Accepting the Lord
A Sermon by Rev. J. Clark Echols, Jr.
Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” Matthew 1:24
We all have goals, some larger and long term, some smaller and short term. We are willing to make sacrifices to achieve our goals. We are willing to give up self-gratification; and our point of view; even our opinion, if it will make the difference. We spend a great deal of energy figuring out how to achieve our aspirations, noble and base. We might even spend money on advice from experts on everything from how to accomplish the small task, to how to get what we want out of life.
Jesus tells the story about two men who each have the same goal: of building a house for themselves and their families. I imagine they have picked a site with an incredible view of the sea. But one builds his house on the dunes, and his house is washed away in the first hard rain. The other looks harder, goes to greater effort and expense to find solid rock. His house still stands today.
The spiritual moral of the story is that we must found our lives in the truth if we wish to accomplish anything valuable or enduring. And of course, the ultimate goal is going to heaven, which has eternal value and permanence.
So while the two men used different foundations for their thinking about their goals, the question remains, why? Under what conditions do we do what the Lord commands, and under what conditions do we lack enough motivation to go to the effort?
The Word has the answer! This is a teaching that is wonderful, is easily shared with people we know, love, or just meet here because of a shared interest in spiritual things. Goals have power in our lives because they reveal goodness to us. Those dreams that actually come to something in our lives do so because we are convinced that the result will be good. (We will talk about the quality of that goodness in a minute). It is important to become conscious of this reality if we are to be made fit for heaven. Goals have their power in our lives because they reveal to us that which is good. If we do not see what is good about our idea, we will have no motivation to achieve it. How many times have you thought about doing something, but then never done anything to accomplish it? Or how many times have you done something to help another, a neighbor, your spouse, in order to be charitable, but without any inner conviction? These circumstances arise because you just didn’t see what was good about what you were doing.
Perhaps what the friend wanted you to do really wasn’t good. The examples of blatant evil are easy to handle. Many stories are written about a one person slowly and subtly engaging another in their plot to take over the world. The answer to the dilemma proposed is always for someone to remember what is good, and then works hard to overcome the plot.
The worst case of this is, of course, when we do it to ourselves. We hatch a plan under the influence of evil spirits that only masquerades as being good. The story of our spiritual life is how we more and more quickly spot the evil spirit and thwart his plan. You can check out some wonderful stories about this. The Israelites attacking Ai without consulting Jehovah is one. The prophets of Baal competing with Elijah to bring fire from heaven is another.
And then there is the story we read today, the noble, strong, principled hero, Joseph of Nazareth in Galilee. Joseph is descended from Judah, the greatest of the families, in part because it includes David. He is likely still a very young man, but has apprenticed to a carpenter, maybe his father, a man named Jacob, the son of Mattan.
He has worked hard and established himself in his trade. He has a set of tools and a decade of training. He is grateful to his father and teachers for setting him up to have a secure life. So long as his hands and back can do the work, he will have a place to live and food to eat.
And he is now ready to begin a family. We are not told how Joseph and Mary met. Most likely it was arranged by the parents. Mary was also of the house of David. She was not royalty, but was a good person, perhaps fair to look at. I imagine that they knew each other from childhood, and more or less openly expressed their desire to be married.
What a wonderful beginning to life! Here are two young people with good characters, firm grounding in their religion and a desire to live long, useful lives, who love each other.
To get the point of this story, which is spiritual, and is about our mental and emotional life, we have to know that, first, Mary symbolizes the humility of our heart, or our proprium, that we must develop in order to be blessed by the Lord with the courage and strength to His will. Second, Joseph also symbolizes our humility, but of our intellect to the truth we learn from the Word that reveals what is good. This acceptance of the truth motivates us to live as though truth is important to live by, not just have. So Joseph represents the stage in our spiritual growth when out intellect is motivated by the Lord’s goodness, and our goals are heavenly.
We do not need much additional explanation to what we read from Matthew this morning to experience Joseph’s pain and turmoil. The simple story gives us all we need to know about Joseph.
Joseph is a good man, committed to following his God. He knows that his life and the goodness of life are all from God. His faith leads him to expect God to figure out how his life will work out. He already knows what he is supposed to do. He has an image of his future in his mind. He is absolutely sure that to live a moral life he has to cooperate with God. He is righteous, which means “right wise.”
There are some facts about religious law in those days that we need to know. Joseph and Mary were betrothed. That means that a contract had been signed. Now, to be sure, Mary was not legally considered more than a valuable piece of property, but in this case, Joseph didn’t think of her that way. But the laws stated that the property had to be in a certain, agreed upon, condition. Here, an essential condition was Mary’s virginity.
Notice how wonderfully the Lord uses the civil laws, which He had commanded the people to have in the first place, to express the deepest spiritual principles. And further notice that we will miss that whole point if we get stuck in our upset at how women were treated in those days. We can feel great delight that Joseph did not spurn Mary, although, some may say, that would be truer to the times and would have made an excellent story, too. But none of that is the point. This is the Lord’s Word. The real, essential story, is the spiritual one, which tells, on one level, of the incarnation of God, and on another of His coming to us. the Lord wants us to feel the emotions, and know all the facts of the stories of the Word. He wants us to delight in the good parts, be horrified by the evil people, and learn the moral of the stories of obedience and disobedience. But let us be clear that the New Church is formed in us by means of spiritual rational truths that are revealed to us through the ideas and feelings we get from the stories of the Word.
So, based on what we know of the laws and the customs of the day, Joseph is in a quandary. He loves her, but he cannot have her because of the pressure of the law and his peers. So he must divorce her. But he does not want to humiliate her. As one translation puts it, “And Joseph her husband, being just, and not willing to expose her to public infamy, intended to send her away privately.” (Matthew 1: 19, Kempton translation). He simply is not going to publicly renounce her. Joseph loves her so much he is anxious for her! His regard for his own humiliation is not a consideration for him.
And so he stopped to think. He thought it through. He worked through the illusions of the senses, he considered the pressures he and Mary were under, and he sorted out all the justifications for taking the easy, normal route.
How important is this little piece of the story? It is not talked about in the Writings for the New Church. But I find it critical, displaying what is perhaps the core issue in intellectual humility. He stopped to think it through. When we do this because we are in the habit of seeking for spiritual principles to live by, wonderful things happen. This is not a psychological trick. It is not merely a counselor’s suggestion to make a relationship work better. It is the way a spiritual person operates.
Joseph gave himself an opportunity to hear Lord. And the Lord answered, even though only in a dream. This describes how to Lord reveals what is good to us even when we are in anguish or despair about what we are to do.
At the time we stop and pay attention to spiritual principles, it certainly feels like the Lord is commanding us to do something.. Indeed, our text this morning is, Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” Merely natural people, whose intellects are not willing to accept anything anybody else says is true, will always react to the Word like it is telling them what to do and so violating their freedom. They never receive the blessings the Lord has to offer of wisdom, peace and love, because their goals are forever short of the mark and wide of the target. Having only those relatively poor ideas and so less experience of what is truly good, leaves such people in the dark, and continuing to complain about how unfair life is and how everybody wants to be a boss!
The spiritual person, who is working to give up their intellectual arrogance, hears something else in the Lord’s commands. Here, Joseph hears the Lord saying, “Don’t be afraid of any of those considerations. Mary is the predicted virgin mother of the Messiah!” When we here the corresponding command, it means for us: do not be afraid of what is going to happen to your goal in life when you obey the truth. Embrace the affection for truth, and the revelation of what is genuinely good! When you do you will be given a perception of what is to be done, and not what “should” or “ought” to be done, which are based on trying to fix the past, or get vengeance, or control the outcome.
Rather, and this is the hard part, we let Lord tell us what to do. It will probably run against the tide of our culture. He will certainly ask us to act against our proprium–our selfishness, justifications and ignorance. What the Lord asks us to do can have an aura of unreality about it, like a dream. But if we continue to adhere to the truth and embrace it, if our heart is willing, that is exactly when the Lord comes.
This is how we can be intellectually innocent. We think about things, using the Word to guide our thought. It is important that we practice this way of thinking. When there is a small decision, or the pressure is off, or when it involves only oneself, stop and think about what the Lord’s commands are. You already know them, so this does not require any study. The Ten Commandments, the Gold Rule, the Two Great Commandments are enough. then, when the bigger, more complicated decisions, involving more than just you, come to you, you will still stop and think. Perhaps you will need to study the Word, consult an expert, and gather not just natural facts but spiritual ones as well. Thus you will be accepting what the Lord says is true and good, rather than what you or the culture, says is true and good.
Living this way will certainly make your life radically different. Does that mean you have to give up on you goals? Joseph didn’t get the life he dreamed of, either! When he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, it completely altered his life. But he was willing because he felt the good and saw the truth. His immediate reaction was that God’s vision, God’s goal for his life, was better than his own. Joseph had this reaction because he had lived according to truth. He had learned that it produces what is good. So he yearned to find what is good by means of the truth even in his desperate situation. And he did so because, based on a life of righteousness, he stopped and thought about what he should do.
So we too, can do what the Lord commands us, and remain free to work for the goals we then set for ourselves. By means of this revelation of truth, good is visible. What is good may have been hidden from us because it can be seen only in heaven’s light, which we are not in! On the other hand, truth is relatively easy to see. We can read truth in the Word and memorize it. The hard part is actually doing it. Often we don’t know how to apply the truth; we are in obscurity about it.
By practicing right wise thinking, and stopping to consider what spiritual principles apply in any given situation, we will actually wake up from that time of spiritual sleep with a new vision, and new love, a new revelation of what is good. Our modified goals with have the advantage of a farther seeing spiritual sight, and a firmer base upon spiritual truth, and ultimately, a genuine love.
And the Lord will be born in us. We will be completely committed to Him. It will be clear to us that what we now know to be true and feel to be good are not products of our understanding and will, even as Joseph knew the Child was not his. And we will be quite delighted by that. Our intellect’s complaints will all be answered, not by a better line of argument, but by the delight we will feel in what we are quite sure is the good action. Because, like Joseph, we want to “do as the angel of the Lord” commands us to do. Amen
Lessons: Matthew 1:18-25, Arcana Celestia n. 5827: “So far as a person's regeneration is concerned, in the first state, when he is being brought by means of truth into good, truth is plainly visible because it exists in the light of the world and is not far removed from the ideas formed by the bodily senses. This is not the case with good, for good exists in the light of heaven, far from ideas formed by the bodily senses since it resides inwardly in the person's spirit. Consequently the truth of faith is clearly visible but good is not, even though good is constantly present, both flowing into truths and bringing them to life. If that were not so the person could not be regenerated. But once the state is completed, good reveals itself, doing so through love towards the neighbor, and through affection for truth as a guide to life.”
Preached December 12, 2004
Church of the New Jerusalem
845 Congress Ave
Glendale, Ohio 45246