Readings: Psalm 28, Luke 1:39-45, Secrets of Heaven #545 (see below)
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This week we will take some time to center the character of Elizabeth. Elizabeth is introduced within the first five verses of the book of Luke and is the mother of John the Baptist, who we focused on last week.
We learn that she is the wife of a priest named Zechariah; they are childless and quite old. But Elizabeth will soon enter into the biblical tradition of miraculous pregnancies. An angel appears to Zechariah to tell him that Elizabeth will conceive and bear a son, and they are to call him John. “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to make ready people for the Lord.” (v17)
And soon, just as the angel said, Elizabeth falls pregnant. After a few months, Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, comes to her with her own miraculous story. Mary is pregnant too, the miracle being not her age, but that her womb will grow the earthly body of the living God. The beauty of this story is in its mystery. All Mary needed to do was say an initial greeting: “Hello, Elizabeth….!?” as we all might do at the door of a trusted friend. And the baby John, growing, developing, in his quiet and dark space, was shocked awake by the sound. Something about the call of Mary’s voice activated the Holy Spirit within John, and we are told the baby “leaped for joy.” It is hyperbole, of course. But it serves to illustrate the mystical connection between Jesus and John, one that will be so beautifully illustrated when John baptizes Jesus at the Jordan river some thirty years later.
In this moment though, despite the baby’s leaping, it is Elizabeth who gives voice to the movement of the spirit with what are sometimes called her “four oracles.”
First, she declares the blessedness of Mary. This blessedness, which seems so clear to us now, was patently ridiculous then. Mary was unmarried, and we can imagine what kind of tumult her pregnancy was going to cause her family, and her betrothed, Joseph. Mary was insignificant in the scheme of things; a teenager of no particular family or reputation, an oppressed minority under the thumb of a brutal empire. From an earthly perspective, her life was about to fall apart. But Elizabeth declares her blessed.
Second, she affirms the identity of Mary’s child. Mary is about to sing her Magificat, her hymn about what God is going to do with her, how Jesus will affect a mighty change in the power structures of the world. But even before that, Elizabeth affirms that Mary is, that someone like Mary could be, the vessel for that kind of change. And, she affirms the identity of Jesus but though Mary, using the term Mother of my Lord, lifting up the fact that God chose to work through women in a patriarchal society.
Third, she interprets the leap of her baby within her. With all that we have already said, that in earthly terms Mary’s pregnancy of not a good thing, that it is ridiculous to think that someone like Mary could be so pivotal, into circumstances under which we would all be aghast and overwhelmed and unbelieving, Elizabeth speaks of joy. And in a much more elemental way than “this good news for you makes me happy.” She speaks of what God is doing in electric terms, of life’s deep knowledge that God always reaches out to us and that this is good. She gives words to the fact that in the quantum space between sound and cell there was a communication, there was a missive of love that we call spirit. And it caused a reaction that Elizabeth called joy. The animation of still-developing life recognizing life.
And fourth, she declares another beatitude upon Mary for her faith. We don’t actually know the wholeness of Mary’s mental state at this time. She utters her sacred yes in the previous verses: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” And soon she will sing of the possibilities in the future, but in the in-between, we can imagine she might have felt some worry. But Elizabeth lifts up Mary’s faith in God’s promises. We can read this as the promises that the angel fortold, of Jesus birth, but also Mary will soon sing of greater promises, of a just society, of full bellies, of the ascent of the humble rather than the arrogant. Mary has a faith around God’s intention for the world, and is willing to play her part in bringing this into being. This opportunity brings her joy and so she sings: My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:46)
Elizabeth becomes the conduit through which the joy in Mary and the joy in John are connected. It is amazing to think that this is the same rough and ready John the Baptist from our text last week, the one hurling epithets about vipers and warning about the winnowing fork and the fire. Today we find that the urgency of his call was born out of joy, was born out of an electric leaping in utero at the sound of Mary’s voice, and the promise that she represented. And Mary, born into a dangerous world of empire that we can hardly fathom now (but many in this world still can), accepting a mission that might well ostracize her, or impoverish her, and that would later require her family to flee as political refugees, into this reality she speaks of joy as well. If joy is possible for Mary, it is possible anywhere, and this is a radical hope.
It communicates to us that we are made for joy. That the very existence of joy is a simple declaration of God’s original intention for us, for a good God would not make beloved children for any other purpose.
But of course, if we are not feeling joy, that is not an indictment of us, that we are somehow defective, or defensive, or unfeeling. There are many reasonable and understandable reasons to not feel joyful. The challenge of the spiritual journey is to acknowledge the fact that we are made for joy, without also making the experience of joy an imperative in every moment. We must hold very gently the potential unhelpfulness of the question: If joy is a natural preordained state, then what am I doing or not doing that is getting in the way of it? There are times that this question is a useful one. Sometimes our ambition, or our distraction, or our selfishness gets in the way of the simple joy that is available to us when we quiet ourselves down, or when we open our eyes to what is already present, or when we serve someone other than ourselves. Sometimes we are looking for joy in the wrong places, and once we recognize that, we are freer to seek joy where it will actually find us.
But other times, joy does not feel accessible at all, and this is not our fault. There is trauma and brokenness and loss in this world, and the appropriate and unavoidable reaction is often sadness, grief and lament. We need to recall that Elizabeth said: blessed is she, not joyful is she. Just as the beatitudes declare “blessed are those who are poor, who weep or hunger” as a way of expressing love, care and concern for those who are normally forgotten and marginalized, so too does Elizabeth’s beatitudes upon Mary pronounce a blessedness that is counter to her circumstances. The beatitudes of the gospels declare a state of inherent worthiness of each of our beings that does not depend upon our emotional state or our productiveness, and so too we hear a beatitude upon Mary that is anchored in a larger trust in God’s promises, a larger trust in God’s ultimate intentions, and not in her feeling in any given moment.
It can be difficult to hold lament in one hand and trust in the other. Even now we might be feeling a mounting tension and uncertainty around rising covid cases, around the state of the world, or other events in our lives. But what we do know from our Swedenborg reading today, is that heavenly joy resides in our inmost recesses, in the deepest and most secret parts of our being. This capacity for joy is always with us. It is a part of God’s order of heaven and of life, part of the web of experience to which we are always connected. We won’t always feel it, and that is okay. Lament is the price of love, the price of moral concern for those around us. But we may also know that, even when it is quiescent, the capacity for joy is our baseline, an integral part of our operating instructions. At times, perhaps this capacity will come alive with a leap that we weren’t expecting. At times, this capacity will rest within us, softly waiting for a time it can be born. And so, we learn in Advent that we can trust in God’s promises, not even so much what God will do but what God has done already. Amen.
1 To you, LORD, I call; you are my Rock, do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who go down to the pit. 2 Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place. 3 Do not drag me away with the wicked, with those who do evil, who speak cordially with their neighbors but harbor malice in their hearts. 4 Repay them for their deeds and for their evil work; repay them for what their hands have done and bring back on them what they deserve. 5 Because they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD and what his hands have done, he will tear them down and never build them up again. 6 Praise be to the LORD, for he has heard my cry for mercy. 7 The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him. 8 The LORD is the strength of his people, a fortress of salvation for his anointed one. 9 Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them forever.
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Secrets of Heaven #545
In order to teach me about the existence and nature of heaven and heavenly joy, the Lord has given me the opportunity to perceive the pleasures of heavenly joy frequently and for extended periods. Because I have learned these things by actually experiencing them, I possess the knowledge but cannot possibly put it into words.
To offer just an idea of it: The countless pleasures and joys there, which come together to create a single experience shared by all, carry with them a certain emotion. Within that common experience, or that common emotion, are points of harmony among a boundless number of feelings. These individual points of harmony do not come clearly but only vaguely to our awareness, because our perception is extremely generalized. Even so, I was allowed to perceive that there were countless parts, organized in a way that can never be described. Those countless parts flow from the order that exists in heaven, which determines their nature.
 The smallest individual elements of an emotion are organized in such a way that they are presented and sensed only as a collective whole, according to the capacities of the person who feels the emotion. In a word, every whole has an unlimited number of parts, organized in the most perfect way; every one of the parts is alive; and every one of them affects us, all the way to our inmost recesses. For the inmost recesses are where heavenly joy comes from
Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18, True Christianity 587 (see below)
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So today, finally, we get our Advent dose of John the Baptist. If two weeks ago we spoke the necessity of upheaval, here is John bringing home just that point and dismantling some of the ways we might try to get out of it. In the gospel of Luke, John is placed in the company of Israel’s great prophets, and he is described thus:
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. (Luke 3:4)
And as we continue in our text for today, we hear exactly what John is telling everyone, what that voice in the wilderness is saying.
It doesn’t start off well. The first thing he says to the crowd is “You brood of vipers!” He sarcastically wonders who tipped them off about the coming judgment so that they might all slither to him in a panic, wanting to be baptized and therefore saved. As much as we might deny it, we are already, most of us, laid bare by this observation. Who wouldn’t want the easy way? If there are some magic words to say, let’s say them, right? Further, we might wonder: what about my name/family/reputation? Can that get me to salvation? Nope. Neither can the crowd look to their ethnicity or their linage for automatic salvation, as John anticipates the “children of Abraham” doing. Such expediency of either kind is not the way of God’s kingdom.
What is the way of God’s kingdom then? John tells the crowd to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” The kingdom is about generativity and integrity. We are to produce fruit, we are to use our form and life to create something nourishing for others, and to recognize and repent for whatever it is that prevents us from doing so.
By this point, the crowd seems pretty convinced. This is not surprising; We already know that John’s call to action was in line with the prophets of old, his language evoking long held images of fruitfulness that the children of Israel were more than familiar with. Moreover, they had already experienced what felt to them like God’s judgment in the form of exile centuries earlier; I’m sure they were sensitive to that history.
So, they quickly turn to the question “What should we do then?” meaning “what does it look like to produce fruit in keeping with repentance?” And here, John gets delightfully concrete. As wild-eyed and eccentric as he is often portrayed, the John of this text means for the kingdom of God to be birthed in the *simple* actions of those around him, in their everyday interactions with each other. The gist of what he tells them is this: be generous to your neighbor and be honest with any power you are given.
So, then the people started to get excited—we are told they were “waiting in expectation”—because it seemed like what John was calling them to was actually doable, and they began to wonder, is John the coming Messiah? He assures them he is not; his baptism is symbolic, and there is one coming who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. And here John returns to his apocalyptic language, likening God’s action to a winnowing fork. The stakes are heightened once more. The wheat will be gathered but the chaff will be burned up in an “unquenchable fire.” Thus our text is ended with this verse: “And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.” Um, good news? Which part? The unquenchable fire? The axe at the root of the tree? The part about being a viper? It is more than a little funny to hear John’s preaching and call it good news, especially since we usually associate good news as something of either emotional or material benefit to us.
How can God’s judgment be considered good news? How can we rejoice or be grateful or excited when we see the axe or the winnowing fork coming? We often instead feel fear, which is understandable. There is a reason that much of progressive Christianity focuses on preaching God’s love and not God’s judgment. Judgment in the wrong hands is abusive. Many times those in authority take it upon themselves to judge, from and for themselves and their own notions of acceptability, rather than looking to God’s character and nature in doing so, using single bible verses or passages to wound and bludgeon, without grounding such judgment in either context or universal spiritual principles. The church has much to repent for in in the ways that it has judged others.
And there is another reason we shy away from judgment sometimes. Judgment is uncomfortable. No one wants to be told what they are doing wrong. Especially when such judgment challenges our long-held notions of order, privilege, and power. But the issues that we humans may have with judgement cannot do not do away with the fact that God is not only infinitely loving but also infinitely just. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “All prophecy is one great exclamation! God is not indifferent to evil. God is always concerned. He is personally affected by what man does to man. He is a God of pathos. This is one of the meanings of the anger of God; the end of indifference.” (1)
God cannot be indifferent to the things that prevent us from being in true relationship with God and each other. The being of God demands justice. The character of God strives for justice. And so, God’s lack of indifference necessitates judgment. That can make us feel uncomfortable, or even afraid. Again, this is not an inherently a bad thing. In the words of Heschel again: “a sense of comfort is no standard for Truth.” (2) If we always went by our sense of comfort, we would never learn and grow. We might think of the lobster. The lobster’s hard shell cannot grow bigger; it must be shed for the lobster itself to grow, and that means for a moment the lobster has to lose its defenses, must endure discomfort and vulnerability in order to proceed to its next stage of life.
This is what God’s judgment is for; so that we might be reformed, so that we might be taken apart for the purpose of being put back together, so that we might grow beyond that which we are. God’s judgment is a gift. Now, honestly, it doesn’t always feel like a gift, not at all. It often feels like like fire burning us up. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for us.
Judgment shakes us awake, reveals to us how our actions are affecting others and by extension ourselves. For God, judgment is for the purpose of clarity, for the purpose of truth. Divine Love wants us to be able to see clearly. So Divine Love’s judgment is a revealing, never a condemnation. *We* can choose whether or not to condemn *ourselves* based on our reaction to that revealing. When it is revealed to us that we are hurting someone else, either by our action or our inaction, we are urged to pay attention, we are urged to no longer be indifferent. This is what is communicated in our Swedenborg reading for today: that unless we make an active effort, our earthly desires will just naturally dictate the way we think about things. For the love of self and the world, We will justify our actions in whatever way we can, we will distance ourselves from thinking about consequences for the sake of our comfort. This is not even mustache-twirling evil, this is run of the mill, everyday thoughtless evil. We all do it. So, we are given the gift of God’s judgment, we are given the gift of God’s complete inability to not care about us being willfully blind. This is the symbolism of John’s baptism of water. Water corresponds to divine truth, and it cleanses us of our evils by making them clear to us.
But clarity on its own is not sufficient. We are also urged to act. We know that we are no longer being indifferent when our actions change. This is the baptism to come, the baptism of the holy spirit and fire. The baptism of illumination from the holy spirit, and of fire from divine love, working in concert to regenerate us, to birth us into loving action. God’s judgment is not meant to debilitate us but rather to rattle us into seeing possibility, to open us up into being a vessel for love. And so, in between bouts of apocalyptic hyperbole, we get John the Baptist telling us delightfully ordinary ways to love.
And this is of course, why we are asked to consider these texts during Advent, why we are asked to sit here all awkward and uncertain with John the Baptist rather than cozy in the stable with the manger. We sit here in this in-between space of expectation because we must not forget how disruptive the Lord’s birth really is. God is not and cannot be indifferent to our flaws and our walls and our temper tantrums and our fears, and so the birthing of God into our lives will involve the sweeping away of these things. When we welcome the baby, we welcome that disruption, that holy beautiful disruption. But it is not a disruption for the sake of chaos, it is a disruption of the sake of transformation. It is not a disruption that will send us flailing and twirling unmoored into an empty universe, it is a disruption held firmly within the arms of God, the womb of God. We need not fear. We just need to breathe and let ourselves be born.
Through most of his book, the prophet Zephaniah preaches a mighty destruction, a mighty upheaval. But then all of sudden, he also preaches a mighty song of hope, restoration and love. “At that time”, says the Lord, “I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home.” God’s judgment is for the purpose of bringing us home to ourselves, a vision and a home that God believes in.
14 Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. 16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. 17 The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” 18 “I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which is a burden and reproach for you. 19 At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame. 20 At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the LORD.
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 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.” 10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what
should we do?” 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” 15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
True Christianity 587
The First Phase in Our Being Generated Anew Is Called "Reformation"; It Has to Do with Our Intellect. The Second Phase Is Called "Regeneration"; It Has to Do with Our Will and Then Our Intellect
The evils we are born with are in the will that is part of our earthly self; this earthly will pressures the intellect to agree with it and to have thoughts that harmonize with its desires. Therefore if we are to be regenerated, this has to happen by means of our intellect as an intermediate cause.
This process draws on pieces of information that our intellect receives, first from our parents and teachers, and later from our reading the Word, listening to preaching, reading books, and having conversations. The things that our intellect receives as a result are called truths…Truths teach us who to believe in, what to believe, and also what to do and what to will…
…During the phase called our reformation, we come to mentally see and admit that evil is evil and goodness is good, and make the decision to choose what is good. When we actually try to abstain from evil and do what is good, the phase called our regeneration begins.