A Promise and a Mission by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

 


Bridgewater, Massachusetts, February 15, 2004

Genesis 15:1-6 God's Promise to Abram

After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward."

But Abram said, "O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless, and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir."

Then the word of the Lord came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Luke 4:14-21 A prophecy of a mission

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.

The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

Arcana Coelestia #1812 The Lord fought and won from love

While he lived in the world, the Lord was continually engaged in temptation battles, and was always victorious. "Believing in the Lord" here means that the Lord was filled time after time with the deepest confidence and faith that, because he was fighting for the salvation of the whole human race out of pure love, he could not possibly fail to be victorious. . . .

In all his temptation battles, the Lord never fought out of self-love, or for his own sake, but for all people throughout the universe. He did not fight to become the greatest in heaven, for that is contrary to divine love; nor even so that he could become the least. He fought solely so that all others might become something, and be saved.

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19, quoted from Isaiah 61:1-2)

In our Gospel story last time we followed Jesus, after he was baptized, into the desert--where he was tempted by the devil. The story of those temptations was also told in the spiritual meaning of the first battle recorded in the Bible, in Genesis 14. Temptation is a battle--and if the temptation is severe, it is a battle in which we are not sure if we are winning or losing. This is how we feel when we are experiencing the spiritual struggles of temptation. And this is how the Lord felt as he came out of his first temptations in his boyhood.

In both our Old and New Testament readings today, we begin to see a promise of the fruits of those temptations, and to gain some assurance that the battle will, indeed, be won. Our reading from Genesis offers a promise of rich spiritual fruitfulness, and our New Testament reading speaks of the fulfillment in that promise in the Lord's work of loving and saving each one of us, and all of humanity together.

After Abram's successful battle against the four previously victorious kings, and his rescue of his nephew Lot, the Lord came to Abram in a vision. Abram must have known that it was the Lord who gave him the victory over those powerful kings with his small band of three hundred eighteen fighting men. And now the Lord assures Abram that he is indeed with him, both protecting him from his enemies and blessing him with divine riches: "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward."

In Jesus' life, this is a picture of his awareness, after his lonely desert struggles, that God, his divine Father and his own inner soul, has been with him, giving him the strength of spirit to fight and win those battles against the evil, falsity, and despair that sought to drag him down. And it is a picture of his assurance that his struggles would be rewarded--that his efforts would bear human fruit as people heard and heeded his message.

We have a similar experience after we have been through a bout of severe inner struggle and temptation. Often when we are in the middle of these struggles, we feel as if we are all alone, fighting the battle from our own strength. When Abram gathered his men and fought against those four kings, there is no mention of God going with him. He simply went and did what he had to do. Often it is not during, but after the battle that we get a sense of the Lord's presence with us, protecting us throughout our struggle--even when we are not aware of that divine protection--and then blessing us with spiritual rewards.

For Abram, though, the one "reward" that he wanted most was missing: he had no children, and thus no heir. As he said to the Lord after hearing those comforting, sustaining words in the vision, he had no one but a foreign servant to pass his wealth on to. This made the Lord's earlier promise to make him into a great nation sound rather hollow. How could he become a great nation if he didn't have a single child to carry on his lineage?

In the deeper meaning, children represent new love and new insights that are born in us as we grow spiritually. One way of looking at Abram's lament that he is childless is that it represents a time when our life has gone stale. "There is nothing new under the sun," we might say (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Everything we are doing, thinking, feeling seems old, repetitive, and boring. We are just going around in circles. We are stuck in a too-familiar, dreary routine, and our life is not going anywhere.

If we aspire to spiritual growth, to becoming a new, more loving, more thoughtful person, we may be feeling that our life will never change; that we will still be the same old thoughtless, self-centered, and, we think, worthless person that we have been all along. This is the devil's voice still ringing in our ears from our time of struggle and temptation.

I recall feeling that way back when I was still living on the west coast. I had been doing the same kind of work for a number of years, and though it had been fulfilling and rewarding at first, it was beginning to get old. I didn't see my way forward, and began to imagine myself ten or twenty years later still doing the same old thing. In other words, inwardly, I felt I was "childless"--that there was no new inspiration, no new insight, no new love, no sense of a future in my life.

For the Lord, in his early life here on earth, this sense of childlessness did not have to do with his own state of being. As Swedenborg tells us in our reading from Arcana Coelestia, the Lord was not concerned with his own greatness or smallness, his own happiness or sadness. Unlike us, he was motivated by pure love for humanity as a whole, and for every single person that ever had lived, was living, and would live in the future. He had come to save his people--all people; and even in his childhood and early youth, it was this burning love for human beings that moved him.

It was also this warm and burning love for all people that gave him his greatest sadness when he looked at the human society all around him, and saw how far people were (and still are!) from the spiritual blessings, rewards, and great joy of living in the way God created us to live. What he saw, instead, was people focused entirely on material rewards and selfish pleasures. He saw people scrabbling after mere food and clothing; people devoting their lives to piling up material wealth that would be gone from their grasp the moment they died. He saw people lording it over others, laying heavy burdens on them, fighting and killing one another from an insane lust for power and glory.

In other words, he saw exactly what we still see in the world all around us: people living for this word and its pleasures, heedless of the fact that all our accomplishments here are temporary, and will soon pass when the winds of change and death blow over them. He saw people building up treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal, instead of building up treasures in heaven, where no thieves, and not even the ravages of time, can touch them, let alone take them away.

He saw people squandering their lives running after temporary pleasures, and forfeiting the eternal joys that could be theirs--ours!--if we would only turn our lives toward God. He saw the misery we were--and are!--building up for ourselves in our blindness. He longed to give us the deeper treasures and rewards that come only from putting God first in our lives, and devoting our days to loving and serving one another. And what he saw not only made him heartsick, but gave him a sinking feeling that his work here on earth would be in vain; that no one would listen; that no one would hear the message and turn to him so that he could heal them of their spiritual blindness and sorrow.

Jesus felt the terrible emptiness, the spiritual "childlessness" of thinking that there would be no one to love--no one who would accept his love. He felt that he would have no family, no spiritual children to love and care for, to comfort and share feelings with, to share his guiding, healing wisdom with. As Jesus felt that deep love for all of humanity welling up within him, as he looked around himself and felt compassion, love, and yearning for every person that he saw around him every day, he wondered--and doubted--whether he would ever have the joy of sharing that love with people who would willingly receive it, so that he could bless their lives with deep inner peace and joy.

This was the Lord's mission here on earth. This was what he came here to do. In his hometown of Nazareth, he read this mission from the book of Isaiah to the people in the synagogue:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

And in the deeper meaning our story from Genesis, God gave him the assurance that he would accomplish this mission of love and mercy:

He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."

Amid his doubt, Jesus heard the divine voice from within assuring him that not just a few, but millions and billions of people--as many as the stars in the sky--would indeed hear his voice, accept his love, be guided by his wisdom. He received the assurance that his life and his struggles were not in vain. That he would find willing human hearts, and that he would be able to bless them with inner peace and eternal joy.

And he said, in our Gospel reading, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." He knew within himself that day that the ancient prophecy of his mission on earth was being fulfilled. Even as he began his ministry, he was preaching to the poor in spirit, giving them the healing knowledge of eternal truth. He was freeing broken human beings from the prison of devoting their lives to money, physical pleasures, and personal power and fame. He was giving spiritual sight to human eyes blinded by the glare of this world. He was bringing forgiveness to those oppressed by their sins and their guilt. He was preaching the good news of the Lord's favor: of the coming of his kingdom; of his own presence among them.

And notice that Jesus did not say, "This scripture will be fulfilled." He said "Today this scripture is fulfilled." Jesus had a mission to love and save every human being who was willing to turn to him and be saved. And he was not waiting until some future time to do that saving work. He was doing it right then! Every day! Continually! And he is still fulfilling that Scripture every day in our hearing. He is still coming to people every moment, coming to us every moment, lifting us out of our spiritual and emotional poverty, blindness, and oppression, and proclaiming his grace and favor upon us. He is still blessing us--and others throughout the world, and even throughout all the universe--with kindness, enlightenment, forgiveness, mercy, love, and joy.

Each of us was put on this earth to accomplish a mission as well. Ours is not the universal mission of love for all of humanity that Jesus felt within his soul. Ours is far smaller, and limited to our own sphere of activity. For me, when I was living on the west coast, as I made my living through manual labor, arts and crafts, and various odd jobs, I realized that my mission in life was still the same one that I had felt as a young boy. The Lord had put me on this earth to minister to people's spiritual needs, and it was high time I got going on that mission! So I changed course, and redirected my life toward that goal and that mission. And that is why I am standing before you today.

Each of you also has a mission in life. Some of you may have a clear sense of what your mission is. Others may still be searching. We are all on a journey, and each of us takes a different path. Each of us has been blessed by the Lord with a different personality, different talents, and different experiences in life. Each of us was created for some special purpose, and each of us must search that out for ourselves--and follow it as we find it.

Still, even though we all have different journeys and different destinations in heaven, there is one common destination that we are all moving toward. And if we are willing to move toward that destination, we can add to the Lord's joy, and to the fulfillment of the Lord's mission. We can do this by focusing our lives first on the one thing that really matters, no matter what our particular mission in life may be. That one thing is putting God's love first in our lives. Because our real destination is none other than the Lord our God, who is at the center of the universe, and is reaching out to each one of us, wanting us to become one of the "stars" in the heavenly kingdom.

If we respond to that divine voice from within, we will not only be carrying out our own mission in life, but fulfilling the promise that came to Jesus as a young boy. We will be reborn as the Lord's spiritual children, and will add one more star to the heavens. Amen.



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