Sunday, January 1, 1994

Location - Temenos
Bible Verses - Genesis 17:1-8
Mark 17:1-15

Now after John was imprisoned, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the

kingdom of God and saying, "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand:

repent, and believe the gospel."

Mark 1:14f.

We are so steeped in the belief that Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy

that it is hard for us to read the Old Testament except as prelude to the new. That may

not seem to be a problem, but there is a way in which it creates a gulf between the Bible

and our lives. Life here and now is a prelude to eternal life, and no doubt when we look

back on the present from the vantage point of the spiritual world, lots of things will

make sense that seem confusing or insignificant now. Today, though, we do not know what

lies ahead. Life is like reading the Old Testament without knowing that the New is coming,

or at least without knowing what the new will be like.

This is perhaps nowhere more evident or pertinent than in regard to one of the central

themes of Scripture, the theme of the kingdom. The promise of the kingdom can well be

regarded as the mainspring of the whole story. It is God's promise to Abram that sets the

plot in motion. Uncertainty about descendants is the leitmotif of the stories of the

patriarchs through the rest of Genesis. The nation-to-be is given its independence and its

laws in the definitive episodes of the exodus and Sinai. Under Joshua the land is more or

less secured, and finally under David the original promise is fulfilled. There is "rest

from all the surrounding enemies," and on the throne is the one who is "the king after the

Lord's own heart."

But then things go wrong. The nation splits in two. The northern half is conquered by

Assyria and survives in the Biblical story only as the Samaritans. The southern half is

later conquered by Babylon. The city of Jerusalem and the temple at its center are


Still, the ideal does not die. The promise is not forgotten. The dynasty of David has

lasted for over four centuries--about twice as long as our own nation has existed--and a

dream with such deep roots does not fade quickly. The same prophets who foretold disaster

also envisioned a restoration, and spoke of a time when the Lord would raise up a new king

from the line of David. By the time of Jesus' birth, then, the promise to Abram had

survived for well over a millennium and a half. Devout Jews in Herod's Judea had all those

centuries of "proof" of the Lord's intent to make Israel supreme, a light to the Gentiles.

Then came John the Baptist announcing that the time was at hand, "preparing the way of the

Lord" as Isaiah had foretold. Specifically, we are told in Matthew, he announced that "the

kingdom of heaven" was at hand. Matthew gives this as the message with which Jesus began

his ministry, and Mark varies this only in referring to the kingdom as "the kingdom of


If we have managed to step out of our Christianizing readings of the Old Testament, this

is startling. The whole story has been about the kingdom of Israel or the kingdom of

David, and Israel is not heaven and David is not God. In modern terms, this is a huge

paradigm shift. Jeremiah hinted at it with his vision of a law that would be written on

the heart, but the proclamations of John and Jesus demand a whole new set of priorities.

The direction of this shift is exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount. There, the old law

and the new are contrasted in a way that makes a pattern stand forth clearly. "You have

heard that it was said by those of old, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you

that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has committed adultery with her in his heart."

The new law does not abolish the old, but takes it to a new and deeper level. It applies

to the non-material realm of thoughts and intentions, not just to the level of physical

behavior. These laws can be written only on the heart. This is where the new liberation is

taking place with the deliverance from the bondage of sin. This is where the kingdom of

heaven must be founded.

According to our theology, we should be able to see our own inner lives reflected in this

literal story, and I believe we can. It is not at all difficult to suppose that the

struggle to found an independent kingdom mirrors our own youthful efforts toward

independence. It is a need that surfaces in adults in the persistent and often passionate

concern for our "rights," and the strength and apparent moral certitude of human rights

movements bear witness to the depths of its roots within us.

In the Biblical story, though, this independence is lost. In recent years, we have created

a label for the corresponding passage in our inner lives. We call it "the mid-life

crisis." It may be triggered or at least fertilized by the awareness of our mortality that

the aging process suggests, but its essence lies deeper. Whether we have succeeded in

reaching our goals or not, we find ourselves driven to admit that our deeper dreams have

not come true. We are not at peace with ourselves. We do not find ourselves bathed in

contentment or joy. It is all too easy to identify with the negative messages of the

prophets, with their chapter after chapter of condemnation and doom.

As already noted, however, the prophets also see beyond the doom to a brighter day, and

this has intimate parallels in our theology. Swedenborg speaks of the essence of spiritual

temptation as being despair, and insists that it is through this that we can come to

rebirth. Early in his Arcana Coelestia, for example, he notes that we rarely reach the

state of distinguishing what is ours from what is the Lord's without passing through

"temptation, misfortune, and depression which render physical and worldly concerns

quiescent" (Arcana Coelestia ¶ 8).

We are ripe then for a very difficult paradigm shift. Its essence is suggested quite

forcefully in another passage from Arcana Coelestia:

Our deeds are only gestures, and seen apart from their intent are only motions variously

shaped and coordinated, rather like the movements of a machine, and therefore soulless.

But deeds seen together with their intent are not motions like this. Instead, they are

forms of intent presented to the eye, since deeds are nothing but witnesses to the kinds

of thing that are happening in our intentions. They actually get their soul or life from

our intentions. . . . People do recognize this, because intelligent folk do not pay

attention to deeds but simply to the intent from which, through which, and for which the

deeds occur. In fact, a wise person scarcely sees the deeds, but sees the quality and

intensity of the intent within them.

Arcana Coelestia 9293

There goes my Curriculum Vitae, my resume. All it lists is my deeds--schools attended,

degrees granted, publications, offices held. The intelligent will not pay them much heed,

but will wonder why I did these things. To the eye of wisdom, they will be hardly visible.

Dorothea Harvey put it trenchantly in saying that retirement made it impossible for her to

find a sense of worth in accomplishments. Now, if there was to be any sense of worth, it

must be found simply in who she was.

As those of you who know her might expect, this does not mean that she now sits around

"just being." Disengaging our sense of worth from our achievements does not mean that we

stop achieving. I am reminded of Jesus' words about "externals and internals"--"These

[inner] things you should have done, but not have left the [outer] others undone." In my

own life, the clearest instance involved the family finances. For too many years, paying

the monthly bills was frightening. There was an anxiety in the pit of my stomach that this

month we would not make it. Then one day, it dawned on me that the visceral nature of my

anxiety was not a sign of how important money actually was, it was a sign of how important

I was making it. I was preaching the freedom of the spirit and living the tyranny of


For some reason I do not entirely understand, this seemed to sink in, and the monthly

bills lost their overriding importance. They no longer mattered all that much. The main

point is, though, that did not lead to irresponsibility at all. Instead, it made it much

easier to deal with the bills.

This is a very small example of a very important principle. There are forms of

spirituality which can only be described as other-worldly or escapist. Our theology has

little use for them. To quote Heaven and Hell (¶ 528),

Some people believe that it is hard to live the life that leads to heaven, which is called

a spiritual life, because they have heard that you have to renounce the world and give up

the desires people associate with the body and the flesh, and "live spiritually." All they

understand by this is rejecting worldly concerns (especially concerns with money and

prestige) and going around in constant devout meditation about God, salvation, and eternal

life, spending one's life in prayer and in reading the Word and devotional books. . . .

But people who renounce the world and "live by the spirit" in this way acquire a mournful

life, one that is not receptive of heavenly joy. . . . Rather, in order to be receptive of

heaven's life, we should by all means live in the world and be involved in its duties and

business. In this way, through a moral and civic life we accept a spiritual life. There is

no other way spiritual life can take shape in us, no other way our spirits can be prepared

for heaven.

Heaven and Hell 528

We need, I believe, to put this passage together with the one that would render our deeds

virtually invisible, if we are to have a balanced view. Perhaps an example from the

societal realm will help.

There are obvious inequities in our society. One way in which these are described is by

highlighting imbalances in power, especially calling attention to groups that are, in

current terminology, "marginalized." The second of our quotations enjoins us to civic

responsibility,and the first enjoins us not to be simplistic about that responsibility.

From a more spiritual point of view, the problem is not the fact of uneven distribution

but the pattern of unevenness. Absolutely equal distribution of power is another name for


The pattern of heavenly government is that power is granted to individuals precisely in

proportion to their love. They accept it not as power but as responsibility; and by this

token, anyone who wants power for the sake of having power is not to be trusted with it.

The external, quantitative aspect of power almost vanishes. It does not matter whether an

individual is rich or poor, male or female, majority or minority: anyone who divorces

power from responsibility will be an oppressor.

This is not an easy criterion to apply. It is far simpler to try to "empower" people by

category than to search out those whose love of community will guide their exercise of

power. It requires a societal paradigm shift, in our case from "the land of the free and

the home of the brave" to "the kingdom of heaven." As we struggle to make that shift, we

discover how many of the obstacles to it lie within ourselves--we are so attached to the

tangible, the demonstrable. We may begin then to identify with the struggles of the

disciples to make the shift that Jesus was pressing upon them; and as their difficulties

become ours, the literal and spiritual meanings of the story walk hand in hand. It is our

story, and it is our Lord who calls.


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