The Battles of the Heart
Rev. Lee Woofenden
Massachusetts, December 10, 2000
Second Sunday of Advent
Joshua 8:1-8 The battle of
Lord said to Joshua, "Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Take
the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai. For I have delivered
into your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land. You
shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king, except
that you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves. Set an
ambush behind the city."
and the whole army moved out to attack Ai. He chose thirty thousand of his
best fighting men and sent them out at night with these orders:
"Listen carefully. You are to set an ambush behind the city. Don't go
very far from it. All of you be on the alert. I and all those with me will
advance on the city, and when the men come out against us, as they did
before, we will flee from them. They will pursue us until we have lured
them away from the city, for they will say, 'They are running away from us
as they did before.' So when we flee from them, you are to rise up from
ambush and take the city. The Lord your God will give it into your hand.
When you have taken the city, set it on fire. Do what the Lord has
commanded. See to it; you have my orders."
Luke 1:67-80 Zechariah's song
father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and
has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in
the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of
long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate
us--to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the
oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our
enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear, in holiness and
righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a
prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare
the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the
forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by
which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living
in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of
Arcana Coelestia #8391 Practicing daily repentance
If we are
living a life of faith, we practice repentance daily. We pay attention to
the evils in ourselves, acknowledge them, are on our guard against them,
and pray to the Lord for help. For by ourselves we are constantly falling
down; but the Lord is constantly putting us on our feet again. By
ourselves we fall down whenever our mind desires something evil; and the
Lord puts us on our feet again whenever we resist that evil, and therefore
do not carry it out.
said to Joshua, "Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Take the
whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai. For I have delivered into
your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land. (Joshua 8:1)
sermon last week, based on the story of the Lord's call to Joshua, we
looked at how we are called to a new life at this time of the Lord's
Advent, and how it is not as easy to answer that call as we may first
imagine. In fact, it will involve struggle and sacrifice to claim the
wonderful new land of spiritual life that the Lord has promised us--and to
make ourselves ready for the Lord's new birth into our life.
it is much more traditional to focus on "positive" topics during
the Advent season. And I promise, we'll get to that next week! But there
is also a danger in continually focusing on the "good" aspects
of the Lord's birth, and ignoring the tough and difficult aspects of it.
In fact, the prophet Amos warned:
you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the
Lord? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though someone
fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and
rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the
day of the Lord be darkness, not light--pitch dark, without a ray of
brightness? (Amos 5:18-20)
I hope it
won't be quite that bad! Amos was speaking of those who refuse to
prepare for the Lord's coming. He was speaking of those who trusted in the
Lord to save them from all their enemies when they were not willing to
battle their inner enemies of greed and selfishness. And as I
mentioned last week, if we are not willing to leave behind our old ways
and old habits, the Lord's coming is, indeed, a day of trouble and
darkness, and not of light.
prefer to think of Christmas--the time of the Lord's coming--as a time of
pure light, laughter, and joy. But then, why do we celebrate Christmas at
the darkest and coldest time of year? If the significance of Christmas
were all lightness and joy, why would it not be located in the spring,
when there is the joy of new life in nature all around us? Or in the
summer, when all is warm and green? Or even in the fall, when we have the
bounty of the harvest? Why is Christmas so close to the winter solstice,
when everything is cold and dormant, the days are at their shortest, and
the dark nights at their longest?
too, Christmas is a time of darkness and struggle for many people. The
very expectation that we should be happy and joyful comes as a burden for
those who are weighed down under the crushing load of life, or who have
lost loved ones with whom they used to celebrate the holidays. It is hard
to put on a happy face when inwardly we are feeling something entirely
different. The Grinch is not the only one who has trouble with Christmas.
And it is not only human grinches who find this season difficult.
we join the crowd to celebrate the joy of Christmas, let's take a
realistic look at the darkness surrounding Christmas--including the
darkness within ourselves--that must be overcome if Christmas is to be a
blessing rather than a curse to us.
Bible story, we have come to a place where Joshua is faced with a task
that is quite literally an uphill battle. He has already led the
Israelites to victory over Jericho--though it was really the Lord who did
the hard work of that battle by causing the walls of Jericho to fall down.
Jericho was located on the edge of the plain that ran alongside the Jordan
River in the area where the Israelites crossed over. Right above Jericho
were the bluffs that led up into the hill country of central Palestine.
located well up one of the steep valleys that gave access to the hill
country. Just two more miles of climbing up that valley brought a traveler
to the top of the rise and to the city of Bethel, whose name means
"The House of God." So in order to take Ai, the Israelites had
to climb up into the hills to approach the city.
time they tried to capture Ai, with only a small, selected fighting force,
they were driven back down the slopes by the warriors of the city. They
had not only grown overconfident in their easy conquest of Jericho, but
one of their soldiers, a man named Achan, had broken the Lord's
commandment by taking some of the spoils of that city. Achan had to be
dealt with in the brutal ways of the time period before the Israelites
could once again go up against Ai--this time with their entire fighting
Joshua knew that he was fighting an uphill battle against this city, both
literally due to its commanding position far up the steep valley, and
psychologically due to the defeat his men had suffered in their first
encounter with the defenders of Ai. So instead of leading his army on a
full frontal assault of Ai, he took only a slightly larger force than he
had taken the first time to face the city, and had all the rest hide
themselves in ambush behind the city--so that they would be coming from
farther up the valley in the direction of Bethel. This strategy is
described in our reading from Joshua, and the chapter goes on to relate
that it worked exactly as planned. Soon, Ai was in the Israelites' hands,
and their corridor to the heart of the Holy Land was secure.
Now to ask
the same question we asked last week: What does all of this stuff about
war and battle have to do with the approaching birth of the Lord Jesus?
If we look
at the prophecies of the Messiah found in the Hebrew Scriptures, we will
notice that many of them describe a warlike king in the line of David who
would free the downtrodden Israelites from all of their enemies by heroic
acts of war. Our Responsive Reading from Isaiah 63:1-9 is an excellent
example of these bellicose, blood-stained prophecies. Other prophecies,
such as the one found in our opening invocation from Zechariah 9:9-10,
foretell a time when the great King will cause wars to cease from the
earth, and bring a reign of never-ending peace.
himself reflected both prophecies. At one point, he said, "Do not
suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to
bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). Yet when one of his
followers used a sword to defend him from the mob sent by the chief
priests to apprehend him in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus reprimanded
him, saying, "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the
sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). And when he was
preparing his disciples for his death, he said those comforting words,
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as
the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be
afraid" (John 14:27).
If we take
those prophecies and these statements of Jesus literally, we end out with
a confusing and contradictory picture. Did the Lord come to bring us war
or peace? It is only when we look deeper, to the Bible's spiritual
meaning, that it all begins to make sense. When we read in the Bible about
Joshua capturing Ai and destroying the city and all its inhabitants, or
about prophecies of the Messiah coming as a victorious hero of war, or
about Jesus saying he came not to bring peace, but a sword, it does not
refer primarily to literal battles with weapons, bloodshed, and death.
Instead, it refers to the battles of the heart. It refers to those inner
battles that we must face and fight in order to make ourselves receptive
to the birth of the baby Jesus within us, and to the reign of the Lord as
our spiritual king.
battles, we do not use swords made of bronze or steel, but swords
fashioned from the penetrating truth that we find in the Bible. And there
is no physical bloodshed or death, but rather a spiritual ebbing away of
the lifeblood of our old faulty attitudes and ideas, and the death of
everything within us that prevents us from wholeheartedly accepting the
Lord's presence and rule in our lives. What do these battles involve?
Swedenborg gives a thumbnail view in Arcana Coelestia:
If we are
living a life of faith, we practice repentance daily. We pay attention
to the evils in ourselves, acknowledge them, are on our guard against
them, and pray to the Lord for help. For by ourselves we are constantly
falling down; but the Lord is constantly putting us on our feet again.
By ourselves we fall down whenever our mind desires something evil; and
the Lord puts us on our feet again whenever we resist that evil, and
therefore do not carry it out.
the inner battles that we must face in order to make ourselves receptive
to the Lord. These are the battles we must face as we travel on our
journey toward heaven. When we notice something evil in ourselves--some
bad habit or faulty attitude that causes us to treat others and ourselves
with something less than love and respect--we face a battle in order to
root that spiritual enemy out of our lives. Sometimes the enemy we face is
not so much a specific thing evil that we desire to do, but rather an
overall sense of discouragement or depression that stands in the way of
our accepting the inner peace and joy that the Lord offers us. That, too,
is a spiritual enemy that we must face and conquer in our lives.
we use are the spiritual truths that we learn from reading the Bible,
listening to sermons, reading spiritual literature such as Emanuel
Swedenborg's writings, and discussing spiritual subjects with others who
are on a journey toward angelhood.
never have too many of these weapons, because our inner enemies are
constantly changing and becoming more sophisticated at blocking our path,
so that we continually need new and stronger weapons and strategies to
face them. Just as we start with an easy victory in Jericho, down on the
plain, and then must struggle our way up the steep mountain valley to
capture Ai, our spiritual battles begin with our lower-level and more
obvious faults and bad habits, and progress toward deeper and more
insidious inner enemies as we gain the strength to face those deeper
obstacles to our spiritual growth.
our enemies are strong and fearsome. Sometimes, as with the Israelites'
first attack on Ai, we underestimate the task, or we try to take improper
shortcuts, and we are routed by our enemies in a painful and humiliating
defeat. Sometimes, in fact, it is necessary for us to suffer a defeat in
order to get us back on the track of following the Lord's way instead of
our own way, and trusting in the Lord instead of in ourselves.
story of Ai also provides us with some wonderful strategy in overcoming
our inner enemies. The city of Bethel was just two miles farther up the
valley from Ai, situated at the top of the rise. Bethel, the "house
of God," symbolizes the deeper, spiritual knowledge and insight that
we gain from our relationship with the Lord through the Bible. And this is
where we ambush our spiritual enemies. In her Bible Study Notes,
Anita Dole writes:
company placed in ambush toward Bethel pictures the hidden reserves of
strength which come from spiritual knowledge. We by our own reasoning
cannot meet the attack of worldly arguments; but reinforced by spiritual
knowledge, whose power the worldly-minded do not suspect, we can easily
If, in our
times of inner struggle, we turn to those extra reserves of spiritual
knowledge and insight that we have gained along our life's path, we will
find that the Lord has provided us with just the spiritual weapons and
warriors we need in order to ambush and overcome those inner enemies that
face us in our battles of the heart. Then Zechariah's prophecy at the time
of John the Baptist's birth will be fulfilled in our own lives:
to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his
people. . . . [He has come] to rescue us from the hand of
our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear, in holiness and
righteousness before him all our days. . . . The rising
sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and
in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.
To Christmas Index
©Robert Meyers, entitled, Oh Holy Night