Isaiah 60:1-3, 17-21 Arise!
Shine! For your light has come
Matthew 1:18-25 The birth of Jesus the Christ
Arcana Coelestia #6858 The Lord cleared away evil spirits
She will bear a son, and
you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their
sins. (Matthew 1:21)
It is hard to believe that
Christmas is only a week and a half away! Every year we know it is on
its way. Then Thanksgiving comes, and we get involved in lots of
holiday preparation and activity. Before you know it, Christmas sneaks
up on us again.
Our time here in church on
the four Sundays of Advent does give us a sanctuary from the holiday
bustle. It gives us a chance to take care of more than the outward
trappings and wrappings of Christmas. The sanctuary of our Sunday
morning services gives us a sheltered time to prepare ourselves
spiritually for the Lord's coming so that Christmas does not sneak up
on us unawares--so that we feel the spirit of Christmas in our souls.
Without our Sunday morning services, how many of us would take even an
hour a week out of our busy schedules to contemplate the spiritual
side of the holiday?
Let us contemplate once more
the spiritual side of this holiday. On Christmas, we celebrate the
Lord's birthday. It is the biggest birthday party in the world! We can
easily get cynical about all the commercialism. But another way to
look at the eruption of activity surrounding Christmas is this: it
must have been quite an event that could inspire such a huge
outpouring of energy and activity every year! Even if a large part of
our society--and part of ourselves too--has lost touch with the
central event of Christmas, the power of that event continues to pulse
through our world nearly two thousand years after it happened.
What could possibly have
packed such a wallop that it still inspires our greatest outpouring of
energy after all these centuries? From a material perspective, there
is really no accounting for it. A baby was born. Another birth among
the billions that have happened up to our time. So what! Take away the
spiritual level of our universe, and Christmas doesn't make much
sense. It is a mid-winter holiday that has burst at the seams. Our
cynical side wants to say that it is driven largely by profit motives.
However, we wouldn't be here
in church if our thinking were limited to that low, materialistic
level. We know . . . we feel that something much greater is
behind all the hoopla of Christmas. A baby was born. There was a new
beginning. Not just any new beginning, but the greatest new beginning
the world has ever known. A new beginning that has not faded with
time, but has continued to gather strength and power as the centuries
go by. A new beginning that has grown in power because it is a new
beginning of spirit, of life, and of love.
When Jesus was born, we
humans had reached a low ebb spiritually. From our early, almost
instinctual closeness to God represented by the idyllic life in the
Garden of Eden, we gradually fell from a oneness of love in God to a
more intellectual grasp of religion pictured by the ancient
city-builders: Cain, Nimrod, and the builders of the Tower of Babel.
The Babel of our fallen intellect was dispersed as we began speaking
different languages--holding different opinions that conflicted with
each other. We lost our steady eye on the Lord's truth and began to
follow our own faltering paths instead.
When this happened, the Lord
could no longer reach us through our hearts or even through our minds.
Rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience took over. We
had to be kept in line by outward conditioning, like Pavlov's dog,
rather than through the Lord flowing into our souls from within. The
ancient Hebrew religion, with its complex system of laws and strict
penalties for disobedience, was a far cry from the time when Adam and
Eve were first put in the Garden, when they walked with God in the
cool of the day.
Yet even this severe
religion could not keep us in line. As the time of the Lord's birth
approached, religion and morality gave way before the lures of
political power and wealth. Herod, king of the Jews, made a show of
religious devotion by building a temple larger and grander than the
previous ones. But his piety was superficial. When he felt that his
rule was threatened by rumors of the coming of the long-prophesied
Messiah, he engaged in deception and then murder in an attempt to stop
the great event from happening. He intended to keep his throne even if
it meant killing the Lord's anointed one.
By the time Jesus came,
those few people who did still attempt to keep religion alive were
hopelessly entangled in the legalities and external forms of religious
tradition. The spirit of love and mutual understanding was lost. Those
who sought that real and deep religion had hardly anywhere to turn;
even their religious leaders had become caught up in legalism to the
exclusion of spirituality.
It was at our world's lowest
ebb that the Lord came to us as flesh and blood. It was when all the
other methods of reaching us had failed. People disregarded or
trivialized the life-changing messages of the prophets; new prophets
grew fewer and farther between as people listened to them less and
less; scripture had become a book for rote learning rather than for
inspiration to a good and caring life. We had become spiritually lost.
According to our church's
teachings, there were even more problems than meet the eye from a
study of history and the Bible. As we declined spiritually here on
earth, those who went on to the spiritual world were building up a
bigger and bigger roadblock against the love and truth that comes to
us from the Lord. When we die, says Swedenborg, we take our inner
character with us. If that character is selfish and materialistic, we
add to the spiritual atmosphere of selfishness and materialism that
influences people on earth. Spirits like this had grown so much in
numbers and strength that they were invading the lower heavens. There,
they blocked the angels' ability to reach out to people on earth and
lead us toward a heavenly way of life. We humans were not only choking
out the external ways of receiving religion through learning from
scripture and from spiritual teachers; we were also choking out the
inner paths toward God and spirit.
In this low ebb of our
spiritual life, the Lord made a new beginning for us. The Lord could
no longer count on finite, fallible human beings to carry the message
to us. It was time to come and do the job in person. It was time to
clear the path of the Lord into our lives.
The Lord did this in several
ways while he was living here on earth. One of the best known ways was
to give us new teachings about the real meaning of religion. The New
Testament--especially the Gospels and the Book of Revelation--give us
a radically new understanding of what it means to live a spiritual
life. Following the Lord is not a matter of mere obedience to avoid
punishment and reap a reward. It is a process of changing our hearts
so that everything we do comes from love for God and for each other.
Yes, we need to eradicate the evil parts of ourselves. However, we
should not do it merely to avoid punishment. Rather, we should do it
because evil hurts. It hurts ourselves; it hurts other people;
it hurts the Lord.
The Lord taught us about
real spiritual life, not just by giving Sermons on Mounts, but also by
walking through the valleys of human vice and corruption and shining
his light there, too. The Lord did not just teach us how to
live spiritually. He showed us how to live spiritually by his
These ways of clearing the
path of the Lord can be clearly seen in the Bible. Another way that
cannot be seen so clearly is reflected in our reading from Swedenborg.
For us to have the freedom and the ability to choose a spiritual life,
the evil spirits that were clogging the spiritual world had to be
removed. As long as they were there, it was like the sun trying to
reach the earth through dense and stormy clouds. Very little of the
Lord's light and warmth could make it through.
During all the times Jesus
was teaching, preaching, and healing in Palestine, he was doing inner
work also. He was struggling against the evil spirits who were
clogging the way. He was clearing them out of heaven and pushing them
down to their own home in hell, where they could indulge in their own
destructive desires without ensnaring good and innocent people in the
process. We see only shadows of these inner struggles in the Bible.
Yet knowing our own inner struggles against our evil tendencies, we
can sense that the Lord must have faced much deeper and more harrowing
struggles. We face only our own evils and the sometimes negative
influences of our families, friends, and other acquaintances; the Lord
faced the accumulated evil of all of humankind.
In doing so, he gave us the
gift of a new spiritual beginning, both for our world as a whole and
for each one of us as individuals. The passing of religious eras is a
matter of history; the passing of our own inner spiritual stages is a
matter of intense personal experience. Like humanity as a whole, we
have our early, innocent stage of trusting in our parents and in the
Lord. We also pass through the more intellectual--and often
argumentative--years of school and learning. As young adults, and
right into middle age, we easily get caught up in an externally
enforced obedience to the material strictures of our society. If we
don't work, we don't eat. If we work harder or better, we get more
This forms the core of our
own spiritual low ebb. Outward pressures to "be good" only
carry us so far. At some point, these pressures either cease to keep
our destructive tendencies under control, or we reach a point where we
are no longer willing to have our life dictated by material
possessions and our desire for power and status. The old motives for
living have reached their end. It is time for a new beginning.
This is exactly the new
beginning the Lord offers us through the events we celebrate at
Christmas. Our Lord was born as a baby--a perfect manifestation of the
tender, new, spiritual beginnings that the Lord offers to start in our
own spirits. Jesus grew among us in spirit and in power, and showed us
the way to a new kind of living. It is a way of life based, not on
looking out only for ourselves, but on caring for each other as we
follow the Lord's guiding hand.
There are many new things at
Christmas. New toys, new books, new bicycles, new computers, new
dolls. These new things give us joy for a time, but eventually they
grow old and fade away. There is one new gift at Christmas that is
always new and never fades. It is the mutual love that is renewed in
our hearts every time we accept the new birth of the Lord Jesus into
our hearts and our lives. This new beginning is the deepest and truest
meaning of our Christmas celebration. Amen.