. This Sunday of Epiphany is also a celebration of gift giving and receiving. This morning, I’d like us to think a little bit about the gifts that we can bring to God, and also the gifts that God has given to us.
I think of several things when I think of bringing gifts to God. And recall, that God has a humanity as an aspect of His Divinity. And God’s Humanity has some of the same things that our humanity has. When we give gifts, we are happy to see the person’s joy when they open our gifts. I think that God is also happy when He receives gifts from us.
When we think of bringing gifts to God, it may sound strange. We may wonder, “What can God want from us?” And also we may wonder what kind of gift can we give to God? It’s not as if we are in the Christmas story, and we can actually come to the baby Jesus and give Him incense, frankincense, and myrrh. And yet I think that there are gifts we can give to God, and I think that when we bring gifts to God, God is moved with the joy of receiving a gift as we are.
When I first think of giving a gift to God, I think about responding to God’s call. In the book of Revelation, Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (3:20). Jesus is constantly calling us into relationship with Himself. Like a lover, He is calling us to respond to His love and to return it. God wants to give us all of Himself, and all the joys of heaven to us. Like everyone who truly loves, God cares about our response to Him. Like all lovers, God wants His love returned. Then we are lifted up into the circle of love and joy given and returned. All we need do is to respond to Jesus’ call and open the door. All we need to do is to let God into our hearts, and to live in such a way that we can be filled with God’s love and joy. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says,
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).
Jesus want us to come to Him, and to live with Him in heaven—whether we are on earth or in the next life. Like a mother to her children, Jesus asks us to love Him in return, and to share in the boundless love He has for us. All we need to do is respond to Jesus call, and to live with Him in eternity. Then we will receive Jesus’ promise, and we will find rest for our souls.
And by responding to Jesus’ call to commune with Himself, we receive a great gift from God. In the Matthew passage I just quoted, Jesus says that we will find rest for our souls when we come to Him. When we respond to God’s call, we receive peace, tranquility, and joy. God takes away the frustrations we feel when we are driven by ego and the craving for wealth, power, and status. For when we are driven by ego, wealth, power, and status, we will never be at peace. We will constantly be in contention with others who are craving the same ends. We will be in conflict with our brothers and sisters. But that’s not all. We will also be in conflict with ourselves. When we are driven by ego, wealth, power, and status, we will never have enough. We will continually be striving for more. And by always wanting more than we have, we will never find peace. When we come to Christ, we leave behind all those worldly lusts. We put God before self, and in doing so we find release from selfish cravings that leave us continually unsettled. So by giving Christ the gift of a loving response, we find that we are the ones who receive. We find a happiness that the world cannot give. We find a love that we can’t manufacture from our egos. We find heaven. So we become part of the circle of gift-giving. We give and in giving we receive.
Then, when I wonder about of what kind of gift we can bring to God, I think of the gift of service. I think of the many ways we can serve God in the world all around us. There are the formal ways of service that come to my mind first. What comes to my mind this time of year, among other things, is the youth work I do. There is usually a retreat this time of year I attend as the youth chaplain. And in summers, I go to youth camps. I work hard to prepare lessons that I think they will benefit from. And I engage socially and pastorally with them during these retreats. And like all true giving, I receive back seven fold what I give. The real gift I receive is simply the opportunity to minister to the teens. I treasure the sacred space that opens up when the youth all come together in God’s name. I treasure the opportunity to interact with them and share their dreams for the future and their issues in the present. I feel called into my ministry, and I thank God for giving me the privilege to do what I love and feel called to do.
But foremost in my thinking is this church. I do my very best to serve God and to serve the needs of the Church of the Holy City. I feel blessed for the opportunity to lead this congregation, as I am with the youth. The holy peace that descends upon the church during worship is a gift that I share with the church members. And when I am able to visit, pray, counsel, and console church members, I am honoured and thankful that God has brought me to you and you to me. When Carol and I brought the Christmas gifts that the church contributed to the Lurana Shelter, to see the gratitude from Sister Mary was another special way I felt blessed by this church and the generosity you all showed. The gift of service always comes back to the giver seven fold. And the gift of service is another way to bring a gift to God.
There are many ways to show service in our lives. It may be a phone call to a loved one, or to someone who is not able to get out much. It may be giving someone a ride who lacks transportation. It may be as simple as encouragement to someone who is struggling, or in some way engaged with a trying task. It may be a pat on the back or giving congratulations to someone who has succeeded with their dreams or with a certain goal they had. It may be a smile, a handshake, or a hug.
As God continually knocks at the door, waiting for us to open it, so God will give us the opportunity to be of service. If we remain open, God will show us where and how we can give to others in our daily lives. Divine Providence guides us continually throughout our lives. God guides us to opportunities for service. God shows us daily where we can give. In Matthew 25:40 Jesus says, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine you did for me.” In doing good to those around us, we are doing good for God. When we do good to those around us, we are bringing a gift to God. And God is in the heart of those around us, and is the heart of the social structure we live in. In doing good to others, we are actually doing good to God. In bringing us to service to our neighbours, God is bringing us to Himself.
When our minds are on the good we can bring to the world around us, we find release. We find release from care and worry, we find release from greed and the lust to control, we find peace. This is the circle of giving. In giving to God and the neighbour, we find that God gives us the joy and blessedness of heaven. In Luke 12:32, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” It is God’s will that everyone should feel heavenly joy and happiness. That is why He stands at the door and knocks. That is why He calls us to come to Him. That is the gift God wants to give to us, when we respond to His call and serve our neighbours.
Lord, in ancient days wise men brought you gifts in celebration of your advent into the world. And this Epiphany season we think about bringing you gifts. But what shall we bring to you? How shall we please you? You have said that all you require is that we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you. You have also said that you stand at the door and knock; all we need do is let you in. Lord, this morning, and every day, we ask you into our lives. Come and sup with us. When we observe Holy Communion, or in the private recesses of our hearts, we ask you to come to us; we would open the door. And when you come to us, give us the power to act justly. Give us to love mercy, even as we walk humbly with you. For with you, everything is possible, and without you we can do nothing.
Finding the Christmas Spirit
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
Christmas Eve 2012
I had a hard time finding the Christmas spirit this year. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was because much of my energy was spent on the vacation to the Caribbean I am planning for March. Perhaps it was because of my busy schedule of work, which I am a bit behind on. I don’t know. I don’t mean to say that I was as sad as Charlie Brown, who got depressed around the Christmas season. I wasn’t feeling bad. I just didn’t feel that tingle of the Christmas season as I have in the past.
But my feelings changed. The Christmas season did sneak up on me and little by little I began to feel the sanctity of the season. The season made its inroads into my heart by a simple but definitive act on my part. I bought this year’s Christmas cards. And when I began to think of all the people I would be sending them out to, I began to feel the joy of Christmas.
We all hear that Christmas is a time of giving. It is a time of gifts. The money I spend on gifts sometimes makes it hard for me to get through the month. Sometimes I even go into debt. But I don’t feel anxiety when I am low on money for the purposes of Christmas giving. This is debt I gladly assume. It makes me feel good to think of the people I will be gifting this year, and each year.
I think that our rituals of gift-giving have a sound religious grounding to them. For when Christ came to earth, it was humanity’s greatest gift. God came to earth to give us His love, His peace, and His salvation. The coming of God into the world was the gift of salvation to the human race, who didn’t know how bad off they were.
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus came into the world that He made, but the world didn’t know Him. He did have a great following in this world. He had such a following that the religious and secular authorities thought Him a threat. But many of His followers didn’t understand Him. They thought He would be a material ruler and that He would establish a kingdom in Israel, drive out the Romans, and set up Israel as a light to the rest of the world.
The prophets predicted this great miracle when the Messiah would come. They saw a time when the thick darkness would be pierced and light from heaven would shine down on the world. Some prophesies said that the created order would be redeemed and the whole earth would be renewed.
But neither a conquering king came, nor did cataclysmic transformation of the world take place. What happened was something no one could have imagined. What happened very few even saw, and even fewer understood. One noisy evening, in the crowded city of Jerusalem, in the dead of night, a mother gave birth to a baby. This baby was born in a barn with the animals. He wasn’t born in a palace, a temple, or even a hotel. This is how God chose to enter the world.
He didn’t announce His arrival to the movers and shakers of His time. King Herod heard about it from foreigners. And it was only after those foreigners told him about Jesus’ birth that the chief priests and teachers of the Law were told about it. But those foreigners, who practiced another religion called Zoroastrianism, knew something that the Jews didn’t–the Savior of humanity was born. And rustic shepherds out in their fields were told about Jesus’ birth. These were not rich and powerful. They did not have their heads cluttered with affairs of state or matters of theology. They had only the safety of their sheep in mind and the beauty of the stars that late evening. Their quiet was interrupted by bright light and a choir of angels, and they were afraid. But their fears were calmed by the angels, and they went to where Jesus was born, and worshipped in wonder.
This was the nature of the first Christmas spirit. One humble family. Three foreigners who practiced a foreign religion. And humble shepherds. I doubt if anyone really knew what was happening that first Christmas night. I doubt if anyone knew that God was bringing the gift of salvation to the whole of humanity that night. I doubt if anyone knew that God had come to us as a human baby to form that everlasting covenant of love that the prophets had proclaimed. I doubt if anyone knew how badly they needed what Jesus Christ would bring to the world.
And after the resurrection, when it appeared that the world would go on as it always had, without the renewed earth that the prophets had predicted, people still remembered that baby born that night. As society performed sacrifices to the great Roman gods, and as the Jews followed the prescriptions of the rabbis and also performed sacrifices to Yahweh, a small group of people scattered through Israel met in houses and shared common meals together. And as they broke bread together, they told stories about that baby born Christmas night. They had no idea that the western world would be transformed by their memories of that baby.
It is fitting that we celebrate Christmas with the parties, common meals, and gifts that are part of the season. For Jesus Christ showed the world a new way to relate to God and to each other. Jesus Christ reminded us of our joy in and our need for mutual love. And those parties and dinners and gifts for just a few weeks or days remind us of the same things–the joy of and our need for mutual love.
In the midst of these festivities, let us remember that Jesus is the reason for the season. Rejoicing in each others’ company is what Jesus came to teach us. But let us remember our joy in God’s company, too. Isaiah 61 compares our relationship with God to a bride and bridegroom. In that chapter we are promised everlasting joy. And in Jeremiah, God says that He will write His law upon our hearts; He will be our God and we will be His people (31:33). Our fundamental relationship is with God. This gives God joy. And when we feel His joy in us and our joy in each other, then the Christmas story is in its fullness.
Dear Lord, you came to earth 2,000 years ago. Your Divine power and glory took the form of a tiny human baby. The Word was made flesh. Your presence transformed the world and ushered in a new era for the human race. Your brought salvation to a people dearly in need of your transforming love. And Lord, we are still in need of your presence. We ask for you to come to this world as you did in years past. Come into each of our hearts and transform us through your healing love. Bring your salvation to us individually, as you did to the Near Eastern world so long ago.
Lord, as we look at the world we see wonderful transformations happening. Issues of gender, race, and creed are showing such signs of progress. It appears that the world is opening its arms to each other and embracing people who appear different from each other.
Yet we also see alarming things in the world around us. It appears sometimes as if the world has no longer any need for you, their Maker. As in days long past, today we ask for you to come to the world in your New Church, transforming the world, and making all things new. While we may not understand, we have faith in your Divine Providence We know that the world is unfolding according to your will. We know that all that happens is according to your providence. We trust that your salvation is as near to us and to this world as it was when your holy feet walked the dust of Palestine.
Garments of Salvation
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 16, 2012
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Luke 1:47-55 Psalm 126
Today’s readings are all about salvation and the human condition. The readings speak over and over again about humility, brokenness, and God’s care for the downtrodden. This is a message our society needs to hear. It is about as opposite to our culture as a message could be. Our society rewards and praises the shakers and movers, the self-made men and women, the successful, the wealthy, the powerful. But Isaiah and Luke talk about the poor, the brokenhearted, those who mourn, despair, and humility. It is these who the Lord will save, and not the proud. Where in this world do we hear such a message? Where do we find such words of comfort for those who are not among the rich and powerful today?
Our readings teach us important lessons about salvation. I think we can read literally that God brings down the proud. In Mary’s song we find the following verse, “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts” (Luke 1:51). And we also find the following verse, “He has lifted up the humble” (1:52). In those two verses we have the whole process of regeneration captured. For the whole process of regeneration is one of breaking down pride and rendering a person humble. I think that it takes a great deal of humility for a person to call on God, and to seek out God’s will for him or her. When we are puffed up with pride we need no one–not anyone else, and not God. We are self-sufficient, and we stand on our own two feet. It is only when our pride has been broken that we see our utter need for God in our life. Only when self-will has been reduced to humility do we ask for God’s love and life to come to us. Only then do we see that we don’t have the power to save ourselves.
This reminds me of a story from my days back in Florida. One night I was out at a cigar bar that I used to frequent in order to smoke my favorite Rocky Patel cigars. That night I made the mistake of being drawn into a discussion about religion. It was occasioned by Rocky Patel himself, who had had an unfortunate experience with a fundamentalist woman. He took all of Christianity to be her version of Christianity and we often would discuss our differing views. That night I told Rocky that everyone of every faith could be saved. At that point a very drunk, but exceedingly well-dressed man broke in and demanded, “Why do I need to be saved?!” I tried to say some things about ego, self-will, and the like, but his anger and inebriation made any rational discussion impossible. He kept demanding, “Why do I need to be saved?!” There were some interesting things about this person. He would ride around the city in a stretch limousine and drink only very expensive champagne. But he always sat alone, and didn’t appear to have any friends in the city. One night he agreed to come to an AA meeting with me and we rode together in his limo to the meeting. He left midway through the meeting, and in his limo on the way back he said some sad things. He said, “I’m done. If you can’t convince me why not, I’m going to end it all by morning.” This wealthy, worldly man could see no reason to go on. He did let me off the hook from this awesome responsibility. He said, “No, that’s not fair to you.”
So here we have a wealthy man. An alcoholic who can’t find sobriety, and who can’t see any reason to go on any more. And this is the man who kept demanding of me, “Why do I need to be saved?!”
So wealth and power can lead us to question why we need God in our lives. Our ego can make us think that we are sufficient unto ourselves. A slogan I have come across used the letters of ego to make a spiritual statement. It goes that e-g-o stands for “edging God out.” This is what Swedenborg says about wealth and pride.
Provided he inwardly acknowledges the Divine and wishes well to his neighbor, it is evident that it is not so difficult as many believe to enter the way of heaven. The only difficulty is to be able to resist the love of self and the world, and to prevent their becoming predominant; for from this predominance come all evils (HH 359).
Only if we set our hearts on selfish gain and wealth do they become problematic for our spiritual wellbeing.
So we have to be careful about reading these Bible passages too literally. Reading them too literally would suggest that there is something spiritually bad about being rich and powerful. And it would also suggest that those suffering and poor have some virtue just because that are suffering and poor. But this church teaches that spirituality is indifferent to issues of wealth. The wealthy are not excluded from heaven simply because they have abundance, and the poor are not favored simply because they are poor. Swedenborg tells us that,
they therefore who take the Word only according to the literal sense, and not according to any spiritual sense, err in many things, especially in regard to the rich and the poor; as that it is as difficult for the rich to enter into heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle; and that it is easy for the poor because they are poor (HH 357).
However, Swedenborg claims that the rich can enter heaven as easily as the poor.
The rich come as easily into heaven as the poor, and . . . a person is not excluded from heaven because he lives in abundance, nor received into heaven because he is in poverty (HH 357).
As always with Swedenborg, it is the kind of life that a person leads that determines whether he or she will enter into eternal blessedness and joy.
The life of everyone follows him, whether he be rich or poor. There is no particular mercy for one more than for the other; he is received who has lived well, and he is rejected who has lived ill (HH 364).
So if there is no distinction between rich and poor as to who enters heaven, how are we to understand what I have been saying about the Bible readings so far? I think that there are parts of it that can be taken literally, as I have been doing. Swedenborg tells us that the Bible is like a person wearing a coat. Most of his body is covered up, but his face and hands are bare. So what we need for salvation shines through the Bible’s literal sense, like the bare hands a d face, while the internal sense is covered up like the body covered by the coat.
But there is also a spiritual sense to riches that make them prohibitive to the heavenly way. When we consider what riches mean in a spiritual sense, then they do make heaven as difficult as it would be for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. In Swedenborg’s system of symbolism, which he calls correspondences, riches signify an abundance of knowledges and education. In and of themselves, knowledges can go either way. A person can confirm religious truth through knowledge and strengthen their faith by seeing a multitude of interrelated ideas about God. This is a good use of knowledge. In fact Swedenborg even says that faith is perfected by an abundance and coherence of truths. Knowledges become problematic, though, when a person tries to enter religious truth by means of the knowledge he or she knows. I think of that brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking. He probably knows the most about the universe of anyone today. Yet all his knowledge has made him an atheist. I heard him reason out his disbelief. And his disbelief is based directly on what he knows about science, or on his natural knowledge. His reasoning is as follows: 1) before the Big Bang there was no time; 2) if there was no time, there could be no before and after because before and after need time to occur; 3) if there was no before and after, there could be no God before the Big Bang, 4) therefore there is no God. So it is his knowledge of physics that makes Hawking an atheist. His riches are coming between him and God. For us, God is outside space and time, so all of Hawking’s reasonings are without foundation.
This discussion about knowledge, pride and spirituality brings us back to humility. All of this requires humility. To become enlightened, we need to be humble enough to realize that we do not know by our own power. We can amass facts, but they don’t become truth until God inspires them with the Holy Spirit. Then the facts we know point our way to understanding what is true and how to live. We can’t have God in our lives when we are puffed up with pride. We need to be humble enough to ask God for wisdom and love. In Mary’s song, we heard that God “lifts up the humble.” And when we have the humility to ask God into our lives, He will lift us up out of ego and into unimaginable peace, tranquility, and joy in His Kingdom forever.
Mary recognized her own humble condition. She sings, “My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,/for He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant” (Luke 1:46-47). In fact, the whole Christmas story is an elevation of the humble. It is a story of a God who takes on a humble human form, born to a humble working-class family, in a humble barn, who is seen by humble shepherds. This is not a story of Emperor Augustus. It is not a story of Pharaohs, or kings, or Emperors. It is the story of a God who so wants humanity to understand Him and form a love relationship with Him that He came to us in a form we can understand and love: an innocent baby.
This is the message of Christmas I bring to you this morning. A message of humility. The humility of Mary, the mother whose greatest joy was in the child God had given her. The humility of the circumstances of God’s entrance into the world. When we are tempted to puff ourselves up with worldly acclaim or worldly measures of success, let us remember our God, who came to us in the most humble of ways.
Make Straight a Highway for Our God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 9, 2012
Isaiah 40:1-11 Mark 1:1-8
The Common Christian Lectionary again calls our attention to apocalypticism. Apocalypticism refers to the Great Day of the Lord, when God will come to earth and renew the land, restore the kingdom of Israel and judge the whole human race. In both Isaiah 40 and in Mark 1, which refers us to Isaiah 40, we have the idea of the Great Day of the Lord.
John the Baptist says that the Great Day of the Lord is at hand, that it is happening in his own time. Many Christian theologians believe that the Great Day of the Lord–or the apocalyptic event of the renewal of the earth–that this cosmic event happened during the time of Jesus Christ. They believe that Jesus was its herald and that the whole world changed during the time of Christ. They thus believe that Jesus Christ ushered in a new time and kingdom to last forever. In this belief they distinguish between Judaism and the Law of Moses, and Christianity and faith in Jesus. They say that the ways and words of the Old Testament have been superseded by the words and the apocalyptic kingdom ushered in by Jesus Christ found in the New Testament. Stated in its strong form, these Christians believe that the Old Testament was rendered null and void because the New Law of Christ replaces it.
Let’s look a little at the words of the prophets that the New Testament calls our attention. The gospel of Mark begins with a reference to two different prophets. It begins with a reference to Malachi, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” This is a reference to the Great Day of the Lord that Malachi prophesies about. He says,
See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; . . (Malachi 3:1).
This version of the Great Day of the Lord is frightening. Some of its words were adopted for the Catholic Requiem,
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. . . . “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty, “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall” (Malachi 3:1-2; 4:1-2).
So the first reference in Mark sends us to Malachi. In Malachi we find that a prophet will precede the Great Day of the Lord. We find also that this will be a day of judgement. The arrogant and the evildoers will be burned like stubble in a fire. But for the righteous will come the healing son. They will leap like calves released from the stall. Since this is a day of judgement, John baptizes for repentance. For it is by repentance that we make ourselves ready for judgment.
The second reference to the prophets that we have in our Mark reading is Isaiah 40. In Mark we have the words,
A voice of one calling in the desert,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
Make straight paths for him.”
This passage refers us to Isaiah 40, where we read:
In the desert, prepare
The way for the LORD;
Make straight in the wilderness
A highway for our God.
This chapter of Isaiah is an apocalyptic passage, too. It talks about the coming of God to the earth. This version of the coming of the Lord is gentle, compared with that of Malachi. When the Lord comes, He will tend His sheep like a shepherd, and carry us close to His heart,
You who bring good tidings to Zion,
Go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem,
Lift up your voice with a shout,
Lift it up, do not be afraid;
Say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power,
He tends his flock like a shepherd;
He gathers the lambs in his arms
And carries them close to his heart;
He gently leads those that have young (Isaiah 40:9-10,11).
As in Malachi, this passage calls for repentance as well. It calls for repentance by means of metaphor. We are to make a straight pathway for God.
In the desert, prepare
The way for the LORD;
Make straight in the wilderness
A highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
Every mountain shall be made low; . . .
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed (Isaiah 40:3).
Handel picked up some of the words from Isaiah 40 for his masterpiece, “The Messiah.” The words we just heard are penitential words. By means of poetic symbols, Isaiah enjoins us to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Elevating every valley means lifting us upward out of sin into heavenly joy. Making mountains low means symbolically lowering ourselves, humbling our arrogance, ego, and selfishness.
There is no doubt that the writers of the gospels saw the coming of Jesus as the fulfillment of this Great Day of the Lord. Every gospel has a reference to these prophesies in the beginning, making it clear that the coming of Jesus was the coming of the Day of the Lord that the prophets spoke of throughout the Old Testament.
Also, it appears that the gospel writers think of Jesus as the incarnation of God that the prophets spoke of. The very first words of Mark state this, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The words “Son of God” in Aramaic do not mean God’s child. When the word “son” is used, it means a member of that category. So “son of man” would mean “a man,” “son of righteousness” would mean “a righteous person,” and “Son of God” would mean “God.”
Since God was coming into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist cried out for repentance, in order for the human race to be ready for the coming of God and the Great Day of the Lord. We re-enact this historical event each Christmas. As we anticipate Christmas Day, we examine ourselves and prepare for the Holy Day of Christmas which celebrates the coming of Jesus into the world. So the weeks of Advent in the Christian calendar are a time for reflection, repentance, and pledging life anew. The prophet Isaiah calls for us to make a highway for God. He asks us to make a road on which God can come to us. He asks us to clear away the blockage of sin in order to let heavenly light into our hearts and minds.
There is a sensible way of going about this spiritual refining process. We can’t make ourselves wholly pure in one day, one month, or one season. But we can identify one aspect of ourselves that we want to reform. Just one. If we try to become wholly pure all at once we will feel as if the mountain we are to make level has completely toppled on us and buried us under its earth. But we can manage one aspect of our character that we want to reform.
When we think of sin, many different ideas can come to mind. There are the unhelpful and unhealthy ideas of guilt and shame that do little for our wellbeing. But there are constructive ways of thinking about sin as well. We can think about whether we are keeping the Ten Commandments. We can measure our emotional life against the two great commandments, Love God and Love our Neighbor. We can think of shortcomings that are holding us back. Or we can think of coping mechanisms that are no longer useful. However we think of sin, the main question we should be asking ourselves is this, “What is blocking God’s love from my heart?” However we answer that question is what constitutes sin. That is, sin is nothing but what blocks God’s love from filling our hearts. To the extent that we banish sin, we become that much more filled with God’s Holy Spirit. We are elevated into heaven’s delight; we enter more deeply into a loving relationship with God; and we look upon our neighbors as fellows, friends, and companions.
Seen constructively, as a means to let God’s love enter our hearts more fully, repentance is nothing to hide from. Sin is not something to fear, or even to be ashamed of. The injunction to repentance means that we all have sin in us. “All we like sheep have gone astray,” says Isaiah (53:6). God alone is perfect. But God does give is the power to become His very children. The Apostle John puts this beautifully in the beginning of his gospel,
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (1:12-13).
The Day of the Lord is every day. It is every day that we turn from maladaptive behaviors, thoughts, and emotions, and turn toward God. That is what we mean in the benediction we sometimes say, “May the Lord bless our going out and our coming in.” God blesses our going out of sin and coming into goodness and love. That is how we become children of God. We have God’s promise that He will lead us like a shepherd through this process and hold us close to His heart. Christ has indeed ushered in a new period in human history. And He continues to usher in a new day in our lives when we repent, and allow God to baptize us with the Holy Spirit.
Dear Lord, in ancient times the prophets spoke of a day when you would come to earth and set things straight. And on that ancient Christmas Day 2000 years ago, you did come to earth and bring your message of healing and love. What the people then expected, and what we long for now, is that you would set the world straight. But we accept things as you allow them to be, not as we would have them. We know that your Divine Providence guides all the affairs of this world from the greatest international affairs to the smallest individual hope and prayer. Your Great Day of Judgment is every day and every moment of every day, as we turn from sin and turn toward your shining face. Your Great Day of judgment occurs each time we choose what is good and right, and turn from what is evil and wrong. Walk with us, dear Lord, as we pilgrimage here on earth, and lead us into eternal blessedness in your home where we will live with you forever.
O That You Would Come Down
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 2, 2012
Isaiah 64:1-9 Mark 13: 24-37 Psalm 80
The Common Christian Lectionary that tells Christian congregations which Bible readings to select each Sunday again chose an Apocalyptic passage. Apocalyptic writings talk about a time when God will come down to earth and set things straight. Mark 13 is an apocalyptic passage which tells about the final judgment on the earth. Our reading from Isaiah was sort of apocalyptic, but not really. In Isaiah the idea of God coming down to earth to straighten things out is there. That idea is an apocalyptic expectation. But the passage is in the form of an appeal to God. It reads, “O that you would rend the heavens and come down.” This passage is a prayer to God, entreating God to come down and set things straight. It is not an apocalyptic prophesy that predicts that great and awesome Day of the Lord, when God will come down to earth.
We can understand just why the ancient Israelites would appeal to God for help, as we read in Isaiah. Things were really bad for the ancient Israelites in the years just before the Advent of Christ. The passage from Isaiah 64 we heard was probably written when the Israelites were returning home from the Babylonian captivity. They were rebuilding their country, including the temple which had been destroyed by the Babylonians. But the new country that they rebuilt was just a remnant of the former glory that Israel had known under David and Solomon. There were power struggles between the priests, the numbers of the Israelites who returned were small, and they were denied a king of their own in this rebuilt province of Persia. The whole rebuilding process was a disappointment to many. But things got worse. Alexander the Great plowed through Israel, conquering as he went. Israel came under Greek rule, and things got so bad that a pig was even sacrificed in the temple in Jerusalem. Then the Romans came through, conquering as they came. In the years before Christ, Israel was a province of the Roman Empire. Gone were the days of self-governance. Gone were the days of the mighty kings. We can understand the words carried from an earlier age, “O that you would rend the heavens and come down.”
We can’t emphasize too much the widespread expectation of the Great Day of the Lord in the years just before Christ. In the early years before Christ, there was widespread expectation that the Great Day of the Lord was coming really soon. The idea that soon God would come down and set the world right, and that the Messiah would rule on the throne of Israel for ever was in the air everywhere. The Dead Sea Scrolls tell us just how anxiously the world awaited the Messiah and the Great Day of the Lord. The Dead Sea Scrolls were written by a monastic community who were awaiting the Great Day of the Lord and the cosmic battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. One such text reads,
On that day when the Kittim fall there shall be a battle and horrible carnage before the God of Israel, for it is a day appointed by Him from ancient times as a battle of annihilation for the Sons of Darkness. On that day the congregation of the gods and the congregation of men shall engage one another, resulting in great carnage. The Sons of Light and the forces of Darkness shall fight together to show the strength of God with the roar of a great multitude and the shout of gods and men; a day of disaster (The War Scroll).
The prophesy says that God and the Sons of Light will win this cosmic battle and usher in a time when God will forever rule on earth,
Then at the time appointed by God, His great excellence shall shine for all the times of eternity; for peace and blessing, glory and joy, and long life for all Sons of Light.
This Great Day of the Lord also has a moral component to it. When God sets the world straight, He will also purify the souls of humans. Not only will the world be redeemed, but human hearts will also be rendered pure. The prophesies about human redemption also begin with the understanding that the world is fallen and in need of divine amendment.
In His mysterious insight and glorious wisdom God has countenanced an era in which perversity triumphs, but at the time appointed for visitation He shall destroy such forever. Then shall truth come forth in victory upon the earth. Sullied by wicked ways while perversity rules, at the time of the appointed judgement truth shall be decreed. By His truth God shall then purify all human deeds, and refine some of humanity so as to extinguish every perverse spirit from the inward parts of the flesh, cleansing from every wicked deed by a holy spirit. Like purifying waters, He shall sprinkle each with a spirit of truth, effectual against all the abominations of lying and sullying by an unclean spirit (Charter of a Jewish Sectarian Association).
We see a similar expectation in the New Testament that God will come soon and right the fallen world. In Mark 13:30 Jesus says that the people now living will see this happen: “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” This line suggests that the early Christians expected the last judgement to happen in their lifetime. Paul seems to have the same expectation. In 1 Corinthians 7, he writes, “The time is short . . . For this world in its present form is passing away” (29, 31).
Jesus tells us that we do not know the hour when these things will happen. His message, therefore, is to watch; be ready; do not let the Master find us sleeping when He comes. We face God’s judgement every moment and we are called to live our lives as if Christ is coming soon, or perhaps as if Christ has already come to us.
The message we heard from Isaiah seems to reinforce this New Testament message. Isaiah 64:5 tells us, “You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.” This is a clear statement that God gives aid to those who do what is right. In fact, it even says that God comes to those who do what is right. Yet, surprisingly, this same Isaiah 64 was used by Luther, and is still used by some Protestants to support the belief that doing right does not matter to God. They take one line from this chapter for such support, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (64:6). Luther took this to mean that works are not regarded by God except as filthy rags. Thus works do not, works can not save us.
But Isaiah 64 has both teachings in it. God comes to the help of those who do what is right. But also in the same chapter, the feeling of sin is so great that the writer feels even his righteous acts are but filthy rags.
This church teaches a middle road between these two ideas. We are a mystical form of Christianity. This means that we teach a path that brings us into personal relationship with God. Swedenborg teaches that the heaven-bound way is one in which God lives in our hearts and minds. God is Infinite Goodness. So when we have God in us, we will have Goodness in us. This goodness will flow forth in loving good deeds. Technically, we are not the ones doing good. It is God in us that is doing the good that we seem to be doing. But it is of critical import to our spiritual wellbeing that we do good and loving deeds. If we have God in us we will do good deeds spontaneously. Only if we take credit for the good we do will our deeds appear as filthy rags. But even that is too strong a statement. When we begin our spiritual journey, we may be proud of ourselves for doing good, which we have been taught to do. We wouldn’t want to stifle this bud of spiritual life by accusing these good deeds of being filthy rags. We would want to encourage the early efforts of everyone who is doing good. Ultimately, as a person matures spiritually, a person will see that it is God in him or her doing the good.
We do not know the hour when Christ will come. But that hour is every hour of our day, every minute of our life. God is always with us. Let us do the next right thing that life puts in front of us. Let us do the good that we know to do. In Luke 17:21, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is within us. I take that to mean that the great battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness is going on in our souls. The Great Day of God happens when we turn to what is good, and dispel what is evil. In its discussion of the Great Day of the Lord, the Dead Sea Scrolls talks about these two spirits that contend in our heart. “Until now the spirits of truth and perversity have contended within the human heart” (Charter of a Jewish Sectarian Association).
We do not know when that Great Day of the Lord will happen on the earth–if it will happen visibly at all. We do know, however, about the spirits of perversity and truth that contend within the human heart. We do know about the forces of darkness and light that contend within our soul. We face judgement each waking moment, when we are called to do the next right thing in front of us. God will come and bring aid to us in this cosmic battle. “You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.” When we conquer in this battle, we will be ready to meet Jesus when He comes in the clouds whether visibly, or only in our hearts.
Lord, you have told us in your Word that you come and help those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. And we also read in your Word that a great battle is waged in our souls between forces of light and forces of darkness. In this battle, we implore your promised help, that the forces of light may find a home in our souls forever. There is a great day of judgment at hand. The great judgment day is at every moment of our lives, it is present each choice we make. May we always be ready to meet you on that Great Day. And we humbly ask you to walk with us, day by day, even as we would walk with you.