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Salvation from our Enemies
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, December 16, 2001
Third Sunday in Advent

* Readings *

Psalm 138 Your right hand delivers

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
     Before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
     And give thanks to your name for your steadfast love
          and your faithfulness:
     For you have exalted your name
          and your word above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me;
     You increased my strength of soul.

All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
     For they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
     For great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly;
     But the haughty he perceives from far away.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
     You preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
     You stretch out your hand,
          and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
     Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.

Luke 1:67-79 Zechariah's Song

John's father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he said through his holy prophets of long ago: salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us--to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace."

Apocalypse Explained #316.11 Salvation from falsity and evil

This prophecy of Zechariah is about the Lord and his coming. "A horn of salvation in the house of David" symbolizes omnipotence to save by divine truth that comes from divine good--"horn" symbolizing omnipotence. "The house of David" is the Lord's church. The "enemies" from which he would save people are the falsities that come from evil; for these are the enemies from which the Lord saves those who receive him. It is a known fact that there were no other enemies from which the Lord saved those who are meant by "his people" in this passage.

* Sermon*

He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he said through his holy prophets of long ago: salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. (Luke 1:69-71)

Our reading from the Gospel of Luke this morning is traditionally known as "Zechariah's Song." Zechariah was a priest in the temple of the Lord. One day, while he was burning incense in the temple, an angel appeared to him and told him that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, and that they were to call him John. This John, the angel said, would "go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:17).

Not only was Zechariah struck with fear at the presence of this powerful angel, but he was also struck with skepticism. After all, he and his wife were well on in years, and Elizabeth was beyond the age of childbearing. Because he did not believe, the angel took away his ability to speak, and he remained mute until after his son was born, just as the angel had foretold.

Zechariah did not recover his ability to speak until the eighth day after the birth, when the baby boy was to be circumcised and given his name. Those performing the ceremony were going to name the child "Zechariah," after his father. But his mother insisted that he was to be called "John"--the name that the angel had given to Zechariah for their son. So they signaled his father, who promptly wrote on a tablet, "His name is John."

It was at this point that he regained his ability to speak--and his first words were to praise God. The words of "Zechariah's Song," spoken under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, follow right after this account, giving us the sense that these were the words Zechariah used to praise God on that occasion. His praise was a prophecy about the coming of the Lord to save the people from their enemies, and about the role of his newborn son--later known as John the Baptist--in preparing the way for that great and wonderful coming.

"The Lord has come and has redeemed his people," Zechariah said. And that redemption involved "salvation from our enemies."

Salvation from our enemies. The Jewish people had plenty of enemies at that time. Their greatest enemy was the Roman empire--a foreign power that had conquered their land, and ruled them with a firm hand that brooked no opposition. Because of the many prophecies in the Hebrew Bible about the Messiah coming to defeat the enemies of Israel, most of the people naturally assumed that when the Messiah came, he would throw off all foreign rulers, and re-establish Israel as a strong and independent nation.

Zechariah may have been thinking this when he spoke his prophecy. Even the Lord's own apostles apparently still thought this after the Lord's resurrection--despite all his teachings about his kingdom not being of this world. In the opening scene of the Acts of the Apostles--which tells us of Jesus' appearance to his apostles over a period of forty days after his resurrection--we are told of a brief conversation in which the disciples asked Jesus, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Perhaps it was not until the Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles like tongues of fire, that they truly began to understand that the kingdom they were called to preach to all the people was a spiritual and heavenly one, not an earthly one.

Emanuel Swedenborg, in commenting on Zechariah's statement that the Lord would bring "salvation from our enemies," puts it bluntly. "It is a known fact," he writes, "that there were no other enemies besides the falsities that come from evil from which the Lord saved those who are meant by 'his people' in this passage."

When I read this statement, I had to stop and think about it. And the more I did, the more I realized that Swedenborg had put his finger on something that is critical to understand about the salvation that the Lord brought to the ancient Jewish people--and that he brings to us today. The fact is, Jesus did not save the people from a single earthly enemy! And any time his followers wanted to draw swords and engage in physical combat, he told them in no uncertain terms that this was not what his kingdom was about.

Once, when the people intended to make him king by force, he avoided this by retreating to a mountain by himself (John 6:15). And in a story told (with some variation) in all four Gospels, when one of Jesus followers--identified as Simon Peter in the Gospel of John--drew his sword to protect Jesus from the mob that had come to take him away to his death, cutting off the right ear of the high priest's servant, Jesus said, "No more of this!" and promptly restored the man's ear by his healing power (Luke 22:47-51).

It was shortly after this, when Pilate was questioning Jesus, that Jesus said plainly, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place" (John 18:36). Now we can understand why Jesus was so quick to tell Peter to put his sword away! To fight the mob would have been to completely misrepresent the nature of the Lord's kingdom.

What was the nature of the Lord's kingdom? The conversation with Pilate continues:

"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.

Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18:37)

Pilate didn't understand what Jesus was talking about. "What is truth?" he famously replied. His was an earthly kingdom maintained by force of arms. He couldn't understand this "heavenly kingdom" that Jesus talked about, though Jesus himself had a strange hold upon Pilate's mind--so much so that he attempted to free him, but to no avail.

What is truth? And what is the kingship of the Lord? What is this reason for which the Lord Jesus was born? To testify to the truth?

Jesus used no sword, and rarely engaged in physical confrontations. He forbade his followers to fight for him. His kingdom came from above, he said. He didn't do any of the things that a worldly ruler should do. Kings and politicians throughout the ages, and right up to this day, tell the people what they want to hear in order to captivate their minds and hearts, and make themselves popular and powerful. Kings and politicians freely use weaponry and military might in order to establish their power. Jesus didn't engage in these power games. Though he would have been perfectly capable of obtaining a worldly kingdom for himself, he never let himself waver from a higher kingdom and a higher calling.

"For this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." It was with the "sword of his mouth" (Revelation 2:16) that he fought his battles, and secured his kingdom. The enemies that the Lord came to save us from were not oppressive kings and armies of soldiers. The Lord came to save us from the armies of hell and evil, and from slavery to the oppressive kings of false principles that lead to materialism, greed, selfishness, jealousy, and every other evil and sinful thing that will make us its slave if we yield to its power.

The battles of the Lord were not physical, but spiritual ones. They were battles for the minds and hearts of human beings, and for the soul of humanity. They were battles to free us from the enslaving power of our own selfishness and greed, so that instead of groveling before the temporary and fleeting power and pleasures of the material world, we would rise in spirit to the eternal realities of love and wisdom, understanding and kindness, and peace with our fellow human beings.

The Lord fought with the sword of his mouth--which was the divine truth--to give us salvation from our spiritual enemies. As an example, in the Gospel of Matthew, he gives us these beautiful and powerful words:

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the nations run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:25-33)

"Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." These are the words Swedenborg put at the very beginning of his first published religious work, Arcana Coelestia (Secrets from Heaven). If we will follow them in our lives, seeking first to learn God's will for us and to put it into practice every day, the Lord Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in this season, will save us from all our spiritual enemies--our inner demons--and will give us the peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7). Amen.