Prepare for the Lord
A Sermon by James P. Cooper
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert a highway for our God" Isa. 40:3.
These familiar words of the prophet Isaiah stir deep affections within us. Each year we hear them as we prepare for Christmas, as we begin to read and think about the many Old Testament prophecies that prepared the way for the Lord by planting the seeds of true ideas about Him in the minds of those who longed for His coming. These are powerful words, whether they inspire us to picture Isaiah as he spoke them, or whether we picture John the Baptist as he stood by the Jordan river and actually did the work of preparation by calling Israel to repentance.
The doctrines of the New Church teach in many places that Isaiah was inspired to speak these words in order to announce the Coming of the Lord. First of all, he was to announce it to the children of Israel, to tell them that the Savior and Redeemer of Israel, which had been first promised in the third chapter of Genesis, and since promised in many other prophecies, was still to come; that God had not forgotten His promise. Isaiah was inspired to renew the promise, to tell the children of Israel that He had not yet come because the time was not right. Isaiah was to speak the words that would give those troubled people hope even though their country was conquered by enemies, hope that their enemies would soon be driven away. The children of Israel clung to Isaiah's words of hope and promise throughout their generations, looking forward to the time when the Messiah would come to lift them up out of their oppression.
The words of our text were to announce the Coming of the Messiah to all people. But who was the Messiah who was coming? Do we really understand who the Messiah was, and what He intended to do? It is quite apparent from scripture that the 12 disciples themselves had only the slightest idea of importance and nature of the Lord's ministry until after the Lord had been crucified, risen, and visited them in his Glorified Human. Until then the disciples were convinced that the Lord was to be the Messiah in the traditional sense, that is, a military leader, a charismatic revolutionary who would lead the Jews first to cast off the yoke of Rome and then begin to build their power until they were the richest and most powerful nation in the world.
That the disciples themselves did not understand the Lord's mission should be a warning to us to make sure that we do understand. They thought of Him as the Messiah, the leader of a political revolution, and as a teacher. It is easier for us to have a clearer understanding of His purposes because we have the advantage of the recorded experience in the gospels, as well as the doctrine of the Church which explains those events so that it should be very clear to us that Isaiah is announcing nothing less than the fact that the Creator of the Universe, the One and Only God was going to take on a human body and live among men on earth for the purpose of saving us all from spiritual destruction.
We are sinful by nature, and by ourselves there is nothing we can do about it. Unless God had provided the means for us to know what evil is and given us the power to shun evil as-if-from-ourselves, we could not be saved. Jehovah God Himself took on a human form in the world in order to accommodate Himself to our needs, in order to teach us what evil is, what heaven is, and what we must do to prepare ourselves for heaven. He came in person to show us the way, and since it is the Power and Divine Providence of God which alone can save or Redeem us, we call Him the Redeemer. By the Lord the Redeemer is meant Jehovah in the Human, for Jehovah Himself descended and assumed the Human in order to effect our redemption.
We can see from the many prophecies in the Old Testament that the coming of the Lord into the world had been promised from ancient times, and that ancient peoples believed that it would be Jehovah God Himself who came into the world, and He would come as a man. We see from Scripture that it was announced many times, in many different ways, and to many different people. We might ask why it was so important that the Lord's birth be announced in all those ways to all those people. What is the essential purpose of all these prophecies and warnings?
For the answer, we need to look to what is the most important possession that man has from the Lord--his freedom of choice in spiritual things. The Lord announced His coming in these many different ways so that everyone could freely accept to believe in the miracle of His birth into the world or not. It had to be freely received and understood because nothing remains with a man unless it is received in freedom. Even more than that, with a matter as important as the Lord's incarnation, it must be intelligent, informed consent, or there cannot be any conjunction between God and man. (See AC 3157e)
The Lord's birth on earth was announced for the very simple reason that we might be warned to prepare for it, so that we could receive Him freely, with understanding, and therefore be conjoined with Him through our reception. It can be difficult to visualize how we should prepare ourselves to receive the Lord without some kind of illustration or parable, so let us use our own preparations for the Christmas holidays as an example.
When we begin to make our plans for the Christmas Holidays, we remember the many good times we have spent working together as a family preparing for the holidays. Even those who seldom cook anything fancy during the rest of the year spend some time preparing special Christmas foods. The house is carefully cleaned. Special decorations are lovingly brought out from their places of safe storage and put in traditional places for all to enjoy. The week or so before Christmas, so filled with the busy activity of preparation, is almost as important as the day itself in many families. The Christmas spirit begins to glow in us, and begins to grow until it reaches its peak on Christmas day. Who is there who does not make some preparations to celebrate Christmas?
It is so obvious to us that we need to clean and decorate our homes in anticipation for the many guests that will come during the holidays, that it should come as no surprise to realize that the Lord asks us to prepare ourselves for His advent in much the same way as we prepare our homes, for after all, a home corresponds to a man's mind.
To prepare for Christmas, we need to "Cease to do evil; learn to do well." (Isa. 1:16) Just as it would be very unusual to put up decorations and invite guests into our home without first thoroughly cleaning it, the very first step in preparing for the Lord's Advent is to look to the course of our life and bring it into order by ceasing to do evils, and no longer thinking the falsities that arise from those evils, that is, those lies that make it seem all right to do what we know is wrong. We need to remember that the Lord is continually reaching down to uplift us, and all we need do to receive him is to not refuse him! (See AC 3142) We need to get rid of those feelings of selfishness and worldliness that turn us away from the Lord, that stand in the way of influx, so that He can flow in with heavenly affections. The Lord is indeed present with everyone at all times, but He can only enter insofar as He is invited, because His presence with man is according to man's reception of Him. (See AC 4190) The Lord has no desire to intrude in our lives.
The Heavenly Doctrines tell us that John the Baptist was to be that "voice" which would cry out in the "wilderness," and that by the wilderness was not meant the physical deserts of that land, but the state of the Jewish church. The Word calls the Jewish Church in those days a "wilderness", because it was a church that no longer worshiped the Lord or served the neighbor. Like a land without water, a church without the truths that teach the need to love the Lord and serve the neighbor is a spiritual wilderness.
As the "wilderness" or "desert" describes the state of the Jewish church at the time of the Lord's coming, it can also describe the state of the church within each of us when we are in states where truth from the Word, and the good of charity that comes from living according to the truths we find in the Word, are very distant from us. We cannot leave this desert of selfish states until we hear the "voice" of the Lord speaking to us in a clear voice to us from the Word.
In the Word, mountains correspond to love to the Lord, because when we look at the beautiful scenery in the mountains, our eyes are naturally lifted up to their peaks. When we look down at our feet or the ground, it stands for our concerns with worldly things, so angels walk with their faces turned up because their minds are elevated to thoughts about the Lord and heaven. So, when we lift our faces up to look at mountains, it inspires the angels with us to think of love to the Lord, and then their state of genuine worship flows back to us and inspires a similar state in us.
But in our text from Isaiah, the mountains are used in the opposite, evil sense, representing the loves of self and the world that are in opposition to love to the Lord. This is why we are told by Isaiah that the mountains will be made low, that is, when we live in obedience to the Lord's laws, our loves of self and the world will be made low, they will be removed by the Lord through the states of repentance, reformation, and regeneration.
On the other hand, valleys usually represent hell, but here valleys are used to represent a man who has humbled himself, brought his loves of self low, by desiring to lead his life not from his own understanding, but from the Lord's guidance in the Word. This man is lifted up by the Lord into heaven. Thus we can see that our text means that when we begin to listen to what the Word teaches, when we begin to try to obey the Lord's commandments and live according to them, He will heal our lives. The mountains of our self-intelligence, our conceit, our loves of self and the world can be smoothed out, brought down to their proper size and place in life. And at the same time, when we have truly humbled ourselves through obedience to His commandments, He will then lift us up out of the valley of our despair.
The cycle of the seasons brings us to the Christmas season once each year, reminding us, in spite of our natural tendency to put such things out of our minds, that the Lord took on the Human and came into the world, conquered hell through temptation, was crucified, and rose with His Glorified Human so that we might live to eternity. However, being reminded yearly, and actually receiving the Lord into our lives are different things. If we are to truly receive the Lord the Redeemer, Jehovah God in His Divine Human, we must prepare ourselves to receive Him, we must examine the house of our minds, sweep out the dust of false ideas, the cobwebs of cupidities, and ready ourselves for His visit. We need to see the loves of self and the world in ourselves and shun them, so leveling the mountains of our self-intelligence and conceit. We must open ourselves up to receive the Lord, to hear His voice in the Word. As this happens, and the Lord is able to regenerate us, the announcement of the Lord's advent will become a continual thing, for it will come from an internal dictate, a constant, inner awareness of the Lord's presence with us. Prepare ye the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, And every mountain and hill shall be made low. (Isa. 40:3-4) AMEN.
Lessons: Isaiah 40:1-8, Mark 1:1-11, AC 3142