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Sermons

A People Prepared for the Lord

December 16, 2007

Bible Reading

"I will send my messenger, and he will prepare my way before me; and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come into his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you delight in, will come," says the Lord of Hosts.

But who can abide the day of his coming? And who will stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a fuller's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have people who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days of old, as in former years.

(Malachi 3:1-4)

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice over his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will turn many of the people of Israel back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

(Luke 1:11-17)

Sermon

Advent, the approach of Christmas, is always a time of eager anticipation. That was ingrained in us as children, when we looked forward to Christmas morning. As we get into adulthood, that sometimes changes, as the TV and the radio incessantly count down the days. For myself, sometimes when I have heard that Christmas was only five shopping days away, I've said, "Oh no! I'm not ready." In our adulthood we can often go back and forth between eager anticipation of Christmas and anxiety or even dread. Advent can be a stressful time. It is sad, but I have heard psychologists say that Christmas can be stressful for children too--at least children old enough to know what the excitement and anticipation are all about.

I don't want to talk at any great length about the evils of the commercialization of Christmas; it's been done. However, it is hard to avoid it entirely--it's so glaring that a part of Christmas has been captured by commerce. But what I would like to reflect on today is the question of why. Why have we let Christmas become commercialized? And why do we allow ourselves to become so busy, busy, busy that we don't really enjoy the religious and spiritual side of Christmas?

Well, I have a suspicion about that. I wonder if lurking behind all this busyness is fear. I wonder if there isn't a part of us that is afraid of the spiritual advent, a part of us that's afraid that the Lord will indeed enter the temple of our lives. And we're afraid of what that implies. Much as we want the Lord to enter our lives, we are also afraid of it.

We get a sense of these two feelings toward the "coming of the Lord" in the prophets. They looked forward to the Lord's coming, but they also painted it as scary. Whatever else we may say about the Old Testament in terms of having been written thousands of years ago, in terms of its having a different science from ours, of its being a blend of history and legend and so forth--whatever else we say about it, we have to admit that the Old Testament is very accurate when it describes the workings of the human heart. We read, "I will send my messenger, and he will prepare my way before me; and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come into his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you delight in" (Malachi 3:1). Here we see the eager longing, but very quickly the fear comes in. "But who can abide the day of his coming? And who will stand when he appears?" (Malachi 3:2).

This is very true to human nature. The heart fears what it desires the most. It's a paradox but it's true. It is particularly true of the human desire for love and intimacy, whether intimacy with a spouse or partner, or with family, parents, or siblings, or with a circle of friends and peers. It's just so true of us that we want that intimacy, but we also dread it.

While Jesus of Nazareth was born into the world almost two thousand years ago, the Lord at the spiritual level is ever coming. Swedenborgians believe in spiritual growth as a lifelong process; there are several cycles of it, several cycles of the Lord entering our temples and reforming them, reordering our lives.

Malachi uses a couple of vivid images. "For he is like a refiner's fire and a fuller's soap." It wasn't until I went to Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts that I realized that "fuller" was not just a last name but also an occupation. The fuller's soap is the lye, the very harsh and caustic material that the fuller uses to bleach out the raw wool in preparation for making woolen cloth. The other image refers to the process of smelting; the Lord grinds up the ore and refines the gold and silver.

This image anticipates the symbolism of alchemy. These days we tend to look upon alchemy as a somewhat superstitious precursor to modern chemistry. But alchemy had another side. The alchemists, like Swedenborg, believed in correspondences. For each of the chemical and metallurgical process they were investigating, they believed that a corresponding process took place in the human soul, and that all those materials they were investigating corresponded to parts of our souls. We especially laugh today at the attempts to make gold out of lead. But for them it was taking the human raw material and bringing out the inherent God-given goodness. And that was the alchemical process applied to the human soul. I think it was a good ten or fifteen years ago now, but you may recall the Jacob Bronowski's PBS series, "The Ascent of Man." He had one episode where he showed the smelting of gold, the crushing of the ore, and the placing of it in a clay crucible. That crucible is heated and the ore melts, and all the slag and impurities are absorbed by the clay. When it cools off and the crucible is broken, what you're left with is a lump of pure gold.

That is an image of the advent process, of the coming of the Lord. The events of our lives, whether easy or trying, whether blessings or catastrophes, whether gains or losses, whether joy or pain--all these can be the process by which our lives are ground up and placed in the crucible and the impurities drawn out, and we are left at last with the heart of gold, the wise and loving person waiting to emerge from within.

And yet if we look at that as a metaphor for our personal growth, as a metaphor for that advent process in which the Lord enters our lives, why wouldn't we sometimes say, "I'm not ready!" And why would we not both long for it and dread it? If we ask why the Advent season is stressful, it's because it is. Spiritual growth, the coming of the Lord, is a stressful event. Any change, even a good one that we are eager for, has stress in it. If we are to prepare ourselves for the spiritual advent, and for the Lord to come into our lives, it needs to be both. We need the eager anticipation, but we also need to admit the fear.

When I look at this congregation and other people I come into contact with, I am amazed by the number of people who are going through career changes, or who are anticipating career changes, or who are planning on staying in the same job while taking it to another level of satisfaction. Other people I meet are going through similar transitions in other areas of their lives. And in what people tell me I hear repeatedly a heartfelt desire to claim one's true work and to do something that is soul-satisfying. And we come in that process to a point where it is really the same thing. We are eager for it and we long for it, but it is scary--financially maybe, or maybe in terms of how we see ourselves or in how others see us. There is an anxiety in going through these transitions.

And we can get to a point where the question is that Biblical one: "Who can abide the day of his coming? And who will stand when he appears?" When it comes to the spiritual advent, what doesn't stand and what doesn't abide as the Lord enters in is the most ossified part of the ego, the most habit-driven part of the ego. What has to fall away is the most controlling part of the ego, as well as the desire for comfort, and the desire for the kind of mastery that comes from doing something we already know how to do perfectly. But the part that abides the coming of the Lord is actually the "youngest" part of the soul.

There is a quote of Meister Eckhart's that I've always loved. It goes, "My soul is young, young! And I wouldn't be surprised if it were younger tomorrow than it is today." It is that young part of the soul that abides, it is the flexible part of the soul and it is the inquisitive and curious part of the soul that abides when the Lord appears in our lives.

As I said, we go through these changes many times; the transitions come more than once. A big part of my life was dealing with my shyness and the coming out process. But now that I've done them, I've realized "Oh those were the preliminary ones." I think the real transitions are still to come. The ultimate transition is to claim the work the Lord put us here to do, to claim the work that is soul-satisfying for us. And what needs to fall away ultimately is the ego, while that "young" part of us gets younger in the process, and abides.

In Luke, it talks about John the Baptist getting ready "a people prepared for the Lord." The final question to be posed, and I'll just pose it briefly, is this: If we are ever facing the advent spiritually, how do we prepare? How do we expect the unexpected? And how do we prepare for the new and the unknown? I think basically it is simple enough to answer, at least in outline. We draw upon our inner resources and gather them together. And we draw together our outer resources as well: the people around us--what today we call our support network. And we turn to the Lord. Those three.

Then together we can become a "people prepared for the Lord." A congregation is a place where people can lean on each other throughout this process; where they can voice both the eagerness and the scariness of stepping into new territory.

And now may the Lord fill our hearts with the eagerness and the joyful expectation of the Lord's advent. And may the Lord also stand calmly beside us and inspire in us the courage to work through the very natural fear that comes with any growth or change. May the Lord so help us. Amen.

Prayer

O Lord, as we look forward to Christmas, we also fear the changes that will come if we truly open up to your advent. We are comfortable with our lives as they are--even if much of it may not be in a heavenly pattern. Give us the strength to let go of the habit-driven parts of our ego. Give us the will to leave behind the comforts of the familiar, and travel toward the blessedness of new life in your spirit. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mitchell