Rejoice! The Lord Is With You
A Sermon by Rev. J. Clark Echols, Jr.
“Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you!” Luke 1:28
Human beings all seek joy in their life, although there are many who don’t know what genuine joy is. And all humans desire to be favored by others, although too many of us do not seek the favor of the Lord. And you are here today in part because deep in your spirit is the desire to have the Lord present in your life. The Lord’s New Church teaches a certain path to having a joyful, satisfying, spiritual life. Once place in the Word we find it described is in the life of Mary of Galilee, the mother of Jesus Christ.
An examination of the entirety of Mary’s life leaves the feeling that to be highly favored by God is a mixed blessing. She is a young, healthy woman, confident in the future because all is set for her marriage to man she loves. And then everything changes. Their love must weather the worst of scandals; she has decades of worry for her special son whose perfect idealism cannot prevail over the evil forces of the world; and, the ultimate grief for a parent, the death of her child before her. It appears to be a very hard life, indeed.
We cannot know if Mary ever understood what favor was bestowed upon her. We can learn the lesson now. The internal sense of the story reveals to us everything there is to know about our Lord and our salvation, and that learning does not depend on our knowing any more than what is in the literal sense. Mary certainly lived the prophecy of the coming of the Lord, the Messiah. The details that are not reported by the Gospel writer, we can be sure, are not among those necessary to communicate the internal sense.
Our lesson today is a very poignant and powerful picture of a woman who was chosen by the Lord because she was a Jew whose religion was so integrated into her, who was so sure that God had blessed her, that she could hear the angel’s message that she was highly favored. She was the kind of person who was able to easily and immediately let go of any plan she had for her life. She was young and malleable enough to adjust her thinking to accept this completely unexpected manner in which the Messiah was coming to save them all. In a matter of moments, as she heard the angel’s message, she was able to turn her life over to the Lord in the most radical way possible. She committed herself to be a servant of the Lord. Her life would be according to His word. And there we have the literal description of authentic joy.
Mary symbolizes our love for truth. We feel blessed, we feel joy, by bringing the truth into existence in fulfillment of our love. Whenever we have felt joy because a good idea we loved has become realized through our action, we also recognized that the Lord is caring for us, and we felt the presence of the Lord. We should count ourselves then highly favored!
Truly satisfying joy is a mental and physical feeling. And it exists only when we bring a true idea that we love into physical reality. We all have what we think are great ideas! Maybe a very useful invention exists in our minds, or even on a piece of scratch paper. Perhaps you know exactly how to express your love for your child, whether still a youth or adult, yet have not done it yet, or have not done it well. Perhaps you know quite well what true marriage love looks like, and yet continue to miss opportunities to create it here and now.
The Heavenly Doctrines explain that our love for truth will carry through to an experience of joy. So we are motivated to take action in these important areas of our life by internalizing the truth that the Lord is caring about our welfare, the truth that the results are in His control, and the truth that He has designed this process. We thus let stop worrying about whether we will be liked, we let go of the need to determine the outcome, and allow the stream of His providence carry us along.
Feeling cared for by the Lord, that He favors us, is also a feeling in our spirit and our body. The Word tells us that a feeling of self-determination, of independence, of self life, is at the core of our humanity. And psychologists have noticed how it develops. We can even identify influences that contribute to a healthy sense of self, and wounds that produce a distorted sense of self life.
As adults, a healthy sense of self is founded on our internalizing the truth that we have eternal life as a free gift from our Creator, and that He thus cares for us in the deepest, and broadest manner possible. The more clearly we see these truths and the more deeply and broadly they affect our thinking, our desires and our actions, the more confident we will be in ourselves. Turning our very lives over to the Lord this way frees us from worrying about the future, enables us to overcome psychological barriers to healthy self regard, opens us to the healing power of the Lord’s love. For we know, absolutely that the Lord is favoring us highly as one of His precious children.
Many people have come to believe that the Lord is present only in churches, or perhaps in beautiful places in nature. Indeed, ancient people worshipped in special places on mountains or in groves. Worship in buildings may have developed for spiritual reasons, but merely natural ones suffice. Inside we can control the environment. We can be comfortable, look at works of art and beautiful structures and wonderful music. These tend to life our spirits and we can easily give thanks to the Lord and praise Him for His wonderful words and works. And then there are the times when the Lord seems absent. This can happen in any physical place, although when it is cold, dark and wet or snowy, it takes some mental and physical effort to rise above those conditions.
It is clear to those who think spiritually, that the presence of the Lord depends entirely on our spiritual state, not physical conditions. And the Heavenly Doctrine teaches us that the Lord dwells in the good and truth we have acquired from the Word. Good and truth are available to us from two sources, the Word and nature. We read the Word, learning ever more from it through our adult life, and we learn from our experiences, confirming what the Word teaches. This process supplies a foundation of facts that become our goods and truths as we apply them in our living. Then we feel, in our hearts, our minds and our bodies, the Lord’s Spirit as He dwells in us in those goods and truths that are actually His, even though they feel like our own.
The process of acquiring true joy, of feeling favored by the Lord and experiencing His presence in our living, is completely dependent on the quality of the truths and goods that we learn, acquire, internalize, apply and use in our living. Again, the internal sense of the story of Mary the mother of Jesus is that our love of truth will drive this whole process so that the Lord can give us these wonderful gifts. So the key to achieving this advanced spiritual state is a clear, adequate, sustainable idea of God. So being joyful, feeling favored and having a sense of His presence are connected to how useable is our idea of God.
Likely you know someone who has reported that they lost interest in religion after the 7th grade. They learned all the stories, and loved them, but the church simply didn’t feed them spiritually when they became an adult. This may have happened because what they were taught was perfect for a child’s understanding of God, but not an adult’s. Our natural man, which will always be limited to a childish understanding of God, will always need to have a friend in Jesus; a man who is to be followed because He did all those wonderful miracles, including good food and health.
You likely know people who have complained that they don’t know who to pray to, Father, Son or Holy Spirit. Some are, in one interpretation, so cowed by the majesty of the Father and the glory of the Son that they pray to Mary, who seems at once more connected to us and closer to God than we ever can be.
And you likely know people who expect God to keep order by rewarding good people and punishing evil people here on earth. They know that God is the ultimate judge, and then connect absolution and condemnation to His operation.
These notions about the Lord are not going to support a person’s joy, feeling favored or having His presence. I hope you have had the experience I have had of offering New Church ideas of the Lord to a person in spiritual pain, guilt or darkness and have them experience relief. The revelation of the second coming has spiritual rational truths that carry us through adolescence on to adulthood and to eternity. We can have a foundation of truths and goods that support every stage of our development, and every state of life, good and bad.
Jesus Christ is certainly a model of spirituality in life here. And our relationship with Him includes friendship as well as student and teacher, servant and master. That relationship will continue to develop as we come to understand how Jesus Christ glorified Himself and became the Divine Human, the one God of heaven and earth. This truth is eternal, and supports our adult relationship with Him.
When Jesus Christ glorified Himself He became one with the Divine itself. It is wonderful to continue to use the images of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. They make our God accessible to our natural man, tied as it is to natural images. Our deeper rational mind is fed by an understanding of the unity of God. We have Him in mind as Divine – that than which nothing greater can be conceived. We are able to rationally appreciate the limits of our finite understanding. We even delight in coming to the edge of human cognition. And we wrestle with the implications of one view of this deep matter over another. Even now, we have a sense that this development of understanding will go on forever, and we are delighted. Or at least enjoy the anticipation of understanding better than we do now!
And, a final notion at the core of our idea of God, is the truth that God is love; only love; pure love. He never is angry. It is not His job to condemn. His love is constantly, and only, lift us up. His spirit has only care for our eternal welfare. A God of love is the only notion that holds up under all conditions and considerations. Having a loving God at the core of all our faith allows us to show unconditional love to all our neighbors while praying for enlightenment as how to best act out that love. This is the opposite attitude to the one that judges first and then seeks to love. The Lord doesn’t work that way, and so it won’t work for us.
It is possible for us to have more joy than Mary ever did, even if our life is as full of anguish. It is possible for us to feel even more favored than Mary, even though she was the mother of the Messiah. And it is possible for us to feel the Lord’s presence more deeply than Mary ever did, because He is present in a new way since she lived.
As we learn more and more about the Lord, and practice over and over again being His servant, all the modern barriers to His presence are overcome. We each have to examine ourselves, asking what will it take for us to get this? Some of us will have to work through addictions. Some must give up anger by forgiving without any reason or hope for reconciliation. Some of us will need to find a way to give up shame about the past, or give up anxiety about the future. Some of us will have grief about what we have done, and about what we have not done. Some will have to bear up under the burden of wounds that will never diminish while we live here. All of us will need to cope with loss of one kind or another.
Through it all, our imagination and rational understanding of our Lord and God Jesus Christ cradling us in His arms, calling us by name, healing our brokenness, will give Him an opening to come to us and abide in our thoughts and desires. His presence will carry us past 7th grade, into an adult relationship and into a serenity that, although temporary or even fleeting, will give us a glimpse of His incarnation the way Mary experienced it, and the way the angels still experience it.
Mary’s life, I imagine, was full of joy even though it was marred by tragedy because she felt her self being cared for by the Lord and had a confidence in His continuing presence. So let Mary be our model: “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to Your word.
Lessons: Luke 1:26-38; Heavenly Secrets n.8705:
“No one can think of the Divine Himself unless he pictures Him as a Divine Human. Still less can anyone be joined in love to the Divine Himself unless He is pictured as such. The ideas of anyone who thinks of the Divine Himself without picturing Him as a Divine Human, lack definition, and an idea in which nothing definite is seen is not an idea. Alternatively, to conceive of the Divine he may think of the visible universe stretching out endlessly or ending in obscurity. Such an idea ties up with that which worshippers of nature have; it also reduces the idea of the Divine to nature, and so ceases to be an idea of Him. From this it is evident that nobody with such ideas could be joined to the Divine through faith, or through love. Any joining together requires an object, and such joining depends on the essential nature of the object….The truth that no ideas can be formed to picture the Divine Himself is clear from the Lord's words in John, ‘Nobody has ever seen God; the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.’ (John 1:18)….However, it is a remarkable fact that none of those whose thought about God springs from self or the flesh have any definite mental picture of Him when they think about Him, whereas those whose thought about God does not spring from self or the flesh but from the spirit do have a definite mental picture when they think about Him, that is, they envisage the Divine within a human shape. That is the way in which the angels in heaven think about the Divine, and it was the way in which the wise people of old thought about Him. Further more whenever the Divine Himself appeared to them He did so as Divine Human; for the Divine as He passes through heaven is Divine Human….From all this one may see that the intelligent in heaven picture the Divine within the Human; thus for them mediation resides in the Lord, and their minds as a result have light.”
Preached at The Glendale New Church December 4, 2005