Sunday, November 11, 1995

Location - Bayside

Rather than look closely at any particular Biblical story, I should like this afternoon to look at a number of themes that help tie the whole story together. When Swedenborg identifies some books of the Bible, but not others, as “the Word” (Arcana Coelestia 10325), it is not because the other books have no spiritual meaning. It is because the spiritual meaning of the Word is in a continuous series (Arcana Coelestia 2102e, 2654), and some of the books of the Bible lie outside this particular sequence.

If we look at the literal sense of the books Swedenborg names as constituting the Word and the ones that are omitted, we can discern a rationale for the selection. “The Word” tells the story of “the kingdom” in a particular way. It has a prologue telling how the world was created and how it fell from innocence to become the world we know, full of misunderstanding. It tells how God took the initiative with a promise to Abram that his descendants would become a great nation. It tells how, bit by bit, that promise was actually fulfilled under David. It then goes on to tell how that kingdom failed, and the prophets record the turmoil of despair and hope that resulted from the failure.

“The Word,” as defined by Swedenborg, then proceeds directly to the New Testament, with Jesus coming to fulfill the promises but transforming them in the process. In the Gospels, the “kingdom of Israel” is replaced by “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God.” Then from the Gospels we move directly to the Book of Revelation, in a sense following the Lord in his ascension. The book closes with the image of that kingdom of heaven, in the form of the Holy City, descending toward earth.

Many of the books that are omitted are a little like side roads. At two points--with the fall of Judah and with the ascension of the Christ, that is--the story turns “upward” or “inward.” At the first of those points, Ezra and Nehemiah stay on the political level, while the prophets look deeper. After the ascension, Acts and the Epistles follow the story of the earthly church, while Revelation moves directly into the spiritual realm.

The “side roads” are very much worth exploring. It is important to realize that Swedenborg does not downgrade any of the books of the Bible. Rather, he upgrades those that bear this continuous internal meaning.

With this in mind, then, perhaps the first “theme” to look at is simply that we are looking at a story. The Word is not a systematic theology or a law code or a poem, though it has elements of all these forms embedded in it. It is first and foremost a story, which means that things change as they go along. It means that we cannot really understand a particular chapter if we lift it out of its context, if we do not know where it is coming from and where it is leading. To take a simple example, we cannot understand the events at Sinai unless we are aware of the slavery that lies behind and the struggle that lies ahead.

It seems fairly obvious that the spiritual significance of this is that our own inner lives are a process. The truly religious life is not a matter of getting faith and keeping it, so to speak, but a process of lifelong change. As we draw near the close of life, we should be able to look back and see that our understanding has been growing, that our love has been deepening. We may look back and say, “I don’t believe that any more,” or we may look back and say, “I finally understand what I only thought I understood when I was young.”

The best candidate for a single central theme of the story is “the covenant.” We have done ourselves a disservice in the English language by our titles, “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” since a “testament” is basically a will, a document telling what I want done with my property after I die. The meaning of the Greek diatheke that is clearly intended is the meaning “covenant.”

The covenant in the Word is a kind of agreement or treaty between the Lord and the people, defining their relationship. It tells what God requires and what God promises. There are times when it seems to be negotiable--in Genesis 28, for example, Jacob says that he will be loyal to God if God takes care of him--but for the most part it is given by divine decree. It does change as the story progresses. At first, with Abram in Genesis 12, it is very vague, and only gradually becomes clearer. At Sinai an immense body of law is added. With its fulfillment in the time of David, it becomes the promise of an eternal dynasty. With the Last Supper, it becomes the promise of the inner presence of the Christ.

It does not take much effort to see what this points to on a spiritual level. On that level the Word is about our relationship to the Divine. Swedenborg tells us that “a covenant” corresponds to “conjunction” (Arcana Coelestia 665f.) The central issue of our lives is, then, the story of the way in which our inner relationship to the Divine develops.

In the literal story, there are some basic tensions. One of them centers in the question of kingship. On the one hand, kingship is part of the promise. Abram is told in Genesis 17:6 that he will be the ancestor of kings. One of the themes of the book of Judges is that people were simply doing what they pleased because there was no king (Judges 17:6, 21:25). David is “the king after the Lord’s own heart.” Yet when the people first ask for a king, the Lord says to Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them” (I Samuel 8:7), and many of the actual kings turned out to be evil.

This paradox runs through the prophets in a way that is not often noticed. The prophets predict that the kingdom will be restored, but when it comes to telling how this will happen, their prophecies fall into two major categories. The first category is “Messianic.” That is, God will raise up an anointed king, a descendant of David, who will unite the country, defeat its enemies, and rule with justice. The second we might call “cosmic,” and the phrase to look for is “the day of the Lord.” This is not the coming of a mortal king but the direct impact of the transcendent Divine. Mountains will melt, streams will break forth in the desert, the blind and deaf and lame will be healed, the wicked will be consumed in a moment.

I would suggest that this is a marvelous image of a central paradox in our own lives. Swedenborg expresses it very concisely in his repeated statements that we are to shun evils as if of ourselves, but are to acknowledge that it is actually the Lord who is acting (Divine Love and Wisdom 115, Divine Providence 42, 90). The king pictures our own taking charge of our lives, our own acceptance of responsibility. The king also, then, pictures our claim that this power is our own. In the prophets we see this applied to our own hopes, to our prayers that the Lord will deliver us and to our feeling that we must rescue ourselves.

Another theme is equally paradoxical, that of the temple. Early in the story, there is no temple. Abram (Genesis 12:7, 13:4, 18:22), Isaac (Genesis 26:25), and Jacob (Genesis 28:18, 33:20) all build altars at different special places. These are people without a fixed residence, it seems, and the message is that God is everywhere they go. At Sinai the tabernacle is commanded and built--a traveling temple, with the message that God is actually leading them. When David proposes building a temple, the Lord asks why. “In all the places I have walked with the Israelites, did I ever say a word [asking] why you did not build me a house of cedar?”

Yet the temple is promised and is built. Deuteronomy in particular stresses the importance of the place the Lord will choose to set his name there, and throughout the two books of Kings, the “good kings” are the ones who eliminate the high places and centralize sacrificial worship in the temple at Jerusalem, while the “bad kings” are the ones who do not. The book of Isaiah opens with the proclamation that the Lord hates the whole system of sacrificial worship, and the seventh chapter of Jeremiah calls trust in the temple a lie, a lie that Israel is using to excuse their violations of the Ten Commandments (Jeremiah 7:9f.).

In the New Testament, we have Jesus’s cleansing of the temple and his prophecies of its destruction, and then we have the statement at the end of Luke that after the ascension, the disciples “were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:53). Finally, we have the vision of the descent of the New Jerusalem, in which there is no temple.

This is like the paradox of kingship, but even more challenging. Most broadly, the temple pictures the church, both within us as individuals (Arcana Coelestia 402) and among us (The Apocalypse Revealed 191). We should probably picture it as the way we structure our religious understanding and life, and this may be particularly relevant to my being here today.

That is, we cannot help but express our religious understanding and life in the terms of our own languages and cultures. The theology of the New Church has been given institutional form in this country following Western models of what a church should be and how it should function. In a way, we are quite helpless in this regard. This is all we know. This is the world in which we live, the world to which we are to apply our principles. Therefore we must not “deify” those time-bound, culture-bound forms.

As the generations go and come, you and your descendants will face issues of assimilation to American culture. You will have choices to make, and none of them will be perfect. All will involve some amount of loss and some amount of gain. That is not the point. The point is that this process will provide the “externals” in which the church must be expressed, but that those “externals” must not be allowed to rule over the internals of the church.

This brings me to the point I should like to end with, the point I should perhaps have started with. The strong democratic flavor of American culture means that we have an almost instinctive mistrust of authority, especially in religious matters. I don’t want to be one because I don’t really know how. I am profoundly uncomfortable if I suspect that anyone is believing anything I say simply because I am the one who is saying it.

Yet this is just one side of the paradox. We do have our ways of building fairly firm structures of religious thought and life. Many of those ways are probably so deeply ingrained that we are not aware of them--you may see them more clearly than we can simply because they are different from your own. You may, in other words, have as much to offer us as we have to offer you.

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