SERMON: "Clean the House! The Lord is Coming!" by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Lee Woofenden
Sun Nov 30 22:43:12 UTC 1997

              Clean the House! The Lord is Coming!
 A Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
          Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 30, 1997

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11. In the desert prepare a way for the Lord.
          Mark 1:1-8. Prepare the way of the Lord
          _Apocalypse Explained_ #724b.7. Preparing the way of the Lord.

A voice of one calling in the desert, "Prepare the way for the Lord; make
straight paths for him." (Mark 1:3, from Isaiah 40:3)

Our theme this morning is housecleaning. 'Tis the season, isn't it?
Thanksgiving is a _big_ housecleaning holiday. All those guests coming for
dinner, and the house has to look nice for them! Now that Thanksgiving is
over, the house cleaners among us can relax a bit . . . but not for long.
Christmas is coming! That means _more_ guests, and _more_ housecleaning.
     One practical reason to clean the house before Christmas is that there
will be a lot of presents under the tree, and those presents have to go
somewhere. So it is a good time to clear out some of that old stuff that we
are not using anymore. That chipped vase that _used_ to look nice . . .
those old puzzles or board games that have too many pieces missing. . . .
Perhaps we'll even get rid of an old chair or table that's gotten a bit
rickety. We wouldn't want our holiday guests to have any unpleasant
surprises. Come to think of it, there is probably not going to be much of a
housecleaning vacation after all. . . . 
     Now, all of this is commonplace enough, but what does it have to do
with the first Sunday in Advent? Aren't we in church to think about
something _besides_ all the busyness of the holidays? Who wants to think
about cleaning house right in the middle of Sunday morning worship?
     To begin to answer these questions, here is a literal translation of
_Swedenborg's_ translation of our text, as it is found in Isaiah: "The voice
of one crying in the wilderness, 'Sweep the way of Jehovah; make straight in
the desert a highway for our God' " (Isaiah 40:3). Sweep the way of Jehovah!
If we wanted to put it in everyday terms, we could say, "Sweep out the
house! The Lord is coming!"
     However, in the Isaiah passage it is not a house that is being swept,
but a highway in the desert. The word for "prepare" or "sweep" literally
means to prepare something such as a house or a road by clearing away the
clutter and confusion that clog it up. In Biblical times, it was a custom to
send crews of people out to clear and level the roads to make them passable
when a king was planning to travel that way. This could be referred to as
the "royal treatment." It still is customary to clear the way and straighten
things out when some important person is going to be coming through our
towns and cities. We want to put on our best face for the VIPs. (Now if I
could only convince President Clinton to travel down Pearl Street in
Middleboro, maybe we could get that rough, patched up section repaved!) 
     When Isaiah proclaims, "In the desert prepare a way for the Lord; make
straight in the wilderness a highway for our God," he is urging us to
prepare ourselves for someone greater than any VIP who might come through.
To put it in terms that are closer to home, he is calling for us to pause
amongst our housecleaning and preparations for friends and family, and be
sure to prepare for the most important Christmas visitor we will ever have:
the Lord Jesus. After all, it is the Lord's coming that we are celebrating
at Christmas.
     How do we prepare for the Lord's coming? It is plain enough how to
clean a house. We've all handled a broom from time to time . . . some of us
more than others. . . . But we may not be so sure how to go about cleaning
our _spiritual_ house in preparation for a visit from our Lord. We probably
don't know what kind of broom to use; and even if we _do_ come up with a
spiritual broom, what is the spiritual clutter that we are supposed to be
sweeping out of our mental and emotional houses? What is the rubble that we
need to clear to make the highway straight in our spiritual desert? And what
_is_ a spiritual desert, anyway?
     We get some help from John the Baptist in our New Testament reading.
After quoting our text from Isaiah, Mark goes on to say, "And so John came,
baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the
forgiveness of sins."
     Now we are onto something. Historically John the Baptist prepared the
way for the Lord's coming by preaching a baptism of repentance.
     Baptism is washing. We could say that John the Baptist made a
profession of giving people baths--something that wasn't as common in his
day as it is in ours. Most people didn't have bathtubs in those days, so
even if John's charisma and spiritual power didn't draw a particular person
to the Jordan, there was something appealing about a nice, fresh dip in the
river to get the accumulated grime cleaned off one's body.
     Most of us probably aren't as physically dirty when we take a bath as a
lot of the people John baptized would have been. But there is a more
important way that we all need to be cleaned--swept out--in preparation for
the Lord's coming. Our reading from Swedenborg explains it this way:

     John the Baptist was sent beforehand to prepare people to
     receive the Lord through baptism because baptism symbolizes
     purification from evil and false things, and also rebirth from
     the Lord through the Bible. Unless this symbol had come first,
     the Lord could not have manifested himself. (_Apocalypse
     Explained_ #724b.7)

When John gave people baths, he did more than get them in the water so that
the grime could be washed off their bodies. He preached to them that they
must repent from their sins--or, in more modern terms, must stop wanting,
thinking, and doing things that are wrong and hurtful to others and to
ourselves. If we do not prepare ourselves for the Lord in this way, the Lord
cannot manifest himself in our lives at all, because our spiritual highway
is too clogged with rubble for the Lord to make it through.
     The desert that needs to have a roadway cleared through it is our own
resistance to the Lord's ways of love and concern for our fellow human
beings. When we are more focused on our own comfort and pleasure than with
the feelings and the wellbeing of those around us, then we are truly living
in a dry desert, cut off from the living streams of human understanding and
concern for other people. It is a _dry_ life, because when we think of
ourselves first, we cannot have close and loving relationships with others.
We leave no room for other people or for the Lord, because we are too full
of ourselves.
     Returning to the theme of housecleaning, Swedenborg says the same thing
in another way in _Arcana Coelestia_ #3142--but with an added dimension:
when we do sweep ourselves out, we are filled with good things from the
Lord. He writes:

     The reason why "sweeping" means preparing and being filled is
     that nothing else is asked of us except to "sweep our
     house"--that is, to reject evil desires and the false
     persuasions we get from them. If we do this, we are filled with
     all types of goodness, since goodness is continually flowing in
     from the Lord. It flows into "the house"--that is, into _us_
     when we have been cleansed of the things that block what would
     otherwise flow in. . . . "Sweeping the house" means cleansing
     ourselves of evil things, and in this way preparing ourselves
     for good things to enter.

Many of us would rather put our energy into doing _good_ things than focus
on _not_ doing _bad_ things. But when it comes to our spirits, not doing bad
things is precisely our job. In fact, Swedenborg says that nothing else is
asked of us except to "sweep our house" by rejecting evil desires and the
false ideas we get from them. Our job is to clear away these obstacles--to
clear away our wrong ways of feeling, thinking, and acting. This makes it
possible for the Lord to do the _Lord's_ job, which is to fill us with good
desires and true ideas that will lead to good and useful actions.
     What, specifically, are the evil desires and false ideas that we must
sweep away in preparation for the Lord's coming? That's a question I can't
answer! Why? Because our specific thoughts and desires are as individual as
each one of us.
     However, let me make a suggestion. Some of our holiday preparations do
not require much mental concentration. There is a lot of unexciting
work--like cleaning house and fixing things--that has to be done. How about
using some of that mental idle time to do a bit of _inner_ housecleaning? As
we are wielding the broom or the hammer, how about poking into some of those
dusty corners of our lives, or looking at that broken emotional furniture
that we usually prefer not to face? If we do, we will certainly find a few
wrong thoughts and desires to clear out of our lives in preparation for the
Lord's coming.
     Our spiritual housecleaning may be a bit of a grind, too. But one of
the nice things about _holiday_ housecleaning is that we can anticipate the
pleasure of family and friends gathering together in our houses to celebrate
with us. When we do our _mental_ housecleaning, we can anticipate an even
greater guest: our Lord Jesus. And he will come with the spiritual gifts of
love, joy, and peace with one another that Christmas is all about.
     Clean the house! The Lord is coming! 

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