The Installment Plan
 

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 29, 1998

Readings

Deuteronomy 7:17-23 Overcoming enemies little by little

You may say to yourself, "These nations are stronger than I am; how can I drive them out?" But do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm with which the Lord your God brought you out. The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear. Moreover, the Lord your God will send the hornet among them until even the survivors who hide from you have perished. Do not be terrified by them, for the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God. The Lord your God will drive out these nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals would multiply around you. But the Lord your God will deliver them over to you, throwing them into great confusion until they are destroyed.

Matthew 6:25-34 Do not worry about tomorrow

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 fild 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 will we eat?" or "What will we drink?" or "What will we wear?" For the people of the nations run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.  

Apocalypse Explained #650f.60 Regeneration: little by little

The "nations" that the children of Israel had driven out and were to drive out of the land of Canaan stand for all kinds of evil and falsity. "The Land of Canaan" means our religion, and "the children of Israel" means religious people. So "the wild animals of the field that would multiply around them" means false desires that come from evil.

When we are reformed and spiritually reborn so that we can have religion within us, it happens little by little. We are newly conceived, born, and raised, and this is done as far as the evil things that are in us from our birth and heredity--and the false ideas that come from these evils--are removed. This is not done in an instant, but over a long course of life.

From this we can see what it means in the spiritual sense that "the nations will not be driven out in one year, but little by little, or the wild animals would multiply around you." [Exodus 23:29] For if evils and the falsities that come from them were removed all at once, we would hardly have any life left, since the life we are born into is one of evil and its falsity, which come from our cravings. These are removed only as much as good and true things enter in--for it is goodness and truth that remove what is evil and false.

Sermon

God will clear away these nations before you little by little. (Deuteronomy 7:22)

There is a certain appeal to the fundamentalist Christian notion that we can be saved all at once simply by confessing our faith that Jesus Christ died for our sins. It's like quitting cold turkey. One day you're an addict, and the next day you're clean. Wouldn't it be nice if, all at once, we could be made perfect, in the image of God? If all of a sudden we no longer had any bad thoughts or feelings; never did anything to hurt another person; were always overflowing with love and filled with unshakable faith in the Lord's presence with us? Wouldn't it be great if we met every challenge life threw at us with cheerfulness and resolve? If we were able to approach all the drudgery of life with the invincible power of positive thinking, like the ideal devotee of Norman Vincent Peale?

It's nice to dream! But life isn't like that. Every once in a while we have a clear victory. Every once in a while we can say, "I'm finished with that!" But much more often, we seem to face the same tests and challenges over and over again. We seem to move by baby steps, as far as we can tell making little headway against the great morass of inner and outer obstacles that we face. So often, it seems as if we haven't changed at all; as if we're the same old person we've always been; that we'll never get past square one.

Leave aside, for now, worrying about what we will eat or drink or wear. We do spend far too much time worrying about these material things. But, at a deeper level, we can spend even more time worrying about our past and our future. We look back at the mistakes we have made, the unkind things we have said and done, and we wallow in regret; we keep repeating to ourselves, "If only I had done it differently!" And then we worry about our spiritual future. We project the mistakes of our past into the future, and map out a course for ourselves--a course that either goes nowhere, or that is so hopelessly idealistic that it is soon burst like a balloon that has just been stuck with a "reality" pin. At that point, we fall back to plan A: the plan in which we get nowhere in our spiritual growth.

Jesus gives us a radical third alternative. Perhaps we should not be mapping out our spiritual future at all. Perhaps we should leave both the past and the future to God, and focus on the only part of our lives that we can really do something about: the present. We cannot add a single hour to our lives, physically or spiritually, by worrying about it. We have no direct control over the future. But we can affect our future by taking the steps that are right in front of us. In a little unpublished book called Coronis, which was written as an appendix to the larger work True Christian Religion, Swedenborg gives us this snippet:

Our spiritual mind is closed from birth into early childhood. But after that first stage it is opened step by step. For each one of us is given from birth the potential, and afterwards the power, to acquire for ourselves steps by which we may climb upwards. (Coronis #29)

Each of us is given the power to acquire for ourselves steps by which we may climb upwards. Now this is a helpful image. Life as a stairway. It reminds us of Jacob's dream of a stairway that rested on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven. We human beings do not have wings. We don't just lift off the ground and fly up to heaven. And our legs aren't long enough to do it all in one big step. But if there is a stairway we can climb to get there, that is doable! It is a very long stairway to heaven, with thousands, even millions, of steps. But the Lord gives us landings every once in a while where we can stop take a rest. The main point is that while we can't take one great leap into heaven, we can make it there if we simply take each step that we see right in front of us. This is another way of saying that we are not "saved" all at once; rather, we are saved little by little, one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time, and even one second at a time.

Our reading from Deuteronomy gives us another image we can use in visualizing our step by step spiritual progress. It is an image that speaks to our usual experience in life, for it does not present life simply as a stairway, in which it is only a matter of taking each step as it comes. Rather, it speaks of life as a struggle and a battle to overcome obstacles in our spiritual path, one at a time. Speaking correspondentially, the Lord tells us:

Do not be terrified by them, for the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God. The Lord your God will drive out these nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals would multiply around you. (Deuteronomy 7:21, 22)

There is so much in these two brief verses! Let's spend some time unwrapping this good gift that comes in a small package.

We are so often terrified by all the inner enemies we face. We see the accumulated weight of all those generations in our family--the skeletons in the family closet that have been passed down to us, and that continue to haunt us and block our forward passage.

Like physical diseases that run in the family--cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and so on--there are spiritual diseases that run in our family. There is that hot temper that we picked up from our mother or father. There is that feeling that the people in our family are better than people from other families--smarter, more capable, more caring, and so on. Or there is that depressive tendency: that tendency to give up and give in to self-pity and despair when the going gets tough. There is that addictive tendency, whether it be to a physical drug such as alcohol or TV, or to some deeper mind-numbing habit. These and many others (we all know what they are in our own family!) are the spiritual diseases that run in our families, and that develop as our lives go on, until we suddenly realize that we are just like our parents.

That's scary! We like to think that we are building on what our parents gave us, and making progress into new territory. But when we see the same old enemies circling around us, preparing to fight against us and prevent any further progress, we feel a terror and dread of those destructive complexes that attacked our parents--and that they were not always successful at defeating. It is even scarier if our parents never made the effort to overcome those enemies, but simply gave in. For we know that we are made of the same stuff our parents are made of; and if they had so much trouble, why should we fare any better?

Yet the words of the Lord come back to us: "Do not be terrified by them, for the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God!" Our inner enemies may terrify us with their strong grip and merciless opposition to every good step we are trying to take in our spiritual lives. But there is a far greater power in our lives. The Lord our God is present with us. And the Lord is a great and awesome God. A powerful God. An infinitely powerful God. There is no match for infinity--not even the great, oppressive power of all the evil in hell combined.

We have this power available to us for the asking. The Lord our God--that great and awesome God--is present with us. And, our Scripture reading continues, "The Lord your God will drive out these nations before you, little by little." This gives us that next vital piece of help and comfort that we need. The comfort of knowing that we do not have to overcome all our spiritual enemies at once. We can take them on little by little, one at a time. And we do not have to do it alone; the Lord's power will be with us, doing the fighting for us at each step along the way, in each battle we face.

If we tried to face our inner enemies alone, we would be right to be terrified! We are no match for the evil and destructive forces that have torn down so many great people before us, and that will continue to tear down many people after us, both the common and the great. It is a dangerous pride to think that we can succeed where so many others have failed. It is an illusion--and one that will be shattered as we fall back into the same old patterns once again, having become even weaker in our defeat.

But if we turn to the Lord, and do our fighting with the Lord's power, then we can experience victories that are real. For when we fight from the Lord's power, we are fighting from the infinite power that created the universe, and that keeps every part of it in existence and in motion every second to all eternity. We are then fighting from the power that has "overcome the world" (John 16:33), or in other words, has overcome all the power of hell.

How do we fight our evil and destructive tendencies from the Lord's power instead of from our own? We do this by praying to Lord and asking for the Lord's help. When we feel that negative urge coming over us, or feel that dark power dragging us down, instead of gritting our teeth and hanging on for dear life as we are dragged along against our will, we can open our minds and hearts to the power of the Lord, which is always present with us. We can pray for the help, the strength, the comfort, the faith that we need to meet this challenge and overcome it. If we truly put our faith in the Lord's power, and let go of our own egotistical desire to go it alone and get the glory for ourselves, then the Lord will overcome the spiritual enemy that we are facing right now.

But be warned! Just because the Lord has overcome the enemy we are facing right now, that doesn't mean the Lord has overcome the enemy we will be facing in a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days. Yes, we are told not to worry about tomorrow--for it is only today that we can do anything about. But we are also told that "tomorrow will worry about itself." We will face more battles, and in each one of these battles, if we wish to have a real victory, we must turn to the Lord for help. Each time we do turn to the Lord for help, it will become easier to ask for that help the next time. One of the reasons we are given one challenge after another is so that we will have continual opportunities to bring the Lord into our minds and hearts more and more, step by step, throughout our lives.

But there is another, more subtle reason why the Lord has arranged things so that we overcome our spiritual enemies little by little, and not all at once. We read, "The Lord your God will drive out these nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals would multiply around you." The wild animals would multiply around you. What in the world does that mean?

Literally, it refers to what would happen if all the people in the Promised Land had been suddenly wiped out before the Israelites had been able to settle into the land, and expand their numbers enough to take care of it. Where human beings do not tame the land, it is given over to the wild animals of nature. Of course, there is a balance to nature as well, but just as we require safety from predatory animals in the places where we live physically, we must have safety in our spiritual dwellings from the evil thoughts and desires that would prey on us and destroy us spiritually.

There are vast parts of our psyche that we have not even begun to open up and settle into spiritually. And as modern depth psychologists have found out, there are many wild and often destructive urges and impulses running free in these uncharted areas of our minds. When we begin our spiritual journey, we are like a small band of early settlers. We do not have much strength, and can only tame a small part of the new spiritual landscape that we are entering. If we were to try to settle that vast land all at once, and overcome all its enemies in one grand campaign, our attempts would be pitifully weak. We would soon be overrun by more destructive ideas and impulses than we could possibly handle at this early stage in our spiritual growth.

Nature, left to itself, does achieve a balance in areas human beings have left untouched. When we meddle in those areas without the proper respect and knowledge for what we find there, often we merely create greater problems, upsetting the balance of nature and causing biological and ecological disasters. In the very same way, if we try to open up vast areas of our spirits before we are ready, we will create a spiritual disaster. So the Lord does not ask us, or even allow us, to conquer all our spiritual enemies at once. We do not have the strength to do it, and further, it would actually end out destroying us.

This brings us back to where we started. Our salvation is not an instantaneous process of confessing our faith in Jesus and having our spiritual slates instantaneously wiped clean of all sin. Rather, it is long and often arduous process of facing our inner enemies and overcoming them each time through the Lord's power. It is a process in which, almost as often as we take a step forward, we seem to take a step backward in defeat.

Yet even the defeats are a part of the process. It takes the Lord a long time to get through to us. In fact, it takes a whole lifetime--which is why we have a lifetime to do our spiritual work. We humans are often dense creatures. Too often, we insist on doing things our own way, which means learning things the hard way. When we experience a defeat, this also is a step in our spiritual process. It is one more lesson telling us that on our own, we cannot overcome the spiritual enemies that oppose our progress toward a loving and heavenly self. Each time we go it alone, and as a consequence slide backwards in defeat, we have one more opportunity to break ourselves of that false notion that we are sufficient unto ourselves--that we don't need help from the Lord or from anyone else.

If we learn that lesson, then the defeat is good! Strange as it may seem, sometimes losing is the best thing for us. When we win, we tend to exult in our victory. When we lose, we tend to assess the battle and try to figure out where we went wrong so that we can do better next time.

The Lord does not ask us to be perfect all at once. The Lord does not ask us to overcome all our spiritual enemies at once. What the Lord does ask of us is that we face each enemy, each trial, as it comes to us. To use a more modern analogy, the Lord has put us on an installment plan. Spiritual life is expensive! The cost is our whole self. But we do not have to pay that price all at once. We can pay it month by month, week by week, and day by day. The Lord only asks us to take life one day at a time.

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." Amen.

  


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Music: In the Garden
1999 Bruce DeBoer

Floating Butterfly Scrip
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