Human Renewal: A Classic Sermon
January 12, 2003
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering,
you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God
is a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
(Psalm 51:10, 12, 15-19)
Reading from Swedenborg
"Zion" means religion that is involved in the good of love; "Jerusalem" means religion that has true teachings. "Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem," then, means to restore religion by leading it toward the good of love and by teaching it true ideas. The resulting worship from the good of love is meant by "then you will delight in right sacrifices and in burnt offerings." "Righteousness" refers to heavenly good, and "burnt offerings" refers to love. The worship that then comes from the good of kindness is meant by "then bulls will be offered on your altar"--"bulls" meaning material-level goodness, which is good that comes from kindness. (Apocalypse Explained #391e.17)
One has nowadays a good deal of urban renewal. In the Western addition of San Francisco you see many pre-fire gingerbread buildings coming down. The great fire itself in 1906 forced an urban rebuilding in the oldest parts of San Francisco. But here where the church stands the fire never reached. So the buildings became old-fashioned, the ceilings too high. The lack of maintenance made them look neglected and forlorn, and the city condemned them as sanitary and fire hazards.
It is at first look perhaps strange to think that a man is like a city. But on reflection many parallels suggest themselves. After all, a city is man's creation. God created the world and all that is in it. But man made the city out of his own mind. Therefore the city reflects man's mind. There are similarities galore. Like a man, a city absorbs a tremendous amount of food. It eliminates a like amount of waste. A city is full of arteries and veins in which travel the thoughts and affections of its inhabitants. There is even congestion at times; inflammations, like fires; and morally speaking there is always a blight on some who dwell there.
If the city needs renewal, every once in a while so does man. Human renewal is as necessary as urban renewal.
Since ancient times a city has represented the attitudes of its inhabitants. Athens had the reputation of being the seat of wisdom. Rome was proud and mighty in military power. Carthage was the mistress of the Mediterranean. And Venice was known for its wealth through trade.
The city that is most known to Christians is the city of three world faiths: Jerusalem has become the symbol of religion for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. How often was it renewed in the course of its history! Egyptian records tell us of its existence in the 14th century BC. The Jebusites occupied it in the time of the conquest by the Hebrews. Jebus, the old city, was not finally taken until David--though the men of Judah had fought against it, taken it, and burned it (Judges 1:8). The first renewal of Jerusalem took place under David:
The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, "You will not come in here; even the blind and the lame will turn you back"--thinking, "David cannot come in here." Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. . . .
David occupied the stronghold and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him. (2 Samuel 5:6, 7, 9, 10)
It prospered and grew under Solomon and the kings of Judah until Hezekiah made the mistake of showing his treasures to the ambassador from Assyria. This was not forgotten in the valley of the Euphrates and Tigris. Nebuchadressar, king of Babylon, destroyed the Holy City of the Jews completely, deporting its inhabitants to Babylon.
One more urban renewal started with Ezekiel. A good deal of Bible history is occupied with the valiant effort of a handful of followers of Ezra and Nehemiah, whose motto was, "Come, let us build the walls of Jerusalem, that we may suffer no longer disgrace" (Nehemiah 2:17). How plaintive sounds their cry: "Unless the Lord builds the house, they who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain" (Psalm127:1). Still, once more Jerusalem was destroyed and had to be rebuilt after the Romans were through with it in 70 AD.
As a spiritual city, it enters into the New Testament and becomes the symbol of the renewed Christian Church: a new Jerusalem descending from God out of heaven, with unearthly dimensions of a cube, and the appearance of a bejeweled bride ready to be wedded to her husband.
What a challenge to discover in all this a meaning for today! Again and again destroyed, the city renewed itself by the valiant effort of its devoted men and women, who had a vision of it that never faded.
Human renewal is like that. So much of the human mind is like the pattern of a city. There are houses upon houses in the mind, sheltering our memories. Chamber after chamber is occupied since earliest childhood to retain what we have thought, seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, willed, wanted, suffered, enjoyed . . . All this makes a huge city of ideas never to be forgotten--retained to eternity to be used if necessary. In this huge city of human memories live the wishes, the urges, the demands, the desires, the wants of man. These inhabit the houses and either use them properly or ruin them for habitation.
How many times have we heard or met someone whose mental house is in bad repair? In its extremes we find the human derelicts in saloons, as on Third Street or in the shelter of the Salvation Army. But we ourselves must renew our inner man constantly. We take mostly good care of our outer man. We eat the proper food for its renewal, which takes place constantly. All cells of the body are renewed every seven years.
Human renewal on the physical level goes on constantly. How about renewal of our spirit? Renewal of our morale? Renewal of our interests in the right kind of life, which leads to spiritual satisfaction and to heavenly ends? We as the householder must be incessantly interested in the renewal of our spiritual life. Carefully we follow the doctor's instructions when our body needs nurture and attention in case of an illness. Are we as keen on the renewal of a part of our moral nature when it has decayed?
What about a case of resentment? Of hatred toward a fellowman? Are we rebuilding this part of our spiritual house so that he can come in and go out in peace? Or does he fall through a rotten floor and get hurt as to his mind?
Human renewal was the purpose for which our Lord came to earth in Jesus Christ: so that men may rebuild their lives, renew their souls, and gain life eternal. The Gospel calls this human renewal "to be born again; to be born from above." Jesus said to Nicodemus:
"Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born again after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"
Jesus answered, "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:3-8)
The terms repentance, reformation, and regeneration are all concerned with this human renewal from within and above. But how can it be done? Surely one must first see how run down our house looks: no paint on the walls, the windows broken or opaque, the roof full of holes, the stairs dangerous. . . . Can we see ourselves in need of renewal, of repair, of regeneration? Unless we do so we cannot even get started. If we think of ourselves as spiritually perfect; if we think we are all right in our morals; that we never lie, never steal, never commit adultery in our thoughts--then we cannot start any human renewal in our soul.
While the Lord was on earth, he made many starts with people in their renewal. We are a little dubious about Nicodemus, but there was Matthew, whom he called from the lucrative business of extortion. There are many men in business, trade, and industry that need to be called away from the lucrative occupation of obtaining easy money by overcharging for what they offer.
Jesus attempted to have the rich young man renewed in the spirit, but failed . . . at least at that moment. He renewed the hope and life of the woman taken in adultery at a time when others wanted to destroy her. The corresponding traits are in us to be removed, and to have new and heavenly urges put in their place.
Our moral dry rot has to be cut out and sound timber put in its place. Our house must be rebuilt so that it will stand on the rock of faith in the Lord--which is really love to the Lord. For only when we rebuild our house in the spirit of obedience to the commands of our Lord can we rest assured that it will weather the storms of life, the whirlwinds of passion, the floods of our false persuasion, and come out standing up and usable for further life.
Human renewal goes on in many places in our city. Not only on Gough Street, but in the clinics and hospitals of San Francisco. It happens in places like the Otis Street Rehabilitation Center for alcoholics and addicts. Some renewal goes on in our state prisons and in the medical facilities in Vacaville--though not by any means enough. Some goes on in the churches and synagogues of this city--by no means enough. Some human renewal goes on every day--often unbeknownst to us. At a choir rehearsal; at church worship; in a Sunday School teacher.
The Lord's greatest desire, in accordance with his divine love, is to renew our spirit and soul. Whatever is selfish in us has to be cut out, and a new member of love to him and his children put in. Our renewal, or regeneration, therefore goes on forever.
Our fervent prayer every day must be this:
Have mercy upon me, O God,
according to your steadfast love.
According to your abundant mercy,
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgression,
and my sin is ever before me.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain me in a willing spirit.
(Psalm 51:1-3, 6-12)
Rev. Othmar Tobisch