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Sermons

Come, Follow Me

August 12, 2012

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him
comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I
shall never be shaken.
How long will you assail a person, will you batter
your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning
wall, a tottering fence?
Their only plan is to bring down a person of
prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they
bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.
Selah
For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is
from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I
shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my
mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your
heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah
Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high
estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes
on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart
on them.
Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that
power belongs to God,
and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you
repay to all according to their work.

(Psalm 62)


The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

(Jonah 3)


Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

(Mark 1:14-28)

Sermon

In preparing this sermon, Rev. Dr. Fekete drew on a lecture by Rev. Dr. George Dole titled “A Four-Step Model.”

Our reading from Psalm 62 ends with a simple and seemingly obvious statement: “You reward everyone according to what they have done.” It is self-evident that our spirituality shows in what we do, not just what we believe or think.

Our Bible readings this morning call our attention to what we do, as well as to what we are. They bring up the sometimes unwelcome topics of evil and repentance. I see three steps in these Bible stories. The first is leaving our home and family to follow Jesus’ call. The second is repenting from evil by our own effort. The third is allowing God to purify us through our recognition that everything good we do is God acting in us.

Jesus’ call to Simon, Andrew, and James represents the first of these three steps: leaving home and family to follow Jesus. On the natural level, this story speaks of the maturing process whereby a person comes into his or her own. In a sense, we all leave our parents when we become adults and start to think and make life decisions for ourselves. Whether we actually leave home or not, we come to a point at which we outgrow our parents as authorities in our lives and become our own people. On a spiritual level, we go through an analogous process. We outgrow what Swedenborg calls “proprium.” The very sense of self that we acquire upon attaining adulthood becomes a stage we need to move past. The early self is self-interested, egotistical, and filled with worldly ambition. We have unhealthy drives and passions. Swedenborg claims that we inherit a tendency to evil that we may or may not act upon. All these things are in the part of our personality called the proprium, which we must outgrow.

Nearly every world religion sees spirituality as a growth process. Some see the process as one of moving from ego and limited consciousness to all-loving compassion and expanded consciousness. I like the symbol used by Hinduism and Buddhism. Both traditions see our spiritual development paralleled in that of the lotus flower. The lotus flower begins as a seed in the mud at the bottom of a pond. As it grows, it rises up through the murky water of the pond; then it reaches the air and sunlight and becomes a beautiful flower. The Hindus and Buddhists compare our growth toward enlightenment to the growth of the lotus flower up into the sunlight. It is God’s voice that calls us out of the murky depths of our proprium. When we hear His voice, we begin our spiritual journey into heavenly joy.

The story of Jonah represents the second step in our spiritual growth. The people of Nineveh are told to repent by the prophet Jonah—and they heed his word. They fast and put on sackcloth. The king even issues a proclamation that everyone and all the animals should fast, and that the residents should call upon God for his compassion.

In this story, we have what Swedenborg calls an “appearance of truth”—a statement in the Bible that is not factual and yet bears truth within it. In the story of Jonah, we are told that God planned to destroy the city of Nineveh. This is how God appeared to the writers of Jonah. But God never destroys any person, let alone any city. God is only love, and cannot do any evil thing to humans. Stories about God bringing destruction to people or cities are all appearances of truth. But let us not stray too far from the main point of today’s Bible stories—the subjects of evil and repentance. When the people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s preaching, they respond to him. They repent of their evil ways. We are not told exactly what is evil about them; the Bible does mention violence, and the Israelites would have considered the Ninevites idolaters. But whatever they did wrong, they repented and called on God.

I consider their action to be on the second level of repentance because it is done by human effort. The people of Nineveh act by their own power and strength. They perform public displays of repentance, such as fasting and wearing sackcloth—and the king himself sits down in the dust, calling upon God. In our early stages of repentance, we too fight sin as if from our own will power. Some people perform outward acts as the people of Nineveh do. Many people are leery of human effort in the process of salvation. They are suspicious of people who repent and who perform good acts as a way to salvation, and for good reason: sometimes people who do these things to believe that they have earned heaven by their good deeds. The truth is, if we do good deeds, we cannot think that we have earned heaven or deserve it in any way. When we do good, it should be because we love what is good and do it for good’s own sake—not for the sake of reward. But we must by all means do good deeds. We must flee from or fight evil intentions, thoughts, and actions, and we must do good, kind, and loving things.

These considerations bring us to the third step in spiritual growth. I find this stage in the story of Jesus and the evil spirit. The man who is possessed by the evil spirit says nothing to Jesus. He does not cry out to be healed. It is all Jesus’ doing. As Jesus is preaching, an evil spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” This story develops in an interesting way. Jesus doesn’t set out to heal the demon possessed man; rather, he is preaching in a synagogue, and suddenly the evil spirit cries out. I take this to mean that the evil spirit felt the power of Jesus’ presence and couldn’t bear it. This is how spiritual temptation happens to us. As God enters our souls more deeply, our own sins become more apparent by virtue of the presence of goodness. God is indeed always in our souls at the deepest level, but our consciousness is not always filled with God’s love and wisdom. God needs to enter all the levels of our lives, from the lowest to the highest. And as God flows down into our lives, we make room for him by removing all that would block his love.

God gives us the power to remove any and all obstacles to his love and life. Swedenborg tells us that

a person must purify himself from evils and not wait for the Lord to do this immediately; otherwise he may be compared to a servant with face and clothes fouled with soot and dung, who comes up to his master and says, “Wash me, my lord.” Would not the master say to him, “You foolish servant, what are you saying? See; there are water, soap, and towel. Have you not hands, and power in them? Wash yourself.” And the Lord God will say, “The means of purification are from Me; and from Me are your intentions and ability; therefore use these My gifts and endowments as your own, and you will be purified. (True Christian Religion 436)

So God gives us the insight to see what we need to work on, and God gives us the power to make changes in our lives.

But I cannot stress enough how important it is that we realize that the power we have to make changes in our lives comes from God. Trying to battle the evils in our proprium with our own strength is like one of those Chinese handcuffs—you know, those woven tubes that you can easily put your fingers into, but when you try to pull them out, the tube tightens around your fingers and you can’t pull your fingers out. Our very effort is what makes the tube tighten up. Or it’s like that joke in which a person says, “Whatever you do, don’t think about a pink elephant.” What is the first thing that will come into our minds? When we dwell on our shortcomings and try to fight them by our own power, spiritual progress will be a never-ending struggle. We need to realize consciously that God has given us the illumination to see where our lives need amendment, and we need to realize that God can lift us up out of the murky waters into the light.

This is all contrary to appearance. It looks like we are doing the good work. It looks like we have decided to follow Christ’s call. But what we are actually doing is allowing God into our lives and minds. In Divine Providence #191, Swedenborg writes, “Our own prudence is nothing. It only seems to be something, as it should. Divine Providence, since it involves the smallest details, covers everything.” Our own prudence is nothing. Everything we direct ourselves to do—every choice we make, every evil we recognize, every prayer to God for help—none of this is done by our own power. It is all God acting in us. All those little choices we make in our lives, all those little decisions we make moment by moment, all our best decisions are God working in our minds to lead us out of proprium and into heaven. When we look back on our lives and see where we have come in our development, we are at a loss to say just how we got to where we are. It was the sum total of all those small decisions—God working in us—that brought us to where we are today, and made us who we are today.

Swedenborg compares this process to the shooting of an arrow. If an arrow is just slightly off when it leaves the bow, it will miss a target meters away. God watches over these small increments of our spiritual direction and corrects us when we veer from the mark. In Divine Providence, Swedenborg writes,

What else can the Divine Providence have for its end than the reformation of the human race, and its salvation? And no one can be reformed by himself, by means of his own prudence, but by the Lord, by means of His Divine Providence. It thus follows that unless the Lord leads a person every moment, even every part of a moment, the person falls back from the way of reformation and perishes. . . . It is like an arrow shot from a bow, which if it missed the direction of the mark in the least when leaving the bow, at a distance of a thousand paces or more, would miss it immensely. So would it be if the Lord did not lead the states of human minds every part of a moment. The Lord does this according to the laws of His Divine Providence; and it is in accordance with these laws for it to appear to a person as if he led himself; but the Lord foresees how he leads himself, and continually provides accordingly. (#202)

This is how I see the miracle of Jesus casting out the demons in our Mark story. Jesus saw the sickness and acted to purify the demon-possessed man. So God sees what we need, purifies us, and brings us into ever clearer heavenly light—without our even knowing it.

When we realize and accept that God is giving us the insight and power to change, the Chinese handcuffs magically fall off, and we are delivered. When we recognize and accept that God is giving us the insight and power to change, we won’t conjure up the pink elephant. We will see heaven’s beautiful sunbeams. We are lifted up into the light. As we approach God, God approaches us. I have heard it said that when we take one small step toward God, God takes three giant steps toward us. Let us, then, make room in our souls for the descent of the Holy Spirit, which begins when we hear the call of God and his prophets, and when we make room for his divine love in our hearts. Amen.

Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete