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Sermons

Prophecies of the Advent

December 05, 2004

Bible Reading

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me. And the Lord, whom you seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom you delight in. Behold, he shall come, says the Lord of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap. And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in former years.

(Malachi 3:1-4)

Reading from Swedenborg

The humanity by which Jehovah brought himself into the world is the Son of God. The Lord said on many occasions that the Father sent him and that he was sent by the Father, as in Matthew 10:40; 15:24; John 3:17, 34; 5:23, 24, 36-38; 6:29, 39, 40, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28, 29; 8:16, 18, 29, 42; 9:4, and many other passages. He said this because "being sent into the world" means coming down and associating with human beings. He did this by means of the human nature that he took upon himself through the Virgin Mary. And this humanity really is the Son of God, because it was conceived from Jehovah God as the Father, as is stated in Luke 1:32, 35. The Lord's human nature is called "the Son of God," "the Son of Man," and "the Son of Mary." "The Son of God" means Jehovah God in his humanity; "the Son of Man" means the Lord as the Word; and "the Son of Mary" means the actual human nature that he took upon himself.

In the case of the Lord, what was Divine in him was from his Father Jehovah, and his human was from his mother; the union of these two is the Son of God. (True Christian Religion #92)

Sermon

During the season called Advent, which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas day, we prepare, amid all the bustle and hum and tinsel, to celebrate what we believe to be the central and most important event in human history: the birth of our Lord, which took place two thousand years ago. Even before the Advent season, the commercial buildup is underway, and we would be isolated indeed if we failed to see the signs of Christmas well in advance of the holy day.

We can scarcely help making some preparation for Christmas. Yet each year, after Christmas is over and we sit down to count the cost, we ask ourselves how much of what we have been doing was really a preparation for the coming of the Lord, and whether a large part of our activities might have been omitted in favor of a more basic approach to what is essentially a religious observance.

"Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me." The Old Testament in its deeper meaning tells us how we are gradually led, in the course of our spiritual growth and development, into a state in which our minds begin to understand what salvation is, and in which our hearts can begin to accept the Lord as the only source of our salvation. Although each verse of the inspired Word is in its own way a messenger preparing the way of the Lord, the specific prophecies of the Advent give us special help in understanding the meaning of the Incarnation. Let us look at several of these prophecies, and consider how they can help us prepare to celebrate Christmas.

The first prophecy is found in the curse on the serpent in the Garden of Eden: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel" (Genesis 3:15). The Lord created the possibility of evil and falsity when he created the human mind with the power of reason and freedom of choice. He foresaw from the beginning that the time would come when evil and falsity would increase to the point that the human race could no longer control the consequences. In creating that possibility, he also accepted full responsibility for preventing ultimate disaster.

The Lord not only planned from the beginning to come into the world at the appropriate time, but he made this intention known to mankind, and offered it as a hope and comfort to all who in the course of history would fear that the forces of evil might triumph in the end.

The details of the prophecy are remarkable. There will be no killing on either side. Evil will not be eradicated, but only controlled at its head or source. And the Lord's humanity, which he would assume at the Incarnation, although it would be glorified, would be "bruised for our iniquities" (Isaiah 53:5). When he healed people, the Lord restrained his infinite power, quoting the prophecy, "A bruised reed shall he not break" (Isaiah 42:3). It is an essential teaching of our faith that the Lord seeks the salvation of everyone, and is particularly concerned with those who have fallen into evils and falsities. He will not destroy evil and falsity because in doing so he would destroy those in whom evil and falsity are found; and that would be a wholesale destruction of mankind. (See Arcana Coelestia #25, Divine Providence #275-307.)

The Lord is first of all our Savior, bending all things gently and gradually toward what is good and true, and constantly giving us new life. Although he had infinite power, he chose to come into the world as a helpless baby. As a child he was obedient to Mary and Joseph, although even at the age of twelve years he was astonishing the best minds of Israel with his knowledge and wisdom. He paid tribute to Rome, although he could have destroyed Roman rule in a moment. He did nothing to prevent his crucifixion, yet he assured Pontius Pilate, "You could have no power at all against me unless it were given you from on high" (John 19:11).

Perhaps most astonishing of all, he chose not only to be born of a virgin, but to impress the fact upon us by means of both prophecy and the Gospel record. By being born this way, he built into the account of the Incarnation a question mark large enough to challenge his very divinity. He left us free to worship him or not to worship him, as we choose.

There is a motion picture starring George Burns as God, who appears on earth to reassure mankind that he exists, and that he made a world that will work if we give it a chance. While there are a few theological statements in the picture to which our church would take strong exception, there are others that are highly perceptive. God appears in a human form, as an elderly, rather ordinary man, dressed in rather ordinary clothes. He says (quoting the words roughly), "I could have come as anyone I liked, but I chose to come like this because I wanted you to understand me."

The young man to whom God appears, his family, his friends, and the news media all have difficulty in accepting an apparently ordinary man as God. It is in the display of supernatural power that the proof of divinity lies. There is no suggestion that this manifestation is only a prophet, or a messenger, or a mortal man temporarily possessed by God. The outward form is presented as one that has been specially created for the occasion.

The motion picture may help us to understand one of the reasons the Lord took on a human form and lived an ordinary human life; and it may help us understand the problem people had then, and still have today, in deciding whether or not to accept the Lord's divinity. If it does help, it performs a valuable service. However, we are left to deal with the Incarnation as it actually happened, and to account for the particular human body that the Lord did in fact choose to create and assume.

Why the virgin birth? The virgin birth directs our attention to the fact that the physical body assumed by the Lord had a purpose entirely different from that of our own physical bodies. Each of us is born to become a unique new individual, and to remain a unique individual to eternity. By contrast, the Lord, in assuming a physical body, was simply using that body as means for more direct contact with mankind--particularly those who had become evil. He was not a new creation, nor would his essential nature be changed in any way by his life on earth. The human that he assumed from Mary would be completely put off. (See True Christian Religion #92-94.) What would remain would be a record of his earthly life, during which he fulfilled the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:27, 44). Thus he established for himself a human form in which we can approach him in our thoughts, and through which he has a new and more effective means of approaching mankind, both on earth and in the spiritual world.

In other words, while our life on earth establishes limits beyond which we cannot go, the Incarnation imposed no limits upon the Lord. We are only beginning to glimpse what is involved in the genetic coding that we each receive at conception, but we can know that it is life flowing in from the Lord through the spiritual world that activates the genetic system and produces the unique new individual. Increasing scientific knowledge of the reproductive systems of the amoeba and other simple life forms, of cellular division and tissue differentiation, together with the results of recent experiments in cloning, would seem to support the truth of one of our own doctrines: that it is one thing to change and duplicate the forms of physical matter, and quite another thing to produce a unique and immortal human soul.

The validity and necessity of the virgin birth gains rather than loses credibility as science brings more information to light. It is no longer clear that such a birth is impossible. If we add to this the fact that the genetic coding unique to an individual comes into existence at conception through the union of two cells with different codings, it follows that if we deny the virgin birth, we would have to conclude that the Lord took possession of a unique and potentially immortal infant, and gradually over a period of about thirty-three years destroyed its uniqueness and immortality.

The provision of a physical body by direct action of the Holy Spirit of the Lord is far more understandable in terms of the divine love and wisdom, and it would appear to be entirely within the realm of possibility by modern scientific standards. It satisfies the requirement that the Lord's life should follow the pattern of ordinary human lives on earth, from the cradle to the grave, calling our attention to the special divine fatherhood of this one child, yet leaving us in freedom to deny it if we so choose.

Now let us consider the prophecy of the star that would come out of Jacob (Numbers 24:17). In the time of Moses, Balaam came from Syria hoping to earn honors and a large reward by cursing the enemies of the king of Moab. He was doomed to fail because his power was no match for the divine power. Balaam saw the twelve tribes encamped in order around the tabernacle, and was compelled to bless Israel three times. As he left for his homeland, he uttered the prophecy that a star would come out of Jacob.

The twelve tribes are the twelve basic principles of faith and life. If we learn these principles and live by them, our knowledge of heavenly things will increase. The star of knowledge will rise. The names of the twelve tribes were written on the gates of the Holy City (Revelation 21:12). When the wise men saw the promised star, they set out for Jerusalem to learn where the Lord was to be found: "Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him" (Matthew 2:2). Likewise we, when we are ready, may look to the teachings of our faith for the information we need to bring us into a living, personal relationship with the Lord. Our faith increases as our knowledge increases. The star appears and goes before us.

The prophecy of the star, and its fulfillment in the visit of the wise men, tells of our search for a true understanding of the Advent. How will we know when we have found what we have been looking for? For the wise men, the star reappeared at Jerusalem, and "went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was" (Matthew 2:9). If we are truly seeking knowledge of the Lord, we will find it, because the Lord will guide us in our search.

But knowledge alone is not enough. There are shepherds in us who need a different sign. The last prophecy of the Advent--or rather, the announcement of it--was given to the shepherds: "You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12). More accurately, "You will find a newborn baby." We will find a new vitality, a fresh start, a new sense of purpose. This will be one sign that we have found the Lord.

This new life however, will be wrapped in swaddling clothes. Since we don't swaddle babies anymore, we might miss the point of this part of the sign. In a newborn baby, the joints connecting the bones of the arms and legs have not yet been formed, and the limbs curl up. In Bible times it was believed that the limbs should be straightened out at birth to prevent deformity; so the infant was wrapped in cloth bands that held its arms and legs straight.

The church, as the spiritual mother, has tended to swaddle new life among its members by tying it down with regulations intended to restrict departure from the approved way of doing things. Even today it is not easy for the church to accept new ways and new insights. When we begin to do our own thinking about how we should serve the Lord, we can expect to find that the same church that made our faith possible also tends to restrict the free expression of our thoughts and feelings. It will take time to find our place as full participants in the life of the church, and to establish that what is new will not necessarily be deformed if given freedom to develop. Swaddling does not promote normal, healthy growth, but rather delays it. Yet if we can accept it when we are subjected to it, we will in time be free from the bonds.

Finally, the baby will be found lying in a manger, because there is no room at the inn.

Many sermons plays, and even poems have been written for and against the innkeeper, although there is no mention of such a person in the Bible story, and no evidence that Joseph and Mary even got to the door of the inn before learning that it was full. Such speculation sidetracks us from the spiritual message.

As the Greek word indicates, the inn is a place for resting. The manger, on the other hand, is built for service--a feeding box for the animals. The Lord did not come to lull us to sleep, but to give us new energy. As he himself says, he is "the bread of life" (John 6:35). Who would want to sleep through Christmas? If we would, we may be sure that our planning is at fault. We will have taken a room at the inn, and missed the star and the angels and the newborn King in the manger.

The weeks called Advent are a time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. May we each find time to think about the meaning of the Incarnation. And whatever our traditions and trimmings may be, may we see to it that the worship of our Lord and Savior is honored as the most important event of the season. The Lord has sent his messenger to prepare the way before him. "Let us go now to Bethlehem, and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has told us about" (Luke 2:15). Amen.

Prayer

Dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, you have given us many prophecies of your Advent, many signposts along the way to guide us, not toward the slumber of the inn, but toward the new life and spiritual nourishment of the manger. Yet you have subtly scattered those prophecies here and there, not forcing our assent, but rather nudging our will toward you. Open our eyes this Advent season, so that we may see your new birth and new life among us. Amen.

Rev. Gertrude Tremblay