Woe to the one who says to the wood, "Awake," to the dumb stone, "Arise, this is our
teacher!" Behold, it is laid over with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in
its midst. But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.
The prophet Habakkuk saw disaster coming. He prophesied that the Babylonian army would
come, terrible and dreadful, with horses swifter than leopards and more fierce than
evening wolves. He proclaimed that this was ordained by the Lord for judgment and for
correction, and went on to catalogue the evils that were making the disaster inevitable.
He listed covetousness, the use of violence in building cities, plying one's neighbor with
drink, and seeking the help of idols.
If a house had been gained by unjust means, he said, the stone would cry out of the wall,
to be answered by the wooden beams. If a town were built by forced labor, it would prove
pointless, trifling, once the earth was filled with the knowledge of the glory of the
Lord. For those who used drink to entice others into immorality, the cup of the Lord's
wrath would be poured out. No punishment was specified for the idolaters, but the closing
verse of this series is its grand and crashing climax: "But the Lord is in his holy
temple: let all the earth keep silence before him."
The picture is of a people seeking self-satisfaction in wealth and power and pleasure,
heedless of injustice, and turning to whatever gods might grant them approval. Their
search is futile because peace cannot be found in covetousness or founded on forced labor,
because there is no joy in licentiousness and no power in idols. Everything these people
trust in, everything they look to, is hollow. But in the temple there is the presence of
the one almighty God, and in that presence the whole world is speechless. Here is glory,
and here is awe.
In lifting this statement out of its context and using it to open our worship, we seem to
have tamed it. In the mouth of the prophet, it thunders. There is no way it can have
anything like the same force when there has been no preparation for it, when it is the
beginning of an experience rather than the climax of one. Now its context is this
building. This, presumably, is the "holy temple" we think of, and the silence has more to
do with courtesy and attentiveness than with overpowering awe. Our theology helps us make
one shift and think of allowing our worldly concerns to be still for a while, but we may
doubt that this was all Habakkuk had in mind.
The problem can be stated very simply. It is not that our opening sentence is
inappropriate. Rather, it is that there is no switch we can throw to turn on awareness of
the divine presence. There is no button labeled "Overpowering Awe." Still, to the extent
that we are struck with the original force of the words, our worship is intense. We become
vividly conscious of our need, acutely aware that we are very small people in a very great
presence and that our words can only hint at the immense meaning we know is at hand. Ram
Dass made the observation that if we read the words of our hymns with sensitivity, we find
everywhere the marks of transforming encounter--and yet, he says, we tend to sing them as
though they were grocery lists.
Perhaps we need this kind of anesthetic. Perhaps we could not bear a weekly experience of
transcendent power. Certainly it would seem that by definition we cannot make such an
experience happen. We have no control of the divine and cannot tell it when to overwhelm
This does not mean, though, that we should anesthetize ourselves. To shift the image
slightly, we hear the Lord saying in the book of Revelation, "Behold, I stand at the door
and knock. If anyone will hear my voice and open the door, I will come in." Our familiar
sentence can be heard as an opening sentence, as that voice inviting us to open the door.
In a way, Habakkuk is telling us that nothing we ever do will be more important.
A couple of images from physics come to mind. Einstein has presented us with the
astonishing E=mc2. This means that every bit of matter in and around us contains an almost
inconceivable amount of energy. We have seen what happens when that door is opened just a
crack, when just a fraction of that energy is released in a nuclear reaction. Even more
stunning is a calculation of the physicist David Bohm. What we regard as "empty space"
seems actually to be full of energy over a wide range of wave lengths. The smaller the
wave length, the more intense the energy. Using an accepted limit for the smallest
possible wave length and adding the energies of all lengths from that to the longest, Bohm
concludes that in one cubic centimeter of "space" there is more energy than there is in
all the matter in the universe. The material universe, he says--what we would refer to as
the whole of creation--is like a little ripple on a vast sea of energy. We live on the
surface this sea, on the edge of this unimaginable power.
This can be taken as an image of what our theology tells us about our relationship to the
divine. That Divine is infinite, entirely beyond our ability to conceive or understand,
and is wholly present everywhere. From time to time we get glimpses of this fact, when
some little moment becomes full of meaning for us. A friend makes a familiar gesture, and
our whole relationship is suddenly present. Not only that, we know that it has always been
present, that every moment has had this kind of content.
When we state that "the Lord is in his holy temple," then, we need not be claiming any
special presence in this particular place. This same Lord was just as present with us
through the night, as we had breakfast, and as we were on our way here. At best, we are
saying something about ourselves and our affection for this place. It is here that we find
ourselves most disposed to open the door.
There is another way in which we have altered the meaning of our opening sentence by
taking it out of its prophetic context. The Lord Habakkuk was talking about was not a
gentle or reassuring one. This was a Lord who had lost patience with his people, who was
about to call down the armies of Babylon to reprove and correct them. This Lord was not
standing outside the door waiting for his people to open it. This was a God with a
sledgehammer or a battering ram.
Any Christian theology, to the extent that it sees Jesus as revealing the essential nature
of the Divine, challenges this image of a wrathful and punitive God. As Swedenborgians, we
would take Paul very seriously when he says that the whole fullness of the Godhead dwelt
bodily in the Christ. In fact, our opening sentence was chosen with words of our New
Testament reading in mind: "But he was talking about the temple of his body." For
Swedenborg, the Lord's humanity or "human" is the temple; so in doctrinal terms, we are
talking about the presence of the omnipotent Divine in the Divine Human of the Lord. We
return to this theme in the opening words of our faith, when we state that "We worship the
one God, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in whom is the Father, the Son, and the Holy
If the Gospel has reached our hearts, our image of the nature of God has been irreversibly
changed. One of the recurrent messages of the Gospels is "Fear not." If that message is
being spoken by infinite power, it changes everything. We may be right in some of our
fears--of pain or loneliness or failure, for example--but only as these impinge on our
outward lives. As to our inward lives, which are our eternal lives, there is nothing to
fear. The power that created the universe and maintains it is absolutely and unreservedly
on our side. We may choose to turn away from that power and live lives of
self-gratification: the Lord will still be doing everything possible to ease our pain.
Let us look at the question in a slightly different way. When we become aware that we are
in the presence of infinite power, we feel inadequate. This feeling of inadequacy seems
often to take the form of guilt, and this is the assumption built into our first order of
worship. We proceed quite quickly to a prayer of confession taken from the fifty-first
Psalm, asking to be washed from our iniquity and cleansed from our sin.
But suppose, just suppose, that we have had a wonderfully good week. For whatever reason,
it has been easy to be both diligent and generous. Our mood has been particularly open,
cheerful, and affectionate. Life has made sense, and we have reason to believe that
through us a little extra light has come into the lives of our friends and family. Are we
to search through the week to find the exceptions to this mood in order to have come
iniquities to confess? If we honestly believe we have been adequate, are we incapable of
We are warned in no uncertain terms about the dangers of taking credit for our goodness.
The usual translations use the word "merit" to refer to our propensity for thinking of
ourselves as good. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in the church to believe that
the only alternative is to think of ourselves as bad. Perhaps our language itself should
sound the alarm. What do the phrases for these two alternatives have in common--"thinking
of ourselves as good" and "thinking of ourselves as bad"? Quite simply, they have in
common the phrase, "thinking of ourselves." And once we recognize this, a third
alternative becomes obvious--not to think of ourselves, or at least not to be preoccupied
with thoughts of our own worth.
The individuals who encountered God in Scripture did not exactly forget themselves. Moses
at the burning bush hid his face in fear. Isaiah cried out in awareness of his
uncleanness. Ezekiel fell on his face, the disciples on the mount of transfiguration were
seized by fear, and John on Patmos fell down as though dead. But in each case, the divine
presence was not there to judge or evaluate them. In each case, the Lord was coming to
empower them for a mission. They were raised up and made ready to go out not in their own
strength or with their own virtue, but in the Lord's strength.
If we heed our doctrines, we can worship just as well in our best weeks as in our worst
ones. In our best, the mood is one of gratitude. In our worst, the mood is one of
petition. We must at all costs move beyond the scorecard mentality, the anxiety lest our
failings outweigh or outnumber our virtues, and focus on listening to whatever it is the
Lord wants to tell us.
"The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him." Let "all the
earth" be our self-concern, our worries about how well we are doing or about what is going
to happen next. Perhaps we can use the quiet time before the service starts to look at our
worries and lay them aside, reviewing the highs and lows of the past week and recognizing
that for the next hour there is nothing we can do about them. We will get back to our
everyday responsibilities soon enough. This hour is for listening.
Perhaps we can take the prayer of confession with a grain of salt. There are times when
our sinfulness fills our horizon, but these times do not last forever. Of course we have
transgressed. The Lord knows that, and is trying to respond to our need. If we insist on
dwelling on our guilt, we will be deaf to everything else. Perhaps, finally, we can hear
the Lord's Prayer not as an effort to change the Lord's mind but as an effort to
understand the Lord's will. The Lord who is present in this temple wants to give us our
daily bread, to forgive us all we owe him, not to lead us into temptation but to deliver
us from evil. This is not us instructing the divine but the divine instructing us.