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By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Third Sunday of Advent
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, December 15, 1996



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 own example.

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 goodies.

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.

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