Sunday, December 12, 1995

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Malachi 4
John 4:19-28

He said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

Last Sunday, we looked at some of the prophecies of restoration that were given in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. They fall into two main categories, Messianic and “cosmic.” The Messianic ones speak of a human king, a descendant of David, while the cosmic ones speak of a direct visitation of the omnipotent Divine.

This is necessary background for understanding this morning’s New Testament reading. The delegation that came from Jerusalem to question John the Baptist knew the prophecies backward and forward, and so did John. In first denying that he was the Christ, or in Hebrew the Messiah, he denied that he had any claim to kingship. In denying that he was “that prophet,” he denied that he was the second Moses promised in the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy. In denying that he was Elijah, he denied that he was that figure foretold in our Old Testament reading, the one who would come to announce the “great and dreadful day of the Lord.”

He identified, though, with a prophecy that did have to do with a direct visitation of the Divine. “The way of the Lord” in the fortieth chapter of Isaiah is clearly the way of the omnipotent God. “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low . . . and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” However, this does not seem to be the “great and dreadful day.” There is no mention of destruction. There is nothing to give reason for fear. Instead, quite explicitly, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arm and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”

In order to explore what this might mean for our own lives, we may set it in its larger context. Quite simply, the Old Testament tells of the promise, the realization, and the failure of the earthly kingdom of Israel, and then closes with the prophetic expectations of a restoration. In the Gospels, we find Jesus claiming to fulfill those prophecies, but not in the way a literalist would expect. Their meaning is transformed, and at the heart of that transformation is the shift from the kingdom of Israel to the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven.

We can see in this an image of one of the most fundamental processes in our own lives, one that happens over and over again on a small scale, and that happens once and for all on a large scale. That is, time and time again we strive for a goal we can perceive, a goal which is relatively external, and on achieving it find that it does not bring the sense of fulfillment or contentment that we had expected. This presses us to look deeper, to recognize that what we need is more internal than we had thought. The once and for all version is built into our nature in the fact that our physical bodies will ultimately fail, so that we will find ourselves to be spiritual beings. That is the situation I want to focus on this morning.

We do not need to wait until we are at death’s door to realize that we are spiritual beings. As the years of midlife advance, the direction of the physical process becomes clearer and clearer. If we are candid with ourselves, we begin to realize that someday the world will get along without us. To quote a song that comes back from my teens, “Got along without you before I met you, gonna get along without you now.” All the things we have done to establish our worth are called into question, to the point that if we absorb the full force of the message, our earthly kingdom collapses.

This can take some strange forms. For example, we tend to spend much of our lives becoming self-sufficient so that we can be of service, and this is no easy task. But as the aging process takes over, we have to learn a much harder lesson—how to accept help, how to be dependent. Is it possible that one measure of our worth is not how much we can do for others, but how much others care about us?

The essence of this shift is from the external to the internal—from what we can do or say to how we understand and care. In this respect, it is imaged by the change of focus from the kingdom of Israel to the kingdom of heaven. Both kinds of prophecy come into play. As the Messiah is an earthly king, taking charge of earthly matters, we have to meet our new responsibilities.

But as Jesus was not the kind of Messiah the literalist would expect, the “taking charge” we have to do is of a wholly new order. We can no longer do many of the things we once took for granted. But there are still things that no one can do for us, things of a deeper order. No one can think things through for us. No one can deal with our frustrations. No one can “let go” for us.

At the same time, the Lord is very much at work. Some of that work may seem and feel destructive, like the “great and dreadful day of the Lord,” and there are certainly people who see the aging process as one solely of loss. However—and this is where the wisdom of John the Baptist’s answer shines through—underlying all this turmoil is the presence of the Lord as the gently shepherd, watching over all that is most tender in us. We have all known people who have become more and more beautiful as the years passed, stern folk who have “mellowed,” strict folk who have shown an affectionate side we had never seen.

What specifically is the role of John the Baptist in such transitions? Swedenborg tells us that John represents the letter of the Word, which may seem a strange agent for this shift away from the external. However, there is nothing “other-worldly” about Swedenborg’s spirituality, nothing at all. What is supposed to happen in this transition is not that we lose interest in the physical world but that we see new and deeper meaning in it. Our own personal “Word”—the particular passages that have had power in our lives—begins to light up in a new way.

Let me offer a simple example. The Ten Commandments are couched largely in negative terms. They constitute for the most part a series of prohibitions. When we add to this the circumstances of their giving, the thunder and the earthquakes and the fire, they are outright scary. However, there can come a point in our lives where we realize that we do not want to do harm. The same commandments that we feared in the beginning now start to sound more like promises. If we truly entrust ourselves to the Lord, if, in good Swedenborgian terms, we “allow our internals to be opened,” we won’t kill or commit adultery steal or bear false witness or covet.

Each of us, I am sure, could come up with examples of familiar and beloved statements that have at some point in life suddenly taken on new meaning. This is the parallel in our own lives to the reinterpretation of prophecies that takes place time and again in the Gospels. The words themselves remain much the same, but they become windows onto a deeper reality.

There is one other aspect of John the Baptist that we may attend to before closing. He himself denied that he was Elijah, but as we saw last week, years later Jesus would say that John actually was Elijah. There is a way in which both statements are true. John was certainly not the Elijah that the literalists expected. He had not come to announce the end of the world, the falling of the stars from the heavens, the physical destruction of the wicked. But in relation to the kingdom of heaven, he was Elijah, come as a herald of the Lord’s battles against the hells and his victory over them. In a sense, he was the herald of the destruction not of the earthly kingdom itself but of attachment to that kingdom. At the crucifixion, the disciples’ earthly hopes were burned up like stubble, and their dreams fell like stars.

The more stubbornly we are attached to external goals, the more violent will be the experience of letting go of them, but the violence is not in or from the Lord. It is the violence within us that we have not dealt with, our defensiveness of our own worth. That is what John, the letter of the Word, is trying to tell us. The Lord he envisions, the Lord Scripture would have us see, is the gentle shepherd.

For some reason, I am reminded of the experience of learning to swim. There are the initial fears, the snootfuls and the tension and the coughing and the sneezing, and then at some point there comes the discovery that the water actually supports us with a kind of gentleness we have never experienced before—so gently that we do not really feel its pressure anywhere. We do not have to hold ourselves up. The harder we try to do so, the less we accomplish. If we relax and let ourselves be supported, though, suddenly we can actually swim. Now for the first time we discover the meaning of the “literal sense” of our teacher’s instructions. The teacher is no longer the taskmaster, the one who makes us suffer. All the suffering came from our own fears.

The Psalmist said it as well as it has ever been said: “Cast your burden upon the Lord, and he will sustain you” (Psalm 55:22). The kingdom of heaven is not our achievement and never will be. It is the Lord’s good pleasure to give it to us. To return again to Heaven and Hell 399, the Lord’s love is a love of giving us everything it has. The outward severity of the literal sense answers to our need for discipline. Its divine intent is not severe at all. John himself knows that the deeper reason for his coming is not to warn people of destruction, but to awaken them to the presence of the good shepherd. At this Christmas season, may we awaken to that presence.


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