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Sermons

Our Spiritual Journey

September 22, 2002

Bible Reading

Then we turned back and set out towards the desert along the route to the Red Sea, as the Lord had directed me. For a long time we made our way around the hill country of Seir.

Then the Lord said to me, "You have made your way around this hill country long enough; now turn north. Give the people these orders: 'You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink.'"

The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast desert. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything. (Deuteronomy 2:1-7)

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. . . .

And he said to them, "I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his home town. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed--only Naaman the Syrian."

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. (Luke 4:16, 24-30)

Sermon

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.

So spoke American philosopher-naturalist Henry David Thoreau in his classic 1854 book Walden. The terms "keep pace," "drummer," and "step to the music" all suggest that we are marching along, down the road of life. It is our day-by-day spiritual journey. Though we take different roads, perhaps through different religions, we know that the symbolic Holy City at the end has several gates. Our road, if followed aright--as our belief or ""music"" dictates--will lead at last to the goal we seek.

In our church we spend considerable time and study, through Swedenborg's writings, seeing how various Biblical accounts correspond to, and comment on, incidents in our own lives; and we hope to better our lives through this understanding. In a large sense, the whole Bible can be seen as a paradigm of an individual life. It starts in one garden: the garden of Eden in Genesis 2--a state of innocence stemming from ignorance--and ends in another garden: the Holy City in Revelation 22--an innocence, again, but now one growing out of the wisdom that we gained along the way in our journey through life.

How do we attain that heaven-winning wisdom? Swedenborg wrote, "Heaven is granted only to those who know the way to it and walk in that way. . . . Only those come into heaven who bring with them from the world what is angelic" (Divine Providence #60). That is, we ourselves need to be regenerated, gaining angelic attributes in the course of our lives. This is something we need to work at, consciously and conscientiously, bit by bit. It doesn't happen all at once.

The Bible will be our guide in our journeying; and the many battles and struggles depicted there represent our own inner and spiritual conflicts. If they didn't, we would have just an assortment of violent stories--and what would be the point of reading them?

But there is a difference, in general, in what is happening in the Old Testament and in the New. The two Scripture readings from Deuteronomy and Luke were deliberately chosen to point out this difference. The first, as in so much of the Old Testament, is rife with confrontation, past and present. It not only speaks of these battles, but also combines the narration with that of a journey; for the subject is the Israelites' forty years of wandering in the desert.

The journeying was akin to our spiritual journey on earth till our life is completed. The number "forty" appears several times in the Bible--for example, with regard to Noah's flood--always denoting a state of combat or struggle that involves something coming to an end. Just as the Israelites combated their enemies, so must we combat evil. Swedenborg says:

The combats of temptation are the means by which evils and falsities are broken up and dispersed, and by which an abhorrence of them is developed. Not only is conscience thus given, but it is also strengthened by them, and so the person is regenerated. This is why those who are being regenerated are sent into combats and undergo temptations. (Arcana Coelestia #1692)

In the New Testament, it seems, we do not encounter so many graphic battles. Instead of an eye for an eye, there is rather a turning of the other cheek. Jesus gave us a new commandment: that we love one another, as he has loved us. And we have his example to follow, as in the reading from Luke. There, he was teaching in his hometown of Nazareth, when the people became infuriated by his words and meant to hurl him from the brow of a hill. "But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way."

Evil was still confronted, as it should be; for Jesus walked through the angry mob, and not on some circuitous route around it--as the Rev. George Dole once pointed out in a sermon. But the action was tempered by his love for his neighbor-townspeople, and by his great love for all humanity. Let us feel this warm fellowship, too.

It is the anger, malice, and revenge portrayed in Old Testament stories that defile the soul when opposing evil. We should, instead, humbly but resolutely shun evil as sins against the Lord, who is love. In proportion as we do this, says Swedenborg, we do good. We progress on our spiritual journey.

More than three hundred years ago, the English preacher John Bunyan wrote a book about progressing on this journey: Pilgrim's Progress (1678). While many of us may not have read the whole book, we are familiar with some of the incidents--perhaps through passages from it included in our school readers. We have heard about Giant Despair, Doubting Castle, the Slough of Despond, and Vanity Fair.

Thoreau called the book the best sermon ever preached on the Bible. It certainly gives a vivid picture of an individual's journey down the road of life, and well merits comment. The "pilgrim" is fittingly called "Christian." He meets all manner of physical trials and tribulations--such as the giant and his castle--which stand for spiritual obstacles.

For example, Christian's imprisonment in Doubting Castle is his faith giving way. His being in a "slough" is a spiritual wallowing in despondency. He gets side-tracked (departs from the straight and narrow way) and stops at a "fair" or exhibition; he is now dedicated to vanities, and to merely having a good time.

This Christian needs to adjust his course, as we all do from time to time, to reach the heavenly goal. Had he not done so, Bunyan would have had to change the book's title to Pilgrim's Regress, or perhaps to Pilgrim's Staying-As-He-Was.

We want to be sure that such titles do not describe the story of our life. There will be setbacks, to be sure; but we want an overall progress. And progress means change. There has to be this moral regeneration of which Swedenborg speaks in order for us to advance from the garden of innocence in ignorance to the garden of innocence in wisdom.

Our course may be off just a degree or two. For instance, we may be in the habit of saying the hasty, unkind word. Well it is time, then, for some behavior modification. Perhaps just the realization of our tendency to respond in this manner will stop us in the future from making a curt remark. Usually our regeneration occurs slowly over time. Thus a pilgrim progresses.

If our course is so far off that we have to make a turn in the exact opposite direction--a 180 degree turn--and we do make it, then hearty congratulations are in order! But a challenge still awaits us. We may have finally gotten away from, say, Vanity Fair, from traveling on roads with signs that read "Dead End" or "Not a through Street." But now we have to get going, and keep going, the right way. The road of life, our spiritual journey, is protracted. It goes on day by day and most likely ordinary day by ordinary day, often with nothing much spectacular along the way.

Finally, let us look at a more recent book describing a physical journey, which turns out to be very much a spiritual journey, too: Laurens van der Post's 1952 book Venture to the Interior. The author, brought up in Africa, returns to do a study of agricultural possibilities for the government. But the "venture," the journey, is not just into the heart of Africa--its interior--but also into his own heart--his spiritual interior.

Van der Post makes many reflections on human motivations in the journey through life. In the preface he writes:

I look for a person's overriding motive, his wider purpose, his deepest plan, in his achieved results rather than in the eloquent avowals that he makes to himself and others. . . . I believe that it is the strongest motive, irrespective of our degree of awareness of it, which produces results.

This statement is akin to that of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: "Wherefore by their fruits shall you know them" (Matthew 7:20).

Let us so live, on our spiritual journey, that our fruits, and our motives, will be good--fit for the garden in the Holy City. Let us so journey that we gain wisdom and make progress: a pilgrim's progress.

Poet John Keats, in one of his letters, wrote of our journey through life and our progress en route. He called the world a "vale of soul-making." In conclusion, then, may I wish all of us, with a trust in the Lord and his Holy Word as our guidebook, a happy soul-making! As we march down the road of life, regenerating ourselves to the beat of the divine drummer, may we have good journeying indeed!

Prayer

Creator God, you have sent us out on a journey from the garden of innocence in our childhood to the garden of wisdom in our spiritual maturity. We hear your divine drumbeat calling to us, beckoning us to follow a different path than that followed by the crowds of this world. And though we have taken many detours, yet that divine pulse continues to reverberate deep within. Give us the courage to follow the higher path and engage in the deeper journey. When we lose our way, guide us back to the strait and narrow road that leads to life. For you are both our guide on the journey and the destination toward whom we are traveling. Amen.

Victor Friesen