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accentGod's Wonderful Gift

By the Rev. Lee Woofendenaccent

Thanksgiving Sunday
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 24, 1996

Isaiah 63:7-9 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord
John 8:1-11 The woman caught in the act of adultery
True Christian Religion #43.2 God's love for all

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all the Lord has done for us . . . according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Isaiah 63:7)

This season has always been a time of year when it is easy to recount the gracious deeds of the Lord. As long as we humans have been dependent on seedtime and harvest for our food, the fall has been a time of plenty. When the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621, they had already endured a long, cold, and hungry winter. They were thankful to God for a plentiful harvest during their first growing season--a harvest that would see them through the next winter more comfortably. Through many ages and cultures, including our own, autumn and harvest have been a time of celebration and of thankfulness to God.

In the industrialized countries, those of us who live in the cities and their surrounding towns do not feel as directly dependent on the seasons and the harvest for our daily bread as our rural brothers and sisters do. We have built up a complex system of national and international food shipping that enables us to smooth out hardships caused by bad harvests in different areas of the country. If crops fail in one area, we simply ship food from other areas. The worst effect we are likely to feel is higher prices at the supermarket checkout stand.

This system has given those of us in the better-off parts of the world a security and freedom from hunger that is certainly something to be thankful for. We still do face the challenge of extending this kind of security to all the world's people instead of only the more fortunate. We also face the challenge of not becoming complacent in our own technological success and forgetting that the source of all our plenty and of our life is still the Lord. No matter how wonderful the advances we have made, we still cannot make a single seed grow by our own effort. The life of all plants and animals is a gift from God--and we still depend on that gift for our daily bread. If we think about it for only a moment, we will realize that we still have many things to be thankful to the Lord for.

In ancient Palestine, the prophet Isaiah was reminding his people of this when he spoke the words of our first reading. He was recalling the Lord's saving actions throughout Israel's history. He said:

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love . . . In his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63:7, 9)

We also have many things to be thankful for in the history of our nation. We can be thankful to God for putting the spirit of freedom and justice into many of the founders of this country, and keeping that flame alive through the generations since then. Though our country does have its shortcomings, we still enjoy many benefits from the democratic form of government that we have chosen. We have strayed from the spirit of God's love and wisdom in some areas, but we have also followed God's spirit in our society's emphasis on learning, honest work, personal freedom, and helping those less fortunate than ourselves.

All of these good qualities in us are gifts from God--gifts for which we can and should be thankful. Yet the Lord gives us an even deeper and more wonderful gift than these. Our reading from the Gospel of John gives a sense of what that gift is. While Jesus was teaching at the temple, some scribes and Pharisees brought before him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. "The law of Moses," they said, "commands us to stone such women." They wanted to know what Jesus would say about this.

The answer to this question would not necessarily be obvious to us from reading some of Jesus' other statements about marriage, adultery, and divorce. In some ways, Jesus was even more strict about these things than the law of Moses. One time, when the Pharisees asked him about divorce, Jesus told them:

It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matt. 19:8, 9)

In another place, he says that any man who even looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt. 5:28)

The woman caught in the act of adultery had gone against these stringent views on divorce and adultery. We might think that Jesus would have strong words for her.

But that is not what happened. Instead, Jesus used a kind of spiritual aikido to turn the scribes' and Pharisees' question back on themselves. At first, he seemed to ignore them, bending down and writing on the ground with his finger. They thought they really had him this time. He couldn't answer their question! They badgered him until he finally answered. When he did, his words put them off balance. "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Not one of them could claim never to have sinned. Beginning with the elders, they went away one by one until only Jesus and the woman were left standing alone.

Then Jesus said, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." Then Jesus replied, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on, do not sin again."

For the moment, we will pass by the last thing Jesus said, and focus on the most amazing part of this story. For all of Jesus' strictness on adultery and divorce, when the event occurred--when a woman who was caught in the act of adultery was brought before him--he did not condemn her for what she had done. Instead, he pointed out to her accusers what is stated more plainly elsewhere in the Bible. We have all sinned and gone astray. Not a single one of us is faultless. Yet the Lord does not condemn us. Instead, the Lord forgives us and continues to love us, just as he forgave the woman caught in adultery and continued to love her, saving her from those who wished to kill her.

This is the deepest and most wonderful gift of God to each one of us. Whatever we may do, whatever choices we may make, good or bad, the Lord continues to love us just the same as if we were pure and perfect. Swedenborg puts this very plainly:

God's love goes forth and reaches, not only to good people and good things, but also to bad people and bad things. So it goes not only to the people and things that are in heaven, but also to the ones that are in hell--not only to Michael and Gabriel, but also to the devil and Satan. (True Christian Religion #43.2)

Yes, God loves even the devil and Satan! Now, if God's love reaches even to the devil and Satan (which, for Swedenborg, means all of hell together), then no matter how awful we think we have been, and no matter what terrible thoughts and feelings we may sometimes have, God continues to love us just the same. God's love is unconditional. It is a free gift that is always ours for the receiving, regardless of who or what we are.

This gift runs far deeper than a plentiful harvest; it is a blessing greater than material security, political stability, and even social harmony. As wonderful as these things are, God's unconditional love is still more wonderful. It is our spiritual life-blood within that enables us to keep going through good times and bad. It is an enduring foundation that we can always rest our life upon. It is a steady rock that can save us from all that is wrong within us if we will only turn toward it--toward the love that comes from God.

Once we understand and believe this, then we know that the issue is not whether God loves us. That is a given. Rather, the issue is whether we will accept God's love into our lives. Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery. He continued to love her. But that was not the end of the story. "Go your way," he said, "and from now on do not sin again." Why? Why, after forgiving her, did Jesus still want her to stop doing something he said was wrong?

Swedenborg points us toward an answer to this question in the continuation of the passage we read from True Christian Religion:

God is everywhere, and is the same from eternity to eternity. The Lord says also:
He makes the sun to rise on the good and on the evil, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matt. 5:45).
But the reason why evil people and things continue to be evil has to do with the people and objects themselves. They do not receive the love of God as it is--and as it is deep within them--but as they themselves are. It is the same as the way thorns and thistles receive the heat of the sun and the rain from the sky. (True Christian Religion #43.2)

God does make the sun to rise on the good and on the evil, and sends the rain on the just and the unjust. But the evil and the unjust are like the thorns and thistles. The sun and rain they receive is exactly the same as the sun and rain that falls on flowers and fruit trees. However, the thorns and thistles take that sun and rain and turn it into something that gives pain instead of pleasure.

It is the same with us when we do not receive the love of God as it is deep within us, but instead turn it into thorns and thistles of self-centeredness and disregard for the feelings of others. When we turn God's love only toward ourselves, and not toward other people, then spiritually we become thorn bushes instead of fruit trees.

God's wonderful gift is unconditional love for us. Whatever we feel, whatever we think, whatever we do, God still loves us. Even if we become a thorn bush, God still loves us. That is exactly the relationship we have with God if we do not live in the spirit of thanksgiving. God loves us, but we do not appreciate it, so God's love cannot transform our lives.

When we do appreciate God's love, then the spirit of thanksgiving can be within us as well as around us. When we are truly thankful for the love God shows us, then we will not keep that love to ourselves, but will show it to the people around us, just as Jesus showed love and compassion--not condemnation--to the woman caught in adultery.

God's wonderful gift is always there for us. The question is, will we accept it? Will we live in the spirit of thanksgiving? Amen.


Music: Forever and a Day
1999 by Bruce DeBoer


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