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Sermons

Christmas Presence

December 28, 2003

Bible Reading

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick darkness is over the peoples; but the Lord rises upon you, and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm. Then you will look and be radiant; your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you; to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.

(Isaiah 60:1-6)

When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

(Matthew 2:10-12)

Reading from Swedenborg

The knowledge of correspondences survived among many in the East right up to the time of the Lord's Advent. This is clear from the Eastern wise men who came to the Lord at his birth. This was why a star went before them, and why they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh with them as gifts. For the star that went before them symbolized knowledge from heaven; gold, celestial good; frankincense, spiritual good; and myrrh, natural good. All worship comes from these three. (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture #23.3)

Sermon

God's greatest gift: himself. God's divine love is the ultimate motive behind every event in the universe--a love that desires our well-being and seeks to help us at all times. And it is God's divine wisdom that accommodates itself to our needs and abilities. So we say also that God's greatest gift to us is the Word: a visible, tangible, intelligible means of accessing God's presence; a gift that is wrapped and hidden, requiring us to unpack and unravel its meaning--and in so doing, to attain the image of God in ourselves, and to begin to experience heaven on earth.

God's gift: the Word. Not just the Bible (although that too), but the Word itself, which was in the beginning and through which all things were made; the pattern or structure of all things, the Divine order that we know as heaven. We have each and all been created in the image of this pattern, this Logos Word, and are invited to bring ourselves into harmony with it.

One very suitable, appropriate form of wrapping for this gift is the literal sense of the Bible: the words, the stories, the people. And within this wrapping, concealed and protected, lies the gift itself: the proclamation, the promise, the assurance of our spiritual salvation and well-being, given to us by God. It is like a good novel that is rich in detail; like a history that covers all the bases; like a set of laws that applies to any and all situations. The Bible, with all its interconnections, self-references, and echoes of images, continues to unfold in meaning and feeling, from the most fluent scholar to the lay reader who brings only his or her sincerity.

God's gift is also the Word fulfilled: "unwrapped" in the life of a very particular individual. In and through his life on earth, his incarnation; in and through Christmas, the Lord put a human face on the history, the commandments and laws, the threats of punishment and the promises of forgiveness, victory, and love that were spoken of in the Hebrew Scriptures. By becoming the Word made flesh, the Lord gave human meaning to the literal, historical sense, revealing the gift of spiritual salvation in its true meaning, fullness, and presence. "To us a child is born; to us a son is given" (Isaiah 9:6). This is the gift: the Word of God in human form.

What does the Word, this gift of God, this Christmas present, reveal to us? The story of the visit of the wise men provides a useful example. Despite the intrigue, their story is simple: they sought to worship a king, and did so by presenting him with gifts. The teachings of the church inform us that these wise men from the east were remnants from the Ancient Church--people who knew and understood the language of correspondences. It is intriguing in itself that they "opened their treasures" as they knelt before the Lord. The gifts of the wise men were given from their understanding of the inner meaning of the birth. They knew the appropriate gifts, and how to wrap them! They were able to respond appropriately and effectively to this outward event by looking within, by understanding it spiritually. Their gifts reflected their understanding and concern for this child, for what this birth meant for the world: that the Word had been made flesh; that God had assumed a human form. And so their gifts were an image, a reflection, of the Lord's Divine Humanity.

Gold represents celestial good, or the good of love. A precious metal, beautiful and enduring, signifying the beauty and endurance of God's love for us, and an image of what our love can be. Frankincense represents spiritual good, or the good of truth and faith. A mysterious fragrance, rising up to the heavens like prayer, signifying the divine truth that enlightens our minds, and raises us to new understanding. Myrrh represents natural good, or the good of use: love and faith in externals. Myrrh is a bitter herb, signifying the trials and struggles that we must face as we seek to realize our spiritual ideals in the world.

The significance of these three gifts is this: human life was created for love, prayer, and service--the fellowship of love, the peace of prayer, and the power of service. Through prayer we are united with God; through service we are united with our neighbor; and through both we experience love. God is present with us in the experiences of love, prayer, and service: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In this way, we can say that these gifts are simultaneously given and received. Together they give us a concrete picture of Swedenborg's idea of mutual and reciprocal love that can and should exist between the Creator and the creation, between God and people. It is a complete back-and-forth unity; a marriage; a covenant. As we "give ourselves" to these gifts given from God, we find that God is already giving himself to us through them.

"All things come of thee, O Lord; and of thine own have we given thee" (1 Chronicles 29:14). Love, prayer, and service come from God; we "return" these gifts when we use them rightly--when we discern their real meaning and use, as the wise men were able to do. The images of Christmas are the images of the covenant fulfilled, and of mutual, reciprocal love beginning to grow. God gives us the gift of himself, and in return we give the gift of our selves. And so, as the wise men knew to do, we are taught to worship the Lord as our king, to ascribe and attribute and return all things good and true to their source: to God.

The Lord gives himself to us in the power and presence of the Divine Humanity. And this gift comes to us wrapped in the Word, including the story of the Lord's birth. How can we unwrap this gift of Christmas?

Through reflection and observation: As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching." Take a step back. Far from removing us in an abstract way from the experience of the present moment, a healthy dose of such psychological distance can keep us from getting caught up in the emotions and traditions of the season. Beyond this, it is important to find time for prayer or meditation, which serves to connect us with the divine source of our lives in a deeper, more personal way. Reflection and prayer can serve to remind us of what is genuine and authentic, and what is illusory, in the events of our lives.

Through regular contact with the Word: the one and only source of Christmas, forever. Also, contact with the teachings of the church, where we find the inner gifts of Scripture and of our experience. Here we can make the connection between the timeless, archetypal spiritual journey each of us makes back to God (the inner story of Scripture) and the often bewildering and frustrating dynamics of the holiday season in late twentieth century America.

Through reconciliation: to let healing begin in our relationships. Reconciliation in the name of God reminds us that the presence of Christmas is not something we passively receive. We actively cooperate with God's spirit in the birth of new life, new attitudes, and new understandings. This work enables us to build genuine community, and to find ourselves enlarged in the process.

God's gift to us, which we celebrate on Christmas, is the gift of new life freed from fear, empowered by love, and guided by wisdom. But this gift has a wrapping that needs to be taken off. This new life is merely a potential, a possibility, until we begin to unwrap it: to discern the meaning of the Word, the meaning of the gospel, the incarnation, the resurrection, for ourselves and our neighbor. It is not just to learn about the inner sense of Scripture, but more importantly, to practice in our lives the spiritual principles we find there. It is not just to discern the meaning of, say, the birth of Jesus, but to experience this miracle of love within the dark, impoverished places of our soul, and to follow the Lord forward in our own journey of regeneration.

Prayer

O Lord our God, Jesus Christ, your birth into the world was the greatest gift ever given to humanity. And your new birth in each one of us is the most precious gift we can ever receive. Our gift to you in return is our love, our faith, and our daily lives. Amen.

Rev. Robert McCluskey