Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Rev. Kit Billings
Dec. 8, 2002
This Sunday our Advent journey takes us into the crucial issue of spiritual peace, which, of course, is the greatest avenue to worldly peace. Many people, I find, long for greater peace-more peace in heart and mind and also more peace in the world. As one friend of mine once remarked, "Our greater need for peace may be seen by what happens when many families try to decorate their Advent Christmas tree, which is a symbol of peace."
Ancient prophecies heralded the Messiah as the Prince of Peace; Christmas is in part a season of being centered on what the angels said to the shepherds watching their flocks by night, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" And so, you've come to the right place this morning if peace is important to you.
Our world is struggling with peace. General Omar Bradley once said, "We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we do about peace -- more about killing than we do about living."
This morning I'd like to talk with you about what the Lord's Word describes as a prelude to knowing and experiencing God in a deeper way; and I do this with you this morning in hopes that the spiritual peace of Christmas may flow in even deeper. The prelude and preparation for deeper, heartfelt peace that Mark was writing about to prepare a way for God, to get ready to experience the Lord in a deeper and more intimate way, is my focus with you today.
The Historical Sense
In the historical and worldly sense, the opening of Mark's gospel is talking about the crucial prelude of the coming of our Savior into our world in the FULLNESS OF TIME so that God in human form might redeem it. This was the ministry of John the Baptist-he was the promised messenger who heralded the coming of the Messiah. Historically, John was "the voice of one crying in the wilderness," calling everyone to a life of repentance by means of the baptism of love and truth found in Jesus Christ.
Mark's Gospel reads: "Behold, I send my messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You." This is from Malachi 3:1 and was showing that the Old Testament Scriptures were coming true. In its original context the prophecy in Malachi was a threat. In Malachi's day the priests were failing in their duty. The offerings were blemished and shoddy second-bests; the service of the temple was a weariness to them. The messenger was to cleanse and purify the worship life of the temple before the Anointed One of God emerged upon the earth, beginning His mission of Redemption. So then the coming of Christ was a purification of life! And the world needed that purification desperately.
Approximately 400 B.C. the Jews, at last brought back from exile in Babylon, had yet again showed early signs of devotion to the Lord Yahweh, and had started to rebuild the Temple of God decreed. But then, sadly, they did not finish the job and their affection for the Lord and their needed centralized worship remained second, and self-interest first. Spiritually speaking, the Jews were in a wilderness which is where The Gospel According to Mark begins. The world needed the purification of Christ, as well, as we hear Seneca calling Rome "a cesspool of iniquity." Juvenal spoke of her "as the filthy sewer into which flowed the abominable dregs of every Syrian and Achaean stream." Such was the stage that was set for the promised Savior.
The Gospel According to Mark, like the majority of the books in the Holy Bible is more than an historical account of life in Palestine 2002 years ago. It's the spiritual story of individuals if seen in its symbolic meaning. As Swedenborg learned so astutely, if God's Word is just that, then it should not only tell the history and life of the Jews and the coming of the Messiah into the world, but also of the general path and journey of you and me today. God's Word is designed, in part, as a spiritual roadmap giving us sure clues as to what is needed for our spiritual regeneration and salvation. Thus, God's holy Word contains both a literal and a symbolic level of meaning.
Applying Mark to Our Spiritual Journey
How might this Gospel's opening verses describe what either has been happening or is happening in your spiritual journey?
The opening of Mark starts with, "The beginning of the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." What is the foundation of this gospel of good news? Simply put, that long ago humanity took a serious downward turn into evil and selfishness, which gradually increased our conscious separation from the Divine. GOD IS LOVE…and so, distancing ourselves from true love creates very dangerous circumstances for people internally and outwardly. As people grew further and further away from the Lord and His love, bad things grew and increased---like hardness of heart, cruelty, self-centeredness, disinterest in religion and spirituality, and thus the gradual decrease of both spiritual and political peace.
The good news of the Lord's gospel is that when mankind sunk finally into the worst spiritual condition possible, Jahovah God took on our humanity by being conceived within the womb of Mary and while growing up and developing through His 33 years of life glorified His humanity making it gradually, step by step and choice by choice into Divine-Humanity! This process of Glorification eventually made Jesus of Nazareth completely "God with us," and has forever given humanity a Presence of the Divine, a visible and closely-felt Lord of Love.
And THIS, my friends, is so very, very good! Why? Because the greatest peace we will ever know is found simply and beautifully in a manger scene. To BE with God is to know what true peace is, and that's why we're talking today about the prelude to such peace.
In the Incarnation, the Lord steadily overcame all that opposes deep peace, which I find is a tremendous part of the Lord's gospel of good news! Our connection to ancient humanity gives us a natural mind that passionately opposes the love and truth of God. We are to believe in this Divine Man Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior because such belief allows the Lord to step inside your mind, and if there's love for Him there along with belief, and a willingness to APPLY the commandments earnestly in life, then Jesus Christ (God with us!) can bring His Divine and saving love and truth to bear upon your natural will and way of reasoning. This lifelong process of the Lord working upon your natural will and thoughts gradually subdues the wild beasts in the lower mind. The inner conflict that ensues when these wild, mental beasts resist is what must have prompted the Lord to say that He came "not to bring peace but a sword," and "a man's enemies will be those of his own household."
CONFLICT SHOWN IN FIREMEN
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that firefighters in Genoa, Texas, were
accused of deliberately setting more than forty destructive fires. When
caught, they stated, "We had nothing to do. We just wanted to get the red
lights flashing and the bells clanging."
The job of firefighters is to put out fires, not start them. The job of
Christians is to help resolve conflict (Matt. 5:9), not start more of it.
So, those of us who seriously want to be involved in Christmas peace must be prepared to walk the road to peace. The prelude to God's peace centers on your belief in your own need of Christ and His gospel---that is, in His message and in the story of how He came into the world as the Savior. We read, "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." Advent and Christmas are a special time to see if we fully believe, or only partially believe, in the meaning of the roots of the Lord's Gospel.
Now, back to our treatment of Mark's gospel. It begins with a reference to Malachi, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: `Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.'" Our initial prelude to spiritual peace deals with this verse talking of wildernesses. Is it not true that in a real sense we all come initially to God consciously in a spiritual state of wilderness? Inner wilderness is simply saying that we will all be dealing with a mental and spiritual arrangement inside that at first will feel a lot like the wilderness out in nature. There are wild animals in the natural will that are not tamed without the Power of love and wisdom found in God.
As one friend of mine said, "We need help and the Lord is the help we need."
The opening of Mark is very accurate-there is a spiritual wilderness we're all born into, but to say we're completely evil goes way too far. So what is this fallenness or spiritual corruption depicted in the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden? What is this inward wilderness that Mark's gospel opens with?
Background in Genesis
The Book of Genesis helps us understand symbolically that all of us are created with a "heaven and an earth" so to speak-we all are born with a spiritual and a natural level of being. We all, you see, are born into an inheritance that is a combination of heavenly and hellish inclinations. The internal spiritual aspect of us (thus, the DEEPEST aspect of what we are!) inherently loves God and what is good and true. But the natural or external aspect of our minds tends strongly to resist the heavenly side-it wants to wage war against it in fact! And our prelude to deep, ongoing inner peace is to recognize that the wilderness of the natural mind starts out in charge in most people. And so to re-cap here, it's ironic but true that when we begin salvation in Christ, the deepest level of our humanness loves God tremendously…and yet, the commander in chief of our mind and will early on resides in the external aspect, which we call "the natural mind." And so, without the saving and regenerating power of God's love brought to bear on us, this wild natural mind will grow in its dominance. And this is why Mark begins with the profound hope-inspiring words, "The beginning of the good news, the gospel, of Jesus Christ."
What is Our Spiritual Wilderness?
The unregenerate natural will is the WILDERNESS spoken of symbolically in the opening to The Gospel of Mark. And the voice of one crying out in this wilderness is that spiritual and deeper layer of our humanness-the internal part of you where God's voice lives. And you may have been hearing within you at various times in life God calling out to make certain that you prepare a straight path and way for the Lord to come.
We clearly here have our part so that the Savior may come and do His saving work within us. This path of goodness points us toward our responsibility of examining our larger goals in life and making sure they're focused on love of God and the service of humanity in conjunction with a healthy love of self, as opposed to the agendas and desires of self-interest alone. For example, does a factory worker or truck driver remain centered every day on performing a use for humanity, in part by doing their function for society well, or do concerns for wealth and advancement take over putting self-love at the heart of one's purpose for living? Or, will a medical student or practicing physician remain centered in caring and doctoring with the sick and dying, or instead get woed by the promptings of our natural mind making getting wealthy and creating prestige as the number reason for being?
The baggage we inherit from those lived before us will try to convince us that real happiness only comes from serving self and to steer clear of God. The natural unregenerate will and reasoning prior to full-scale regeneration and growth is content to keep life's overall goals and hopes focused on serving our individual comforts and materialistic pleasures. These creature comforts are inherently good, except when they supplant the higher hopes of daily serving God and our neighbor. Materialism is that goal that serves the natural body and self-alone interests as ends in themselves. The unregenerate mind will rationalize creatively to steer us away from the real center and core of where everlasting peace is found. As St. Augustine put it so well, "Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee."
The prelude to profound inner peace in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is this: Recognize your own internal wilderness and let God come to you in it. And after the prelude, as Mark so poetically reminds us, it is our job to make certain that God has a STRAIGHT PATHWAY into your mind! Your overarching hopes and purposes for living ARE YOUR highway for God! You must be sure every day that your grand purpose for living is serving God's will, which is to be of use to our neighbor as well as to let God help you to embrace someone else's joy as your own.
As Advent progresses, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, it may serve our spiritual preparation well to examine our deeper hopes and goals. King David knew that some of the hopes his heart and mind produced were not worthy ones in God's sight. In Psalm 119 he wrote: "Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live; and let me not be ashamed of my hope."
In conclusion, in his sermon "Finding God in a Busy World," John Killinger concludes his message on prayer and solitude with this story:
"I was in Brooklyn Heights some months ago to visit the church where one of
the greatest Congregationalist ministers had once preached, the great Henry
Ward Beecher. In the evening, I walked with one of my hosts along the
promenade that overlooks Manhattan. ... She talked about her life when she
had arrived there several years before. Her husband had left her, and she
was having difficulties with her only child, a daughter. She had come to
this place at night thinking she could not go on. She hadn't wanted to take
her life, but she didn't know how she could go on in the pain and the agony
she was feeling.
"She said she sat on one of the benches and looked across the bay at the
city. She stared out at Liberty Island in the distance, and she watched the
tugboats as they moved in and out of the bay. She sat, and she sat. The
longer she sat, she said, the more her life seemed to be invested with a kind
of quietness that came over her like a spirit.
"Down deep she began to feel peaceful again. She said she felt somehow that
God was very near to her, as if she could almost reach out and touch God.
Better yet, she didn't need to reach out. God was touching her. She felt
whole and complete and healed as she sat there that evening. It became a
turning point in her life.
"'Since then,' she said, 'whenever I feel under pressure at my job or from any
personal problems, I come down here and sit on this very bench. I'm quiet; I
feel it all over again, and everything is all right.'
The Holy Bible reminds us: "'Be still and know that I am God.'"
We're promised the "good news" by our God if we allow the Lord entrance into the real wilderness of the natural will and mind we each possess. This Christmas, may we each not only celebrate the awesome Advent of God in Christ, the promised Redeemer and Savior, but also the ongoing advent of God's love and truth into the wilderness of our spiritual discontent.
As it is written in the prophets, "Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way before you; a voice crying in the wilderness: `Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'" Amen.