Sunday, February 2, 1998

Location - Elmwood
Bible Verses - Malachi 4
Matthew 4:3-44

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. - Matthew 10:26

The twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew, the so-called “Little Apocalypse,” seems to have been one of Swedenborg’s favorite sections of the Word. He dealt with it at some length in interchapter sections of the Arcana, used it as a kind of preface to Heaven and Hell, and alluded to it at the beginning of The Last Judgment. His explanations are quite consistent, but there is one major change at this point. When he wrote Arcana Coelestia, he had not yet witnessed the Last Judgment. In Heaven and Hell he says, “The reason this kind of direct revelation is taking place right now is that this is what is meant by ‘the coming of the Lord.’” Heaven and Hell was written after he had witnessed the Last Judgment.

Contrast this with Arcana Coelestia 9312,3:

There will also be a last judgment when the Lord shall come in glory; not that the earth and the world are then to perish, but that the church perishes; and then a new church is always raised up by the Lord; as at the time of the coming of the Lord the primitive church of the Gentiles. So also will there be a new church when the Lord shall come in glory, which is meant by the new heaven and new earth . . . .

Even at the end of the Arcana, he is not ready to say in so many words that the end of the church is at hand or that the judgment is imminent. It would be two years before he would publish The Last Judgment and Heaven and Hell, with their definite and momentous claims.

Some two hundred and fifty years later, we find ourselves living at the close of a millennium, with speculations growing about the kind of change this may entail. Literally, of course, these speculations have little foundation. Scripture does talk of a thousand year reign of Christ (Revelation 20:2-7), but gives no hint as to when that era will start. Further, if scholars are right and the Lord was born about 4 B.C., then the real millennium may have just passed, and we missed it. After all, it was scholars who made up this calendar in the first place. Or then again, maybe the millennium should be dated not from the Lord’s birth but from his ascension. It would seem to make more sense to start counting toward his return from his departure than from his first arrival, since it was at his departure that He predicted His return. In that case, the millennium will presumably come sometime between 2029 and 2033.

The point of all this is simply to underscore the rather obvious fact that true Christian life is not that kind of numbers game. True Christian life is about the way we treat each other here and now—and the life of the new Christian church is very much about why we treat each other the way we do. To quote Heaven and Hell (¶ 472),

A thousand people can do the same thing, that is, can present deeds that look alike. These deeds can be so much alike that one can scarcely detect any difference in their outward form. And yet each one, seen in its own right, is different because it comes from a different intent.

Time and time again, our theology insists that it is entirely possible to have a fair exterior that hides a foul interior. This is not entirely a bad thing, either. In explaining that it is not so hard to live a heavenly life as we may think, Swedenborg notes that most of the time we have to behave reasonably well just in order to get by. Our more antisocial impulses are restrained by our fear of the consequences, by our need for approval or respect or money. If these “external bonds” were to vanish, he says, the human race would perish (Arcana Coelestia 4257e).

Another passage takes the same thought a little further.

They are only external bonds which enable us to live in the company of other human beings and seem like friends regardless of our inner quality. These means, though, or these bonds, are of no use whatever in the other life. There the external levels are taken away, and the inner quality is all that is left.

This, we are told, is the judgment we face after death—the only judgment. There is no great score keeper, there are no trials and convictions and sentences, there is only the disclosure of our inward natures and our voluntary gathering with people who are inwardly like ourselves. The very notion that hell is a place of punishment for sin betrays an inward belief that evil would be great if we could only get away with it, that the problem is that we are inevitably going to get caught. No, says our theology, evil in and of itself is bad—which sounds like a stupid statement until we realize that we ourselves are sometimes inclined to doubt it.

What happens, though, if we put this principle together with our belief that the second coming has taken place? The little work called The Last Judgment describes what happened in the spiritual world in 1757. The last section looks at what lay ahead.

The state of the world from now on will be exactly as it has been. This is because the immense change that has taken place in the spiritual world does not force any change on the outward form of the physical world. So there will be civic affairs just as before, peace treaties, alliances, and wars just as before, and all the other things that pertain to communities in general and in particular. . . . The state of the church, though, is not going to be the same from now on. Actually, it will be much the same in outward appearance, but it will be different inwardly. Outwardly, the churches will be divided the way they have been. They will still go on teaching their doctrines, and there will be similar religious practices among the Gentiles. But people in the church from now on will have more freedom of thought as to matters of faith—that is, as to the spiritual issues pertinent to heaven—because [a measure of] spiritual freedom has been restored to them. (¶ 73)

It is easy, from what we might call an old church standpoint, to look at the world around us and lament the growth of permissiveness, the decay of moral values. If we truly believe that the second coming has taken place, then we should expect that the process of judgment would be going on, descending like the Holy City from heaven toward earth. And if we truly believe that this judgment is like the one we face after death, then the same outward events take on a very different meaning. What we are seeing is not a human race that is declining. We are seeing the removal of the “external bonds,” the surfacing of much that has been hidden. We are seeing what our ancestors would have done if those “external bonds” had been taken away.

If we look at the past without rose-colored glasses, this is not at all far fetched. It may even be an understatement. We are dismayed when one airliner is hijacked. On Swedenborg’s first voyage to England, his ship was threatened not once but three times. We are dismayed at the prevalence of cheap weapons. It was not that long ago that no prosperous male would consider going out unarmed, when swords were worn as a matter of course. We are dismayed when we read of child abuse. The prosperity of the Victorian era, that high water mark of moral living and family values, was built on the brutal use of children in factories and mines. To quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica,

In 1832, two-fifths of the factory workers in New England had been children; and by 1870 the census had reported that 750,000 children between ten and fifteen years of age were working throughout the country [the total population was still under forty million at that time]. Their number increased steadily from 1870 to 1910. . . . [I]t was the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards act in 1938 that signified the beginning of the end of child labour in the United States.

Those were “the good old days.” They were “the good old days” because it was so easy to remain in blissful ignorance. The “outward bonds” of propriety included prohibitions against looking at the dark underside of society. Those times look “good” in retrospect because the stories from that underside do not make the history books. Charles Dickens was in spirit an apostle of the new church, looking behind the “appearances” that were so zealously maintained.

Make no mistake, this relaxation of restraints is a dangerous process. As these external bonds are taken away, the fabric of human community is threatened. Surely we may take heart from the fact that in spite of the relaxation that has taken place, we are still here, and in many ways more secure and prosperous than ever. I shudder to think what would have happened if Hitler or Napoleon or Sennacherib or for that matter, David, had had nuclear weapons. We have had them for half a century without using them against each other. We teeter on the brink, but we have not yet fallen over.

To say that the process is dangerous, though, is not to say that it can or should be avoided. We face it here or hereafter. That is, we face it before or after it is too late for us to change our minds. We should have complete faith that an infinitely loving and wise providence is very much in charge, but lest we become complacent it is well to remember that the first law of that providence is to keep us in freedom. This leaves a great deal up to us.

If what we are witnessing in our world is the judgment process, the gradual uncovering of the worst and the best within us, then the church that recognizes this has a special calling. We of all people can look at what is happening without fear, and react without defensiveness. We can sympathize with longings to turn the clock back without giving in to such longings ourselves. We can be faithful in our efforts to understand before we pass judgment, not so that we avoid passing judgment, but so that we tend first to the beam in our own eye.

In interpreting Matthew 24, Swedenborg tells us that “the clouds” picture the literal sense of the Word, and that “the glory” pictures its inner meaning. In this respect, the whole world, as a “theater representative of the Lord’s kingdom” (Arcana Coelestia ¶ 4383e) is cloudy, and within it is “the glory of the Lord” (ibid., ¶ 3000). We are called to look in all our circumstances for the hand of the Lord at work. We are to be assured that wherever we go, the Lord has been there before us. Everyone we meet is a history of the Lord’s providence. Everything that we read in the papers or see in the news reveals something about human nature.

How can we read what is going on around us? In general, population growth and techology cooperate in amplifying the effects of our prevalent attitudes and practices. They make it harder to pretend. In colonial days, you could get away with throwing your trash and garbage into a hole in the back yard. There was lots of room, and not much waste. If we were as irresponsible now as our colonial forbears, the stench would be overwhelming.

There’s a cartoon by a namesake of mine that shows two figures in biblical robes, one looking distinctly depressed. The caption reads, “It’s not working out the way we planned. We’re having a rash of plowshare murders.” The roots of our problems simply are not technological, and there is no technological cure for inhumanity. If the third millennium is to be truly an advance over the second, it will be only because we become more humane, because we grow toward the image and likeness of our Lord. That, surely, is an appropriate concern of our church.


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