Precious In My Eyes
February 01, 2004
This is what the Lord says--the one who created you, O Jacob, the one who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. . . . You are precious and honored in my sight, and I love you.
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them. . . .
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."
(Luke 3:15-18, 21-22)
Reading from Swedenborg
The Bible often says that Jehovah, or the Lord, is angry, is wroth, destroys, and casts into hell. Yet the Lord is never angry, still less does he cast anyone into hell. One idea comes from the literal meaning, while the other comes from the spiritual meaning. (Arcana Coelestia #3425.4)
The book of Isaiah is sixty-six chapters of prophecy. Most of those chapters are railings against the sins of Israel: dire warnings of the Lord's terrible power and the consequences of stirring up God's wrath. Yet for me, this is the statement that stands out: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are mine." Amid all the scary, intimidating noise and bluster is the simple statement that explains it all: God cares.
God cares what we do in the simple, fundamental way that parents care about their children. They warn, they threaten, they cajole, they punish, for the simple reason that it matters what the child does. The Lord's dire warnings are not made because God is eager to punish, but exactly the opposite: the Lord longs to see us happy, healthy, and living in the peace and prosperity of heaven. The prophets' warnings are the words of God attempting to guide our behavior away from the things that will surely bring us pain, suffering, and ultimately destruction, and into the life of blessing.
Ah, but we are so like children! We hear the power and are afraid. And rather than look at ourselves, we accuse God of being harsh and angry, and either turn away in rebellion or submit in cowering fear and anxiety.
This need not be so! It is possible to obey from a love of being good, and live in the comfort of a sense of safety and well-being.
All caring parents want their children to know the dangers of wrong choices and the consequences of dissolute living. All parents want their children to be good, and to be happy. In this, God is truly human--no different than any other parent. The message of the prophets is simply the message of God, the ultimate caring parent, to humanity, the ultimate brood of children. Some of those children are well-behaved, honorable, and productive--a source of pride and happiness. Others are wayward, misbehaving spiritual juvenile delinquents. Either way, God cares for us all.
The Bible is the most important guide for happy and successful living on earth. And the Gospels, describing the life and ministry of Jesus, offer the most specific teachings of what to do and not to do to remain in the good graces of the heavenly Father.
John the Baptist, that wild man of the desert, preached repentance in the most loud and intimidating manner, and spoke about the evil of the people and the desperate need to change their lifestyle. He was the original preacher of hellfire and damnation--the greatest of the pulpit-pounding Bible thumpers. Granted, he probably did not have a pulpit to preach from. And you can't really thump very effectively on a scroll of parchment. But I'm sure he did his best! The point remains that he strongly, and from all accounts rather successfully, attempted to motivate the people by fear of God's retribution--much the same as many still do today.
But as successful as he may have been--and no doubt he turned many from a life of evil to the way of God--we must not forget his own words: "There is one who comes after me who is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not fit to untie."
We all know of whom he spoke: not one who preached an even louder and scarier message of death and destruction; not one who came in military might; not one who arrived amid crashes of thunder, leaving people trembling in fear. No, that mighty one came as the Lamb of God, preaching love and kindness, and speaking of the power of humility and the life-changing force of compassion. The one greater than John came to conquer our hearts and minds through humility and surrender. The one whose sandal John was not fit to untie came not so much pounding and threatening retribution, as inviting us to partake in the rewards of heaven through compassion and forgiveness. The greatest of all the commandments in Scripture is not a dire warning of eternal punishment; it is heartfelt, almost desperate invocation of love.
God does not wish to punish. God does not long to inflict retribution. God is not eager for flames and fire. No, God longs for the opportunity to enfold us in tender, healing arms of love. God longs to hold us and weep tears of joy on our upturned faces. God longs to stroke our hair, hug us, and send us out to play with our friends, secure in the knowledge that we will not stray or put ourselves in danger--not because we are too afraid to misbehave, but because in complete freedom, we love and cherish all that is good and true too much to want to do otherwise.
The voice of John the Baptist continues to play a powerful role in bringing the message of God to people's hearts and minds. But it was upon Jesus, the Lamb--the one who said, "Turn the other cheek," "Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven"; who said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and "Love your neighbor as yourself"; who would submit to violent death rather than raise his hand in anger--it was upon this person of love, compassion, and forgiveness, that the dove descended. It was this person of whom the voice of God said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
We are a frail and sinful people. There is much for us to be afraid of. Left to ourselves, we would undoubtedly make all the wrong choices, and fall like stones to into the depths of hell.
But we are not left to ourselves. We are not alone. We are not abandoned. Amid everything that is going on around us; amid all the trouble and turmoil; amid everything that is said in God's name, if we listen carefully within ourselves, we can hear clearly and without shame the voice of God speaking to each and every one of us. That voice is saying over and over: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are mine."
Dear Lord, help us, we pray, to look beyond the appearances and externals of the material realm, and to see into the spiritual. Help us to look into the heart of each and every matter, of each and every person--and among those people, ourselves as well. Amen.
Rev. Ken Turley