Sunday, May 5, 1994

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Zechariah 2
Matthew 2:1-12

Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of people and cattle

in her, for I, says the Lord, will be for her a surrounding wall of fire, and will be the

glory in her midst.

Zechariah 2:4f.

This is an extraordinarily vivid and rich image. To appreciate it, we need to be aware of

what we might call the prevalent local geopolitics of its era. The economic base of the

normal city was the land surrounding it. If that land was extensive and fertile enough, it

could support enough people to form a small city. The farmers, herders, and shepherds

themselves would live near their fields and pastures, while the artisans, traders,

lawyers, and temple and government employees would live in the city proper.

The more extensive the surrounding lands, the more remote and indefensible its borders

would be. The city itself would have been built on a hill and would have formidable walls.

In time of war, supplies, including animals and everything harvestable, would be brought

into the city. The farmers and shepherds and herders would be the soldiers, their tools

beaten into weapons. Once the war was over, they would return to their lands, their

weapons beaten back into tools.

The very idea of a city without walls must have been almost a contradiction in terms, like

a bicycle without wheels or a book without pages. Walls were what made it a city. By

contrast, the village was "open"--p'razah--the very word the prophet used to describe his

vision of the Jerusalem of the future.

There is a sense in which this prophecy has come true on the literal level. Jerusalem is

no longer a walled city in the ancient sense, but not for the reason the prophet had in

mind. Jerusalem still needs physical defense, but walls are useless against modern

weapons. The nation of Israel in fact has every equivalent of walls in its highly trained

and well equipped armed forces.

What Zechariah saw, though, was not an earthly Jerusalem at all. Its New Testament

descendant is not the Jerusalem of Holy Week but the New Jerusalem of the book of

Revelation. This is apocalyptic literature. It speaks in cosmic terms of events in a

spiritual realm. In the sixth chapter, for example, Zechariah tells of seeing four

chariots, one drawn by red horses, the second by black horses, the third by white horses,

and the fourth by bay horses. The similarity to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse is


Our theology would insist that the essence of the message is truly about spiritual

matters. There is a spiritual Jerusalem, reflected in the earthly one but even more

clearly imaged in the visionary one. Basically, that spiritual Jerusalem is "the church,"

which sounds simple, but which is all too easy to misunderstand.

When Swedenborg writes of "the church," he is not talking primarily about an organization

with a defined membership, constitution and by-laws, buildings, and programs. He is

talking about the church as a community of people, characterized by their actual

relationships with the Lord, with each other, and with the world around them. Heaven,

according to Swedenborg, is "a kingdom of uses," and the real church comes into being to

the extent that this kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.

"A kingdom of uses" is quite simply an organic fabric of mutual service, people using

their unique gifts to supply each other's needs. A factory or store is effective when

people know their specific jobs and are good at them and when those specific jobs are well

coordinated. The church is an effective kingdom of uses to the extent that it is focused

on its task, with the special gifts of each individual recognized and appreciated and


In doctrinal terms, we might say that the "product" of the church is the marriage of love

and wisdom. In Gospel terms, this translates as loving each other as the Lord has loved

us--that is, both profoundly and perceptively. In everyday language, it translates as

mutual understanding and affection. When there is a community of distinctive individuals

governed by such mutual understanding and affection, there is a kingdom of uses, a kingdom

of spiritual uses. This is an earthly embodiment of the heavenly kingdom. This is the

Jerusalem of apocalyptic vision, and it is no minor detail that John saw that holy city

descending from God out of heaven. "Thy kingdom come," we pray, and John saw it coming.

What we need to do, then, is hold together these two poles of the image--our own

experience of relationships within this community, and the vision of the city. The

relationships may seem elusive and therefore insubstantial, but time after time we

discover that they are immensely important to us. We are hurt when we feel misunderstood

or neglected. We are strengthened when we feel understood and welcomed.

Clearly, though, an earthly church cannot run on personal relationships alone. It needs

structures. It needs statements of principle that define it, rules that govern its

proceedings. Our own churches, for example, in one way or another require a basic

acceptance of the Christian theology presented in Swedenborg's works. In terms of those

very works, doctrines are the "walls" of the church.

Luther, incidentally, seems to have grasped this notion in a distinctive way. He was

wholly convinced that the Gospels required loving behavior toward each other. He had

little patience with theological hair splitting when the essence of the message was so

unmistakably clear. However, he also felt that it was impossible to judge people's souls

and that the church therefore could not make "love" its standard of membership. What could

be judged clearly was doctrinal understanding; and it was on this basis that orthodoxy of

belief became the overriding concern of post-Reformation Lutheranism. We could scarcely

ask for a more vivid image of these walls than Luther's most famous composition, the hymn

"A mighty fortress is our God."

The risks of this image are, I think, obvious. The church can see itself as cut off from

the world, as a little island of righteousness in a vast ocean of evil, a bastion of pure

truth besieged on all sides by falsity. It can trample human and humane feelings in its

concern for orthodoxy at all costs. It can prize verbal skills over depth of understanding

and accept or reject people solely on the basis of their willingness or unwillingness to

repeat particular creedal statements.

Such walls limit the soul of the church as surely as those ancient walls limited the

growth of the city. They close minds to exploration, and they close hearts to sympathy.

They actually diminish the sense of divine glory, since they claim to confine the divine

presence within themselves.

They do this both to the collective church and to the particular church, to the individual

person, in the name of the need for safety, and that need is real. So when Zechariah saw

his vision of the open city, he did not see it as defenseless. He saw it as protected by

the Lord, present in two ways--as a wall of fire surrounding it, and as a glory in its


In the language of correspondences, fire is an image of love. Perhaps it is clearest if we

look first at the church in smallest form, the individual person. Jesus taught that the

essence of the law was summed up in the commandments of love of the Lord and of the

neighbor. The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome that love was the fulfillment of

the law. All the detailed rules of behavior are in a sense makeshifts designed to lead us

into love, because when we actually love each other as the Lord has loved us, we hold

ourselves accountable to far stricter standards than any set of behavioral rules can


How can we visualize this? We could do worse than use Zechariah's image of the wall of

fire. Think for a moment of facing some trying situation--perhaps of going to visit a

person who is ailing and bitter, perhaps of having to say no to someone we suspect will

not understand, perhaps of being confronted with a need to acknowledge a personal

inadequacy. The real "enemy" is not "out there," in the ailing person or the one who will

not understand or the ones who must learn of our inadequacy. The real enemy is within us.

It is our concern for what others may think of us and our need to think well of ourselves,

or our need to be in control. In doctrinal terms, the enemy is love of self and love of


We can and often do use behavioral rules to keep these loves from dictating how we treat

each other. There are all the "thou shalt nots" that we have learned from our youth up.

But when we are at our best, our most loving, we have a far more effective defense. If

concern for our self-image arises, the love itself reacts instantly. It rises up and says

"no" with absolute decisiveness. There is no siege, no battle. There is a spiritual wall

of fire in which that kind of self-concern is simply consumed.

The source of that fire is the Lord's presence within us. We err, though, I believe, if we

expect to experience that presence as that of some discrete individual talking to us from

within. At times that may happen, but it is not at all the most common mode. Far more

often, we experience the Lord's inner presence as inner warmth and light--as the welling

up of feelings of affection, as the breaking into consciousness of new and deeper

comprehension. When we look at another person and suddenly seem to see through that

person's eyes in a fresh and unexpected way, when we find ourselves moved by a sense of

the immeasurable value of this individual, that is the Lord's presence at work within us.

These gifts flow from his divine love and wisdom. We are, to some limited extent, seeing

the other as that other is seen by the Lord.

In the prophetic image, this is the Lord present as glory in the midst of Jerusalem. Our

theology tells us that "Glory, in the highest sense, means the Lord as to divine truth,

[while] in the representative sense, it means the good of love toward the neighbor"

(Arcana Coelestia ¶ 59223). When we suddenly see in the Lord's light, all our best

affections are awakened. There is truth to the French proverb that says, "To understand

everything is to forgive completely."

Lastly, to love or to forgive is not necessarily to approve. Quite the contrary, it

entails wanting to see exactly what is wrong in order to know how best to respond. Loving

each other as the Lord has loved us requires the most stringent kind of realism. In fact,

if we are to be safe from our own evils, our realism cannot outstrip our love. Otherwise,

we will find ourselves taking delight in the faults of others, using those faults to make

ourselves look good by comparison. The "law" against faultfinding is a makeshift wall to

guard against this kind of destructiveness.

It is ultimately love that is our best safeguard. Swedenborg put it beautifully in Arcana

Coelestia (¶ 1951): "Rational good [that is, our deeper and more loving sense of what is

true] never fights even when it is attacked because it is gentle and peaceable, patient

and flexible, since it flows from love and mercy. But even though it does not fight, it

conquers all without ever thinking about fighting or taking pride in winning. This is

because it is divine, and is safe in and of itself. For no evil can draw near the good or

endure in the sphere where the good is." "For I, says the Lord, will be for her a

surrounding wall of fire, and will be the glory in her midst."


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