And he laid his right hand upon me and said, “Fear not! I am the First and the Last. I am the one who is living and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and I have the keys of hell and of death. - Revelation 1:17f.
As the church has developed over the centuries, its primary activity has come to be Sunday worship. Our theology makes it abundantly clear that this is a secondary matter. The doctrine is summarized in ¶ 124 of The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine as follows:
Piety is a matter of thinking and speaking devoutly, giving ample time to prayer and doing so humbly, going to church often and listening to the sermons respectfully, receiving the Sacrament of the Supper often each year, and observing the other elements of worship according to the regulations of the church. But the life of charity involves willing well and doing well to the neighbor, acting from justice and equity, from good and truth,in everything we do and similarly in every position we hold. In a word, the live of charity consists of being truly useful. Divine worship consists primarily in this latter life, and secondarily in the former.
This means that the church is only secondarily what is happening here this morning. It is primarily what went on all last week, especially all the dealings we had with people, all the responsibilities we bore—and all that was done for us by others. It also means (and this is the focus of this morning’s sermon) that we should do all we can to make sure that our Sunday mornings serve our weekdays, that our worship help us in our efforts to live useful lives.
We are not talking about some kind of helpful hints column, about ten ways to improve your relationships. These may occur from time to time and may be productive; but the primary goal of worship is a change of overall attitude. At the heart of the matter is a heightening of our awareness of both the fact and the nature of the Lord’s constant presence with us. Swedenborg occasionally uses images that suggest turning on the lights in a darkened room. Then no one has to tell us to move a little to the right in order not to bark our shins on the coffee table. We see that it is there, and move appropriately as a matter of course.
How is worship best designed to accomplish this? Here we are thrown back on our own resources, since our theology does not offer us any orders of service or in fact pay any particular attention to ritual forms.
There is, however, a pattern that can be found in Scripture if we look at those times when the Lord has made His presence known. Our Scripture readings presented two of these, the story of Moses at the burning bush and the story of the transfiguration. Our responsive invocation presented most of another, John’s vision of the glorified Christ on the isle of Patmos. We could add the stories of the calls of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel to this; and in all of them we find the same basic pattern.
The second element in this pattern (we will come to the first later) is the appearance itself. For Moses, it was the burning bush and the voice that spoke from it. For Isaiah it was “the Lord, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). For Jeremiah, it was simply “the word of the Lord,” and for Ezekiel it involved the four creatures, the wheels within wheels with the throne above them, and on the throne a radiant “figure like that of a man” (Ezekiel 1;26). On the mount of transfiguration, the familiar figure of Jesus became radiant (Mark 9:3), and on the isle of Patmos John saw One whose face shone like the sun in all its brilliance (Revelation 1:16).
We might take note especially of the recurrent mention of brilliance. For Moses, Ezekiel, and John, this brilliance was in the particular form of flame. Light as corresponding to truth and fire as corresponding to love are two of the most familiar images in all Scripture. In fact, flame has come to be a primary symbol of the spirit. It is no coincidence that so much meaning is invested in the Olympic flame, for instance. Something within us responds to it—which is part of the meaning of the word, “correspondence.”
These passages are telling us that to the extent that we actually become aware of the Lord’s presence, we will find our inner senses awakened. We will experience a mental clarity and an emotional sensitivity distinctly beyond the usual. There is nothing shadowy or ethereal about the spiritual world which Swedenborg describes. In fact, this world is insubstantial by comparison.
The reality of this is underscored by the third element in the pattern, the human response. “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God” (Ex 3:6). Isaiah lamented his sinfulness (Is 6:5). Jeremiah protested his inadequacy (Je 1:6), Ezekiel fell face down (Ez 1:28). The three disciples “did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (Mk 9:6) and John “fell at his feet as though dead” (Rv 1:17).
The eighteenth century American cleric Jonathan Edwards provides a particularly apt illustration at this point. His life was changed by a profound experience of the “delight” of God’s beauty in Scripture and in nature. He tried as best he could to awaken his congregation to this beauty, and failed. Ultimately and most reluctantly, he delivered the sermon for which he is best known, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), and probably to his dismay, it worked.
Let me digress a moment. From all reports, he did not thunder this from the pulpit. His style was to lean over the lectern and talk quietly to his flock, and it was in this manner that he said,
That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is Hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and Hell but the air; tis only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.
Before we dismiss this as a relic of an outworn theology, let us recall the statement from our reading from Arcana Coelestia to the effect that “All worship of the Lord cannot help but take its origin from a holy fear.” Only gradually, as we discover the beauty that draws us, do we lose our need for the fears that drive us.
The fourth movement in the pattern is the divine response, which is one of comfort, absolution, and vivification. Moses is assured that the Lord has come to deliver His people (Ex 3:7). Isaiah’s lips are cleansed by a coal from the altar (Is 6:7), the Lord touches Jeremiah’s mouth and puts His words into it (Je 1:9), while the spirit returns to Ezekiel and stands him on his feet (Ex 2:2). The disciples are told that this is the beloved Son, and John reports that “he placed his right hand on me and said, ‘Do not be afraid.’”
The message is revolutionary. The power that created and sustains the universe is gentle and cares about us. The sun that could annihilate us instantly feels warm and comforting on our backs. There is no wrath of God. All the wrath we feared and felt was our own. This is the best “good news” possible, the “gospel” in truth.
But the experiences do not stop there. There is a consequence to the experience of forgiveness, the gifts of absolution and life. This is expressed in each case in a commission. Moses was to go to Pharaoh (Ex 3:10. Isaiah (6:9), Jeremiah (1:10), and Ezekiel (2:3) are commanded to go and prophesy. The three disciples, in contrast, are told to keep the vision to themselves until after the resurrection (Mk 9:9), and John is given the task of writing the visions he is about to see (Rv. 1:19).
Before we look at what this pattern implies for our own formal worship, though, we need to go back and look at the first element. It is awfully easy to overlook, and has been saved for last in order to give it the emphasis it deserves. It is, quite simply, the setting. Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flocks near mount Horeb (Ex 3:1). Isaiah’s vision came “in the year that king Uzziah died (Is 6:1), a time which marked the end of an era in Judah’s history. Jeremiah’s word came to him “in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah”, (Je 1:1) while Ezekiel was by the river Chebar on a particular day of a particular month of a particular year (Ez 1:1ff.). The three disciples were on the mountain “after six days” (Mk 9:2)—one of the very few notations of time sequence in the Gospels—and John was on the island of Patmos on the Lord’s day (Rv 1:9f.).
This is telling us that the Lord comes into some particular here and now, when and where things are happening. It argues against trying to find the Lord by retreating from our daily concerns. If it argues for any particular spiritual discipline, it might be that of Islam, with its five mandatory daily prayers. No matter what they are doing, devout Muslims stop five times a day, prostrate themselves toward Mecca, and recite their acknowledgement and praise of God. This is a way of saying that the Divine is just as present and just as relevant when we are balancing the checkbook or shoveling the walk as when we are sitting down to eat or going to bed. It is a way of reminding ourselves that the Lord will choose His own time to make Himself known.
The basic motion of this pattern, then, is from our daily concerns to a higher level of awareness and then back to our daily concerns; and it would seem that the implications of this for our formal worship are clear. There should be the opportunity at the outset for us to reflect on where we are in our lives. What are the issues we face? Who are the people we are most concerned with, and what are they going through? What is being asked of us, and how are we feeling about those demands?
Then we need to turn our attention to the fact of the Lord’s presence, and here the whole design of the sanctuary, the open Word on the altar, the opening hymn, and the opening sentences should encourage us to visualize or feel the presence of the transcendent. We cannot turn awe on with a switch, but we can, so to speak, open the door for it.
The next motion needs to be one of humility. This is not simply a confession of past transgressions. More profoundly, it involves an awareness that large as we may loom in our own sight, we are really very little people. It is above all the abandonment of self-importance, and there are indeed times when that feels like a little death.
Then we are truly ready to consider what the Lord has to tell us through His Word. In Heaven and Hell, there is a careful description of a sequence of three states we will experience after death (Heaven and Hell ¶¶ 491-520). The first is a state of externals, much like our present state. We are primarily concerned with relatively outward matters. The second is a state of internals, when our “hidden agendas” come to light, when we become aware of and directly responsive to our deeper longings. The social masks are dropped, and the real persons come forth. The third state is “a state of instruction for people who are entering heaven.”
This inverts the familiar order of learning what we should do, compelling ourselves to do it, and then coming to love it. It is saying that there are things we simply cannot learn until we let down the barriers. As we are reminded in Arcana Coelestia 3207, “We believe that it is truth that enables us to perceive what is good because it teaches us, but this is an appearance; it is the good that enables the truth to perceive because the good is the soul and life of truth.”
This is serious business. I hope we can sympathize with Jonathan Edwards, who tried so hard to awaken his congregation to the beauty of what he had discovered, and can grieve with him that only fear—in fact, terror— finally succeeded in breaking through the walls in indifference. May we bring our lives with us to church every Sunday, open them to the Lord’s light, and return to them with a clearer vision of His call and deeper commitment to His path.