Sunday, January 1, 1995

Location - Newtonville
Bible Verses - 1 Kings 22:1-22
Matthew 22:1-13

And the Lord said to him, "How will you do this?" And he said, "I will go forth and I will

be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets." And he said, "You will persuade him:

go forth and do it."

II Kings 22:22

If this were not in the Bible, I suspect we would label it cynical. It portrays God not

only as vengeful but as devious, as deliberately sending out an angel to spread lies with

the intent of luring a man to his death. Any mortal who behaved in such fashion could be

accused of conspiracy with intent to commit murder; and if the plot succeeded, as this one

did, could be convicted of murder in the first degree.

If this teaches us nothing else, it should teach us that there is a lot more in the Bible

than the Lord's Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm. Overall, the Bible is not a

particularly idealistic book. If it were filmed in an unexpurgated version, much of it

would be rated "R." There is an abundance of violence in it, and a fair amount of sex.

In a sense, this is no problem as long as it portrays the darker side of our own human

nature. We seem to be on different ground, though, when God is portrayed in similar

fashion. We know that human beings deceive each other. We ourselves have intended harm,

have done harm, have been harmed. Even so, we have not gone so far as to lure someone to

his death. What does it mean to be told that God has acted in a way that offends our own

moral sense so deeply?

This has been a matter of concern for Christians and Jews alike for centuries.

Swedenborg's answer is in one sense very simple, but its implications go very deep indeed.

To put it in more or less conversational terms, from a Swedenborgian point of view what we

have recorded in Scripture is not so much what God said as what people heard. In more

technical theological terms, we are dealing not with actual truths but with appearances of

truth. It seems to us that God is angry with us, or is condemning us for our sins, or has

left us alone in a time of need. That is how we are interpreting the signs we can

perceive. It may be the only way we can interpret them. It is still no more than our


When we stop to think about it, this is not surprising. It is certainly conceivable that

we might find it difficult to understand infinite wisdom, that we might get it a little

bit wrong. Many of the people who have had near death experiences report that at one point

they saw what we might call the whole plan of divine providence. They saw how our good and

ill fortunes fit together. They are unanimous in two respects. First, the plan is

exquisitely beautiful. It has a kind of perfection that is simply overwhelming. Second,

not only can they not describe the plan, this exquisite design, they cannot even remember

it. In Swedenborgian terms, it exceeds the capacity of their natural minds, of their

everyday earthly consciousness.

It might be a little like going to a lecture on the latest discoveries in brain research.

Let's suppose that the lecturer has a marvelous gift for language and imagery, and that I

get totally caught up in the presentation. Unless I have a solid background in the field,

though, two days later I will be able to recall about one percent of what I heard. I will

remember how clear it all seemed at the time, how it all made perfect sense, but for

heaven's sake, don't ask me to repeat what he said.

If that is true on this human-to-human level, what should we expect when communications

come from the divine level? There is simply no way the Lord can explain to our natural

minds everything that is going on. There is no way we can keep in view simultaneously all

the interconnections, all the physical and mental and spiritual effects of even a fairly

simple situation. We focus in on its immediate effects on us, and if we are not

thoughtful, equate those effects with God's whole intent. This hurts me here and now, so

God must be angry with me.

Jeremiah put it about as personally as it can be put. He did his best to convey the Lord's

messages plainly and forcefully, and found that it brought him nothing but grief. At one

point in his turmoil, we find him saying,

You deceived me, Lord, and I fell for it. You were too strong for me. You won. Everyone

laughs at me all day long; everyone mocks me. . . . The word of the Lord has bought me

derision and reproach all the day. I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will not

speak in his name any more; but then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned

in my bones. I get too tired to hold it in. I cannot endure it (Jeremiah 20:7-9).

A couple of millennia later, we are grateful that he did not hold it all inside. We can

see how things worked out, how the dream of the Messiah was kept alive, how the ground was

prepared for the incarnation. All that was no comfort at all to Jeremiah, any more than a

future we cannot see is a comfort to us in our present distresses.

Jeremiah's pain was real. Our own pain is real. An omnipotent God did not prevent

Jeremiah's pain. An omnipotent God is not preventing our pain. Is it blind faith to

believe that this deity sees aspects of the situation that outweigh the pain? After all,

there is no proof. But then, there is no proof of the contrary, either. By definition, we

are talking about what lies beyond our sight. Whether we blame God for our pain or whether

we trust that there is a loving and wise purpose behind it, we have no proof. We are as

blind in the one case as we are in the other.

The trouble is, we want to know. We want to know so badly that we are likely to fashion

certainties out of our ignorance. That in itself might not be a problem, but then we tend

to refuse responsibility for what we have done. Instead of saying, "I have chosen to

believe that God is angry with me," we put it all out there, as though we have actually

perceived the anger and had no choice but to believe in its reality. Instead of saying, "I

have chosen to believe that there is a loving purpose beyond this suffering," we put it

all out there, as though we actually had seen the purpose and were therefore obliged by

circumstances to bear true witness to it. In either case, we clearly risk making God a

liar, simply because we are putting our own opinions into the divine mouth.

This does no particular harm to the Lord. It does not change the divine nature, diminish

divine love or wisdom, or lessen divine omnipotence. Rather, it affects us. We risk the

congealing of our own emotionally driven guesswork. It is intriguing in this connection

that Jeremiah seems to take some of the responsibility. He does not say simply, "You

deceived me," he also says, "I fell for it," or more literally, "I was deceived."

Strange as it may seem, this can represent a major step forward. It can be read as saying,

"I thought I understood what the Lord had in mind, but I did not." That is a confession we

all need to be ready and able to make. The other side of Jeremiah's plaint, the statement

that it was the Lord who did the deceiving, can then be taken as a statement about how

this discovery feels. Such feelings will do us no harm as long as we simply recognize that

this is in fact how we are feeling at the present moment. They become pernicious only when

we begin to rationalize and justify them, to claim that our resentment is appropriate not

only toward the situation as it now strikes us but even toward the divine intent above and

beyond our immediate ken.

It may help to remind ourselves that we are not simple beings. We are complex and often

inconsistent creatures. There is more to us than meets the eye--in fact, there is more to

us than meets our own eyes. Jesus told one man that all things were possible to one who

believed. The man gave an answer that still rings true centuries later: "Lord, I

believe--help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). Part of us does trust that God does not lie, that

there is a supremely loving and wise purpose behind everything that happens. Part of us

does not trust, at least not yet, and that is the part we are likely to visit when we are

in distress.

There is one more dimension of this that we should look at before closing. It is so

obvious as to be commonplace, but there are some subtleties to it that are potent and that

may elude our notice. I am talking about the simple fact that different people are in

different states. One of us may be falling apart while another has everything together.

Most of the time we are somewhere in between these extremes, but still each of us has a

distinctive mix of aptness and togetherness, of faithlessness and faith.

This makes effective personal communication impossible if we ignore it. When one person

says to another, "You should be feeling the way I do," of even worse, "You do feel the way

I do," then the speaker's ego is spreading out and trying to efface anything that

contradicts it. We don't often to this so blatantly, but we can be much to quick to say,

"I know exactly how you feel." We can say--and perhaps should--"I can imagine how I would

feel if that were happening to me," but if we care about the other, if we want to let the

other exist in his or her own right, then we must not let this kind of imagination

substitute for the most total attention and delicate sensitivity we are capable of.

Particularly, for the context of this sermon, it is folly to transpose our faith in

providence onto someone who is going through a passage of doubt, or to belittle someone

else's faith when we are finding our own untenable. We can honestly testify to our own

faith or doubt: that is no problem. What hurts both us and our relationships is to claim

that this is more than our own faith or our own doubt, in effect to try to make others

over into our own image and likeness.

At this point, the vital notion of process comes into play. To use a very simple image,

whether it is appropriate to be driving north on Walnut Street at 2:30 p.m. depends on

where we are coming from, where we are headed, and what time we are expected to arrive.

In and of itself, apart from any such context, driving north on Walnut Street at 2:30 p.m.

cannot be evaluated as right or wrong. Similarly, if we are to understand and evaluate

what we are doing spiritually, we have to have some sense of where we are coming from and

where we are headed. Each one of us is, so to speak, on a unique trip, and at a unique

place on that trip.

A wonderful subtlety comes in, though, when we realize that in spite of this uniqueness,

there is still a very real sense in which we can learn to travel together. I am at a loss

to come up with an image that works, that catches the remarkable way in which we can be

intimately "with" each other at times when we are in very different places spiritually.

The octogenarian and the two-year-old can be delighted with each other. The robustly

healthy and the terminally ill can enrich each other's lives. Married couples, with all

their differences of interest and temperament, can go through a lifetime together, and as

a result of their care for each other become people they could not have become in any

other way.

None of this is likely to happen, though, if we pretend that we know the plan. What we

need to hold on to is really fairly simple. First, divine love and wisdom are both perfect

and incomprehensible. Second, this means that God does not lie. If we are deceived, it is

because we have deceived each other, or more probably ourselves. Let us believe those

witnesses who say that the plan is lovely beyond belief, and be both open and gentle

toward our unbelief.


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