Is There Incense Rising from Your Heart?


Exodus 12:12-21

Philippians 4:6-7

Thanksgiving Sunday Sermon

Rev. Kit Billings

November 21, 2004

This morning is Thanksgiving Sunday, and you know, there is so much for us to be thankful for, isn't there? And so whether this Thursday you choose to dine on turkey or tofurkey, I pray that your day be one of gratitude for whatever has truly warmed and blessed your life this year. Earlier in our service, we enjoyed reading allowed together a wonderful litany of things that many of us are thankful for this year—special blessings from the Lord's awesome providential care that remind us of just how much He cares for us…how much He profoundly loves us.

Back during the dark days of 1929, a group of ministers in the Northeast, all graduates of the Boston School of Theology, gathered to discuss how they should conduct their Thanksgiving Sunday services. Things were about as bad as they could get, with no sign of relief. The bread lines were depressingly long, the stock market had plummeted, and the term Great Depression seemed an apt description for the mood of the country. The ministers thought they should only lightly touch upon the subject of Thanksgiving in deference to the human misery all about them. After all, what was there to be thankful for? But it was Dr. William L. Stiger, pastor of a large congregation in the
city that rallied the group. This was not the time, he suggested, to give mere passing mention to Thanksgiving, just the opposite. This was the time for the nation to get matters in perspective and thank God for blessings always present, but perhaps suppressed due to intense hardship.

I suggest to you the ministers struck upon something important. The most intense moments of thankfulness are not found in times of plenty, but when difficulties abound. Think of the Pilgrims that first Thanksgiving. Half their number dead, men without a country, but still there was thanksgiving to God. Their gratitude was not for something but in something. It was that same sense of gratitude that lead Abraham Lincoln to formally establish the first Thanksgiving Day in the midst of national civil war, when the butcher' s list of casualties seemed to have no end and our very nation struggled for survival.

Perhaps in your own life, right now, there is intense hardship. You are experiencing your own personal Great Depression. Why should you be thankful this day? May I suggest two reasons?

First, that in a similar, correspondential way, we can join together in thankfulness over the fact that the Lord not only delivered His chosen people 3,650 years ago out of slavery in Egypt (which was a mighty act indeed under the leadership of Moses); He also came personally into our extremely dark and troubled world as our Incarnate Savior 2004 years ago and lived out the glorious inner meaning of that ancient story of deliverance known as “Passover.” In Jesus Christ glorified the “Holy Spirit” (or Divine operation of our Creator) subdued every kind of demonic influence and therefore kept you and I from being born into this world utterly enslaved to evil. Our victorious Lord Jesus won us spiritual freedom(!), and freed us from bondage to the hells.

And second, we can be thankful that in all things of life, God rules over things, even the most terrible and burdensome things, in such a way as to ensure that some spiritual good can come out of it. While we understand in New Church theology that God never intends for evil things to happen, He surely is able to make certain that some form of usefulness may occur in the aftermath of hell's influence. And so, let me expand upon my first reason for feeling thankful this year, whether or not you are having a “banner year” these past eleven months or a really tough year.

Part of the great gift that the Lord brought into our world through His cosmic advent in Spirit during the Age of Enlightenment was the truth that God's Word has both a literal and an inner meaning to it. There is the literal level, the level we may call the “historical account,” which deals with, in part, how God worked and related with the Hebrew people who were being led by Abram, then Isaac, then Jacob, and eventually Moses, and so on. This is an important level of Scripture, which teaches us how God works in history and how greatly the Lord helps human beings in our real life situations and problems and struggles. And through the literal stories and historical renderings we can learn about God's love for us and how the Lord reveals Himself to humanity in many ways and through many different people. The first eleven chapters of Genesis show us how powerfully God works through myth. And the rest of the Old Testament reminds us that God reaches us and supports us and helps us through angels, through young and old men, through wives (both barren and fruitful), through single women, through younger, crafty children and through brash, courageous children…through prophets and judges and through seers and sages. Through visions and dreams, and through the long, winding journey, as well as the harshest of times and also the truly good times.

The literal level of Scripture also serves as a containant. What do I mean here, that the literal level is a container of something? Well, simply that there is actually a profound and wonderful internal kind of divine Light, which shines deeply into Word of God, which is actually its living holiness! The living divine Light brilliantly shining into the external degree of God's Word is actually the Light of Divine Truth, which illuminates God's Kingdom of Heaven, every moment of every day, so to speak. This powerful, transformative Light invigorates and emblazons the literal degree of Scripture, but each level brings its own unique message really. The inner level of God's Word tells all about several other kinds of “stories” you might say. The deepest level deals with the gradual growth process of Jesus Christ—how His mind actually grew and developed. Another level of the inner meaning tells about our own personal, human spiritual growth from birth to death.

Well, this all simply means that the historical story of Jehovah God delivering the Hebrew slaves out of natural bondage in Egypt, for example, represents the even more incredible and awesome story (which is as real as your big toe sitting down below you, sitting next to your other little toes enjoying life inside of your shoes) of how God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, heard the suffering and problems of broken humanity, being enslaved under an overwhelming influence and onslaught from the hells, and came to our rescue and SAVED US. The greatest spiritual warrior of them all, Christ, who was born in Bethlehem, entered our human level of life and met every evil spirit and force alive (as they came toward Him through His own thinking and feelings), overcoming them with love, goodness and truth.

And without this heroic Advent, created out of God's infinite love and compassion for all people everywhere, you and I would not have the freedom every day to wake up out of bed and choose to pursue and embrace a positive attitude…not to mention a good, prayerful, spiritually open and compassionate road in life. Without Jesus' victory over sin and evil, the choice to reach out with faith in Him would not be ours to enjoy today. In John 3:16-17 we read: “16For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” Without the Lord's Advent and victory day in and day out within spiritual battle with the evil spirits (who tempted the Lord to choose fear over bravery, selfishness over giving and service, hatred over love, and falsity over what is true), we would not be free to overcome our own hellish inclinations using Christ's power as our internal support-system.

The Lord, our Savior, not only overcame the hells 2004 years ago, in a systematic, daily journey and way, He also walks with you and me daily, and loves giving you and I the power (the action of His love and wisdom, which is represented in His name, “Holy Spirit”) to overcome the hells that tempt and attack us in so many, many ways. Just think of how many times this past week God helped you, perhaps after you prayed to Him for help, to overcome an inclination to want to procrastinate…or a yearning to use alcohol, drugs or food as your “mood altering idol”…or a strong lust to betray your marriage vows…or that devilish interest to lie or cheat, but you chose to take the road of “truth”, the road of righteousness…or that nagging desire to neglect a special relationship in your life, and instead you found the power to want to give to someone you really love.

And so, we have so very, very much to be thankful for this year. Even though life can get very difficult, stressful and challenging, isn't it simply awesome how faithful God is in our own, personal corner, as well as everyone else on this blue-green spinning globe…how devoted He is to helping us overcome the dark forces that try to destroy us.

And on top of all this, we can celebrate the new gift Christ gave, which permeates our lives daily, which is the palpable, perceptible, and truly touching presence of the Infinite Divine Itself (which Scripture calls the “Holy Spirit”), which moves about and within us, touching us, blessing us, healing us, and comforting us, especially when we need God most. There was a brand new reality in life after Jesus rose from the dead. There was a brand new and much more impacting way in which God could be felt and sensed and known. In addition, as I alluded to with one of our parishioners this week in conversation during a tough period in this person's life, because God-in-Christ glorified His humanity and was successful, the Lord is able to actually be the closest to you during your worst and most difficult, painful times, even though you may be unaware of it most of the time. The Holy Spirit, the Divine operation of our Lord, helps us to get back onto our feet in the worst of times, and is closer to your soul and more intimately caring for you than any other time of your life.

In one of Emanuel Swedenborg's books, titled Secrets of Heaven, we read these wonderful words about the spiritual meaning of the historical command by God for the Hebrews to keep the festival of unleavened bread: “'You shall keep the feast of unleavened bread' means worship of the Lord and thanksgiving on account of deliverance from evil and from the falsities of evil. This is clear from the meaning of 'the feast' as worship and thanksgiving.”

So many reasons, really, to feel inspired to want to worship and adore the Lord, and give Him thanksgiving during a special feast.

And so we read and meditate upon Paul's wonderful words to us, which live throughout all time: “Do not worry about anything; but in everything with prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all human thought, will stand sentinel over your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Indeed, the Lord reigns supreme over every great nation and over every little corner of our world. In Christ, God threw out the evil prince of this world as the ruler of this world and overcame the world's evil. The Lord allows the presence of evil and hellish forces to exist and exert their influence into life because humanity has not chosen yet to drastically reject the false rewards and pleasures of hell. But with His own Divine power and glory, and with battalions of angels always ready to be summoned, the Lord works to deliver you. In Christ's victory, our Prince of Peace reigns supreme.

It is true that things on the earthly level do not always go as we would wish. But these hardships, and sometimes depressions, are worthy of helping us to grow and develop spiritually. Our pain and suffering, especially when handled with spiritual hope and faith in God as the Great Governor of life everywhere, can serve the Lord's eternal ends, and inspire us to ever more fight injustice and gross attacks against peace.

You know, there is a special little correspondence I'd like to close my sermon with you today. And it is the correspondence of incense. Burning incense, our teachings reveal to us, represents the wonderfully gentle and peaceful rising of our warm gratitude to the Lord, which has a sweet and special scent to it, wafting its way into heaven. When a person feels thankful to God for a blessing or help in some fashion, that gratitude in our hearts burns warmly, like incense being burned upon an altar, which is why incense was always to be a part of the worship rituals God commanded the Hebrews to enjoy.

May this Thanksgiving be a time for us, in part, to reach out in gratitude to God for His many ways of delivering you and others out of bondage to evil thoughts and affections. And may we each enjoy the inspiring thought, too, that every thankful heart sitting in this room (and elsewhere in the world) is sweetening and blessing the very atmosphere of heaven, enriching the lives and souls of God's angels who dwell there. Amen.