by REV CALVIN ODHNER
Text: Luke 1:5-25; True Christian Religion 510
“But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.”
Good morning, and welcome to the Pittsburgh New Church! Christmas is a special time for all of us, but especially in the New Church, where we study the inner meaning of the Word. And here, in the Christmas stories, we find the Lord calling us! Imagine if someone was calling you. I suppose it’s easy to ignore someone calling you, right? Anyway…. Oh! Did you hear something? Who is that calling me? That has got to stop!
Imagine the Lord was calling you that loudly! That would be hard to miss, wouldn’t it? Today we’ll be reading about Zacharias and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. The Lord called him; He even sent an angel to talk to him. Let’s read how it happened!
John’s Birth Announced to Zacharias
In 1946 Dodge came out with the first Power Wagon. Oh, what a beautiful machine it was! A 230 cubic-inch flathead inline six cylinder gas engine, a 4-speed manual transmission, a two-speed 2-1 low range transfer case! Are you feeling this? It could pull anything, go anywhere! Some even had a built-in PTO with a 2500 pound winch! Try to breathe! But over the years, these trucks deteriorated. And like everything else man-made, they fell into ruin.
A truck’s predicament is very much like our own. We arrive here as beautiful little babies, full of life and love. Full of the innocence of ignorance, we are loved and cared for, hugged, but over time we come into our hereditary loves. We learn that we need to be “born again,” that we need to move from the “natural state” we were born into and have fallen in love with to a spiritual state with new ideas and new loves. When we delay or refuse to do this work, our minds deteriorate; they rust like a truck left in a field that’s turning into woods again. We discover that:
[A]ll walk according to their life, the evil in no other ways than those that lead to hell, but the good in no other ways than those that lead to heaven; consequently all spirits are known… from the ways wherein they are walking.
Apocalypse Explained 97.2
Fortunately, the Lord is patient and works with us to manage this self-focused inheritance from our parents, We’ve been given the faculty of becoming spiritual and we are told this happens in three stages.
The first stage is called “condemnation.” It’s really the trickiest stage. Why? “Our delights feel good to us! …[T]his keeps us from knowing we are in evils” (Divine Providence 83.2). Basically, we get trapped in love for ourselves and love of the world, and we think this is “goodness” itself! Amazing, isn’t it? That telling our spouse what to do and chasing money become the top priorities in our life?
This is the human predicament, and is the stage the Lord has set up for warfare. Because a battle must begin against the onslaught of loves from the “natural man.” If our higher self wins this battle, we develop a conscience! That’s good; we’re on our way. If the natural man wins, oddly, we appear to be in tranquility. Why? Because tranquility happens when nothing matters--good happens, evil happens…. If nothing matters, the the person is peaceful in this life. It’s not until the next life that this kind of person comes into the unrest and torment of hell (Arcana Coelestia 2183).
A purely natural life is a terrifying thing! Think of your own life when you didn’t feel the Lord’s presence. Life becomes a series of half-realized ambitions, disappointed dreams, moments of success mixed with frequent sorrow. Given enough time, even the happy feelings come to an end without the deeper happiness from a lasting relationship with the Lord, a firm knowledge that we live after death, married, in a place according to our loves, with people that love what we love. So few people have an actual opportunity to know this for real!
It’s when we are running this “natural life” game that we first run into Zacharias and Elizabeth!
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah.
The “days of Herod the King” are a time in our life when the dominion of self-love, with all its destructive potential, is present--the natural man. This is the un-examined life with cruelty hidden within. Remember, Herod executed many of his own family members and wives from fear that he would betray him. Yet the Lord chooses to be born in this dangerous environment of our mind, and He is born so gently, so quietly. If we let Him, He begins to take command, loving us far better than we can love ourselves. And what are Zacharias and Elizabeth experiencing?
But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.
Despite making our best effort to set up the perfect life, with the perfect house and the perfect income, in a purely natural life we can feel “barren,” hopeless. And what of the future in this state? What can we hope for? Where can this empty life lead us with its temporary joys and pleasures that are merely skin deep?
It is interesting to note that when Zacharias came within the holy of holies, when he came to the Lord and was worshiping, the angel of the Lord appeared to him. It’s when we decide to come to the Lord in humility that He can find a chink in the armor to enter….
So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division… an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
He was terrified, but angel comforted him, showed the secret of his heart was known, that he would have a son, a special boy who would turn many hearts to the Lord his God.
13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.
We can imagine Zacharias, as the years had slipped by, finally losing his conviction that he would actually have a son. But now, to be told it was possible in his old age--no wonder he doubted! Just as we can doubt that there could be more to our lives than just our natural desires and loves. The promise of John is that first inkling we get that there is more to life than living a natural self-centered lifestyle.
20 But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.”
Being mute represents our inability to understand and obey the truth (AC 6988). Our lack of intelligence from the truth and living in a state of falsity (AE 455:20, AE 587:8). We are unable to “speak” the Lord’s truth because it is not yet within our heart.
22 But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless.
23 So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house.
All of us come, at one time or another, to a time to make a decision that we will either follow the Lord or walk away from His church. Zacharias now needed to make that choice: would he name his son John? Or remain in a merely natural and disobedient life?
59 So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him by the name of his father, Zacharias. 60 His mother answered and said, “No; he shall be called John.”
61 But they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.” 62 So they made signs to his father—what he would have him called.
63 And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, “His name is John.” So they all marveled. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God. 65 Then fear came on all who dwelt around them.
John the baptist’s birth represents the beginning of our life of repentance, when we are willing to examine our life and repent of the evil thoughts and aspirations of our old life. We read:
[A]cts of repentance are the things that actually produce the church within us.
(True Christian Religion 510)
So here, at the beginning of the our Christmas season, the first story we are given by the Lord reveals the spiritual life-and-death struggle going on within each us. This is the information each of us so badly needs as we approach the Lord this Christmas.
And who named John? Not just the angel, but Zacharias himself. The naming of John is an important victory for us, for in it we begin to accept repentance as part of our path to a heavenly life. If Zacharias had called the baby after his own name, he would have taken credit for his birth, just as we, when we experience the contentment after repentance, need to remember this is not the work of our hands. It is the work of the Lord within us. No one can repent on his own strength.
So they made signs to his father—what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, “His name is John.” (Luke 1:62-63)
This second stage of our spiritual life, reformation, is the reforming of our mind around the principles we already have learned, some of which we already have an affection for. Build your life around these principles! Live from the Heavenly Doctrines; let them influence every thought, every action! You are re-building your mind from the ground up. And someday, you’ll have that completely, reconditioned, rebuilt from the frame up, like a reconditioned Power Wagon!….that can pull anything and go anywhere.
Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God.
AMEN. LET US PRAY
True Christianity #510
Repentance Is the Beginning of the Church within Us
The extended community that is known as the church consists of all the people who have the church within them. The church takes hold in us when we are regenerated, and we are all regenerated when we abstain from things that are evil and sinful and run away from them as we would run if we saw hordes of hellish spirits pursuing us with flaming torches, intending to attack us and throw us onto a bonfire.
As we go through the early stages of our lives, there are many things that prepare us for the church and introduce us into it; but acts of repentance are the things that actually produce the church within us. Acts of repentance include any and all actions that result in our not willing, and consequently not doing, evil things that are sins against God.
Before repentance, we stand outside regeneration. In that condition, if any thought of eternal salvation somehow makes its way into us, we at first turn toward it but soon turn away. That thought does not penetrate us any farther than the outer areas where we have ideas; it then goes out into our spoken words and perhaps into a few gestures that go along with those words. When the thought of eternal salvation penetrates our will, however, then it is truly inside us. The will is the real self, because it is where our love dwells; our thoughts are outside us, unless they come from our will, in which case our will and our thought act as one, and together make us who we are. From these points it follows that in order for repentance to be genuine and effective within us, it has to be done both by our will and by thinking that comes from our will. It cannot be done by thought alone. Therefore it has to be a matter of actions, and not of words alone.
 The Word makes it obvious that repentance is the beginning of the church. John the Baptist was sent out in advance to prepare people for the church that the Lord was about to establish. At the same time as he was baptizing people he was also preaching repentance; his baptism was therefore called a baptism of repentance. Baptism means a spiritual washing, that is, being cleansed from sins. John baptized in the Jordan river because the Jordan means introduction into the church, since it was the first border of the land of Canaan, where the church was. The Lord himself also preached that people should repent so that their sins would be forgiven. He taught, in effect, that repentance is the beginning of the church; that if we repent, the sins within us will be removed; and that if our sins are removed, they are also forgiven. Furthermore, when the Lord sent out his twelve apostles and also the seventy, he commanded them to preach repentance. From all this it is clear that repentance is the beginning of the church.