Adverse Conditions

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 22, 1998

Readings

Amos 4:6-13 Israel has Not Returned to God

I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, yet you have not returned to me, says the Lord.

I also withheld the rain from you when the harvest was still three months away; I sent rain on one city, but withheld it from another. One field had rain, another had none and dried up; so the people of two or three towns wandered to one town to drink water, and were not satisfied; yet you have not returned to me, says the Lord.

I struck you with blight and mildew; I laid waste your gardens and your vineyards; locusts devoured your fig trees and your olive trees; yet you have not returned to me, says the Lord.

I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword; I carried away your horses; and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; you have not returned to me, says the Lord.

I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire; you have not returned to me, says the Lord.

Therefore this is what I will do to you, O Israel; and because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!

For the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to mortals; the one who turns dawn into darkness, and treads the high places of the earth--the Lord God Almighty is his name!  


Mark 1:9-13 The Baptism and Temptation of Jesus

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.

At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels tended to him.  


Arcana Coelestia #730.1 Spiritual Devastation

"Forty days and forty nights" means the duration of spiritual struggles, as is clear from the Bible, . . . as when the Lord allowed himself to be tempted for forty days. . . . When we go through spiritual struggles we experience a devastation of everything relating to our ego and everything relating to our physical body. This is because everything relating to our ego and our physical self must die through the experience of conflict and temptation before we are reborn as a new person--in other words, before we can become spiritual and heavenly. So "forty days and nights" also means the duration of spiritual devastation.  


Sermon

I struck you with blight and mildew; I laid waste your gardens and your vineyards; locusts devoured your fig trees and olive trees; yet you have not returned to me, says the Lord. (Amos 4:9)

Little did I know, when I decided to go into the ministry, that I would become a weather forecaster as well. Earlier this week I picked the topic "Adverse Conditions," and just look at the weather now! We have had very little wintery weather all winter, and now that spring is officially here, we get a messy storm with rain and snow.

However, as adverse as our weather conditions may be, they pale in comparison to the adverse conditions described by Amos. Food shortages, drought, pests devastating gardens, vineyards, and orchards--plagues, pestilence, and destruction. What is even more disconcerting to our modern ears is that according to Amos, it was the Lord who sent all these adverse conditions upon the people. The Lord says, "I struck you with blight and mildew; I laid waste your gardens and your vineyards. . . . I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt." And all, apparently, in a futile effort to get the people to return to the Lord.

Of course, theologically, our church has a different perspective on this. It is only in our limited, human vision that the Lord sends plagues, pestilence, and disaster upon us; in reality, the Lord loves us all and would never send anything upon us that would give us pain. The Lord permits these things to happen to us, but does not cause them to happen to us.

Still, when we are in the middle of adverse conditions in our lives, it is so easy to feel that it is the Lord who is sending these disasters to drag us down. After all, if God is all-powerful, how could anything happen that God doesn't have a hand in?

For now, let's leave theological points aside, and stay with our personal, subjective experience of adverse conditions. Life drags us down sometimes. We get seriously ill and land in the hospital at just the wrong time. We lose our job, but the bills keep right on coming. We lose a loved one, and feel that tremendous emptiness in our lives. Old character flaws or addictions continue to rear their ugly head and drag us down both physically and emotionally, while straining and breaking our relationships. Depression and despair set in; at our blackest moments, the only direction ahead of us seems to be continually downward. We are sorely tempted to let go; to give up; to abandon our lives to the abyss; to simply not care anymore. In other words, emotionally and spiritually, our lives become very much like the terribly adverse conditions that Amos describes. We hang on by the slenderest of threads.

And we wait for the ultimatum. We wait for someone--for our boss, for our spouse, for our best friend, for God--to cut that thread and send us hurtling down, down, down to our emotional and spiritual death.

Sometimes the people who seem to hold our lives in their hands do cut that thread. But God never does. God speaks instead in mystical words: "Therefore, this is what I will do to you, O Israel . . ." We wait for the words of doom. And the next words could be read as words of doom . . . or as words of love and union with God: ". . . and because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!" Prepare to meet your God! Does this mean "meeting our Maker" in the traditional sense of dying and going to our final reward? Or does it mean meeting our Maker through a new, deeper sense of God's living presence within us?

This is the continual paradox of the periods of devastation that we all experience during the course of our lives. For when adverse conditions drag us so low that there seems to be no hope left, we face issues of life and death in a very stark way. Our usual preoccupations are swallowed up in the crisis; all those small and petty things that often occupy so much of our attention and energy fade to near meaninglessness as we face far deeper issues.

In the case of serious illness, we face issues of physical life and death--and suddenly what we possess and how we look do not seem so all-important. In the deeper emotional traumas within ourselves and in our relationships with each other, we face issues of inner, spiritual life and death--and suddenly whether we are smarter or dumber than someone else, righter or wronger than someone else, better or worse than someone else . . . all these things seem small and petty as we face the ultimate questions of our spiritual life and death.

This is exactly why the Lord allows us to experience such times. If there were any other way, the Lord would certainly do it that way. But it is not always easy to get through the thick shells of physical and mental habit that we have built up through years of treading the same well-worn paths. As long as things are going fine for us, why should we make the effort to change? If it ain't broke, why fix it?

Unfortunately, we are broken. Too often we are considerate of our own needs and feelings, but not of other people's needs and feelings. Too often we can see a million reasons why our own viewpoint is right, and not a single reason why the viewpoint of that person across from us is right. Too often we are sure that we have everything under control--that we do not need God to show us anything. Too often, we simply shuffle along on the same old path, despite all the messages we get from those around us and from the Lord that things have got to change.

If we keep shuffling along that path, ignoring the warnings, we will eventually arrive at a time of personal devastation. Perhaps it will be manifested in a physical illness. Perhaps it will be manifested in a lost job or a broken relationship. Perhaps nothing will change at all outwardly, but inwardly we will come to a time when we feel that there is nothing left to live for--when all we see around us is black darkness. Sometimes it may not come from any course we have set for ourselves at all; it may simply strike--perhaps after a high point in our lives, as when Jesus was driven out to the desert to be tempted immediately after he was baptized and experienced the glorious sign of the Spirit descending upon him like a dove.

Whatever brought on this sense of devastation within us, this is when we have both our greatest danger and our greatest opportunity. In fact, the Chinese character for "crisis," translated literally, means exactly this: "dangerous opportunity." We don't usually think of our times of devastation and despair as opportunities. But our reading from Amos makes it clear that each time the children of Israel experienced some new crisis, it was an opportunity to return to the Lord.

We know that our times of despair are dangerous--that we are sorely tempted to give up and give in, to abandon ourselves to whatever it is that is trying to drag us down. But how could the times of our worst adverse conditions possibly be an opportunity to return to the Lord, to meet our Maker in a good sense?

These conditions are opportunities precisely because at these times our focus is drawn away from lesser things, and the big issues of life consume our consciousness. Through these crises of faith, we have an opportunity to see things in a deeper, eternal perspective instead of the worldly perspective we are so often caught up in. What we own and how we look seem less important; we have an opportunity to weaken the grip these temporal and temporary things have on us, and to strengthen the Lord's place in our hearts and minds--to place the Lord at the center of our being. To use Swedenborg's words:

When we go through spiritual struggles we experience a devastation of everything relating to our ego and everything relating to our physical body. This is because everything relating to our ego and our physical self must die through the experience of conflict and temptation before we are reborn as a new person. (Arcana Coelestia #730)

As we look deeper, we find that the Lord never sends destruction upon us--especially not the destruction of those real, eternal parts of ourselves that outlast our physical bodies and our material possessions. But the Lord does at times allow physical and material devastation to strike us as a way of breaking our attachments to these things and bringing our focus instead to the things that are eternally important: our relationships with each other and our relationship with God. If temporary suffering here on earth will help lead us toward eternal happiness, isn't that a small price to pay?

I'd like to close with an example that is close to home for this church. Nearly four years ago, this church experienced a terrible fire. For the members who watched the flames devour this building, it was the blackest of times. What was most terrible and ironic was that it happened just as the church was doing a much needed major renovation. So much work of so many years destroyed so quickly!

Yet as we know, the fire led to many blessings for this church. I do not have to recount them all. But I would like to highlight something from the news coverage of the fire: one member said, "I know it's just a building, and the people are what's important."

Yes! It is the people who are important! When the physical building was partially destroyed, that terrible event focused the church on the true meaning of being a church. It caused us to rely on each other, on the community around us, and on our faith in God.

In exactly the same way, our personal disasters can help us to realize that the important things in life are not the physical and external things, but the deeper qualities of love and concern for each other, and of faith in the Lord our God. Amen.


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Music: Forever and a Day
1999 Bruce DeBoer

 

Rain applet was created by
 Micheal Chancey, Jr.