Preparations For the Birth of the Lord

READINGS

Luke 1:1-17.
1 Since, in fact, even many take in hand to compose a narrative concerning the matters of which we are fully assured among ourselves, 2 according as those who, from the beginning coming to be eyewitnesses and deputies of the word, 3 give them over to us, it seems good to me also, having fully followed all accurately from the very first, to write to you consecutively, most mighty Theophilus, 4 that you may be recognizing the certainty of the words concerning which you were instructed. 5 There came to be, in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zechariah, of the routine of Abiah, and his wife, of the daughters of Aaron, and her name is Elizabeth. 6 Now they were both just in front of God, going in all the precepts and just statutes of the Lord, blameless. 7 And no child was theirs, forasmuch as Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in their days. 8 Now it occurred, in his doing the priestly duties in the order of his routine in front of God, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he chanced to burn incense, entering into the temple of the Lord. 10 And the entire multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 Now there was seen by him a messenger (angel) of the Lord, standing at the right of the altar of incense. 12 And disturbed was Zechariah at perceiving it, and fear fell on him. 13 Now the messenger (angel) said to him, “Fear not, Zechariah, because hearkened to is your petition, and your wife Elizabeth shall be bearing you a son, and you shall be calling his name John. 14 And there will be joy for you, and exultation, and many shall be rejoicing at his birth, 15 for he shall be great in the sight of the Lord. And wine and intoxicant may he under no circumstances be drinking, and with holy spirit shall he be filled while still of his mother’s womb. 16 And many of the sons of Israel shall he be turning back to the Lord their God. 17 And he shall be coming before in His sight in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn back the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the stubborn to the prudence of the just, to make ready a people formed for the Lord.”  Concordant Version of the New Testament

True Christian Religion 688
By John’s baptism the way was prepared for Jehovah the Lord to come down into the world and carry out redemption.

We read in Malachi:

Look, I am sending my messenger who will prepare the way before me, and suddenly the Lord whom you seek will come to his temple, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire. Who will endure the day of his coming, and who will stand firm when he appears? Mal. 3:1, 2.

and again:

Look, I shall send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of Jehovah comes, so that I may not come and strike the land with a curse. Mal. 4:5, 6.

When his father Zechariah prophesied about his son John:

You, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways. Luke 1:76.

The Lord Himself said about John the Baptist:

He it is of whom it was written, Look, I am sending my messenger before your* face, who will prepare your way in front of you. Luke 7:27.

It is clear from these passages that John was the prophet who was sent to prepare the way for Jehovah God, so that He could come down into the world and carry out redemption. It is also clear that he prepared that way by baptising, and by announcing the Lord’s coming; and that but for that preparation all there would have been struck with a curse and would have perished.

Arcana Coelestia 8028.
All that had happened went to show the orderly way in which things are done in heaven and therefore on earth – the way things are done when angels are about to arrive. A spirit is sent on ahead to prepare the way. He then produces a feeling of fear in people, and warns them to receive the angels in a kindly manner. He injects remarks, though at first he does not understand what it is the angels are declaring. But after he has been brought into a better state he does understand. In short, the spirit is present throughout, preparing the mind and trying to forestall anything disrespectful. All this made me think about John the Baptist, that in keeping with heavenly order he was sent on ahead to proclaim the Lord’s Coming and to prepare the way for Him to be received respectfully, as stated in Matthew 3:3; Luke 1:17; 3:4; John 1:23.

SERMON
The Christmas season offers us a time for reflecting on the deeper aspects of life.  It’s an opportunity to take stock and look at our life from the perspective of higher spiritual values, to reaffirm those fundamental questions that ask, what’s it all about?  And is my life really where I want it to be? How well does it reflect the spiritual values I aspire to?  Historically we understanding from the Word that the Lord God Jesus Christ came into the world and subjected Himself to the same limitations that any other human being is subject to.  And from those limitations He worked to fulfil the whole of the Word by glorifying His Human and making it divine.  Through this process He was able to reorganise the spiritual world so that every member of the human race could be raised from being natural into their spiritual potential and be saved.

When we consider the infant Lord lying in a manger we are brought into the presence of unfathomable potential.  What that vulnerable tiny babe carried within itself in potential was all the power that creates and sustains all that exists.  Here was God with us, Immanuel, the Lord God, Jehovah, coming into the world clothed in innocence, non-threatening, and approachable.  In a very real sense God made Himself accessible in a way that had not been seen before in all of human history.  And as profound as this birth was, as massive as the implications would prove to be, there was also a sense of ordinariness about the whole thing.  This wondrous event occurred in the midst of the ordinary goings on of life.  Save for those few present, the magi from the east, the shepherds, Joseph and Mary, nothing much out of the ordinary was perceived by the majority of the people in the world on that first Christmas.

This lack of comprehension was reflective of the spiritual darkness that pervaded the inner human landscape at the time, a darkness that meant that most missed the very point to which all prior history had been pointing, the birth of the Saviour of the human race.  Of course this spiritual darkness had such a grip on the minds of people that very few even knew they were in need of a Saviour.   Yet the Lord foresaw this need and when the conditions were right came into the world to ensure that the light of truth would shine for all those who would be drawn to it and more importantly were willing to receive it.

Part of the work of reflecting on the birth of the Lord into the world is to see the historical events recorded in the gospels as representing inner realities involved in coming to see our own need for a saviour so that we might become spiritual people.  Everyone has within them the potential to become spiritual, but for the most part the opportunities that come our way to have this potential awakened and realised are not easily recognised.  This is because we find the priorities related to living in the world tend to take centre stage and for the most part push the more spiritual aspirations we hold out beyond our daily awareness.

What interesting in this regard is that those in the gospel story who were consciously affected by the birth of the Lord into the world had first of all undergone some level of preparation that readied them for receiving Him.  We can see this principle illustrated in the opening of the Gospel of Luke.  This opens with a salutation and brief statement of purpose behind the writing of the Gospel to someone called Theophilus.  What we find here is that Theophilus had been prepared having received from others who were eye witnesses and deputies of the Word accounts of the Lord’s life and now was to be presented with a reframing of the events of the Gospel according to Luke.

Everything in the Word carries a spiritual application and meaning, even this introduction addressed to Theophilus.  We can see this when we look into the meanings of the names. The name Luke for a start means “light” and so is related to the spiritual idea of enlightenment, and this “light” is the “light” of the Gospel which reveals who the Lord is, and it is given to Theophilus a name that means, “affection for God” from “Theos” meaning “God” and “Philos” meaning “to be fond”.  Now we know that the term Lord is used in the Word it is used in relation to the idea of goodness or love and that the term God is used when the Word is referring to the Lord’s truth.  So the term Theophilus spiritually means those who are in the affection for truth, who are “fond of God”.  So the opening of the Gospel teaches us the principle that enlightenment is only able to be received from the Word by those who are in the affection for truth.  The development of this affection is the preparation required for receiving the Lord as the spiritual sense of the Word, when He is born into the world of our mental awareness to be present as the light the enlightens every person coming into the world.

The Heavenly Doctrines are clear that this affection can be developed or awakened in a person through their willingness to work from their understanding of truth in a sincere effort to live life from this.  What is not so apparent to a person at this stage of their spiritual life is that the understanding of truth that they hold and think is spiritual is in fact natural and externally focussed.  There is very little appreciation that many of the principles and truths they hold are based on appearances drawn from the sense of the letter or are a simple acceptance of what they have been taught by others or their church to be true.  In other words what they take for their understanding of truth is more based on literal meanings and tradition as opposed to seeing from a firsthand knowledge of the operation of truths in their life.

But as is clearly illustrated by the Lord having to come into the world is that the starting point for any degree of spiritual development is from where we are at any given point in time. You can’t start from where you’re not.  So we begin from our limited perspectives, and an infirm understanding of truths.  The Word is helpful in this for it allows us to hold views that are contrary to genuine teaching knowing that so long as a person is sincerely responding to what they believe the Word teaches with a view to loving the Lord and their neighbour as set out in the Ten Commandments they can be led into a fuller, more genuine understanding of what it teaches.

These external states of spiritual life and religion along with understanding the Word in accordance with the sense of the letter are described in the reading today as “the days of Herod”.  This is because spiritually “days” in the Word correspond to “states of life” and “Herod” represents the natural mind with its sensual and corporeal appetites.  And because you can’t separate the mind from the things it contains Herod represents our natural understanding of the letter of the Word and all that that entails.  All genuine efforts to live from the Word in this natural state arise from the operation of a genuine affection for truth on a deeper level.   This manifests in a person’s life as a drive for a deeper understanding of things that comes from a desire to see a greater degree of goodness manifest in life.  The Lord Himself is the source of this desire, therefore He is called a “Priest” (Ps 110:4; see also TCR 114) and the function of a priest is to teach truths that lead to the good of life.  If we can receive it this describes a function of the Word itself so that wherever the Word speaks of a priest it is describing itself as that which teaches truths that lead to the good of life, this good being the Lord born into the world of human awareness (AC 10794; NJHD 315).  Understood in this way we see that the Word itself is the true priest for all people.

This function of the Word to move us forward from an externally focussed religious life to an internally focussed religious life and ultimately into connection with heaven’s angels is described here as “a certain priest named Zachariah…and his wife…Elisabeth.”  And further that Elisabeth, “had no child, because…she was barren, and they were both stricken in years”.

There are a number of important spiritual ideas here related to the processes of inner spiritual development.  We have already seen that by priest is meant the Word and its ability to teach or enlighten a person so that they are led to the good of life, and this  is further confirmed by the meaning of the name Zachariah which is “Jah remembers”.  The name Jah has reference to Divine Truth (AC 8267.2) So here we have embodied the idea of the Lord remembering, which denotes Him having mercy, which in turn plays out in us as an ability people have from the Lord to recall truths, or to have them brought to mind so that they are then empowered as if of themselves to choose to live from them.  This ability can only be described as the mercy of the Lord, for while any effort towards spiritual things feels as if it is our effort, the reality is that all genuine efforts are from the Lord alone as the Word working in and through us.

The truths that make up this natural state of faith are represented by Elisabeth who is said to be “barren”.  When our knowledge of the truths of the Word is merely on the level of our memory and there is a developing desire to see goodness more fully expressed in life, a state of barrenness arises.  This is because such a desire first shows us that we lack what we seek and that the knowledge of Word being merely of the memory is infirm and unable to fill our desire for goodness.  This experience comes with feelings of dryness in our sense of spiritual life, of being stuck and not knowing how to move forward, inwardly we feel barren as we come to realise that a historical or natural faith is unable to support us as it once did.

How are we to respond to such states of life?  Firstly we need to get hold of the fact that states like this are a common experience in living a spiritual life and always mark a point of transition into new states of spiritual life.  If we never felt a lack, or a state of barrenness we would never press in to find new ways of understanding the Word, we would never become open to new insights, so while difficulties invariably arise in life if we bring an attitude of acceptance to them so that we see them as a preparation for something better then they can be transformed into real opportunities for growth.  Both Zechariah and Elisabeth are said to be “stricken in years”.  Spiritually this simply means that the spiritual state of life they represent has reached its point of completion and that all things are now prepared for the next phase of the journey involved in the opening of the Word.

It is at this point that a person starts to become aware of the existence of an external and internal level of life.  Despite the difficulties faced we see that Zechariah remains faithful in the performance of his duties.  This shows that during times of struggle we need to remain faithful to our understanding of truth and its practise in life, for it is this that will hold us and carry us forward. The burning of incense takes place within the temple and this signifies worship beginning to take place on a more internal plane of the mind.  This occurs as a person begins to realise that they have an inner and outer life and that the inner life of worship involves taking truths and applying them to the inner life of the mind so that evils can be identified their and removed through a life of repentance.  This is what we understand by the inner life of charity and it is represented by the burning of incense (AE 324).

This marks a shift in a person’s spiritual orientation, from an external to internal religious or spiritual life which leads to a reorganisation of truths from the Word found in the external mind to support such a life. This is described in verse 10 where it states that…

…the entire multitude of the people was praying without at the hour of incense

People spiritually correspond to truths and here they are those that are without or on the outside which means these people represent external knowledge of the Word or its letter which due to an inner focus is beginning to be reorganised to support this shift of focus on the inner life.  As people begin to see that the Word has an application to the inner activity of their mental life and look to it to guide and direct them in this regard so it begins to speak and set things in a new light.  This new relationship to the Word is described as the “angel of the Lord standing at the right of the altar of incense” v11.  This angel is really influx from the Word through our understanding of truths and desire for good and is experienced when the Word speaks to our hearts in a way that new possibilities are seen within it.  This is embodied in the promise of the birth of a son, who shall be called John.

This is John the Baptist who is the one who prepares the way of the Lord, and what we learn from the Heavenly Doctrines is that John represents the letter of the Word, specifically an understanding of this in relation to what is termed “a baptism of repentance”.  John is conceived 6 months ahead of the Lord and as such can be connected with the 6 days of creation that preceded the Sabbath.  By the Sabbath in the highest sense is understood the Lord Himself, Jesus declaring the He was Lord of the Sabbath.  John represents the preparation we all must undergo if we are to welcome the Lord or goodness into our lives which can’t happen until we are willing to have our minds prepared through the application of truths to its life, this is the true preparation for Christ the Lord to be born into every person’s world.

Amen

About David Millar

My passion revolves around supporting people to engage with the Lord's Word, or Divine truths in the form of sacred texts, to cultivate an intentional spiritual practice. Through the works penned by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) we find that the Biblical texts contain a deeper meaning that, once understood, enables them to be applied in ways that open the human mind to the realisation of its spiritual potential. The goal of the Divine Life is to free each and every human being from the pain of self centred living and bring them into the experience of all that is heavenly through the promotion of what is genuinely good and true. The material shared here is offered in the pursuit of that aim.
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