Sunday, February 2, 1994

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Habakkuk 2:9-20
John 2:13-25

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.

Habakkuk 2:19f.

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.


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