Sunday, July 7, 1993

Location - Yarmouth Port
Bible Verses - 2 Kings 6:8-20
Matthew 6:29-46

And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the

Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and behold the mountain was full of

horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.

We live in what seems to be a relatively safe and stable part of the world, geographically

speaking. We have seen lately the effects of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the

Philippines and of Hurricane Andrew in Florida, and tonight we could probably glimpse the

flooding in the Midwest. The shoreline of the Cape here is fragile, as we have recently

been reminded, but by and large we live quite comfortably with the assumption that nothing

very violent is going to happen.

For all the headlines we read, this feeling goes beyond concerns with the weather. We may

lock our houses and our cars, but we move about unarmed and most of the time without

looking over our shoulders. In the present age, we even seem to have come to believe that

any illness that strikes us should be curable, that we should have some kind of divine

guarantee of a full term of years.

Then when troubles do strike, we are ill prepared. We immediately ask what has gone wrong.

That seems to be a perfectly normal thing to do, and perhaps it is; but it betrays a

mindset that is open to question. When we ask what has gone wrong, we are asking to

understand the hidden causes or purposes of the events that are distressing us. If those

hidden causes or purposes are as important as we think they are, we are rather tardy in

searching them out. We should surely have been just as diligent in trying to understand

why things went right before. If we had, at least we would become aware of our ignorance

before troubles come, which might lessen the shock.

The New England cleric Jonathan Edwards, a contemporary of Swedenborg, is most widely

known for a sermon on "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God." This is unfortunate, because

there was much more to his theology than this, but even then it was the bad news that

grabbed the headlines. In any case, he asked his hearers to imagine themselves walking on

a rotting floor above a cellar filled with fire, never knowing just when the floor might

give way underneath them. Those were, of course, the days when mortal illness might strike

at any time, when it was rare for a family not to have suffered some untimely loss.

Our Old Testament text offers the other side of this same image. Elisha's servant thought

they were doomed by the hostile army surrounding them, but when his eyes were opened, he

realized that powerful forces for good were present and active.

These two images may serve to give substance to one of the more familiar principles of our

theology. In his insistence on our individual freedom and responsibility, Swedenborg

attributes it not to our own strength, but to the Lord's providence. Specifically, he sees

us as kept in a balance between heavenly and hellish powers, powers that could sweep us

away if they were not kept under control. If we were to revise Jonathan Edwards's image,

we might see ourselves as walking along a country lane with hedges on both sides.

But our theology takes us a good deal further than this. It describes us as already

existing beyond those hedges. Let me quote at some length from True Christian Religion:

[2] But to make it comprehensible how we can be kept midway between heaven and hell and

thereby in the spiritual equilibrium from which we have freedom of choice, let me offer a

brief explanation.

The spiritual world consists of heaven and hell. Heaven then is overhead, and hell is

beneath the feet--not, however, in the center of the globe which we inhabit, but below the

lands of the spiritual world, which are also of spiritual origin, and therefore not

extended [spatially], but with an appearance of extension.

[3] Between heaven and hell there is a great interspace, which to those who are there

appears like a complete orb. Into this interspace, evil exhales from hell in all

abundance; while from heaven, on the other hand, good flows into it, also in all

abundance. . . .

[4] Because this interspace is so large and because it appears to those who are there like

a vast orb, it is called the World of Spirits. Further, it is full of spirits, because

everyone after death goes there first, and is there prepared either for heaven or for

hell. There we are among spirits, in company with them, as formerly we were among people

in the world.

476. Everyone, from infancy even to old age, is changing locality in that world. . . .

477. We are kept in this great interspace, and midway therein continually, for the sole

purpose that we may have freedom of choice in spiritual things, for this is a spiritual

equilibrium because it is an equilibrium between heaven and hell, therefore between good

and evil. . . .

People who have had near-death experiences testify consistently that they see life

differently afterwards. It is not just that they have lost any fear of dying, but that

they have a different attitude toward living. One of them put it this way:

At this time . . . I was a typical high-school fraternity brat. . . . But after this thing

happened to me, I wanted to know more. At the time, though, I didn't think there was a

person who would know anything about this, because I had never been out of this little

world that I was in . . . All I knew was that I felt like I had aged overnight after this

happened, because it opened up a whole new world for me that I never knew could possibly

exist. I kept thinking, "There's so much that I've got to find out." (Raymond Moody, Life

after Life [NY: Bantam, 1976], P. 89.)

If there is one thing of which our theology should convince us, it is that we have a

tremendous amount to learn. We normally see only the surface of ourselves, others, and the

world. We have only a dim sense of the undercurrents that in fact determine the larger

course of events. We have a wealth of information about the spiritual world which is "the

world of causes," but that is general information. It does not tell us what is going on

there right now.

Every once in a while, I find myself wondering what life must have been like for

Swedenborg during his last twenty-eight years. Think of it for a moment. he was, daily or

nightly, conscious in the spiritual world, where the light was clarity itself, where the

people one found together were people of like minds and interests, and where the actual

nature of those people was clearly visible. Then he would be back in this world, in a

light that was darkness by comparison. Good people might look ugly, strong people weak,

evil people beautiful, and weak people strong. Any given grouping would be likely to

represent widely divergent qualities, to include people who at heart wanted nothing to do

with each other. It must have at times seemed a world of utter confusion.

Now suppose for a moment that the Lord is trying to guide us toward an awareness of what

life, eternal life, is all about. He cannot convince us by forcing the truth upon us,

since that would be contrary to his own nature. He must try to prompt us to start asking

questions, to stop taking the surface appearance of things for granted. He does not want

misfortunes to come upon us, but we present a major problem in this regard. We don't seem

to want to ask the hard questions until things go wrong. When life is kind to us, we just

take it for granted. Obviously, we are special people, we deserve our good fortune. We

read about the people who are flooded out, or whose families are devastated by random

crime or by unexpected illness, and we feel immune.

If we could take our theology more seriously, we would find this kind of attitude

profoundly embarrassing. Given our resistance to asking the necessary, hard questions,

given the ease with which we accept a sense of security that we have not earned, it must

be an immensely patient Lord who nudges us so gently. If that Lord were anything like the

self-righteous tyrant of the hellfire and brimstone preacher, we would not be allowed our

complacency for a moment. Misfortune would be the order of the day, until we woke up to

our superficiality and started to live for eternity here and now.

Troubles will come to us all. If nothing else happens, we will encounter the increasing

limitations of old age. It is one thing to be assured, in a general way, that the Lord is

with us when troubles come, that our Lord knows how we feel because in the incarnation he

experienced life as we do. But more than that, if we can allow ourselves to suspect that

we need those troubles, they will be far easier for us to bear. It is not a case of bad

things happening to good people. It is a case of ordinary people, mixtures of good and

bad, being brought up short, being faced with something that will not let the mind rest.

The worst thing we can do then is to wallow in self-pity, to see ourselves as the

righteous Job suffering undeserved woes. In this case, we are worshiping an unjust God.

The next worst thing we can do is to see ourselves as receiving from God's hand a

punishment that we richly deserve. In this case, we are worshiping a God who is legally

just, but merciless. If in fact we worship a Lord who is infinitely loving and infinitely

wise, whose love and wisdom are not in conflict with each other, then we can feel

ourselves not condemned or approved but challenged to understand.

We live in a dim and puzzling world. Just out of sight is the world of clarity that awaits

us after death. Because of the ambiguities of this realm, we are free, and can make a hell

of heaven or a heaven of hell. Misfortune is the call to wake up, to open our eyes, to

see, if you will, that those who are for us are more than those who are against us, and

that the mountains around us are full of horses and chariots of fire.


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