Psalm 40:1-9 #372
John 1:29-42 "What Wondrous Love Is This"
Rev. Kit Billings
February 9, 2003
Valentine's Day coming up next weekend is a day focused on love of many kinds. This morning I'd like to talk with you not about romantic love, but instead on spiritual and Divine love, in terms of its purity and willingness to sacrifice itself for the sake of many. And given that war with Iraq is looking rather imminent at this point, I hope this sermon helps us to be able to pray that our brave men and women in our armed services will have plenty of this kind of love if and when their called upon to give it for the sake of our safety.
John the Baptist said, "Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." These words uttered by John in this vignette shortly before Christ met with powerful temptations in the wilderness, bring to mind a lovely and poignant image of the Lord. That is, of an innocent and holy Redeemer who gave our world new life by giving us all of His life.
The imagery of the Lord as a Lamb lifts up both his spiritual innocence (His victory over sin…or rather, His purity of life) and His desire to offer His whole life in service of human beings and His Divine Soul within Him. In Bible language we call Christ's "whole-life offering" His own sacrifice…that is, what He gave in service of Divine intentions. Historically, however, there have been some mistaken ideas about Christ as a "sacrificial lamb." This morning, I'd like to talk with you for a bit about them.
When I was a child I sometimes heard about certain Christians who glorified and amplified the view of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb who, in their eyes, appeased God's anger at humanity by being slain as a way to atone for our horrible sinfulness. In our church, however…in the New Church…this understanding misses the mark.
First of all because the Divine is never angry and wrathful toward people. Divine (or Infinite) Love, and therefore the awesome mercy that flows with it, from God don't respond like that to human error and sin. Ancient human beings tended to anthropomorphize God a lot-they made God out at times to be much more human than Divine, which was simply an unfortunate error on their part, one that was helpful for their mindset back then. I've always known that theologians and Christians who focus on atonement theology need to reexamine the nature of God. I knew as a teenager that Swedenborg, in his deep reflection upon God's Holy Word, hit the nail on the head in saying that God is Divine Love and Wisdom Itself, who, therefore, never is wrathful, vengeful or punishing. The Word, in its internal or symbolic meaning, reveals this to be true, not to mention many passages in its literal sense.
God wants our willing, loving service not our blood. God wants your usefulness done in joy-not fear-laden obedience enforced by the whip. Swedenborg makes a beautiful point about this issue of what kind of motivation truly regenerates the human heart and will. Fear-based motivation doesn't deeply regenerate and develop the human spirit-rather, faith and adoration toward God and the Lord's truth that is based in love for the Lord is what creates deep conjunction and union with God.
Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, was born to give a human-level expression to the Infinite God of Heaven and Earth, to let humanity see clearly what love and wisdom say and do; He did not come here to "die for our sins" in order to atone for evil. He came to glorify His humanity and overcome our natural will and selfishness, which did certainly entail facing His final temptation on the cross. Yes, in a sense, He did need to die on the cross, for the blood of Jesus is relevant in the sense that the Lord needed to make the critical choice to love others more than Himself within the pressure-cooker moment of facing His own death. Or rather, to prove to His own Divine will and understanding that He was willing to give up and let go of His finite humanity in favor of His Divine-Humanity, allowing Himself to be fully glorified by the Divine Love which birthed Him. Christ made choices for love, and this brought His Divine Love and Truth more powerfully into the natural level of life...it also had an overall effect of joining humanity more closely with God. The transcendent God came "down" more fully to earth, while humanity was raised up higher to God.
As New Churchmen, our thoughts, you see, need to be on the sacrifice or offering of Jesus' whole life!, rather than focused on His agony and suffering on the cross. That is, on the way that Christ gave Himself willingly and completely to everything He did. His ultimate sacrifice or offering happened at the crucifixion of His lower self, His finite body and attitudes. For by rising up that first Easter and ascending to full Divinity, the Lord offered Himself to the service of the Divine Love and Wisdom within him. He gives Himself willingly, therefore, to the service of all humanity and every religion each day-albeit that He is known by many names. And He asks you to participate with Him in this sort of daily sacrifice…a daily giving of your whole self, of your love and your understanding of how to serve the needs of your fellow brothers and sisters.
This month is Black History Awareness Month. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to see the fight against racism as a sacrifice for a higher good in society and for God. Dr. King knew God was calling people to a new awareness of how we should relate to one another. He knew how following Jesus' path of the Spirit could change everything. The prophetic task to which he was called must have seemed overwhelming sometimes, something like that "horrible pit" described in Psalm 40. And although much has changed, racism remains a serious problem today.
In spite of the powers raging against him, Dr. King worked with passion and faithfulness. We are called to do no less. He gave his entire life to the service of the Lord. He stated this desire of his when reflecting about his own personal death:
Every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. …if you get someone to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize…. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards…. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody,…
Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. That I was a drum major for righteousness…. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.
We are talking now about the true nature of sacrifice. A spiritual sacrifice is behavior that is devoted to the Lord, which is consecrated to His service, simply because it is good. Also, I would define it as making a choice that serves one's spiritual conscience, choosing to follow the path of love even though a person's "lower self" or lower needs strain excessively to draw us into a self-centered directions. Christians sometimes look at Jesus' ultimate sacrifice as His death on the cross, seen as a penal infliction. This view rests mainly on the misunderstood notion that the death of an animal during Jewish ritualistic sacrifices offered upon an altar constituted its sacrifice.
However, a brief look at the history of animal sacrifice in Judaism shows otherwise. Indeed the death of the sacrificial lambs offered during Passover, for example, may be analogous to the Lord's death on the cross. However, neither the animal's death nor Jesus' death constituted their sacrifice. The sacrifice was seen in the offering of the animal upon the altar; that is, giving it to Jehovah. Subsequently, we Christians should look not at the Lord's death as His sacrifice but His Resurrection and Ascension-the way He gave Himself to the Infinite Love within Him!
In Romans chapter six we read, "For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin." And in Galatians: "And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."
As an aside, Swedenborg came to clarify Pauline theology here and say that the pleasures, needs and desires of our bodies are not innately bad or evil, just that they need to be SUBORDINATE to the love and wisdom of the spirit, which the Lord's Will gives.
Thus, in Swedenborgian terms, our "old unregenerate self", our natural mind and its natural, unregenerate, self-centered affections and lusts, are the things we are called upon to "crucify," so to speak.
Paul spoke of lifting what it good and holy up to God! As the Lamb of God, therefore, our Lord Jesus offered up what was holy and Divinely Human in Himself, and He crucified what was bad and willfully disobedient in His lower nature, which He inherited from all humanity through Mary. This is how He glorified His own humanity. Never giving in to the selfishness within His finite and natural human will gave Him the Divine innocence signified by the word "lamb." The wonderful warmth and innocence of the Divine Itself, therefore, fully conjoined Itself to the human will and mind inside of the Lord.
On the spiritual level of things, isn't it just AWESOME what love can do, when it is joined carefully with spiritual truth from God's Word?!
Thus we may understand why in Revelation the Apostle John saw the Lord as the Lamb who sits in the midst of the throne. This teaches us that the Lord's humanity IS innocence, and as Swedenborg remarked, we may celebrate that this is the inmost spiritual quality of heaven, which is God's eternal throne and our eternal home.
It is told that in the First World War there was a young French soldier who was seriously wounded. His arm was so badly smashed that it had to be amputated. He was a magnificent specimen of young manhood, and the surgeon was grieved that he must go through life maimed. So he waited beside his bedside to tell him the bad news when he recovered consciousness. When the lad's eyes opened, the surgeon said to him: "I am sorry to tell you that you have lost your arm." "Sir," said the lad, "I did not lose it; I gave it -- for France."
Jesus was not helplessly caught up in a mesh of circumstances from which he could not break free. Apart from any Divine power he might have called in, it is quite clear that to the end he could have turned back and saved his natural life. He did not lose his life; he gave it! The Cross was not thrust upon him; he willingly accepted it.
The Lord is aptly called the Lamb of God, who in innocence and purity took away our enslavement to sin and evil and showed us the sort of path we must forge if spiritual growth and salvation will blossom within us. The Lord brought God to us with warmth and a personal touch…He offered Himself that others might live more abundantly! We might say that this is His monumental sacrifice and offering. How else could a God of life, rather than a God of death, reconcile Himself to the world?
Today when we embrace our offering and as we look together toward Valentine's Day this week, let it be another way that we offer our entire lives to the service of Love, to our Lord and Redeemer, to the blessed ministry of this church, to our denomination as a whole, and to our human family on earth. And may we join with the psalmist who wrote, "I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart."