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And Was Tempted
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 9, 2014
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 Matthew 4:1-11 Psalm 32
This Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent. It follows Ash Wednesday and leads up to Good Friday and Easter. Lent is 46 days long. It is actually based on the number 40, which is a number for temptation. Noah’s Ark was tossed on the waters for 40 days and 40 nights. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert. Jesus was tempted by the devil for 40 days. But Lent is 46 days because there are 6 Sundays in Lent. In Lent, you fast during the week, but on Sundays you feast. So in order to get 40 days of fasting, you need a total of 46 days.
In the Season of Lent, one is to be conscious of sin. So the Common Lectionary, or the book that tells Christians which Bible readings to use for Sunday Service, the Lectionary chooses passages about sin for this first week of Lent.. In Genesis we heard about original sin, when Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil and were expelled from the Garden of Eden. And interestingly, in our reading from Matthew, we heard about Jesus Himself undergoing temptation. The idea of sin and temptation really imply spiritual transformation. The idea of spiritual transformation follows last Sunday’s talk about the proprium very well. Last Sunday we talked about the problem of the proprium. This Sunday we will talk about breaking up the proprium and changing our souls into an image and likeness of God. Another way to phrase this is to say we will look at sin and its destruction. This happens through temptations.
Jesus says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 17:35). This short statement contains the whole process of regeneration., or of destroying proprium and receiving a new self from God. Jesus first says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it.” To save your life means to save the proprium. or all those selfish and worldly drives that vex the soul and come between us and God’s inflowing love. In this sense, to save yourself means to hold on to the things we are accustomed to in this world. It means to hold onto self-interest and to worldly ambition. This is why we lose our lives when we try to save it. We lose our lives, or die spiritually, when we try to save the things of this world we are accustomed to. But notice the second part of this profound statement. Jesus talks about losing our lives. But He says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” This means to dedicate our lives to the teachings of Jesus, which are the same as the gospels. If we dedicate our lives to Jesus, and if we lose our life of self-interest and proprium, we will save our lives spiritually. This is another way to talk about spiritual rebirth, or regeneration.
For Swedenborg, being reborn is a process. Some churches teach that being reborn comes in an instant when a person accepts Jesus into their heart. Though they say this, if pressed a little bit, they will inevitably say that a person still needs to be aware of the reality of sin. They will admit that combating sin is still part of the spiritual life, even though they are saved. Methodists and Lutherans do indeed talk about purification from sin. Even though Lutherans will insist that faith in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice saves a person, they still speak of the process of purification from sin. They and the Methodists call this “Sanctifying Grace.” They are careful to call it an act of grace, because they want the process to be all God’s doing. Calvinists have a similar notion. For them, the process is called “Sanctification.” I heard a Presbyterian minister say it is like God shining a flashlight on our soul. For Swedenborg, it is called regeneration. The process of regeneration involves the spiritual conflict of temptation.
Temptations are mortal struggles. They are conflicts between the life we used to live and the things we used to love–the life that must die–and the new life we are progressively growing into. The process is like this. Temptations begin with knowledge. We learn the ways of God and heaven. We then examine our lives and see if it matches up with what we know of spiritual life. We look at what we love. We look at our priorities. We look at our relationship to the world. We see if the life we live fits with the life of heaven. As we are doing this, God flows into our souls and minds, filling us with His love. Then, when God’s love meets our worldly loves, a conflict takes place. We want to tenaciously hold onto the way of life we know. We want to hold onto our comfortable life in the world. We want to hold onto our self-interest and all the drives and desires that come with it. We are torn between our old ways and the new life flowing into us from God. It is our old loves and life that must die in order to let in the new life from God. This is why Jesus says, “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Swedenborg’s description of this process is almost a paraphrase of Jesus’ words,
a man when he is in temptations is in vastation as to all things that are of his proprium, and of the body–for the things that are his proprium and of the body must die, and [this] through combats and temptations, before he is born again a new man, or is made spiritual and heavenly (AC 730).
Swedenborg grew up a Lutheran. His father was a Lutheran bishop. And there is much of Lutheranism in Swedenborg, such as Luther’s dependence on Paul in his sermons and theology. I think that Swedenborg had Paul in mind when he wrote passages like the one I just cited. Paul, too, talks about dying to the flesh and living by the Spirit. In Galatians, Paul writes,
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5: 16-25).
There is a question about temptations, though. It is a question I’ve been pondering over the years. The question I’m thinking about is how tumultuous and difficult they have to be. The question I have in mind, is how much old life needs to die. There is no doubt that we need spiritual rebirth. Last Sunday, I referenced Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. Jesus told Nicodemus,
Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again” (John 3:3, 5-6).
We all need to be born again of water and the Spirit. We all need to remove blockage that shuts out the sunlight of the soul. But how tumultuous a process this is, is an open question. It all hinges on the question of how attached to the world and to our own selfish gain we have become. If we are dearly attached to self and world, our transformation into a person oriented to God and the neighbor will be difficult. Those are the things that need to change. We need to become God-and-neighbor oriented from starting out self-and-world oriented. Swedenborg describes just how mortal a conflict this can be.
By continual sensuous pleasures and by loves of the self and the world . . . a person has acquired a life for himself of such sort that his life is nothing but a life of such things. This life cannot accord at all with heavenly life. For no one can love worldly and at the same time heavenly things. To love worldly things is to look downward; to love heavenly things is to look upward. Much less can a person love himself and at the same time the neighbor, and still less the Lord. He who loves himself hates all that do not render him service; so that the man who loves himself is very far from heavenly love and charity, which is to love the neighbor more than one’s self, and the Lord above all things. From this it is evident how far removed the life of a person is from heavenly life. And for that reason he is regenerated by the Lord by means of temptations, and so turned as to bring him into agreement. This is why such temptation is severe, for it touches a person’s very life, assailing, destroying, and transforming it (AC 759).
Temptations, then, touch our very life. Temptations assail our complacency and break up our old ways of living. Our very life must change. And this won’t be easy.
The open question I have been pondering over the years, though, is this. Does it have to be that hard? In the quote just above, Swedenborg says, “By continual sensuous pleasures and by loves of the self and the world . . . a person has acquired a life for himself of such sort that his life is nothing but a life of such things.” But what if a person hasn’t indulged in “continual sensuous pleasures” and “loves of the self and the world?” What if a person has been essentially good, gone to Sunday school and learned about God and tried to live according to what they learned? Is it possible that such a person would just naturally grow oriented to God, the neighbor, and heaven? It’s a point worth considering, and I don’t have an answer just yet. Swedenborg even says that it is not so difficult to live the life that leads to heaven. I’ll close with his words on this from Heaven and Hell,
It is not so difficult to live the life that leads to heaven as is believed. Some believe that to live the life that leads to heaven, which is called spiritual life, is difficult, because they have been told that a person must renounce the world, divest himself of lusts called lusts of the body and the flesh, and live spiritually. And by this they understand that they must reject worldly things, which consist chiefly in riches and honors; that they must walk continually in pious meditation about God, about salvation, and about eternal life; and that they must pass their life in prayers, and in reading the Word and pious books. . . . That it is not so difficult as is believed to live the life which leads to heaven may be seen from what now follows. Who cannot live a civil and moral life, since everyone from childhood is initiated in it, and from life in the world is acquainted with it? . . . Almost all practice sincerity and justice outwardly, so as to appear as if they were sincere and just in heart . . . The spiritual person should live in like manner–which he or she can do as easily as the natural person–but with this difference only, that he or she believes in the Divine, and acts sincerely and justly not merely because it is according to civil and moral laws, but also because it is according to Divine laws. For the spiritual person, because he or she thinks about Divine things when he or she acts, communicates with the angels of heaven, and so far as he or she does this, is conjoined with them . . . (HH 528, 530).
This passage suggests that it is possible to start out life good, and stay there.
Lord, you have told us that your yoke is easy and your burden is light. You have told us that your law is not far off, so that we need to ascend to heaven to learn it. You have told us that your law and your ways are written on our hearts. Help us to find your laws as we turn within or learn your ways from without. For you come to us in our souls and you come to us in the words of the people around us, the writings we encounter and through teachers of all kinds. In this Lenten season, we pray for forgiveness through repentance. During this Lenten season, we are aware of the ways in which we fall short of your kingdom and your glory. And yet, despite our mortal failings you continue to remain with us, sanctifying, uplifting, and bringing us ever into deeper union with yourself.