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Cincinnati Men's Gathering


A Sermon by J. Clark Echols, Jr.

Lessons: Isaiah 40:1-5; Luke 1: 57-80; True Christian Religion n.366:“How the influences flowing in from the Lord are received by the person depends upon his form. Form here means the person's state as regards his love together with his wisdom, in other words, as regards his affections for the various kinds of good of charity, and at the same time his perceptions of the truths of his faith….Everyone has the same life, because he has the same soul, from infancy to old age; but as its states change in keeping with different ages and adjustments, so too does the person's perception of life. God's life is present in all its fullness not only with good and religious people, but also with wicked and irreligious people; and in no way differently with the angels of heaven and the spirits of hell. The difference is that the wicked block the path and close the door, to prevent God entering the lower levels of their minds; whereas the good smooth the path and open the door, also inviting God to enter the lower levels of their minds, even as He dwells in the highest levels. By this they adjust the state of the will to receive the inflowing love and charity, and the state of the understanding to receive the inflowing wisdom and faith, in other words, so as to receive God. The wicked, however, block that inflow by various longings of the flesh and spiritual pollutions, which they place in the way and so prevent passage. But all the while God resides in their highest levels with the whole of His Divine essence, and gives them the ability to will good and to understand truth. Every person has this ability, and this could by no means be the case, if life coming from God were not in his soul."

The final section of the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke describes the completion of our preparation for the coming of the Lord into our lives. The chapter begins with the promise of the miraculous conception of John the Baptist, the prophesied one to go before the Messiah. It ends with that man’s birth. This is not merely a literary device to train the reader’s mind to accept the virgin birth. There is the Divine truth itself within the story that describes the spiritual process whereby our thoughts and affections are arranged for our enlightenment and new life by His presence. The psalmist had a glimmer of this experience: “Thou wilt show me the path of life; in Thy presence is the fullness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:11) .

As we enter adulthood, we are physically and psychologically ready to freely use our reason. We have established a set of beliefs. We have a set of values based on them. We have habits of thought and behavior that are comfortable. But we are not thereby made ready to have the Lord Jesus Christ born in us. More work needs to be done, and the greater work must be yet be done by the Lord. A highway, a path, a connection, bust be established between our soul, where the Lord is always present, through our mind, and to our bodies. Only when this correspondence of spirit and living is made do we receive His influence, acknowledge the new truths He gives us about our salvation, accept the new will behind good works, and the begin living a truly holy life based on repentance and charity toward all people.

It is the divine truth within the Lord’s Word that makes the necessary preparations for the coming of the Lord into our lives. This is not an abstract or unconscious coming. Our Creator is already deep within us. He is present in our soul from conception, even though He may not be present in our external lives. Remember, when Jesus was born, very few people knew about it. His birth was a humble, and quiet event. As it was John, and his preaching the Word, that prepared the people for the public ministry of Jesus, so the Word prepares us to receive Him now. When the literal sense of the Word becomes part of our lives, the Lord will be able to become incarnate in us. He will be as present in our lives as He was present with men when He walked the earth.

The letter of the Word is the Divine truth accommodated to us, even to our sensual understanding. the bald commands of the literal sense strike our very ears, prescribing specific behaviors. Certainly, our spirit needs to understand and feel, but our bodies, our natural man, knows only command. When this literal truth is established in our memory as fact, as just the way things are, a path is available for the Lord to be with us in all power. The Word, as a book, is set apart from all other books, for it alone proclaims the Lord with authority and calls us to repent. It prophesies our Savior’s coming, and describes the joy we have from His presence. The letter of the Word can exist in our minds even though there will be evils and falsities there also. We don’t have to be pure in heart to understand the Word. It is there to teach us, though we may be in the wilderness, in the uncultivated state of ignorance and evil. In fact, the main purpose of the literal level of the Word is to reach us right there, where we are, so that we may be led to the entrance of the Lord’s church. The letter of the Word makes us ready to cross the boundary into the spiritual faith that will make us members of the Lord’s Kingdom. The more we learn about the Word, the more we will penetrate its spirit. And that is the key for us today.

Applying the whole of the Word to our lives establishes an order into which the Lord can make His coming. The Lord will make His incarnation to each one of us if we do our part of this preparation in our outward lives. As John was a voice in the wilderness calling for repentance, for clearing the road of access into people’s minds, so Jesus Christ in His glorified Divine Human calls us to prepare for Him.

This preparation is not impossible for us to complete. Now, to be sure, the Lord desires that His burden be light. But often we find ourselves weighed down. There are too many things happening and we feel out of control, or distracted. Or we are not in the right state of mind, giving attention to regret or worry. There are twists and turns in the road of life. Steep hills slow us down and giant boulders block our progress. Sometimes we make wrong turns into evil desires and lies. So we don’t find time to read the Word, much less reflect upon it. And yet, our spirit aches for those short parcels of time and attention to spiritual realities. We have a gnawing hunger for a sense that the Lord is affecting us at that moment. When we take even this moment to think about the Lord, as we are doing now, our mind takes a rest from mundane things. We stretch our mental muscles. And, most importantly, we take the time to humble ourselves before the Lord and His Word, which rearranges or mind, our thinking and our feeling. A stretch of road is cleared for our walk with Him.

We are then looking at the correct map. We can recognize where we made the wrong turn, and we are able to get back on track. A road crew comes and cleans up the road, levels it out and straightens it. The hills are not so steep; the curves are not so extreme. This activity of listening to the words of the Lord allows Him to enter. Each time we remember the Lord, remember something He has said in His Word, or how His providence has operated, we are preparing for His coming. Often we can feel it happen. Our state changes, just as it does when we enter into worship. Perhaps we are lifted out of anger, frustration, or just the blues. What has happened is that we have stopped looking to ourselves for all the solutions to our problems. We have turned our thoughts to He who is greater than we, the latchet of whose shoes we are unworthy to loose. In the middle of what seems to be night, the Lord comes to us as the dawn – the day spring from on high.

There is this powerful image from the work The True Christian Religion: “Belief in God comes into man by the front door, that is, from the soul into the higher regions of the understanding. But knowledge about God comes in by the back door, because it is absorbed by the understanding from the revelation of the Word by means of the bodily senses. The two paths leading in meet in the midst of the understanding; there, natural belief, which is merely a strongly held opinion, becomes spiritual, that is to say, a real acknowledgment.” (n.11)

While I hesitate to break into this encouraging, delightful review of this process with anything negative, I believe it is helpful to see how this same process works to establish a path for evil spirits to infect us. Deeply hidden in our spirits is the desire to love ourselves more than the Lord and others, and to love this workd and its pleasures more than the joys of heaven. The hells use this gate into our conscious minds to establish a road that, although rocky, twisted and a struggle to go along, will seem to us the only road and the best available, (under these circumstances as we will led to believe!). And so our argument wins, our plan works best, our manipulation is for his betterment, our secret lust does not impact her. That is the way our mind works. The pathways for these thoughts and feelings from hell are well established. They are the main highways from which come the side roads leading back to the cities of hell called deceit, greed, selfishness, self righteousness, theft, materialism. And so we define tolerance as the acceptance of evil in our world; as allowing the wounding of the external foundations of the spiritual realities of marriage, the sanctity of life, the supremacy of love. This reinforces the concrete of the roads from hell to earth that run though our spirits to the natural world.

The first step of repentance, a step towards heaven is going to be off these usual highways. We take one of these new roads by reading, meditating on and applying thee Word. Our thought on the Lord brings His actual presence. This kind of worship stirs our affections for goodness and truth into activity, and brings it to consciousness. We then hear the voice of truth. The Lord’s Divine truth has affected us. We can then make straight our path to the life of charity, the life of eternal happiness.

What Zacharias says under the influence of the Holy Spirit describes this process. By means of the preparation we do, and by means of His incarnation, and later glorification, the Lord removes the darkness and cold, and makes it possible for us to see the truth and feel His love. Our wilderness today is not so much the lack of truth and love as it is not knowing how to use it. We now tend to forget the spiritual principles we can live from, and we easily become confused as to application of truth. Our wilderness states are produced by a subtle attack of the hells. They wish us to believe that the life we feel in ourselves is our own and not from the Lord. They try to glorify that feeling within us out of its proper proportion. The results of this attack are legion, and affect us all differently. Perhaps we feel that we can handle our burdens ourselves. We can think we can draw our own map to happiness. We may think we can see in the dark or are able to plan our route. We forget to ask the Lord, to seek His help, to knock at His door. Maybe we don’t think to praise the Lord every day for His gifts, forgetting that He is our Creator and Sustainer. Or sometimes we may slip into thinking that we have to provide for our own happiness, forgetting that all real joy is from the Lord, and that He will give it to us. Perhaps we believe that the material world is to be bent to our success rather than to our spiritual achievement. In short, we forget the Word.

How can we forget the Word? Perhaps we don’t know all of its meaning. Perhaps we think the Writings for the New Church are very complex and hard to understand, so we “forget” what they teach, in a sense. But do we really forget the letter of the Word? We are all obedient to the Ten Commandments. We don’t worship idols, steal, lie or covet in any way that anyone else could see. But the Heavenly Doctrines ask us to think and feel more deeply about the letter of the Word. We are given a new attitude toward the literal sense, a new way of thinking, and new pathway for our thought and feeling. It is an attitude that connects spiritual principle to action. And this attitude is what the hells will seek to blockade. The hells can take our external fidelity to the Word and twist it in our minds into a U turn. They can take our spirit of repentance and produce a sinkhole of feelings of responsibility for the evils we see in ourselves. Or they can pervert the road signs so that we think we are spiritually good because of our natural obedience, when it is actually the other way round.

The hells do not want us to know that they are the source of all evil. We come upon roadblocks and we don’t understand how they got there and we don’t know how to deal with them. The hells can give us an incorrect map. They make he road rough and twisted. And in an amazing final cunning move, they make us forget this now revealed spiritual fact of their manner of operation, and so we become depressed at our evilness, when in fact it is their!. In such an unhealthy state, our repentance ceases for we stop working on obeying the Word. We have, in a sense, forgotten the Word. This is just what the evil spirits want.

The hells can also make us feel that we should never delight in doing good works for they are simply meritorious. When we obey the letter of the Word from a spirit of helping the neighbor, something we can do at any time, the Lord gives us delight. When we stop and read the Word devotionally, the Lord gives us delight. Evil spirits would have us believe that we should never feel good about what we do, that reading the Word has no effect. They would have us hate ourselves rather than take delight in our accomplishments or feel worthy of the Lord’s presence. They wish to take away our enjoyment of doing good things, an enjoyment the Lord has given us to spur us on to be charitable. If we forget what the Word says about delighting in obeying the Lord’s laws, we become morose, pessimistic, and again, the hells have forced us to cease our repentance.

Our wilderness consists of these kinds of states, when we find that our life is like a pathless, desert tract. But there is a voice we can hear even though we feel like we are in the middle of nowhere, making no spiritual progress. The voice is the letter of the Word. It is the Divine truth speaking to us in a language we can understand wherever we are. When “my foot slipped, Your mercy, O Lord, held me up” (Psalm 94:l8). “O Lord my God, I cried to You, and You healed me” (Psalm 30:2). “The wilderness and solitary place shall be glad....It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Isaiah 35: l,2) . “These things have I spoken unto you that My joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (John l5: l0). “The reason one receives joys after temptations, is that after them he is admitted into heaven; for by means of temptations a person is joined to heaven, and is let into it; hence he has joy like that which the angels there have” (Apocalypse Explained n.897). “The Lord is present with every person, urgent and pressing to be received; and when a person receives Him, by acknowledging Him as his Creator, Redeemer and Savior, then is His first coming, which is called the dawn. From this time, the person, as to his understanding, begins to be enlightened in spiritual things, and to advance to a more interior degree of wisdom” (True Christian Religion n.766). “The coming of the Lord may be compared to the coming of heat in spring time; and because the heat then unites with light, the earth is softened, and seeds begin to sprout and proceed to produce fruit.” (True Christian Religion n 774).

To prepare for the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ into our hearts and minds, we should appeal to the Word, and open our hearts to its message. Let us read it regularly and allow it to speak to us and influence our thoughts and actions. The. Lord will then be able to come to us and be with us. He will raise us into ever greater understanding, even as John had to decrease while Jesus increased. By means of His power of life, we will hear His voice, and prepare a way for Him. The roadblocks are torn down, the steep hills leveled and the path is straightened. It is a highway fit for our God. We have an accurate, reliable map that shows us through to the very gates of heaven. And then, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken” (Isaiah 40:5). He will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79).