Joshua 21:43-45; 23:1-10
January 5th Epiphany Sunday 2003
Rev. Kit Billings
Don't you just love the start of a brand new year? Isn't it just a swell part of life? When the New Year comes we can say goodbye to the year that was and say hello to the start of something new. Many possibilities lay ahead of us in 2003…many hopes and perhaps even lots of exciting dreams. But is your eye centered on a "prize" that is deeply spiritual in nature or more on what is natural? As 2003 begins would you say that you have some essentially clear, basic vision of where God hopes to guide you?
As you finalize piecing together your personal vision of life for this New Year, I urge you to make a lot of room for including the Lord's gift of His vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that is within you.
One's thing's for sure my friends the Wise Men who sought the new little baby Jesus in our Matthew lesson today had a direction in life, and they were intent on actively seeking it. They wanted to know and experience God in new and ever more personal and substantive ways. They wanted to know the King of kings and Lord of lords, the One wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a humble manger, and they were completely ready to serve and join His Kingdom. Their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh symbolically show this in fact, revealing their commitment to serve the Lord with their love, their faith and their daily uses and good works on earth. Joshua and his people also came to a place where there was no more question of who they would serve. We hear this expressed by this fearless leader as he said, "But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." Ultimately, this kind of deep, spiritual clarity is your destiny too if you want it, although it will likely take many years of growth to fully attain this. And perhaps you've already attained it.
The story of the Israelites in the first six books of the Old Testament in the time of the Patriarchs definitely shows God offering an awesome vision of what the end spiritual goal of life can be; the Lord achieves this through the story of the Hebrews finally inhabiting the Promised Land, long before the blessed Incarnation took place in Bethlehem, long before the Wise Men saddled their camels or horses and began their trek underneath that shining star to find the Lord. The original vision started with Abraham and Sarah and was passed down to all successive generations, and in a spiritual and Biblical sense it's been handed down to you too.
It would seem vital to the Lord that all along the way that He makes sure His children of both ancient and modern times will not be forced to lose sight of the great goal God has for us…and this is what we mean in this church by salvation. That is, to be saved from the deep-seeded tendencies and inclinations toward evils of many kinds; to fully allow spiritual love and wisdom to overcome and subdue many issues with fear; irrational thinking; depression; unhealthy worry; hatred; hardness of heart; and distrust in the Lord are all issues we people struggle with that make a long-view of salvation absolutely critical and necessary. When it came to the ancient Hebrews, the Lord had no qualms with pointing them toward a journey of salvation, nor did Jesus our Lord as God Incarnate. It's very wise, therefore I find, now and then to deeply remind ourselves of what the end goal of spiritual growth and regeneration is since God took the very same approach with the Hebrews in Old Testament times and then again as our Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ as well. God kept telling them, "There will be a time when your enemies are no longer a threat, when you will fully be at peace, when the struggles are over, when you may rest in ME…in my love and my truth."
And the marvelously comforting thing about The Book of Joshua is that finally, after years and years of battle, wandering in deserts, being overcome by terrible fear and unfaithfulness in God, the Children of Israel at last own their Promised Land!! This period of prosperity in Israel's life and history as told at the end of The Book of Joshua is such a wonderful part of the overall Bible story, because then at that point in time, which grew and grew through the reign of King Saul, David and Solomon, Israel possessed their kingdom of heaven so to speak. Now they could look back and recount and feel awe at all they'd been through, what it took to get them there and most of all that God helped them to achieve this! Just think about it-even back in the good days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the Jews were sojourners and not possessors of the Land of Canaan. Now the Hebrews ARE THE LANDLORDS SO TO SPEAK! THEIR ULTIMATE VISION HAD COME TRUE! And the same reality exists with you and me-that is, there comes a point when the intense struggles are over, and real salvation, real spiritual peace and prosperity will be ours…thanks to God and our cooperation within the winding, circuitous inner journey we call "regeneration."
I wonder if it's possible for us to grasp a sense of what it must have felt like for them after all that to finally be at peace…to be secure…and not be in doubt of whether God's amazing promise would come true?
One example that comes to mind is that of childbirth, which remains one of life's most poignant journeys from what I hear. Both the mother and her baby (and the daddy too to be sure) must work long and hard to enable new life to be born. The pain and labor grow and grow. Sometimes the dark side of the personality comes forth and must be dealt with. Even the temptation to give up or even die in the process may occur. But then! Ah yes then, the glorious and awesome culmination occurs and a beautiful new human being is born and a resounding peace and feeling of oneness and love come with it. The labor and struggle have ceased and life has won out, and with this a sense of true connection and peace that is truly ineffable.
I once knew a young woman who had fallen deeply and powerfully in love with a young man she thought would be the love of her life. His love for her and their joy in one another opened her heart up in a way she never knew was possible. Her soul felt released like a bird from it's cage! Everything looked radiant and she was happy every day. But then, the unexpected happened, and she discovered her boyfriend was cheating on her. He was actually NOT the man of her dreams! Her heart broke in two…she felt her life's joy leak onto the ground and out of her body, and she found herself immensely afraid to ever love like that again. But then she discovered God in her life, and she was willing to give her life over to the Lord-she began to simply trust in Him that her happiness was the Lord's agenda and that God would be leading her at some point in this life or the next to the real spiritual man of her dreams.
At this point when people truly arrive into the "Promised Land" of love, faith and bringing these into the service of others, we have a ready arsenal of love and wisdom to quickly and soundly defeat any new attacks from the hells within us. Thus we hear the Bible calling this period of life with God a time of rest and peace, in short because without any question whatsoever we are clear inside as to who and what we're serving every moment of every day-that is, of course, the Lord. Plain and seemingly so simple-it's God. And the onslaughts of fear, worry, self doubt and many forms of weakness no longer are attractive to our minds.
But until we reach the promised land of spiritual strength and security it's easy to lose sight of the primary prize of life-which the Lord so joyfully wants to share with us and that happens to be tremendous love in fact and wisdom, and also all the precious delights that come with it. Indeed, GREAT, INEXHAUSTIBLE HAPPINESS is the prize of life we might say, which has a passion for all truth, especially the truth about how God's love and wisdom can decisively outwit and overcome whatever fear or problem the hells or society may throw at us. To be sure, the love and wisdom symbolized by the Promised Land is not a fuzzy, nondescript love that is fleeting like the sweet manna that fell on the ground for Moses and his people. No, it's so much more than that! The Holy Land had luscious and abundant fruit and food resources-it was a prosperous land, and this symbolizes for us that gaining possession so to speak of the the Kingdom of Heaven within us is a spiritually rich, powerful and abundant way of life. It is as real and strong and sturdy as Jesus Christ Himself.
We may wander through years of desert-time, however, where both God and love feel quite unclear and without much color and passionate importance. Or, we may likely go through many years of wandering in and out of spiritual strength and sureness. Fundamentally speaking, those who believe that the Lord is trivial or unreal are having a monumental struggle with love somewhere within them. The journey toward finding and then keeping real and substantive spiritual love and wisdom and strength is as long and tough as that of the Israelites in the first six books of the Old Testament…but this long, difficult, yet also beautiful and inspiring journey of success and victory is ABSOLUTELY NEEDED AND VITAL for everyone!
As one of my good friends said to me the other day, "There's that amazing growth and development inside that just seems to require a lot of pain and struggle to attain."
It's profoundly easy for us in life to lose sight of the real spiritual prizes in life, which are symbolized by the Promised Land, and also by the birth of the baby Jesus, and that's why the Lord in His Divine Word made certain we could read about these prizes in more than one way and in more than one context. Our Old Testament and New Testament lessons this morning want us to be "crystal clear" on the major promise of life we're given, which can help us in our daily motivation to keep us on target, and not lose sight of the prize we're offered by our gracious God Himself.
As an aside, I've always loved that great bit of acting by Jack Nickolson in one of my favorite movies, A Few Good Men, as this tough Marine Colonel tries to make the upstart Naval-Jag lawyer, played by Tom Cruise, look bad in court. Cruise's character, Lt. Daniel Caffey, elicits a fact from the Marine Colonel, which prompts Nicholson to ask, "Are we clear?" To which the brash young Jag officer replies, "Yes Sir." Where Nickolson then repeats the query with force and anger, "ARE WE CLEAR?!" And then Cruise returns with, "Crystal."
You too need to be crystal clear about the beautiful promise of God regarding your inheritance from Heaven, even though seeing it perhaps from afar and realizing it through passionate experience and embrace mean two different things. God's Word gives us a shining glimpse of the prize through the great story of the Hebrews gaining their beloved Promised Land. And then if that isn't enough God has blessed us with His saving presence and closeness in His Incarnation-the Gospel account of the Divine Love and Truth of God made flesh in Jesus Christ!
While the great story of Joshua and his people possessing the Land of Canaan gives us a vivid and terrific vision of what lies ahead for us, the birth of Christ and the Wise Men coming to pay Him homage offers an even deeper vision of when the Lord God enters our lives with His Divine-Humanity.
It really does matter what your understanding is of the central focus of life and what we mean Biblically and spiritually by possessing "The Promised Land" and how, on this special Epiphany Sunday, we see the devotion of the Wise Men illustrating the wisest parts of us giving total devotion and having real faith in God's promise of salvation.
In fact, it is required of you not to lose your spiritual eye on the greatest prize in life given by God. Neither a lukewarm nor a very unclear understanding of God's spiritual Promised Land, also known as the Kingdom of Heaven, will ultimately get you there. As Swedenborg learned, faith without understanding and faith without a passionate love for God and the will to serve Him on earth is a blind and rather helpless faith to be sure.
Do you know where God is taking you in 2003? What is your vision of life in the Promised Land, the Kingdom of Heaven within you?
Dear Lord, the Wise Men knew well to seek You and trust as they followed the star of light led them to You. Help us to trust too as we seek You in life. Guide us also to find You in unexpected places. They felt the greatness of worshiping You and they offered gifts in deep love for You. Help us today and always to do these things every day. And when the spiritual night time falls give us the strength and understanding to follow the twinkling lights in the doctrines of faith to again find You in a very real and personal way.
We pray this for Your mercy's sake, O Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.