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Readings: Genesis 12:1-5, Mark 8:31-37, Secrets of Heaven #1407 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/KmuCHRCpxGM
Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”
These are the first words that God says to Abram, the words that will begin the story of the Children of Israel, a story that gave birth to three worldwide religious traditions, that connects millions together in spiritual ancestry.
Go from your country to the land I will show you. I’m not sure there could be a more simple but appropriate command for the Lenten season. The Lord told Abram to pick himself up from all that he knew and valued and head out into an unknown country and an unknown future. I’m sure many of us have experienced similar upheavals. I myself took a journey from my own homeland of Australia, into an unknown future which has brought me here with all of you. Many of us might have moved from where we grew up, or moved to go to college, or find a job. It takes faith, fortitude, optimism and trust to make big moves like that.
But of course, we read the bible not only in a literal physical way, but in a spiritual way as well. We can see that such a command has an internal meaning, signifying an emotional journey, a journey of the spirit.
Swedenborg writes (as we heard in our reading today):
Go away from your land' means the bodily and worldly things from which [Jesus] was to depart. 'And from the place of your nativity' means bodily and worldly things that were more exterior. 'And from your father's house' means such as were more interior. 'To the land which I will cause you to see' means the spiritual and celestial things that were to be brought to view.
Swedenborg unfolds the meaning of Genesis in terms of the spiritual journey that Jesus took while here in the world with us. And he also makes clear that Jesus’ process mirrors our own, that we are on a corresponding track, just with slightly different destinations: glorification and regeneration, two sides of the same coin, two manifestations of the same process. In our text, “your country, your people, your fathers household” signify the things, situations, thoughts, and perspectives in which we are invested, both external and internal. They are our emotional home. They are the place where we feel comfortable, they are our default. From resources we own, food we like, clothes we wear, to our habits and ingrained ways of doing things, to our sense of competence and control, identity, privilege, reputation, and more. In so far as these things do not serve our growing in love and wisdom, the Lord says “Go.” The Lord says to leave them behind.
And what is so powerful about this command is that it is not a rebuke, it is an invitation and a promise. The promise of, as the Lord says, a land that I will show you. A land that will be seen but first we must be willing to leave wherever we are. This is not so much a test of faith, or a test of our willingness to suffer, for which we will be eventually rewarded. God does not desire for us to be performative; God hopes that we will be open to transformation. Abram couldn’t see the land yet, not because God was withholding, but because he hadn’t yet taken the journey to get within seeing distance.
So it is the same for us. We can’t always see the shape of things that we are heading towards, we can’t always appreciate the freedom, or the expansion or the effectiveness, or the satisfaction that will be available to us once we have jettisoned our old ways of thinking and being.
The truth is we often need to get rid of something before there is enough space for a new way of thinking and being to bloom. This is why Swedenborg so very often emphasizes that we need to, in his words, shun evils before we can do good. (1) This is not meant to mean that we are to wait until we are perfect before we can have any positive effect on our world. It means that we can’t necessarily expect that our old and new selves, old and new lives, old and new habits can co-exist, at least, not long-term. Abram couldn’t physically be in both Harran and the new land the Lord would show him. It certainly makes sense if we want to avoid the middle space of the journey, the uncertainty of knowing what we are going toward while also having left what we know. And so sometimes we might try to have it both ways, hanging on to old habits while also trying to bring in the new. This doesn’t usually work very well. And to be clear, this is not the same thing as working diligently on some improvement and sometimes slipping into old patterns. This is more like not wanting to recognize the downsides of old patterns, and still valuing and desiring the old patterns, and then somehow still expecting a new result, when there is just no space for a new result. Like expecting our lungs to be healthy while still smoking, or expecting a relationship to improve while still engaging in a behavior that is hurting it.
Now let us fast forward to Jesus and our text from Mark. Jesus has just confirmed to his disciples his identity as the Messiah, and begins to tell them what kind of challenges the future holds. Jesus, in his own life, has taken the Lord’s command to Abram quite seriously, and has departed from his own metaphorical country, and his own actual family and comfort. He has stepped out on to a mission and a journey to a land, to an ending, that will be unfolded and revealed in the gospels over the next weeks.
As Abram would find, as Jesus would find, the journey is difficult at times. There is nothing particularly pleasant about facing adversaries, whether that is the powers-that-be in the real world, or the adversarial states of our own being, and our own habits. But Jesus tells his disciples and followers that they must suffer many things, must deny themselves and take up their cross. It is basically non-negotiable but again not because God demands suffering as a sacrifice either on Jesus’ part or our part, a terrible appeasement to God’s sense of justice. God is not so needy as that. Suffering and tension and conflict are simply what happens when we commit to making space and giving voice to our intention of becoming more; more whole, more loving, more inclusive, more open. Suffering and tension and conflict happened for Jesus because, in the words of one of my commentaries “powerful humans opposed both his healing mission and, more specifically, the disruption that mission brought to established law and order.” (2) The journey disrupts things, things that need to be disrupted.
Of course we want to save our lives, to save our emotional lives in our day to day. In the moment, the easiest way to do this seems like staying the same, digging in our heels, making sure we are always right, creating justifications, looking after our own. This feels like saving our lives. It is intuitive, it is automatic, it is the first thing we are moved to do, as humans. It is survival instinct. But this kind of strategy is like closing off our ears to the Lord’s command and staying in Harran. It is like Peter, so threatened and afraid and incredulous, that he forcefully contradicts his beloved teacher. We close down, we lash out, anything to avoid taking the journey.
But the journey was the very first command of God. The journey was the very thing that began it all. The willingness of Abram to leave behind what was comfortable and known and set out for a land that Lord would show him. This willingness is so central to the practice of the spiritual life that Jesus called Peter satan, when he persisted in denying it. And then Jesus gathered his followers around him to drive the point home.
For whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. There is the losing and then there is the saving, and this fundamental spiritual reality is what Jesus enacted, and the story we tell in the gospels today. When we lose our preoccupation with worldly things, when we lose our grasping for power, when we lose our self-serving defensiveness, we are rescued from all the ways that these things keep us small and judgmental and fearful. We are saved from the tyranny of our selfhood and this is the good news that we will celebrate in a few weeks.
For now, if we are choosing to ground ourselves in Lent, we are in the middle of the journey. We are finding our way, learning new things, seeing new landmarks, maybe being homesick, maybe being lost, maybe feeling overwhelmed but knowing that the Lord means to show us a new land, if we are willing to keep on walking. Keep on walking, my friends.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #330 (and others)
(2) Ira Brent Driggers, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-5
1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. 5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their lifewill lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?
Secrets of Heaven #1407
Verse 1 And Jehovah said to Abram, Go away from your land, and from the place of your nativity and from your father's house, to the land which I will cause you to see.
The events described here and in what follows took place in history as they are recorded; yet the historical events as described are representative, and every word carries a spiritual meaning. 'Abram' is used to mean in the internal sense the Lord, as stated already. 'Jehovah said to Abram' means a first awareness of all things. 'Go away from your land' means the bodily and worldly things from which He was to depart. 'And from the place of your nativity' means bodily and worldly things that were more exterior. 'And from your father's house' means such as were more interior. 'To the land which I will cause you to see' means the spiritual and celestial things that were to be brought to view.