Archive for December, 2008
The Christmas Story
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
Christmas Eve, 2008
The Christmas story is about one of the most basic experiences known to man. It is a story about a mother and her baby. It is about the birth of new life into this world. And as all parents can testify to, there is always something miraculous about the birth of a baby. When a baby is born, its parents have participated with the creative energy of the universe. It is cooperation with the same creative power that made the moon and stars; that made the galaxies and planets, and that makes new life come into this world.
The Christmas story is about a helpless, innocent baby, as all babies are helpless and innocent. This innocent baby suckled at his mother’s bosom. This baby needed his mother’s care. And this baby needed his mother’s love.
The history of Christianity has been dominated by men. Church priests and magistrates in its hierarchy have traditionally been men. And even in much of Jesus’ life story, men dominate. The twelve Apostles were men, and Jesus himself was a man.
But in the Christmas story, it is all about Mary and Jesus. The Christmas story is a story about a woman and her baby. It is about the miracle that only women know—the miracle of giving birth. The Catholic Church has made Mary a saint. And while Protestants have done away with the notion of saints, there is much to be said for the privileging of Mary as a feminine, mother figure in Christianity. In a tradition dominated by men, it makes sense to me to hold up this unique birthing power that only women have. And the bond between mother and child is perhaps one of the most powerful and fundamental bonds humans know.
Joseph is, of course, part of this story. But Joseph is really only a minor character. And in all the great works of art that celebrate the Christmas story, you see Mary and Jesus in the foreground, in the center, and Joseph is standing back, looking at the Madonna and child. After Jesus’ infancy, Joseph disappears from the Gospel stories, although Mary comes back in several places—notably during the crucifixion.
Yes, the Christmas story is about a mother and her baby. But it is about something much more profound than even the miracle of birth. It is about the miracle of God’s love. It is a mystery, it is a challenge to our rationality, and it is a stumbling block to many. The Christmas story is about God coming to humanity. It is about a God whose love for us was so great that He came to us in a form we could understand. It is about God’s incarnation, and the Latin root for “incarnation” means, “in flesh”. It is about God coming in the flesh.
Although I have just spoken about the basic human experience of mother and child, there is something exceptional about this mother and child. This child was not born of a mortal father. The Gospel account tells us that the Holy One of Israel and the Power of the Most High impregnated Mary, by her consent. And in those Gospel accounts that treat of Mary, Jesus never refers to Mary by the word “mother.” He always calls her, “woman.” Although born of Mary, and although like all babies Jesus needed his mother’s care, as His life progressed Jesus grew ever more fully into the Divine Man of his origin.
Jesus was born as a helpless baby in need of his mother’s care and love. And this tells us much about God’s love. God laid down his infinite power and took on a frail human form to come to us. Because God doesn’t demand love from us, he asks it of us. And in coming to us, God did not come as an all-powerful emperor such as Caesar. God did not come in a form that would demand fear and awe. God came to us as one of us. In his human form, God came to us to invite our love. He made Himself subject to the complete human condition. And even as God incarnate, we know from the Easter story, that Jesus would be subject to the ultimate human condition of death.
So as you go home this evening and meet with your families and friends, leave with the Christmas story in mind. Keep mindful of that miraculous birth 2000 years ago. And how God’s love was so powerful that He came to us, as one of us, to bring heaven to earth in His own person. Be mindful that God is still inviting us to come to Him. Know that love can never force itself upon those it loves. And that is why God, when He came to bring His love to us, took on the vulnerable form of a helpless baby. A baby nurtured by a loving mother. That is the essence of the Christmas story: a mother’s love for her baby, and God’s love for humanity. I’ll close with a poem sent to all the Council of Ministers by Chris Laitner, President in the Swedenborgian Church of the United States and Canada. It was written by Christina Rosetti and the poem has been set to music:
Love came down at Christmas;
Love all lovely, Love divine.
Love was born at Christmas.
Stars and angels gave the sign.
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 21, 2008
Thank you for bearing with me through that lengthy Bible reading. It all formed one story unit, so I felt I needed to go through the whole story unit. I selected this reading because of the powerful impression it made on me when I read through it. It is a passage you almost never hear. What struck me most about it is how human it makes Jesus. It shows Jesus in dialogue with his brothers. It shows him making decisions about his public appearance. It shows him trying to establish his credibility. And it shows how hard it was for people in his own age to decide on who he really was. It shows the people of his time trying to make his powerful presence fit with the prophecies they had grown up reading and believing.
When we think of the beginnings of Jesus ministry, we think of the vision given us in the synoptic Gospels—that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Mark story begins with Jesus baptism, His temptation, and then with his instant emergence in Israel as a wonder worker. The same is true of Luke’s account. Right after Jesus’ baptism, he returns to Galilee and Luke tells us that, “news about him spread through the whole countryside,” and that “everyone praised him” (4:14). Likewise in Matthew, after Jesus’ baptism and the calling of the 12 Apostles, Jesus springs into his ministry in full glory. Matthew tells us that, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria . . . Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis (10 major cities in Asia Minor), Jerusalem, Judea, and the region across the Jordan followed him (4:23, 24, 25). But the story we find in John gives us a much different view of Jesus.
What was particularly striking to me in this passage from John is that Jesus had to establish his credibility. In the John account, this was a challenge. Jesus had to decide the best time for him to make a public appearance. And John’s account shows how difficult it was for the public to figure out just who this powerful man from Galilee was. It shows the crowd vacillating—some falling away some accepting Jesus—but everyone trying to figure out who He was. The public acceptance of Jesus was a much more complex process in John than we find in the Synoptics.
Jesus didn’t come with any of the right credentials. He wasn’t educated as a Pharisee or a scribe, he was a carpenter’s son. He wasn’t from Judea, which is where the Messiah was supposed to come from, so the Pharisees didn’t believe him to be either The Prophet predicted in Deuteronomy 18:18 or the Messiah. All Jesus had to establish his credibility was the power of his words. And for many, this was sufficient.
John speaks about the power of Jesus’ words and at the same time shows how his words alone were the credibility a carpenter’s son didn’t have. John writes, “The Jews were amazed and asked, ‘How did this man get such learning without having studied?” (7:13). On this all the Gospels agree. They all testify to the power of Jesus’ teachings, how profoundly His words affected the people who heard him. So Matthew writes, “the crowds were amazed at his teachings, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as the teachers of the law” (7:28-29). This statement is echoed in Mark 1:22, and Luke 4:32. In John, Jesus tells his disciples that his words are spirit and life, and it was to that spirit and life that the people responded.
Those who did believe were largely the uneducated mob, whose minds weren’t filled with teachings from Jewish scriptures—teachings that had become codified and corrupted by men’s interpretations over the centuries. John tells us that it was the crowd, not the spiritual leaders who were most taken by Jesus’ teachings, “many in the crowd put their faith in him. They said, “When the Christ comes, will he do more miraculous signs than this man?” (7:31). The educated religious leaders, that it, the Pharisees, smugly looked down on the uneducated mob who were so taken by Jesus’ words, “‘Has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them” (7:48).
Jesus didn’t have the credentials that the religious leaders themselves had, nor did this amazing man have the proper credentials that the Messiah was supposed to have. So in the eyes of the religious leaders, Jesus had no authority. Some of the people can’t figure out just who this Jesus is, and they admit that they don’t have the education to figure it out. So some rely on the conclusions of the religious leaders. The people ask, “Have the authorities really concluded he is the Christ?” (7:26) But this contradicts the way the prophesies had been interpreted, “But we know where this man is from; when the Christ comes, no one will know where he is from” (7:27). Then there was the issue of Jesus birth. The Messiah was supposed to come from David’s line, which would mean he would be from Judea. So the people again were trying to make sense out of this remarkable man, who didn’t fit their understanding of scripture. “Still others asked, ‘How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David’s family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?’ Thus the people were divided because of Jesus” (7:41-43). Matthew and Luke make a point of having Jesus’ family go down to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth and then returning to Nazareth where he grew up. Also Matthew and Luke trace Jesus’ genealogy and make a point of drawing his lineage through David. But this isn’t in John, and the people knew only that Jesus came from Galilee, not Judea. The temple guards refuse to arrest Jesus because of the power of his words, even though the Pharisees ordered them to. This causes the Pharisees to chide the temple guards for being taken in by Jesus. They quote scripture to show how Jesus couldn’t be the prophet predicted in Deuteronomy. “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that the Prophet does not come out of Galilee” (7:52).
Jesus’ words may have been powerful. They may have been spirit and life. But they were also controversial. And even the crowds did not know how to take him. When Jesus tells the disciples that he came down from heaven, it was too much for some to take. So John tells us that, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (6:66). In remarkable question, Jesus even shows very human doubt in his 12 apostles. He asks, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (6:67). So John sums up how dramatically divided the crowds were about Jesus, “Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him” (7:43-44).
Then there is that fascinating discussion between Jesus and his brothers. To my knowledge, this is the only time Jesus’ brothers enter the Gospel narrative in any of the 4 Gospels. Out of this dialogue we find that Jesus carefully considered when and how to make himself known to the people. We first find out that Jesus purposely stayed away from Judea because he knew they were trying to kill him there. So often we hear that the mob didn’t seize Jesus because His time had not yet come. Here, however, we see that His time had not come because He purposely stayed away from those who wanted to kill Him. So in this case it wasn’t miraculous divine intervention that prevented Jesus from being taken, but his own prudent calculation. But as the time for the Feast of Tabernacles comes around, Jesus’ brothers appear to be baiting him. They question Jesus about his public relations policies. They tell him to go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. “No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret” (7:4). What follows is a discussion between Jesus and his brothers about how best to become known to the public. John tells us that Jesus’ own brothers didn’t believe in him. So Jesus tells his brothers to go to the feast and that he would stay home. After his brothers leave, Jesus sneaks into Jerusalem alone, as John tells us, “not publicly, but in secret” (7:10). He waited until half way into the Feast and then made his first public appearance. On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus shouts out in a loud voice that those who come to him will have streams of living water within them. It would appear that Jesus gauged the tone of his teachings to follow the momentum of the feast. This was Jesus big entrance into Jerusalem, and also this account isn’t in the other three Gospels.
I find this chapter fascinating because it shows deliberate planning on Jesus’ part about how he would make his grand public appearance in Jerusalem, the spiritual center of the Jews. It also shows that some people fell away from Jesus on account of his teachings, yet Jesus stood true to the Gospel message He knew from on high. On this subject we have that so human question that Jesus asks his 12, “You do not want to leave me too, do you?” This chapter is also fascinating because in it we see that the Jews of Jesus’ time were trying to make sense out of Jesus. They felt the power and authority of his teachings, but Jesus the man didn’t fit their understanding of scripture. The prophesies of the Messiah didn’t fit Jesus’ credentials. We see that those most educated in Jewish religion rejected Jesus on the basis of their knowledge of scripture. And we see that Jesus was largely accepted only by the uneducated crowds, who judged Jesus by his words, not by what they had been taught by rabbis, and scribes and other religious teachers. In this John account, we find a startling testimony to just how hard it was for Jesus in the beginning to bring his New Testament to the Jews of the first century AD.
Times and Seasons
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 14, 2008
Amos 5:18-26 Matthew 6:22-23
The Bible is filled with nature imagery. From the very beginning of Genesis where all the world is created and named, through the Levitical sacrifices, through the imagery in the Psalms and prophets, and in many of the stories of Jesus, the Bible draws heavily on nature imagery. This is because nature is created by God and bears the mark of its creator in it. Since nature is God’s creation, we can learn all about God by looking at His creation in nature. Eckhart Tolle comments on this in his book, A New Earth, “Like the Taoist sages of ancient China, Jesus likes to draw our attention to nature because he sees a power at work in it that humans have lost touch with. It is the creative power of the universe” (268). Swedenborg echoes this concept,
In a word, all things that exist in nature, from the least to the greatest, are correspondences. That they are correspondences is because the natural with all things in it, exists and subsists from the spiritual world, and both worlds from the Divine (HH 106).
When a person understands that nature imagery is a reflection of spirituality, the Bible’s nature imagery takes on a profound level of depth. Trees are not just trees anymore. The sun and its rising in the east now have a spiritual significance. The times and seasons of the year also resonate with spiritual significance. And in Christmas season, the wintry night in which Jesus was born also has a spiritual meaning.
Our Bible readings both spoke about darkness. In Amos, the day of the Lord is compared to darkness. He writes, “That day will be darkness, not light. . . . Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—pitch dark, without a ray of brightness?” I think we all recognize the day of the Lord as the day when Christ was born in Bethlehem. And we can all sense, I would imagine, that by darkness Amos is not just talking about the night time when Jesus was born. I think we can all sense that Amos is talking about spiritual darkness. Thanks to the movie Star Wars western society is now used to thinking about forces of light and forces of darkness. And we feel that Amos is talking about forces of darkness in his prophesy. It probably suggests the beginning of the Gospel of John, where we read that “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it.”
The short passage we heard from Matthew is like Amos. But it is a little more confusing. Jesus talks about the body’s eyes, but says that if a person’s eyes are good that his whole body will be full of light. Well we know that the lungs and stomach and liver are not full of light. So Jesus must be talking about something more than seeing. Jesus says further, that “If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” Now we see that the light is within us. And if our interior light has become darkness, that it is great darkness. Clearly Jesus is not just talking about the eyes and seeing. He has now shifted into a discussion of the symbolism of dark and light. And if our inner light has become darkness, we are in peril. The inner light Jesus is referring to is truth. When we see the truth, our soul is full of light. However, when we deny truth—such as God’s existence—and when we love falsity, our soul is then filled with the great darkness Jesus refers to.
This symbolism is working in the time of Jesus’ birth. There is a reason why Jesus was born in the winter, and why He was born at night. And this reason relates to the meaning of light and darkness in the Bible. At the beginning of this talk, I mentioned that the Bible draws heavily on nature symbolism. I said further that nature derives from God and that studying nature can teach us about its Creator. We can do this in relation to winter. We are now in winter—as if anyone today would have missed the minus 20-some degree weather There is something in us humans that responds to the sun and its warmth. We open up emotionally, we relax and we are happy in the summer. And we dread the weather man’s reports of upcoming icy weather like we are experiencing today. In the winter it isn’t only cold. But the days grow shorter and shorter. In other words, winter isn’t just cold, it is dark. And it was into the cold, dark time of a winter’s night that Jesus was born.
Darkness and cold both have similar meanings from a spiritual perspective. Winter’s darkness and cold is due to the way the earth turns in relation to the sun. So in winter, we get less and less of the sun’s warmth and light. What is happening is that the earth is turning away from the sun. Now the spiritual resonances may be starting to shine through the imagery. If there is any nature image that stands for God, it is the sun. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh was considered a child of the sun, which rose over all Egypt, and the Pharaoh himself was considered a god. The warmth and light from the sun represent God’s love and wisdom. And turning away from the sun symbolizes turning away from God. When we turn from God, we enter the cold dark world of hell. Hell is nothing other than turning from love and wisdom. So night and winter symbolize a spiritual condition in which there is no love and wisdom.
When Christ came into the world, the world was in such a state. The Jewish religion then had forgotten about compassion and love, which can be found in the oldest parts of the Bible. Instead, they were concerned with sacrificial rituals and ritualistic codes of behavior. The heart of God’s Word was covered up under rites and rituals and rules of sacrifice. The Gentiles were in an equally dark condition. The Roman Empire was a testament to humanity’s cruelty and savagery. The world was spiritually in a dark, cold, place. In fact, it was in the darkest, coldest condition it had ever been in. It was in desperate need for God to come to the world, bringing His Divinity to a world estranged from it, and teaching humanity the ways of love.
So this is why Jesus came to us in the winter, at night. The spiritual destitution of the world in the First Century BC is symbolized by winter and night.
The states of the church are like . . . the times and states of the year; of which the first is spring, the second summer, the third autumn, and the fourth winter; and this last is the end of the year. . . . The good and truth with those who are of the church is thus wont to decrease; and when there is no longer any good and truth; or, as is said, when there is no longer any faith, that is, no charity, then the church has come to its old age, or its winter, or its night (AC 2905).
So Swedenborg asserts that in the time of Christ, there was no more good and truth left in the church. It had all been lost. Nothing but God’s own intervention could have set things right. The forces of darkness were choking off the influence of angels from the spiritual world. A veil between heaven and the world had been formed.
So God came into the world and brought love and wisdom to us through His own body and divine soul. God brought Godliness to the human race. Through His human form, God carved a passageway through the darkness surrounding the world and brought light to the thick darkness of the day of the Lord.
Our sensitivity to nature has been dulled by our urban lifestyle. We live amid concrete and brick buildings instead of trees, gardens, and livestock. We have overcome nature by our intelligence, which is a blessing to us here who live through Edmonton winters. We even built a beach inside a shopping mall complete with waves. But the result is that we have distanced ourselves from nature. For this reason, some of the Bible’s nature imagery may sound foreign to us. We may not feel the spiritual connection behind the nature we read about in the Bible. Meadows, lambs, sheep, harvest seasons—all these natural images represent the Source of all life, represent its Creator, God. But in Swedenborg’s theology, this lost language of nature is explained. What we lack firsthand knowledge of, we have through the medium of theology. And in his explanations of nature and its spiritual significance, Swedenborg opens up depths in the Bible that we may feel only vaguely, if at all. But today, this morning, I think we all can feel keenly what winter and night symbolize. The cold darkness into which Christ was born is not lost on us. “Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—pitch dark, without a ray of brightness?” Amos states. And we remember with joy, that into that pitch dark winter, the Light has dawned.
The Image and Likeness of God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 30, 2008