I must work the works of the one who sent me while it is day: the night is coming, when no
one can work.
This is one of many passages sounding a note of urgency. It is the note with which the
Lord's ministry began. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." His hearers were
advised to be ready to move. If you are on the housetop, don't come down to get anything
out of your house. If you are out in the fields, don't go back to get clothes. You don't
know when the hour will come, so be ready. Let your loins be girded and your lights
burning. Be ready to move at a moment's notice.
This particular passage, though, is a bit different. Here, the Lord is saying that his own
time is short, and it is this that struck me recently. It presented an image I had not
seen before, an image of a love seeing so very much that needed to be done, and so little
time to do it in. It offered a sense of one who needed to use every moment to the fullest,
to draw from every encounter every last ounce of meaning. Above all, it pressed me to
think of the issue of priorities.
One of the devices sometimes used to get people to think about their values is to ask them
what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow. When we start thinking
along these lines, some of the things that we usually put first begin to look unimportant,
and some of the things that usually "can wait" become urgent. If the Lord lived under that
kind of sense of an imminent end, then his life takes on added cogency. He had no time to
waste. What he chose to do, he chose because it was most essential.
His general purpose was clear from the outset of his ministry--or at least, it can be
clear in hindsight. He began with the same message as did John the Baptist, "Repent, for
the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
It is such a familiar message that we may not appreciate how much it contains. It was
spoken to a people who had a dream, a dream that according to their tradition had lasted
for almost two thousand years. It was a dream of being a independent and glorious nation.
It rested on a promise first given to Abram, then repeated to each of the patriarchs. It
was symbolized above all by the events celebrated at the Passover, the miraculous
deliverance from Egypt, and by the actual achievements of David, now some thousand years
in the past. It was a dream that had survived the disaster of total defeat and exile,
nurtured in prophetic visions of a restoration.
By Gospel times, there had been one brief moment of triumph when the Jews under Maccabean
leadership won their independence from Rome, but that was over. Now they were again
oppressed; but the "just and devout," like Simeon in Luke's gospel, still trusted the
words of the prophets, still believed the Scriptures, and waited for the consolation of
Israel. If this seems fanciful in the light of our own knowledge of the might of the Roman
empire, we should recall that almost two thousand years of survival is impressive
evidence. They had been a nation before anyone even thought about Greeks or Romans.
They were waiting primarily for a new leader, a descendant of the ideal king, David, who
would lead them back to glory. All this history and all these expectations, then, were
packed into one word of the Lord's opening message--"the kingdom." "The kingdom is at
hand" sounded the trumpet, spoke to the very heart of Judaism.
Now, though, there was a bewildering twist. "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." If we can
manage to put on for a moment the mindset of a first-century Jew, if we can dwell in those
hopes and dreams of a restoration of past imperial glory, then perhaps we can appreciate
what a difficult shift these words demanded. Stop thinking in military and political
terms. Stop thinking about territories and boundaries. Stop thinking about the Romans and
the temple and taxes and oppression. Start thinking about something called "heaven."
With students at SSR, I have a standard device to try to convey how radical and difficult
a shift this must have been. I ask them to imagine themselves at the graduation ceremony,
going forward to receive their diplomas, and being told to forget about the piece of
paper. The important thing is simply that they have learned and grown tremendously over
the last four years.
This, I would suggest, is a valid image of the task the Lord was trying to accomplish.
The parables, the miracles, the hard questions and impossible sayings, were all designed
to break through assumptions that no one in his right mind would question. There is a
treasure hidden in this field, a priceless pearl of such value that you should sell
everything you have in order to possess it. There is something you have not seen, but if
you can once catch a glimpse of it, all your values will be transformed. Everything you
prize now will seem secondary.
We have come back, then, to where this sermon started. The Lord's life reflects an
absolutely vital sense of priorities. He had no time to waste with secondary matters.
Whatever he chose to do in his ministry, he chose to do because it was the most important
thing of all. I am urging that the essence of this "most important thing" was consistent
throughout, namely to wake people up to the overriding reality and value of the spiritual.
The learning and growth are incomparably more important than the diploma. Without them,
the diploma is meaningless, and they exist whether the diploma exists or not. You have
three years to get this message across--not just intellectually, but so the student can
quite contentedly leave the platform empty handed.
Perhaps when we read the Gospels in this light we can identify with the disciples more
completely and more sympathetically. Their questions are not dumb questions at all. Or
perhaps they are dumb questions, but they happen to bear a strong resemblance to our dumb
questions. We do tend to put political and military questions first. We do tend to think
that the everyday matters of family and friends can always wait till tomorrow, that being
a parent, a househusband or housewife, is not living up to our full potential. Parenting
may be impossibly difficult and demanding, it may call on the deepest resources of heart
and mind and soul, but real fulfillment comes with the jobs that have six-figure salaries
attached. In doctrinal terms, we are susceptible to the persuasions of the natural world.
In a kind of spiritual street language, we can be pretty dumb.
In the language of correspondence, for "pretty dumb," read "pretty blind." When we make
the leap from literal to spiritual meaning here, it turns out not to be leap at all, as is
often the case with the Gospels. Our theology compares Scripture to a person clothed, but
with hands and face bare, the hands and face being places where the spirit shines through.
The daytime in our New Testament reading "corresponds to" a state of spiritual sight, a
direct awareness of spiritual values, and the night that is coming is an immersion in the
natural world, a return to the deep sleep that fell on Adam and that issued in the second
creation of woman, the highly problematic creation of Eve from his rib. The daytime is, we
might say, a consciousness of the kingdom of heaven, and the night is a return to
preoccupation with the kingdom of Israel. In the light we rejoice in learning and growth;
turn out the lights and we cling to the diploma. The image shifts only slightly when we
recall that the New Testament story tells of the restoration of sight to a blind man.
Against this background, I'd like to spend the last third of this sermon expanding the
view in one direction and contracting it in another. I'd like, that is, to look at this
issue in the context of the whole sweep of the Biblical story, with a view to seeing where
it might apply most directly in the whole sweep of our individual lives.
For Swedenborg, what makes the Word special is not simply that it contains spiritual
meaning, a "spiritual sense." Everything contains spiritual meaning. The unique quality of
the Word is the coherence and especially the continuity of that meaning. It tells one
story from beginning to end. On the deepest level, it is the story of the Lord's
glorification. On a level closer to our minds, it is the story of our regeneration.
If we step back from that story, we do in fact see a very familiar pattern. We see a
prologue, the beginning of a life. We see in Abram a promise, a sense of a future.
"Someday I'm going to be a grown-up." We see gradual growth. We see in the Exodus and the
wilderness a striking parallel to the adolescent's first efforts at independence.
In the conquest, we can see ourselves beginning to take control of our inner lives, and in
the establishment of the nation under David, we can see ourselves finally becoming adults.
There is that sense of limitless possibility, of worlds to conquer. Our working years,
with all their struggles and compromises, their ups and downs, have much the feel of the
era of the Divided Kingdom.
Then comes the critical passage. In recent decades, it has been identified as the
"mid-life crisis." We begin to be aware of our mortality, to recognize that we have a
limited number of earthly years ahead of us. We are faced with questions about the worth
of what we have accomplished. If we have "succeeded," we doubt the value of our success.
If we have "failed," we begin to suspect that failure will have the last word. This is
where, in the Biblical story, we hear the vivid judgments of the prophets, the accusations
of inadequacy and predictions of doom.
Every prophet, though, even the gloomy Jeremiah, manages to slip in a message of hope.
The exile will prove to be a cleansing experience. On the other side of it lies a
restoration. The messiah, the Davidic king, will come.
For us as individuals, deliverance from the sense of inadequacy comes only when our values
are transformed. We may work as hard as we like to accomplish more in order to prove our
worth to ourselves, but the effort cannot succeed. It cannot succeed because our worth is
the Lord's gift to us, the Lord's love for us. As soon as we try to possess it, it
vanishes. We have to let go of it, just as the disciples had to let go of their vision of
an earthly Israel. It is as hard for us as it was for them, and the longer we resist it,
the more traumatic it becomes.
This is the top item on the human agenda. If we have a limited time, this is the one issue
we cannot afford to postpone. Until we as humans recognize how enmeshed we are in concern
for our personal worth and how subtly that corrupts our efforts at goodness, outward signs
such racism, sexism, oppression, violence, and substance abuse will simply shift their
ground and find new forms. We must of course work at these outward problems just as we
must at all costs attend to our physical health. But somehow or other, we must discover
the overriding urgency of the more fundamental task.
The Lord knew that his days on earth were numbered. He had no time to waste, and he wasted
no time. In the words of John the Baptist, he laid the axe to the root of the tree,
attacking our inhumanity at its source. If we would be Christians, this is our example.