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Sermons

A New Heart and a New Spirit

March 03, 2013

Bible Reading

The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

(Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32)


When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

(Matthew 21:23-32)

Sermon

The prophet Ezekiel states something that sounds simple: he tells us that if we turn from wickedness, we will live.

He tells us further that God will judge each of us according to our ways. He enjoins us to acquire a new heart and a new spirit. We find in the prophet’s words a beautiful statement about God’s love for the whole human race. God says in Ezekiel, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone.” Our reading concludes with the statement, “Turn, then, and live!”

This reading is all about personal responsibility: we are to take an active role in our spiritual life. The prophet is very optimistic about human power, simply saying, “Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall.” In this reading, no suggestion is made that we may not have the power to turn from our offenses. It appears simply to be assumed that we have the power to refrain from evil.

The question of whether or not we can, of our own free will, refrain from evil is a heated one among the various Christian traditions. A clergy colleague from another tradition who disagreed with my perspective on the role of faith and works in salvation once called me a “semi-Pelagian.” Pelagius was a Christian living in the fourth century after Christ who taught that we have the power to save ourselves without divine aid. He was declared to be a heretic. His teachings are called “Pelagianism.” My colleague was not far off in calling me semi-Pelagian. In fact, given the qualifying prefix “semi,” I rather appreciated this title.

As Ezekiel teaches us, we have to power to turn from evil and do good. God continually knocks at the door, but we must open it. We must respond to God’s call. We cooperate with God in our own salvation. We see our relationship with God as if it were a love relationship. God loves the whole human race—and, as with all lovers, God asks us to love him back. He gives us total freedom to love him or to turn from him. Only with free will can our relationship with God be genuinely loving. If we were powerless in our relationship with God, it would have no mutuality. We would be programmed human computers. We all know that we cannot compel someone to love us who doesn’t—this is a law of love. Think of all the love songs and poems that have been written about lovers being spurned by those they love! God’s love is the same. He wants us all to return His love and to unite with Him, so he gives us the power to reciprocate.

But we also need to keep in mind those two words, “as if.” While it looks like we are turning from evil and doing good by our own efforts, this is an illusion. It is God in us that gives us that power. Without those two words, “as if,” we would be Pelagian all the way. But we are semi-Pelagian. We acknowledge that God gives us the power to turn from evil and do good. Unlike Pelagius, we believe that we need God’s aid. But God’s aid comes in the form of personal responsibility; God gives us the water and soap, and then we need to wash ourselves. That is an image used by Swedenborg to show how we are to turn from evil and do good, as Ezekiel calls us to do.

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 will and ability; therefore use these My gifts and endowments as your own, and you will be purified.” (True Christianity 436)

This process of turning from evil and doing good is a growth process. Swedenborg uses several images of growth to explain our regeneration. At first, I had the idea that regeneration was linear; that is, we shun one sin at a time in a series. Thinking that way, I ignored those passages that suggested growth. But I now see that as we turn from evil, heavenly love enters us. The process is actually a separation of evil from our souls so that we can be filled with God’s love and goodness. So as our evil enjoyments are separated from us, we are filled with good enjoyments. Our whole personality is transformed. This is the new hearts and spirit that Ezekiel talks about when he says, “Get a new heart and a new spirit.” Swedenborg comments on that very passage:

A new heart here means a new will, and a new spirit means a new understanding; for “heart” in the “Word” signifies the will, and “spirit,” when joined with heart, signifies the understanding. It knows from reason that a regenerate person has a new will and a new understanding, because these two faculties make a person, and they are what are regenerated. Therefore, every person is such as he is as to those two faculties. (True Christianity 601)

As evils are separated from us, heaven is implanted in us. We receive heavenly loves and enjoyments in exchange for evil loves and enjoyments:

It follows that evils with a person are removed and separated, . . . and that evils, as they are removed, avert themselves, and that this takes place in the same degree in which heaven is implanted, that is, as a person is made new. (True Christianity 613)

All the enjoyments we know flow from the things we love. I love music, and so I enjoy writing it and listening to it. I love Carol, so I enjoy being with her. The process of regeneration is a process in which we grow out of one type of enjoyment into another type of enjoyment. Here, Swedenborg uses words that no one today likes to hear about. He talks about sin and evil. Perhaps it is a reflection of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Lutheran culture he inherited. In fact, Ralph Waldo Emerson was very annoyed by what he called the “Lutheran preacher” that kept “rearing its ugly head” in Swedenborg.

Maybe today Swedenborg would have used different language. Maybe he would talk about behaviors being changed—about survival behaviors from dysfunctional environments being replaced with healthy behaviors. Whatever you call it, I agree with Swedenborg that spiritual growth is growth. We move from one state of being into another. We move from one way of enjoyment into another way of enjoyment. This is what is meant by the blessing we hear from time to time—”The Lord keep our going out and our coming in, from this time forth, and even for evermore.” The “going out” is leaving behind our old way of being, and the coming in is acquiring the healthier, more heavenly ways of being. The main point, though, is that we come into healthier and more heavenly enjoyments. Our old enjoyments become distasteful as we encounter healthier enjoyments.

All affections have their enjoyments; but such as the affections are, such are the enjoyments. Affections for evil and falsity also have their enjoyments; and before a person begins to be regenerated, and receives from the Lord affections for truth and good, those enjoyments appear to be the only ones; so much so, that people believe that no other enjoyments exist, and consequently that if they were deprived of these, they would utterly perish. But they who receive from the Lord the enjoyments of affections for truth and good, see and feel by degrees the nature of the enjoyments of their former life, which they believes to be the only enjoyments—that they are vile in comparison, and indeed filthy. And the farther one advances into the enjoyment of affections for truth and good, the more does the person begin to regard the enjoyments of evil and falsity as vile, and at length to be averse to them. (Arcana Coelestia 3938)

As we feel healthy loves that are good, and as we delight in truth, maladaptive ways of life become distasteful to us. We just don’t like them anymore. I think of addictions when I read this passage. Addicts come to a point where they are sick and tired of their addiction and the ruin it causes. Then they become sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. When they reach despair, they put down their addiction. Then they begin to discover all the warm feelings of love and healthy enjoyments—enjoyments that were masked by the numbing effects of substance abuse.

This is true on the spiritual plane as well. Lutherans and Methodists call this “sanctifying grace,” and the Reformed tradition calls this “sanctification.” One Reformed minister I talked with called it “God shining a flashlight on our lives.” We see in ourselves limitations and maladaptive ways of living, and begin to feel the enjoyments of spiritual love. We begin to turn from those areas of self on which God has shined the flashlight. As Paul says, we put off the old self and put on a new self:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4: 22-24)

And as we turn away from our limitations, we begin to feel the enjoyments of heaven. As we enlarge our hearts to receive life from God, with His love, we are elevated upward into heaven. The whole process is like our biological birth. It is like conception, gestation in the womb, birth, and education. Our conception is when we begin to see our evils, or survival mechanisms that no longer work for us. The gestation, birth, and education are like the new heart and spirit we acquire. This biological process is a natural image of our spiritual rebirth. It is what Swedenborg calls a correspondence. The whole natural world corresponds to spiritual realities. And this is the case with the birth process. Swedenborg also compares it to the growth of a tree.

That a person can be regenerated only by successive steps, may be illustrated by the things existing in the natural world, one and all. A tree cannot reach its growth as a tree in a day; but first there is growth from the seed next from the root, and afterward from the shoot, from which is formed the stem; and from this proceed branches with leaves, and at last blossoms and fruits. . . . They who have a different conception of regeneration know nothing of charity and faith, and of the growth of each according to a person’s cooperation with the Lord. It is evident from all this that regeneration is effected in a way analogous to that in which a person is conceived, carried in the womb, born, and educated. (True Christianity 586)

As we are perfected by God, with our cooperation, we become that fruit tree planted by the still waters of Psalm 1. We become the tree bearing good fruit of Matthew 7:17. With the new heart and new spirit in us, we become angels—whether on this earth or in the next life. Amen.

Prayer

I have set my God always before me: for he is on my right hand; therefore I shall not fall.

- Psalm 16:9

Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete