He is the one who, coming after me, is preferred before me. - John 1:27
This morning, I should like us to reflect on a pattern that recurs again and again in Scripture and therefore, according to our theology, in our lives. We might be inclined to call it the pattern of the false start, but it would be better to be less negative about it and call it simply the pattern of the first try.
It is, I think, a familiar enough pattern in some very ordinary processes in our lives. We decide to try something new, something perhaps that we have always wanted to do. Our first effort is really not all that satisfactory as far as obvious results are concerned. After all, we have never done this before, and we really do not know what is involved. In fact, though, our first effort is a rousing success in a subtler way. We learn a tremendous amount from it. There is a story about a visitor to Edison’s laboratory who saw the workbench littered with unsuccessful attempts to make an electric light bulb. When he expressed his sympathy, Edison is reported to have said, “But things are going so well! Now I know all these things that don’t work!”
The pattern is equally clear in Scripture once we start looking for it, especially in Genesis. There is this theory that the eldest son becomes the leader of the next generation. It never happens. Ishmael is displaced by Isaac and Esau by Jacob, while Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher ultimately give place to Joseph. Later, the first attempt to take Ai fails, and it is the lesson learned from that failure that enables the second to succeed. The first king of Israel, Saul, turns out to be inadequate; but it is under his rule that David rises to prominence. Our text reminds us that John the Baptist was a conspicuous and significant figure on the New Testament scene, but that his task was one of preparation. In Malachi’s image, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”
Lastly, and in many ways most significantly, the whole effort to found the earthly kingdom of Israel is seen in the Gospels as foundation for the building of the kingdom of heaven; and we might start there in reflecting on the way in which this biblical pattern relates to our lives. After all, patterns are often most obvious when we step back and look at “the big picture.”
If we think of the whole story of Scripture as an image of our own life process, moving from birth and the garden of infancy to death and the heaven of the holy city, then certain landmarks stand out. There is the deliverance from Egypt, our launching forth toward maturity in early adolescence, with all the struggles of the wilderness. There is our leaving the nest as young adults, our achievement of self-government, reflected in the Israel’s independence as a nation under the monarchy. There are the years of adult labor when we are so often divided against ourselves, vividly pictured in the story of the divided kingdom. There is the crisis that forces itself upon us when we can no longer avoid the message of aging, when the impermanence of “this world” raises its prophetic voice. And finally, there is the message inherent in all this, the message that the goal of all this is the kingdom of heaven.
Let us look at this last and greatest instance first. Through the whole Old Testament, there is no mention of any “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven.” God and heaven certainly figure in the story, but the kingdom that occupies center stage is very definitely an earthly one. Abram left home on the strength of a promise that he could understand, a promise that drew him, a promise that his descendants would become a great nation. The story from Genesis twelve on follows the thread of that promise toward its fulfillment, from slavery to freedom, from homelessness to a homeland, until finally, under David, God has kept his promise to Abram. This is signaled in one verse at the beginning of the seventh chapter of Second Samuel “And it happened, when the king was sitting in his palace, and the Lord had given him rest from all the enemies that surrounded him . . . .”
The burning issue throughout the confusing story of the divided kingdom is that of the survival of this earthly kingdom. For the historian, it all depends on exclusive loyalty to the temple. For the prophets, it all depends on faithfulness to the law. But historian and prophet share a belief in what is at stake. Unfaithfulness, whether it is to the temple or to the law, will result in the destruction of the nation. Jeremiah may look forward to a time when the covenant will be internalized, when no one will have to teach the law because it will be written on people’s hearts, but his vision is still of mount Zion as true home of that law. Ezekiel may be overwhelmed by a vision of the mystical, transcendent Divine on a radiant, unearthly throne, but his visions culminate in a restored temple.
Unless we are aware of deep roots of such visions in Israelite consciousness, the Gospel story is often puzzling. The disciples seem terribly slow if we forget that they did not know the end of the story, only its earlier chapters. Why were they so demoralized by the crucifixion? Hadn’t the Lord told them what was coming?
I think we need a new phrase to describe this kind of obliviousness to historical context, and should like us to think of it as “twenty-forty hindsight.” If we could shed our own knowledge of the end of the story, if we could really step back into the first chapter of Matthew, we would be as bewildered as the disciples were. They had never heard of this “kingdom of God” or this “kingdom of heaven.” Almost two thousand years of history told them that the Lord had chosen them for a special destiny. Can we, with our brief two-hundred year history as a nation, have any idea of how persuasive that notion must have been, of how deeply rooted it was?
In particular, though, if we look at the way the Lord taught, using parables and paradoxes and impossible questions, it is surely naive of us to expect the disciples to have known when the Lord was speaking literally and when he was not. His words about dying and rising again must have been just as enigmatic as his words about the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood. It is all very well for us to take the first literally and the second spiritually, but to criticize the disciples for not having our clarity of vision is at best twenty-forty hindsight. It may be closer to blindness. We simply are not seeing their world.
There is, I believe, a vital and in many ways painful parallel to this bewilderment in our own spiritual stories. Just assume for a moment that the spiritual equivalent of that earthly kingdom is our own self-esteem. Think of all the literature about our need for a strong and affirmative self-image, a sense of real personal worth. Think of the current emphasis in social thought on “liberation” and “empowerment,” on the critiques of “marginalization.” Think of the unpopularity of any doctrinal stress on our sinfulness, on our being “nothing but evil,” or think of the popularity of systems of “positive thinking.”
Make no mistake, the reason such attitudes or systems are popular is that they work. But from our theological perspective, I would suggest that they work not so much because they grasp some profound truth about our ultimate natures as because they are antidotes to a particular disease. A negative self-image, a feeling of worthlessness, is truly paralyzing; and positive thinking is an obvious antidote. However, the antidote shares one characteristic with the disease, namely a focus on self. Our theology tells us that full heavenly happiness comes not from the negative self-image of seeing ourselves as nothing but evil, not from the affirmative self-image of seeing ourselves as wonderfully good, but from self-forgetfulness. This is “laying down our life for our friends.”
The psychologist Carl Jung said it very nicely, I gather. I cannot quote him exactly, but I am assured by them as knows that he said quite clearly that if we do not develop an ego in the first half of our lives, then we have no ego to give up in the second half. Swedenborg developed the marvelous image of people who stand there with their arms hanging limp at their sides, heads tipped back, eyes closed, mouths open, waiting for influx. No one but the Lord can give life into our hands, but there is no way he can as long as we hang on to it like grim death. Hard as it is, we have to let go. The kingdom we have labored for all our lives can be the solid foundation for the kingdom of heaven or the shabby substitute for it.
It might seem that the very size, the centrality and urgency of this choice, reduces the importance of the lesser instances. What is the little struggle between Jacob and Esau in comparison to the life-and-death matter the Messiah? This is not the case at all. To use a slightly different image, the Lord arranges our lives so that we work up to this huge issue gradually. We face it in smaller versions, versions scaled down to our size, so that when we finally come right up against it, we can be ready for it.
Time after time, providence offers us these choices. First of all, will we launch forth into some new effort, not knowing whether we will succeed, not really knowing where it may lead? If Abram had waited for a road map, the story never would have made it past Genesis twelve. Second, if we do make that first effort, how will we respond to its inadequacy? Will we turn back, will we blame everyone else, or will we learn what it has to teach us? Third, will we be open to the possibility that something quite different may be in store for us, that our first vision itself may have been only partial, or will we have so committed ourselves to the goals that we could see that we are blind to anything else? Helen Keller knew all about closed doors, and wrote from her life experience, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”
“Charity,” wrote Swedenborg, “is acting with prudence, to the end that good may result” (The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine, § 100). It does seem that there are times when there is nothing we can do that will help, but these are relatively few in fact, and even in these times we know, if we reflect, that we can at least try not to make things any worse. If there is a single message from this image of first tries, it may be the importance of developing the habit of looking for that open door. Finding out what does not work may be the only way to find out what does.
Let me close by indulging in a bit of more traditional correspondential interpretation. The Jacob and Esau story, from that point of view, is the story of our impulses being dethroned and our calculating minds being empowered. There is a real loss involved, because truth is intended to be the servant of love and not the other way around. But this supplanting is a temporary necessity. What is first in time is not necessarily first in end. So throughout our lives, we learn in order to love. We may feel discouraged that we are falling short of our ideals, but what are ideals for if not to call us upward?
Nor is it simply abstract theology, left-brain intellectualism, that is leading us. The call is actually the call of our own hearts, of our unspoken longing for heaven. The mind simply runs a little way ahead to show us perhaps not the whole way, but at least the next step.