Photo credit: Kat Jayne
Readings: Isaiah 63:7-9, Matthew 2:13-23, Secrets of Heaven 4572:2 (see below)
So, the lectionary doesn’t give us much of a breath after Christmas this year, does it? We are barely done with the sweet and joyous celebration of Jesus’ birth, when we are reminded by the gospel of Matthew that Jesus was born in a dangerous time, in dangerous circumstances. He was part of a poor Jewish family under Roman occupation, under the rule of a cruel and paranoid proxy king. This would have been a difficult life for any child. But for a child who is prophesied to be king of the Jews, to be the coming Messiah? There were many in power for whom that was not good news at all. And so, we brought face to face with Herod. We are brought face to face with the existence of evil.
So, yay, welcome to the first Sunday of the season of Christmas! This story probably the last thing that most of us want to talk about. But, sometimes if we focus too much on the *fact* of the incarnation we forget about the *why.* Yes, God loved humanity and that is why God came, but it wasn’t just a random or indulgent bestowal of love. It was a rescue. We —humanity—really needed God, so God came; came in a way that continues to help us wrestle with the Herodian spirit….even here and now.
So, right before our reading today we find the story of the Magi, which we will explore next week. They had been looking for the Messiah that the stars had foretold to them. Herod played along in order to find Jesus and destroy him. However, the Magi were warned in a dream to avoid Herod, and so Herod never learned of Jesus’ exact location. Herod became furious and ordered a unilateral massacre of young boys in Bethlehem. Thankfully, another dream warned Joseph to leave, and he and Mary and Jesus were able to escape to Egypt just in time. But there were no dreams for the other children. To describe the devastation, the gospel writer quotes Jeremiah, another time of mourning for children lost in war:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)
Herod perpetrated a great evil with this fabled slaughter of the innocents. He was well known as a blood-thirsty, cruel and paranoid leader, characteristics that worsened significantly as he aged. He executed his second wife and two of their sons, as well as his own first born son, his mother-in-law and his brother-in-law. Additionally, according to the historian Josephus, he was apparently so concerned that his death would not be properly mourned that he arranged for a number of distinguished persons to be killed after he died so that there would be greater sorrow associated with his death. Thankfully, his surviving children did not follow through with that order.
While there is no historical record of the slaughter of the innocents at Bethlehem, the event is clearly consistent with Herod’s character and approach and could easily have been inspired by Herod’s killing of his own children. If he was so paranoid and suspicious with his own family, we can only imagine how he would have reacted to a report of the birth of the “king of the Jews.” In Herod’s mind, and of course, in terms of the earthly political order, *Herod* was the king of the Jews. The little baby Jesus in the manger was a usurper, and if Herod was going to hold on to power, that baby must be killed. Out of anger, vengeance and fear, he did what he felt he needed to do to preserve his own power.
In our world, Herod is one in a long line of tyrants who have found their way to power and done unconscionable things to keep that power. History books are full of the slaughter of innocents, whether in terms of actual loss of life, or in terms of the death of personal dignity, identity and autonomy. Even today, we need look no further than our newspapers to learn of family separations at the border, the epidemic of sexual abuse in border facilities, the record number of deaths of black transgender women this year, or the record number of homeless deaths in some of our cities. Add #metoo, climate change, an increase in white supremacy and anti-semitism, and it seems that if we let it all in we might never be done with the weeping and mourning. When we come to understand, for example, the extreme psychological effects of thousands of children being separated from their parents, how can we ever be consoled? That loss is forever. That innocence will never be regained.
And for such things, I believe we must be like Rachel, and refuse to be comforted, we must refuse to be consoled by a world that tells us such dehumanization and indignity is par-for-the-course, is justified, is normal, is necessary. For there is the consolation that the world gives, a consolation that would wipe away, cover over, distract from, all that would make us mourn, all that still needs to be done. The world whispers: This again? Aren’t you done with that already? Go on: learn to be okay; learn to appear strong; learn to appear effortlessly Instagram-ready.
Now to some ears, a refusal to be comforted might sound like it is a dismissal of God’s peace and grace. But I would argue that it is a true assimilation of the spirit of Christmas, for Herod is as much a part of the Christmas landscape as are the angels, shepherds and the Magi. And in fact, the incarnation happened because *God* refused to be consoled and reached out to humanity, believing that we could do better, believing that when given direction and freedom and inspiration that we would more often than not choose to stand for truth and love. Evil exists —evil actions, evil consequences, evil systems—and this is why God came, to save *us*, not to save us from distress. Salvation is not a life-boat that takes us away from this world and all that is in it. God’s consolation doesn’t mean looking away from all that would make us mourn and cry out. It means knowing that God is with us when we go through the hard things, that God will be with us when we need to face down the Herodian-spirit in our world and in our hearts. This is what we hear in our Isaiah reading as well:
“For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them;” (Isaiah 63:8-9)
God’s consolation is not a simple, “there there.” God’s consolation is not for purposes of anesthesia, for proving we are chosen, or for escaping pain. Consolation is what happens after transformation, when we recognize just how present God has been with us during our difficulty. From our Swedenborg reading:
Yet the joy and comfort do not come because a victory has been won but because good and truth have been joined together. Joy is present within every joining together of good and truth, for that joining together is the heavenly marriage, in which the Divine is present. (Secrets of Heaven 4572:2)
Comfort comes from good and truth being joined together in life. God’s consolation is a bone-deep recognition of God’s love, and it comes from doing the work that joins good and truth together in practice. It is not a reward for being strong, and it was never a promise that we won’t mourn again. It is a promise that we won’t ever mourn alone.
“...he was their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them…” God is our savior *within* our distress, within our suffering, within our life and within our world…and thus that salvation is not characterized by a disengagement but rather an increased sensitivity to injustice.
Like Rachel, refusing to be comforted means understanding the stakes. It means choosing to eschew all that would anesthetize us, it means resisting the status quo. It means being willing to show up when it matters. Because, and I don’t mean to depress you, but Herod will always be with us, in some way or another. It is part of the human condition. The problem is not so much the existence of evil but the excusing of it. The problem is when we no longer see evil, whether evil actions or evil systems, when such things no longer cause us to weep and to mourn. The problem is when we accept the world’s consolation: there there, its really not that bad. They should have followed the law. They should have been more careful. They should have gotten a job. They shouldn’t have been wearing that. They should have known their place. They should have put their hands up. They should have known this is how things work.
Yet, even so, God said yes to being in our world. God said yes to being a vulnerable baby dependent on his father listening to a dream. God said yes to a ministry that loved the supposedly unlovable. God said yes to a death that upended our notions of power. And in doing so, God showed us what is real and lasting. God showed us that the Herodian-spirit can never have the last word.
In Richard Rohr’s phrasing, “incarnation means not just that God became Jesus; God said yes to the material universe, God said yes to physicality…[and] so it is always Advent. God is forever coming into the world.”(1)
And boy do we need that.
(1) Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Celebrating an Eternal Advent, 12/24/19
7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8 For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their savior 9 in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Secrets of Heaven 4572:2
In general it should be recognized that every joining together of good and truth is effected by means of temptations. The reason for this is that evils and falsities offer resistance and so to speak engage in rebellion, and by every means try to prevent the joining of good to truth, and of truth to good. This conflict takes place between the spirits present within humankind, that is to say, between the spirits governed by evils and falsities and the spirits governed by goods and truths. Human beings experience that conflict as temptation within themselves. When therefore the spirits governed by evils and falsities are conquered by the spirits governed by goods and truths, the former are compelled to depart and the latter receive joy from the Lord by way of heaven. This joy is also felt by the person concerned as comfort; they feel it within themselves. Yet the joy and comfort do not come because a victory has been won but because good and truth have been joined together. Joy is present within every joining together of good and truth, for that joining together is the heavenly marriage, in which the Divine is present.
A Christmas Eve Message...
I’m going to say something now but you have to promise not to get mad at me. Jesus probably wasn’t born in a stable. Now I promise, I’m not trying to ruin your Christmas. I would never bring this up unless I thought that it could actually increase the meaningfulness of our celebrations, not decrease it. So, let me explain:
The actual design of Palestinian houses in Jesus day was to have one single room in which the family would live. The family’s animals were not kept in a separate dwelling, but would be brought inside at night to a lower compartment in that single family room, which would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with hay, where the animals would feed. Each house would have a room for guests in the back or on the roof. There is actually a fair bit of evidence that the greek word that is often translated as “inn” or “guest room” most likely refers to a spare room or upper room in a private house, and not to an inn as we might think of it now, a public boarding place for travelers.
Additionally, many scholars maintain that given the standards of hospitality at the time, it would have been unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his ancestral home, would have been turned away from anyone’s house. Even very distant relatives, and Joseph would have had many in Bethlehem, would have immediately welcomed Mary and Joseph into their homes. What is most likely then, is that the guest room was already taken, and so Mary and Joseph needed to stay in the family room, with the rest of the family, and of course, the animals.
So where do we get the notion of the stable? We note that the text does not say anything about a stable. The idea comes from centuries of reading the birth narrative with Western eyes. A culture that places their animals in a stable separate from the family home will see those assumptions in the text. A culture that does not center hospitality in the same way will view Mary and Joseph as being “turned away.”
And so, let me just say that there is nothing wrong with the way that we tell the Christmas story as it is now. It communicates some very powerful and important things about the incarnation. The turning away from the inn brings home to us how easy it is to turn away from God in our lives, to say not now, not here, not me. It speaks of such a great love and humility on the part of God, to enter into our world, in the quiet, alone, on the margins, without fanfare. In a complicated and discouraging world, we long for simplicity and peace and inclusion, and God’s birth can certainly bring these things home to us.
But I think that it is also true that the way we tell the story creates a some distance. The picture of the holy family up on a hill, by themselves in a stable with only the animals…it’s beautiful and rarefied yes, but also a little remote. And perhaps this remoteness allows us to disengage from this immensely powerful story, to keep it relegated to the Christmas season, a beautiful nativity scene only to be looked at and not touched. Certainly having nothing to do with our lives from January to November. Certainly having nothing to do with our lives as they are, which are often complicated, raucous, messy and heartbreaking. Do we think that this is what Divine Love intends for us to believe, that God wouldn’t enter into our lives as they are?
So let me suggest an alternative.
When Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, there was no space in the guest room, so they were told to make themselves comfortable in the family room. Among the animals, yes, but also among the pots and pans and the paraphernalia of life. When it came time for Mary to deliver, it would have been a bustling place, aunties and cousins hovering, heating water on the fire, community midwives rubbing Mary’s back, Joseph and the men fetching wood, children peeking around the corners with wide eyes, animals munching on their straw. As Mary labored and paced and pushed, as Divine Love was birthed into the world with body and breath and life, our God was incarnated in the midst of human activity, in the midst of culture and family and connection. Jesus was born in a middle-eastern living room, his first cries heard with joy and applause, not because he was God but because he was loved.
And the reality is…this picture has more in common with the hustle and bustle of each of our own family Christmases than with the quiet peaceful pastoral scene we often look to. As you tumble downstairs tomorrow morning, or round the corner, into your raucous? Christmas morning, God is already there, being born into your Christmas living room, among the family dogs, cats, goldfish and gerbil, next to the sofa and the tv and the coffee table, the places where we spend our days.
God is being born amidst all the shrieks of joy and contented smiles, the Christmas pudding coming out a bit burnt and the cranberry sauce spilling on the floor, the tensions rising and falling, the lame family jokes, the dog getting into the garbage, the misunderstandings and the forgiving of them. This is where God would be born, within all of it. Exactly where new life should be found.
We don't have to become like our Christmas story, quiet, peaceful and perfect for God to be present. Sure, sometimes it helps to us take a breath, to silence our chattering thoughts…but that is about us being able to notice God’s presence, not about God’s desire to be with us, to be born within our very lives, messy and incomplete as they are. Our God was born into our world, as it was, as it is.
So, for all the ways in which the traditional telling of the Christmas story calls us to be brave, welcoming, generous, reverent and joyful, let’s definitely keep it. But perhaps it is time to question how it might also keep us at arms length from the immense love of God, from the ways in which God would be born into our lives right now, in each beautiful and difficult moment. From the way that God unabashedly embraced our human particularity and our human experience. In the words of Sarah Bessey, “it’s not Jesus otherness but his us-ness, his human-ness, his full experience as fully human and fully God together that is the miracle [of the incarnation.]” Let us welcome the birthing of God into our living rooms, and let us be not afraid, for we call our God “Emmanuel” God-with-us. Let us let God be with us.
Ian Paul, “Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable.” https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/once-more-jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable/?fbclid=IwAR0Q5khXkb-x4-aFWX9ujisBVjCnaxQqeyAJ9zDPDaSHEhLaxuFC9rkqVqg
Sarah Bessey, “Why everything you know about the nativity is probably wrong.” https://sarahbessey.substack.com/p/why-everything-you-know-about-the?fbclid=IwAR3YxC4JUHGDn28eakxkEbKpDnm3AMzlsycpXim3YfrPGDMZttUXwOOr9Wc
Photo credit: Egor Kamelev
Readings: Isaiah 35, Matthew 11:2-11, Heaven and Hell #522 (see below)
More than once this week, I heard from my various commentaries that the question that John asks in the Matthew text is an Advent question. Are you the one that is to come? It is a plaintive question, heavy with waiting, expectation, need, hope. And also, a little doubt, for underlying that question is another….Lord, are you really coming? The world often appears fraught to the people in it, we are but little and limited, and these days we are living through are no exception. We and those around us are grappling with loss, with anxiety, with change, with not having enough, with broken relationships, with a suffering earth. We grapple with a political realm in which it seems like truth doesn’t matter, with an economic realm in which it seems like compassion doesn’t matter, a cultural realm in which it seems like altruism doesn’t matter.
And so, in this Advent season, we ask the question that Christians have asked for two thousand years. Are you the one? How can we know if you are the one? Lord, are you coming to save us? We ask along with John the Baptist, each of us in our own prisons: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” We ask, in between the lines: Is our faith justified?
What it is that Jesus answers? What do you see happening? He says: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind have received sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Jesus tells us to look around, to notice birth and resurrection as it comes to us in our daily lives, in our world but in ourselves as well. Have we come into an insight that we were formally blind to, have we learned something new or empowered ourselves in some new way, have we cleansed ourselves of some habit that was holding us back, have we nursed back into health some part of us that we thought was lost, have we finally come to accept our worthiness in a world that would convince us we are nothing? Have we worked to bring any of these blessing to the life of another? Am I coming? says the Lord. I have already come.
Our Isaiah reading uses different but equally compelling imagery. We heard in our reading today about the desert bursting into bloom, about feeble hands and wobbly knees becoming strong, about song where there once was silence, about water flowing in the wilderness, about a road safe to travel. As we look around we see this too; we see crocuses bravely blooming in the snow, we see knees and shoulders replaced by capable doctors, solar powered desalination plants that bring clean fresh water to barren landscapes, hearing aids that allow babies to hear their mother’s voices, we see humpback whales rebounding from the brink of extinction,(1) we see #illridewithyou, a twitter campaign where Australians offered to ride with their Muslim neighbors afraid of islamophobia.(2) Am I coming? asks the Lord. I have already come.
This is what it looks like when God comes to us. When love is born in our lives. When divine love is incarnated in this world. But, these images are not the only thing included in the Isaiah reading. We also hear: “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
Wait, what? With…vengeance? With retribution? God will save us with these things? I don’t get it. I thought salvation was a blooming flower, a miracle, a gift, a waterfall, a healing, a leaping deer.
It is all these things. But it is not these things separated from their context. A superbloom in the desert only happens after a prolonged dormancy and a flooding rain. A healing surgery only becomes so in and through an intentional wounding of the body and the difficult therapy that follows. A movement of people offering rides to anxious strangers only happens when they reject the siren call of apathy and/or tribalism. A species is resurrected only when we humans refrain from hunting through law and consequence.
John the Baptist calls for us to make straight the highway for our God, the highway that Isaiah calls the Way of Holiness. It is our choice to clear that path. And anyone who has done even a little yard maintenance knows that this is hard work, and that it is not always work that we want to do. I used to dread when my parents would ask me to mow the lawn. I would do whatever I could to get out of it. And I resented them for asking me to do it, something that on this side of homeownership and parenthood, I recognize as a completely reasonable and necessary thing.
But sometimes things just need to be done. Sometimes the bandaid just needs to be ripped off. We can look our child in the eyes and tell them it needs to be done, and still they won’t agree, still they will barely allow it. And when we do rip it off, they look at us resentfully with a quivering lip and betrayed, watering eyes. Until the moment passes and they realize that the pain was momentary and now they are free.
Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.
Sometimes we just don’t want to do what salvation requires. Sometimes we don’t want to sacrifice what needs to be sacrificed. We are fearful, we believe we cannot survive without our emotional crutches, our justifications, our defenses. We want our transformations to be easy, safe, controllable. This is not what we are promised though.
C.S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce, imagines a busload of the newly deceased coming into heaven and being met by luminous angels. He tells the story of one spirit accompanied by a small red lizard on his shoulder. At first the spirit attempts to enter heaven, but after the lizard whispers in his ear for a bit, he decides to turn around. He is stopped by an angel who wonders where he is going. The spirit explains that “it’s no good,” the lizard on his shoulder won’t keep quiet, and he knows his murmurings don’t belong in heaven, so he’s just going to go home. The angel offers to kill the lizard but the spirit demurs, he shrinks, he makes excuses. He promises to think about it and come back another day.
“There is no other day”, says the angel. “All days are present now.” And he reaches a luminous hand towards the lizard.
“Get back!” shouts the spirit. “You’re burning me! How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
“It is not so.” says the angel calmly.
“Why, you’re hurting me now.” complains the spirit.
“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”
But still the spirit equivocates. “Why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me—before I knew. It would be all over by now if you had.”
“I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible.” explains the angel. “Have I your permission?”
And all the while, the lizard whispers and whispers in the spirit’s ear…
“Have I your permission?” says the angel again.
“I know it will kill me,” whimpers the spirit.
“It won’t. But supposing it did?”
“You’re right.” the spirit surrenders “It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature…Get it over….God help me."
And the spirit finally allows the angel to tear the whispering lizard off his shoulder. The spirit screams in agony, and the lizard is gone, and moments later the spirit is transformed, standing taller, brighter, stronger, lighter. (3)
Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.
This is your God, the divine band-aid ripper, the one who will do what we cannot actively do but only allow, because we are afraid and tired and weak. We look through tear-filled eyes at this God who at first seems terrible and then is wonderful. I never said it wouldn’t hurt. I said it wouldn’t kill you. The caterpillar dissolves completely in its cocoon, and emerges in beauty.
Salvation is not an intercession but a transformation, one that we must choose. Richard Rohr puts it this way:
“We must all hope and work to eliminate suffering, especially in many of the great social issues of our time…We don’t ignore or capitulate to suffering, yet we must allow it to transform us and the world. Suffering often shapes and teaches us and precedes most significant resurrections.
Christian wisdom names the darkness as darkness and the Light as light and helps us learn how to live and work in the Light so that the darkness does not overcome us. If we have a pie-in-the-sky, everything is beautiful attitude, we are going to be trapped by the darkness because we don’t see clearly enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Conversely, if we can only see the darkness and forget the more foundational Light, we will be destroyed by our own negativity and fanaticism, or we will naively think we are completely apart and above the darkness. Instead, we must wait and work with hope inside of the darkness, even our own—while never doubting the light that God always is, and that we are too (Matthew 5:14). That is the narrow birth canal of God into the world—through the darkness and into an ever-greater Light.”(4)
Are you the one that is to come? we ask in Advent. I am coming, says the Lord, I am already here. I will come with vengeance, I will come to save you. The God who insists that we are strong enough and good enough to survive without the lizard on our shoulder, whatever that represents for us, from the inside of our fear, this God looks punishing, unfair, insane and downright unsympathetic. But this God is birthing us, and God knows that, sometimes, an attitude that looks something fierce like vengeance is required to get that baby born.
What do you see happening? The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor.
(3) Adapted from: C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Simon & Schuster:1996), 96-100
(4) Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, 12/6/19, Adapted from Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr: Daily Meditations for Advent (Franciscan Media: 2008), 22-24.
1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. 3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4 say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. 8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the LORD has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” 4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosyare cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” 7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: “ ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Heaven and Hell #522
First, though, let me state what divine mercy is. Divine mercy is a pure mercy toward the whole human race with the intent of saving it, and it is constant toward every individual, never withdrawing from anyone. This means that everyone who can be saved is saved. However, no one can be saved except by divine means, the means revealed by the Lord in the Word. Divine means are what we refer to as divine truths. They teach how we are to live in order to be saved. The Lord uses them to lead us to heaven and to instill heaven's life into us. The Lord does this for everyone; but he cannot instill heaven's life into anyone who does not refrain from evil, since evil bars the way. So to the extent that we do refrain from evil, the Lord in his divine mercy leads us by divine means, from infancy to the end of life in the world and thereafter to eternity. This is the divine mercy that I mean. We can therefore see that the Lord's mercy is pure mercy, but not unmediated: that is, it does not save people whenever it feels like it, no matter how they have lived.
Photo credit: Dan Hamill
Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10. Matthew 3:1-12, True Christianity #517 (see below)
Here we are on the first Sunday of Advent. Christmas is fast approaching, and will be here before we know it. For a lot of us, Advent can be an ambivalent time. There are so many wonderful opportunities for connection and generosity but they are often accompanied by the pressures of doing things a certain way, finding just the right thing, or needing to accomplish too many things in too little time. We celebrate Christmas within a culture that attempts to commodify it, to use it to make us consume ever more. So often times, the Christmas season becomes very much about fulfilling expectations, getting what we want, or makings sure other people get what they want. It becomes about recreating celebratory spaces because of how we want to feel. We practice rituals that make us feel warm and fuzzy, we put up sparkly decorations that make us feel excited, we makes lists of gifts so that people can be sure to give us what we want.
But, of course, this is not really what the season is about. As our readings make clear, the season is about change, about reversal. What kind of God, what kind of birth, are we really celebrating here? Baby Jesus was born into poverty on the margins, what kind of God would do that? Jesus would grow up to minister to those excluded and forgotten, what kind of God would do that? Jesus died to bring a kingdom into being via sacrificial suffering, what kind of God would do that? A God who understands that the way we human beings usually do things takes us further away from love and further into fear and selfishness. A God who, lovingly, wants to help us change this tendency.
And so we begin with imagery from our Old Testament reading: the peaceable kingdom.
“The wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and yearling together; and a little child will lead them.”
This beautiful and pastoral imagery has inspired many throughout history and no surprise. In the words of one commentary, this “vision of a reordered creation is remarkable.” It tells a story of instincts transformed and reversed. Carnivorous animals will no longer kill their prey to eat but find sustenance in straw. Dangerous animals will no longer be a threat to vulnerable creatures such as children. It is a lovely, peaceful image, but it also something of a ridiculous one. We know that nature cannot change in this way. So, of course, the image is a metaphor. It casts a vision of a future in which predatory instincts do not prevail, or are not primary. “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” The image is not literal but rather communicates something about the world which God wants to create for us.
But, it is not a world that God can, or will, create for us externally. God certainly could do so, but given human nature, it would not really work. Swedenborg writes:
…the Lord leaves each person in freedom, for unless a person is in freedom they cannot be reformed at all. What a person does under compulsion does not reform them because compulsion does not allow anything to take root; for anything a person does under compulsion is not an act of willing, whereas what they do in freedom is an act of willing. What is good and true, if it is to be present in a person as their own, must take root in their will. What is outside the will is not the person's own. (1)
So, as much as we might wish for it to be so, the vision of the peaceable kingdom cannot be brought about through purely external change. It is transformation that must come from within. And this is because, as Swedenborg points out, “our outer self has to be reformed by means of our inner self, and not the reverse,"(2) because the inner flows into the outer and not the other way around. But even further, this flow is not a passive one, it occurs in and through action. And I quote:
The inner self is not reformed simply by gaining knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, not, that is, simply by thinking. We are reformed inwardly by intending to do what our knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom tell us. (3)
So even though the peaceable kingdom represents an internal transformation of humankind, it is again, not something that comes into being without our active participation. We are not transformed via divine download. We are not transformed by learning the truth, nor by thinking the truth. This is not enough. Transformation happens by actually intending and doing the things dictated by transformed ways of thinking.
Which sound easy, but of course, it’s not. Even when we know about what is right and good, there are many reasons why we might not follow through, emotions or habits that get in the way. If we zoom in on the peaceable kingdom, we can see this represented by the animals included in the vision and what they are doing. In terms of Swedenborgian correspondences, animals represent our affections: how we feel and what we love.(4) In the context of the image of the peaceable kingdom, the mild, useful, friendly animals correspond to good affections, and fierce, deadly animals correspond to evil affections. And what are we looking at here in this image? Fierce, deadly, selfish affections that have been transformed, that have been stripped of their predatory nature. They are no longer killing, destroying, striking out, or preying on the vulnerable. Transformed instincts. Transformed ways of being. And so it is inside of each of us: The vision of the peaceable kingdom is a vision of our internal ways of being, the possibility of our own instincts being re-formed, away from selfish and fearful affections into useful, loving, peaceful ones.
Our reading today describes this change and how it happens:
To put it another way, the first state is a state of thought that occurs in our intellect; the second state is a state of love that occurs in our will. As the second state begins and progresses, a change takes place in our minds. There is a reversal, because then the love in our will flows into our intellect and leads and drives it to think in agreement and harmony with what we love. As good actions that come from love take on a primary role, and the truths related to faith are relegated to a secondary role, we become spiritual and are a new creation [2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15]. Then our actions come from goodwill and our words come from faith; we develop a sense of the goodness that comes from goodwill and a perception of the truth that is related to faith; and we are in the Lord and in a state of peace. In brief, we are reborn.
What an optimistic view of humanity! The more we love, the more loving we will become. And conversely, sadly, the less we love, the less loving and more selfish we will become.
This notion is directly linked to the New Church vision for the world, the coming of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation. In that book, John of Patmos receives a vision of a shining city, which he called the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God to the earth. We don’t believe this literally, as if a city will plop down out of the sky like an alien spaceship. We understand it to be a metaphor for the transformation of humanity and the world we live in. But it is important to split hairs just a little bit, and point out that, even if it is a metaphor, it is not, as we have mentioned, a metaphor for an external transformation, just as the peaceable kingdom is not a metaphor for external transformation. God is working, yes God is working very hard to bring the New Jerusalem into being, but God is doing it through our hearts and minds. The coming of the New Jerusalem is an internal phenomenon; the transformation of our world through the transformation of the people in it. We are talking about transformed instincts on a global scale. Little by little, bit by bit, heart by heart.
We see this reflected in the document “The Faith and Aims of Our Church,” which can be found in our denomination’s yearly journal:
“The Swedenborgian church believes that a new epoch is opening in the spiritual life of mankind. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, as he promised to do, has come again, not indeed in a physical reappearance, but in spirit and truth; not in a single event only, but in a progressive manifestation of God’s presence among people.”(5)
This is what God is up to with Advent. Hope, yes, love, yes, beauty, yes, all of it. But also subversive change. Transformed instincts. And this is why we always seem to start Advent off with John the Baptist, preaching repentance. John the Baptist doesn’t feel like Christmas. He is not warm and fuzzy. He is not twinkle lights and soft music. He is strident, he is urgent, he is clear. He is talking about doing the work of transforming our instincts. About how we need to recognize that our instincts need transforming, and to give ourselves over to the renewal that God has in mind for us. "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The way of the Lord is change. Not change for the sake of change, but change for the sake of mutual love, for the sake of the peaceable kingdom.
And so, as we begin Advent, as we look to a season of giving and receiving, let us also make space for a little disturbing. Let us make a space for John the Baptist, cantankerous as he is, so that we might recognize that the Lord was born into our world so that we might have an opportunity to re-make ourselves. I am reminded of this prayer by Jan Richardson:
God of making and unmaking, of tearing down and re-creating, you are my home and habitation, my refuge and place of dwelling. In your hollows I am re-formed, given welcome and benediction, beckoned to rest and rise again, made ready and sent forth.(6)
It is Advent, and we are ready, Lord. Transform our instincts so that the peaceable kingdom may come into being, so that the wolf may lie down with the lamb, and be led by innocence, openness and vulnerability.
1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD— 3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. 6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
True Christianity #571
There are two states that we all inevitably enter into and go through if we are to turn from an earthly person into a spiritual person. The first state is called reformation, the second is called regeneration. In the first state we look from our earthly self toward having a spiritual self; being spiritual is what we long for. In the second state we become someone who is both spiritual and earthly. The first state is brought about by truths (these have to be truths related to faith); through these truths we aim to develop goodwill. The second state is brought about by good actions that come from goodwill; through these actions we come [more deeply] into truths related to faith.
To put it another way, the first state is a state of thought that occurs in our intellect; the second state is a state of love that occurs in our will. As the second state begins and progresses, a change takes place in our minds. There is a reversal, because then the love in our will flows into our intellect and leads and drives it to think in agreement and harmony with what we love. As good actions that come from love take on a primary role, and the truths related to faith are relegated to a secondary role, we become spiritual and are a new creation. Then our actions come from goodwill and our words come from faith; we develop a sense of the goodness that comes from goodwill and a perception of the truth that is related to faith; and we are in the Lord and in a state of peace. In brief, we are reborn.