Sunday, December 12, 1993

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Joshua 24:1-15
Luke 24:13-32

Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and truth: and put away the gods

which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve the

Lord. And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve;

whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or

the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living: but as for me and my house, we

will serve the Lord.

Joshua 24:14f.

It has been said of free will that all reason argues against it and all experience argues

for it, and the opposite might be said for New Year's resolutions--that all reason argues

for them, and all experience argues against them. The new year would seem to be an ideal

time for a fresh start. It feels right. We have a kind of ceremony of saying good bye to

the old and welcoming the new, and along with this comes a kind of conviction that this

new year can be better than the past one. At the same time, there could probably be a book

of jokes and cartoons about New Year's resolutions. Their ineffectiveness is proverbial.

Our Old Testament reading comes from a point in Israel's history when the nascent nation

was saying good bye to the old and greeting the new. The conquest was over, such as it

was, their great general Joshua was retiring, and they were about to settle down to a very

different kind of life. They were through being nomads, they were through being an army.

They were about to become farmers and herdsmen and potters and everyday citizens of town

and countryside.

It was wholly appropriate for Joshua to use the occasion as he did, for the making of new

resolutions. The chapter goes on to describe the reading of the law and the people's

binding promise to abide by it. They must have felt much as we do at the beginning of a

new year, that they could do better than they had in the past, so their confidence is not

at all surprising. A clean slate invites us to write on it, and in our imaginations we can

write some very inspiring ideals.

Not many pages after these solemn promises, though, we find a very familiar story. The

second chapter of Judges tells us that the people served the Lord faithfully as long a

Joshua and his contemporaries lived. These, it notes, were the people who had seen what

the Lord had done for them. But then, we are told, "there arose another generation after

them, which did not know the Lord or the works which he had done for Israel."

Predictably, the faithful service deteriorated, in this instance into idolatry, and we

enter a period of living from crisis to crisis, of laxity as long as things went well

repentance only when things went painfully wrong.

What had happened? Were the promises insincere? Did Israel underestimate the difficulty of

the task, or overestimate her own moral and spiritual strength? Perhaps the most

productive way to describe the problem would be to say that the slate was not anywhere

near as clean as they thought. They were in fact carrying into the new situation many of

the failings that had betrayed them in the past. It illustrates the platitude that

changing our circumstances solves only those problems that are caused by our

circumstances. Many of our problems are caused by our own attitudes, and these we do not

leave behind. If one of these attitudes involves blaming all our troubles on our

circumstances, then obviously moving to a new situation is a symptom of the problem and

not a solution at all.

If we want the new year to be better than the old one, then, we need to look at what we

are carrying with us. The slate will not actually be cleaned by the stroke of the clock at

midnight. Somehow or other, we have to clean it.

That, I suggest, is what Joshua was trying to do with his recital of Israel's history. He

began with the promise to Abram, told of the patriarchs, of the deliverance from Egypt, of

the wilderness experience, and of the conquest. He made it clear that all this was the

Lord's work, that it was not accomplished by their sword and bow, that they were settling

in a land for which they had not labored, in cities which they had not built. The obvious

intent of this was to inspire loyalty out of gratitude; but we do not have to look far

beneath the surface to find another message, namely that this people needs a lot of help.

They have no reason to believe in their own moral or spiritual strength.

"Cleaning the slate," then, would be learning the lessons that are there on the slate to

be learned. This is a principle that is clearly reflected in Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell.

In general, we are not punished for our past sins--punishment is inherent in the sin

itself, and not some kind of add-on. If we no longer incline to a particular failing, then

we have, so to speak, learned what that failing had to teach us about ourselves. The

unwelcome memories that are revived in the other life are the ones we have insisted on

distorting or denying (Cf. Heaven and Hell 509, 462b). These turn out to be recorded in

every detail and are recalled with full vividness precisely because we have not faced


The parallel to our own present lives seems quite clear. The only way we can lay a solid

foundation for change, for a truly better new year, is to learn what the old year has to

teach us. This means looking below the surface, beyond the obvious ups and downs of

events, to discover some of the whys. When has our own resolve been firm and adequate to

whatever challenged us? When has our own resolve wavered and failed? Can we see any

pattern to this, any pattern that would help us recognize the danger signals more promptly

than we have heretofore?

Someone who is not in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations observed that those who do not know

history are condemned to repeat it, and this is exactly the principle at work here. If we

fail to face what is happening in our lives, if we rationalize rather than examine, if we

practice self-justification rather than self-critique, then we carry all our liabilities

with us into the new year. We make our resolutions with wondrous confidence because we

have convinced ourselves that we are capable and trustworthy. Our slate has drawn on it a

picture of ourselves that differs significantly from the facts.

This is the state imaged by the Israel of our Old Testament reading. The twenty-fourth

chapter of Joshua goes on to tell how the assembled people promised obedience, and how

Joshua's immediate response was, "You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God." He was

right on both counts, but he was not heard. But what would have been Israel's response if

he had been heard? Would the nation have decided to "serve other gods?" I doubt it. At

this point, they were full of the awareness of how far they had been brought and how much

they owed to the Lord. They were intensely aware of the Lord's power, and not about to

challenge it.

Their response would probably have been much like Solomon's in the dream he had at the

beginning of his reign. He recognized the magnitude of the task ahead of him and the

limits of his own ability, and prayed for wisdom. So an Israel that heard what Joshua was

trying to convey would probably have answered with a will to be faithful and a plea for

help in doing so. In the words of the father of the possessed child in Mark, "Lord, I

believe: help my unbelief."

Again, the parallel to our lives seems quite clear. If all we take with us into the new

year is a resolve to "try harder" based on a radical overestimation of our spiritual

strength, the prospects of change are dim indeed. We have not identified the problem

because we do not know why we did not try harder before. It is like having a car that

won't start, and simply trying to turn the key harder. It may just be that the problem has

very little if anything to do with the amount of effort we are expending, and everything

to do with the focus of that effort. We may actually be using all the strength we have,

but using it on a problem that cannot be solved by strength.

In other words, if our new year's resolves prove ineffective, it may be because there are

some answers we do not have; and often as not, when we lack answers it is because we have

not asked questions. In all probability, the answers are there in the past year. If we

could see beneath the surface a little more clearly, we might begin to recognize what has

gone wrong. The first slate we have to wipe clean is the one that has written on it all

the answers that didn't work.

One of the more obvious characteristics of a clean slate is that it doesn't have any

information on it. Some traditions speak of the "beginner's mind," of coming at every new

situation with as few preconceptions as possible, and this is very much the same thing.

It involves a thorough and heartfelt acknowledgment of ignorance, saying those three

little words, "I don't know." This is exactly what Solomon said--"I do not know how to go

out and come in." This is exactly what Israel did not say at Shechem.

When we turn to our New Testament reading, the story of the two disciples on the road to

Emmaus, we find ourselves at another transition point. The years of the Lord's physical

presence had closed, and the years of his spiritual presence were beginning. In this

instance, though, the disciples knew only that one era had ended. They had no inkling of

what lay ahead.

The Lord's way of dealing with this was very much like that of his namesake Joshua--he

reviewed the past. "Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them in all

the Scriptures the matters that concerned himself." He did this explicitly so that they

would understand the purpose behind all these events. All this had happened so that the

Messiah might "enter into his glory."

There is an intriguing detail involved that is very difficult to translate. The Authorized

Version has Jesus saying, "O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets

have spoken." The word translated "fools" is anoetoi, which basically means people who

lack discernment. It describes something very much like the blank slate we have been

talking about. The disciples were open to learn because they were bewildered. They had

been pushed beyond any tendency to pretend to understanding.

This is a recurrent theme in Paul's letters. "The foolishness of God is wiser than men,

and the weakness of God is stronger than men," he wrote to the Corinthians (I Cor. 1:25),

or again, "when I am weak, then I am strong" (II Cor 12:10). It is the foundation of

Swedenborg's "as if" principle, that we are to resist evils "as if" of ourselves, but are

to keep reminding ourselves that it is not really our strength at all.

If the main thrust of New Year's resolutions is simply that we will try harder, then, they

have failure built into them. They embody the same illusion that defeated Israel's

resolve, namely confidence in our own strength. They involve the pretense that the slate

has been wiped clean simply by the passage of time, when in fact it still has written on

it all the answers that have not worked in the past. If there is one all-purpose

resolution that might emerge from these thoughts, it would be a resolve to be quicker to

recognize when we need help and more faithful in reflecting on both our successes and our

failures. The Lord is at hand and can help us if we get our illusions out of the way.


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