Sermon

Little by Little

Sunday, January 1, 2002

Attribute - Christian Character/Fruits
Bible Verses - Mark 4:26


1

LITTLE BY LITTLE

Bath 1-27-02

Isaiah 28:9-13 Hymns: **368

Mark 4:13-29 *174

Responsive Reading #15, pp. 243f. **147

Secrets of Heaven 894, 3200

The kingdom of God is as though someone were to scatter seed on the ground and then sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow without his knowing how.

Mark 4:26f.

Buckminster Fuller said it very nicely: "I seem to be a verb." What he meant was that we use nouns to designate relatively static things, things with clear boundaries. We use verbs to describe processes, events, and we are indeed more like verbs than like nouns in many respects. We think of our bodies as stable, but in fact we are constantly processing our nourishment, incorporating some of it into our living tissue and excreting some of it. Every time we breathe in we take in oxygen for fuel, and every time we breathe out we expel carbon dioxide as waste. If we stop to think about it, it seems that even physically we are forms through which matter is constantly flowing. Our bones change very slowly, but some of our inner tissues replace themselves every twenty-four hours.

We influence this process, but we do not really control it. We influence it by choosing particular foods, by exercising or not exercising, by anxiety, fear, anger, contentment, joy, and peace of mind, but these effects are normally so gradual as to be imperceptible. In the moment, they seem to be making little difference. Cumulatively, they can add or subtract years from our lives.

At one point in his Divine Providence (180:8), Swedenborg asks us to imagine what would happen if we did have direct control of these intricate processes. "Isn't it enough," he says, "that we are aware of outward things and manage them for our physical and mental health? If we cannot do this, what would happen if we managed the inner things as well?" It would seem to be a perfectly fair question. I strongly suspect that we would start "improving" things, and wind up very shortly overcorrecting for our blunders and making things worse and worse.

There would be two main reasons for this, reasons that are closely interrelated. The first is the obvious one of our ignorance. We really do not understand how intricately the various systems of our bodies are interconnected, how changes in one bring about changes in all the others. The second would be our impatience. We want to see things happen. We want to feel better today, and in our ignorance we do not know how much needs to be changed in order for this to occur. We would do the most obvious thing, which is rarely the best thing to do when we are dealing with a complex situation.

Our text offers us a clear and accessible illustration. "The kingdom of God is as though someone were to scatter seed on the ground and then sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow without his knowing how." Perhaps we should dig up the seeds every day to check on their progress. If we want the plants to get taller once they have sprouted, the obvious thing is to stretch them. With plants, of course, this is simply destructive. We might be smart enough to realize that fertilizing is more likely to work, and overdose with fertilizer because we could not see growth happening. We might overwater, we might overheat, we might install gro-lights so that the night hours would not be wasted-there is any number of combinations of mistakes we could make, and again, the worse things got, the more impatient we would get.

The primary intent of the Lord's words is not to give good advice to gardeners but to help us to understand the way the kingdom of God comes. It is an image that should make people stop and think about expectations of a sudden day of judgment, about spectacular events. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that we would "all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet," but he expected this to happen in the lifetime of at least some of the people to whom the letter was addressed. "Listen," he says, "I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die" (1 Corinthians 15:51f.). The whole expectation of a sudden transformation came under question as year after year passed, as one after another, the members of that generation died. Everything had to be rethought.

Actually, there was a model for this kind of rethinking in the experience of the disciples themselves. They had been familiar with the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and of the coming "Day of the Lord," prophecies that were couched in apocalyptic terms. Then Jesus had come into their lives, and outwardly, nothing much had changed. There was no fire from heaven, there were no earthquakes, the wicked were not burned up like chaff, the oppression of Israel by the Romans continued in full force. The reason the disciples came to believe that the prophecies had been fulfilled was that everything changed inwardly. They no longer saw life in the same way as before. They had moved to a whole new level of perception and comprehension.

Luke's Gospel speaks directly to the point.

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was going to come, and he answered, "The kingdom of God is not coming in any obvious way. No one is going to say `Look, here it is!" or `There it is!' In fact, the kingdom of God is within and among you. (Luke 17:20f.)

Spiritually, that is, the kingdom of God is growing in and among us by processes very much like those of our bodies. It is growing by interactions between our deepest affections and thoughts, in what we have come to call "the subconscious." It is happening, that is, in those depths from which our conscious thoughts and feelings arise. We know ourselves to be responsible for the ways in which we respond to our impulses, to the notions that "cross our minds"; but if we reflect only briefly, we know that we are not in control of their arising. They occur to us, they surface, and their sources are hidden. This is one of the primary lessons learned by meditation, and it is also, not incidentally, the subject of one of the central sections of Swedenborg's Divine Providence (191-213). We really do not know a great deal about what is going on.

So like the beginning gardener, we look at what we can see of our spiritual lives and feel as though we are not making much progress. There are tendencies that we know to be wrong, habits of thought, feeling, and behavior that we disapprove of, and they seem to persist, unaffected by our disapproval and by our efforts to banish them. It can be discouraging.

When we find ourselves feeling like this, it can help to turn the clock back. It can help to review our lives and ask in all seriousness whether there is some past time to which we would like to return. Of course, for those of us who are over thirty there have been times of better physical health. The body does age. But when it comes to our attitudes toward each other, I suspect that every one of us cannot look back without blushing. We did not realize, back then, how much our behavior was shaped by a need to have other people think well of us. In those unconscious depths from which our thoughts and feelings arose, there was an intense concern with our self-image. If now we find it easier, more natural, to be unselfconscious, this is a sign that things have changed in those depths, changed more radically than we can realize.

We should make no mistake, though. That concern for our self-image served us well in many respects. We have all met people who don't seem to care what others thought of them, and they can be downright scary. Our anxiety about what others will think of us-and about what we will think of ourselves-has kept us somewhere near the straight and narrow; and it has done so consistently enough and long enough for the Lord to work some quite profound and subtle changes within us.

Some things that used to matter supremely now scarcely matter at all. It can reach the point where it is hard to believe that they do still matter to some folk, especially to people who seem to be old enough to know better. Yet if we were asked to name the time when this change took place, we could not. It has happened "without observation." It has happened while we were sleeping and rising night and day.

We really have no idea how much needed to be changed in order for this to happen. Our self-concern and materialism have deep roots. They are intertwined with a whole system of perceptions and assumptions that give them a very persuasive plausibility. We might think of a hopelessly tangled ball of string. If we had the patience, we could probably untangle it eventually, essentially by finding one end and following its course through the whole mass. More probably, we would start tugging at it in our impatience, and make things even worse.

Something like this untangling has been going on within us under the Lord's loving providence. Bit by bit, the misleading impulses and the misled thoughts have been getting straightened out. This is possible only because we have been doing what little we could in the surface matters that do seem to be under our control-in the language of doctrine, resisting evils because they are sins against God and acknowledging as best we can that our ability to do so is a gift, not a possession.

The thirty-seventh Psalm advises us well:

Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will dwell in the land, and be secure. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you your heart's desire. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. . . . Be at rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him. (Psalm 37:3-5, 7)

Amen.

Secrets of Heaven 894

We can now see that "In the beginning, on the first of the month" means a first boundary. What more is involved here is too deep to describe except to say that there is no fixed time when we are so regenerated that we can say "Now I am complete." That is, there are unlimited states of evil and falsity in each of us, and these are not just simple states. There are intricately complex states that need to be banished so that we can no longer see them, so to speak. We can say that we are more complete in some states, but there are infinitely more states of which this is not true. If we have started to regenerate during our physical lives and have lived in faith in the Lord and in charity toward the neighbor, then in the other life we are constantly being perfected.

Secrets of Heaven 3200

In these two verses we have a description of the state of wanting to do good because it makes sense, when we are hoping for more truth. This is like a bride about to be married to her groom. The next two verses offer a description of the state of truth when it is at hand and is aware of the good that it is going to marry. However, we need to realize that these states did not occur only once. They occurred constantly throughout the Lord's life in the world until he was glorified. The same holds true for people who are in the process of regeneration. We are not regenerated all at once but continually, throughout our whole lifetime, and even in the other life. We can never be perfected.




 
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