Archive for September, 2010
In the Beginning Was the Word
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 26, 2010
Jeremiah 1:4-10 John 1:1-18 Psalm 119
In our New Testament reading this morning we heard the words, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This Word is the first proceeding of God, or God’s Divine Truth. And it is this Divine Truth, this Word that was in the beginning with God and was God, this Word is our Bible. Swedenborg tells us,
There are two things which proceed from the Lord, Divine Love and Divine Wisdom; or, what is the same, Divine Good and Divine Truth; for Divine Good is of His Divine Love, and Divine Truth is of His Divine Wisdom. The Word in its essence is both of these (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 3).
The Bible is entirely holy and of God. It is spiritual in all its parts and as a whole. Swedenborg states that,
The style of the Word is the Divine style itself, with which no other can be compared, however sublime and excellent it may seem. The style of the Word is such that the holiness is in every sentence and in every word, even in some places in the very letters (TCR 191).
This may be evident in parts like the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, or the two great commandments of the New Testament.
But then there are many parts of the Bible that don’t appear so holy. Swedenborg comments on this.
The Word treats now of Egypt, now of Assyria, now of Edom, of Moab, of the sons of Ammon, of the Philistines, of Tyre and Sidon, and of Gog. He who does not know that by their names are signified things of heaven and the church may be led into the error that the Word treats much of peoples and nations, and but little of heaven and the church (TCR 200).
And there are countless other passages that don’t seem particularly holy. There are the descriptions of the historical wanderings of Abraham and his children; there are the wars of conquest in which the children of Israel come into Canaan; there are those tedious descriptions of the construction of the tabernacle and temple; there are descriptions of geography such as hills, mountains, seas; there are nature descriptions of vines, cedar trees, forests, groves, and gardens; there are descriptions of animals like sheep, goats, oxen, calves, lions, bears and other things. “Where is the holiness in all this?” a person may wonder. “How does this relate to my spiritual life and my relationship with God?”
Swedenborg’s answer is that these apparently worldly things are symbols of spiritual things. He calls them “correspondences.” These are natural objects that contain spiritual realities the way our body contains our soul.
The Word of the Lord is like a body in which is a living soul. The things belonging to the soul do not appear while the mind is so fixed on bodily things that it scarcely believes that there is a soul . . . .So it is with the Word of the Lord: its bodily things are those which are of the sense of the letter, and when the mind is kept in them, the internal things are not seen at all . . . . So likewise the histories of the Word and the particular expressions in the Word are common, natural, and indeed material vessels, in which are things spiritual and heavenly; and these in no way come into view except by the internal sense (AC 1408).
So the story elements in the Bible that appear to be taken from this world are like the Bible’s body that holds spiritual and heavenly realities. The spiritual and heavenly realities are what Swedenborg calls the Bible’s internal sense.
Swedenborg isn’t alone in thinking that the Bible has an internal sense. The Jew Philo of Alexander interpreted the Old testament symbolically. And the Christians Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas also thought that the Bible has an internal sense. And these theologians pointed to the same things I have alluded to. There are too many things in the Bible that don’t appear spiritual, and at the same time, we know that the Bible is God’s Word.
So it is clear that the Bible treats of spiritual matters by means of natural objects. Some of these correspondences are described by Swedenborg,
by Egypt is signified knowledges, by Assyria rationality, by Edom the natural, by Moab adulteration of good, by the sons of Ammon the adulteration of truth, by the Philistines faith without charity, by Tyre and Sidon knowledges of good and truth, and by Gog external worship without internal (TCR 200).
By the tabernacle built by Moses in the wilderness was represented heaven and the church . . . wherefore the form of it was shown by Jehovah on Mount Sinai; consequently all the things which were in the tabernacle–the candlestick, the golden altar for incense, and the table upon which was the bread of presence–represented and signified the holy things of heaven and the church (TCR 220).
But I don’t think that we need to decode the Bible in such a literal way when we read it. The spiritual and heavenly realities that form the internal sense of the Bible come to us as we are reading it. They come to us intuitively. Not as a correlation of this-with-that, but rather as a warming of our heart and an illumination of our mind. If we approach the Bible in a holy manner when we read it, the angels will come near us and still our minds, warm our hearts, and illuminate our minds.
the Word vivifies the affections of the will of a person who reads it in a holy state, and from the light of that life enlightens the thoughts of his understanding (AR 200).
The Bible came from God, through heaven to the prophets on earth. And since that is its origin and descent, all those higher realms open to us when we read the Bible. We are moved by the heavenly presences that come to us when the Bible is read devoutly.
. . . a person who reads the Word in a holy manner, is by such correspondence conjoined closely with heaven, and through heaven with the Lord, . . . The holy itself which is then with a person, is from an influx of celestial and spiritual thoughts and affections such as angels have (AC 3735).
In fact, since the Bible is the Word and was in the beginning with God, and is God, God Himself is present in the devout reading of the Bible.
By means of the Word the Lord is present with a person and is conjoined with him, since the Lord is the Word, and as it were speaks with the person in it; also because the Lord is the Divine Truth itself, and the Word is too. It is manifest from this that the Lord is present with a person, and at the same time is conjoined with him, according to his understanding of the Word; for according to this understanding the person has truth and hence faith, and also love and thence life (Doctrine of the Sacred Scriptures 78).
I am often affected when I read the Bible at home. I notice my breathing slow and become regular. My mind stills and grows peaceful. I feel greater love in my heart. And this happens whatever I seem to be reading. But this doesn’t happen when I read the Bible for the purposes of historical study. This happens to me when I read it as God’s Word and with reverence. I don’t often find answers to my life’s worries and concerns when I read the Bible. Rather, I feel as if I am lifted out of that whole state of mind into a more elevated consciousness. The worries and concerns I came to the Bible with, dissolve and I am at peace with life.
I invite you all to hear the Bible in this manner when I read it during the worship services on Sunday mornings. Many of you have commented to me how much you like my sermons. And I am truly thankful whenever I get positive feedback–I put a lot of work, research, and thought into my sermons. But I think that it is the Bible reading that is the most important part of the worship service. The Bible reading is God’s Word, not human words.
And I commend to you regular reading of the Bible on your own at home. I think we all would benefit for a few moments taken aside from the cares of this life to read a short Bible passage and to breathe with heaven’s respiration as we read. You may find that your life evens out, becomes more orderly and peaceful. You may not know where Moab is, or Edom. But there are passages that you will be able to follow with some clarity. And while you are reading, your spirit will open up to the angels around you, and ultimately bring you into God’s presence. That would be a fine place to begin or end your day.
Trust and God’s Providence
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 19, 2010
Numbers 13:17-33 John 4:43-53 Psalm 115
Today’s Bible readings concern trust and doubt. The Israelites questioned whether God could bring them into the Promised Land. It is called the Promised Land because God promised Abraham that He would bring his descendents into the land of Canaan. Moses repeats this promise, and sends out spies to explore the land of Canaan and see if it is a good land or not. Also, Moses asks them to see if it would be possible to take the land. The spies return and say that it is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey. As evidence of the goodness of the land, they bring back a cluster of grapes, some pomegranates and figs. But they doubt whether they can take the land or not. They say that the cities are fortified and the people are powerful. They mention the descendents of Anak, who are described as giants in the Bible. The Israelites say that they seemed as grasshoppers compared to the Anakites. They don’t trust God’s promise, and say that they cannot overcome the residents of Canaan. Only Caleb alone says that they can succeed. Only Caleb trusts in God’s promise.
In our New testament reading, things are different. A certain royal official has a son who was close to death. He begs Jesus to come to his home and heal his son. Jesus tells him right on the spot that he can go home, and that his son will live. Upon returning home, the official finds his son well. He asks when his son got better and finds that it was the exact moment when Jesus said he would live. Then the man, and all his household believe. There seems to be some question about the trust of this official. He asks Jesus to heal his son, which implies faith. But Jesus seems to think that until they see a wonder, they won’t believe. Jesus says, “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders you will never believe” (John 4:48). And the story says that it is only after the healing that the people believe. But they do believe in the end.
These stories reflect our own experiences in life. We all go through challenges and difficult times that may make our trust in God waver. The Gospel Word is to trust God throughout life’s challenges. Jesus tells us to rest in His power. When we are weary and burdened, Jesus tells us to lay our burdens on Him and rest in His care.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matt. 11:28-29).
He tells us to trust that He will take care of us. He knows us intimately, and will look out for us.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. 30And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Matt 10:29-31).
Swedenborg affirms this Gospel message. He tells us that God’s Divine Providence is guiding us in even the smallest areas of our lives.
It is to be known that the Divine Providence is universal, that is, in things the most minute; and that they who are in the stream of this providence are borne continually toward happiness, whatever may be the appearance of the means (AC 8478).
These messages are the voice of religion in our lives. This is the faith that Christians are called to trust in. Through all the events in our lives, we are called to believe that God is working to bring us into his kingdom and thus into greater and greater heavenly joy and happiness.
But in Swedenborg’s own language there is that small but alarming phrase. “They who are in the stream of this providence are borne continually toward happiness, whatever may be the appearance of the means.” And it is that means that becomes the question for many of us. The means by which we are borne toward happiness may not always be an easy road.
This is what the story about the spies sent into Canaan refers to. Many readers of the Old Testament are put off by all the fighting in the Old Testament. And the conquest of Canaan involved fighting with the residents there. It was a conquest. It was a conquest in which the children of Israel prevailed over the Canaanites and basically took over their land. When we read the story literally, this doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem right for a foreign race to take over another people, and deprive them of their land. But in Swedenborg’s Bible interpretation, we are asked to look deeper into the story. We are asked to see the story as a symbol of our own spiritual life. This means that the Amalekites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites are all inside us. They refer to aspects of our personality that we need to reckon with and to overcome. The various nations in Canaan are challenges to our spiritual life that we must contend with. These are the events in our lives that cause us struggle, doubt, and fear. They are the limitations, the shortcomings, the sins that block the sunlight of the soul.
These personality elements cause us doubt and despair. They make us wonder if God can truly deliver us from our hardships. Sometimes, it looks as if we are bereft from God, and left alone in a hostile world. They make it hard to live in God’s promise. They make it difficult to trust that even the hairs of our heads are numbered. It takes a great leap of faith to hold on to the Gospel promise, and believe that God is leading us into greater and greater happiness regardless of the appearance of how this is happening. We have many anxieties in this life. And it is hard to look beyond these anxieties, sometimes. Swedenborg writes,
As regards the happiness of eternal life, the person who is in affection for good and truth cannot feel it when he is living in the world, but a certain enjoyment instead. The reason is, that in the body he is in worldly cares and in anxieties thence which prevent the happiness of eternal life, which is inwardly in him, from being manifested in any other way at that time. For when this happiness flows in from the interior into the cares and anxieties that are with the person outwardly, it sinks down among the cares and anxieties there, and becomes a kind of obscure enjoyment; but still it is an enjoyment in which there is a blessedness and in this a happiness (AC 3938).
When we are in anxiety about the things of this world, it may be very hard for us to feel that heavenly happiness that is flowing in from the inside. This is when we must above all have that trust in God, that even the hairs of our heads are numbered. We need to look up from the world, and know that there is a higher order of things than what this world has to offer. When we can see things from the point of view of eternity, things we experience in our day-to-day life are put in perspective. Then we are able to bear life’s difficulties better. Swedenborg paints a pretty idealistic picture of how the person of faith bears the difficulties of this world. He says that people who trust in the Divine do not have care about what tomorrow brings:
These, notwithstanding they have care for the morrow, still have none; for they do not think of the morrow with solicitude, still less with anxiety. They bear it with an even temperament, whether they get the things they desire or not; neither do they lament over the loss of them; they are content with their lot. If they become rich, they do not set their heart upon riches; if they are raised to honors, they do not regard themselves as more worthy than others; if they become poor, they are not made sad; if their condition be low, they are not dejected. They know that all things advance toward a happy state in eternity for those who put their trust in the Divine, and that whatever befalls them in time conduces thereto (AC 8478).
If we can only see things that way, we will live a more peaceful life. If we trust in God’s Providence, we will know that God is always with us. We will know that when we come to God, and lay our burden on Him, we will find rest for our souls. We will know that God is always bringing us into greater heavenly happiness. Is this too idealistic? Swedenborg gets even more idealistic. He says that, “so far as any one is in the stream of the Divine Providence, so far he or she is in a state of peace” (AC 8478). If we can only trust in God, if we can only believe that God is looking out for our eternal welfare, if we can only have the faith of Caleb, then we can bear whatever comes our way. This may be a hard lesson. There’s a song lyric from a band I knew in Florida that speaks to this issue. In a song written by Heather Brooks, we hear the following line, “Without those desperate hours, would we ever turn to you, and recognize our weakness?” Sometimes we need to be thoroughly shaken up to turn to God and rest in His care. To the Israelite spies it was too hard a lesson. But if we keep an open eye, we may see miracles working in our lives. We may find ourselves healed of the shortcomings that inhibit our birthright of joy. We may believe that God can bring us into a happiness we could never have imagined earlier in life. This is God’s promise to us. “And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
God’s Call to Communion
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 12, 2010
Exodus 3:1-12 Mark 1:14-22 Psalm 65
As we begin our regular church season this Sunday, I thought I would reflect on what a church is. So I selected Bible readings about God calling people into community with Himself. For a church truly lives when it is a people called together by God for God and in God’s name.
In our Old Testament reading, we heard about the call to Moses. Moses was tending the flocks of his Father in law, Jethro on the Mountain of God called Horeb. Here, Moses sees the burning bush, and God calls to him from the bush, “Moses, Moses.” Moses responds positively to this call, “Here am I.” It is only later, when God commissions Moses to lead Israel out of bondage that Moses begins to hedge in his response to God’s call.
In our New testament passage, Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John. Jesus calls these Apostles immediately upon beginning His ministry. They are fishermen, and when Jesus calls them, they immediately leave their nets to follow Him. In this story, we don’t see the reluctance that Moses exhibits. But then, again, they are not called to be the sole deliverer of an entire people.
What I wish to focus on is the call of God, and the response of those called. The call of God in both our stories is the beginning of religions. When Moses is called, it is the beginning of Judaism. And when the Apostles are called, it is the beginning of Christianity. And when God calls to us, and when we respond, it is the beginning of religion in our own hearts.
What I find significant in these stories of God’s call, is that they happen in the everyday life of the people called. There is no special preparation that the person goes through. Moses is tending his father in law’s flocks and the Apostles are fishing. They are both at work, in their day-to-day lives. God’s call to us can come wherever we are. It can come to us at the workplace. It can come to us in our family life. It can come to us as we are driving in our cars. It can come to us anywhere.
What is the essence of God’s call? First, it is one of understanding. As God tells Moses, He has, “heard their cry,” “I know their suffering,” and, “I have come to deliver them . . . and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” When God calls to us, He knows intimately our lives, our worries, our concerns, and our joys. God calls to us with full knowledge of our needs. And God comes to us to deliver us from our problems and to bring us into a good place. This happens when we follow God’s call, as the Apostles did. They immediately left their worldly concerns behind and followed Jesus. So God calls us from complete understanding of where we are in life, and asks us to follow Him. And when we follow Him, He will bring us to a good place.
God’s call to us is continuous throughout our lives. It begins with the very simple, “I am here.” And our response begins with the very simple acknowledgement that there is a God. This may not be a dramatic burning bush. It may be a still, small voice in our hearts. It may be a feeling of presence. It may be a feeling of peace and tranquility. But it is an inner acknowledgement from our hearts that there is a God, and that spirituality matters in our lives.
This acknowledgement of God is the beginning of the church with us. When Swedenborg uses the word “church,” he means the heart and mind of a person. When we have God in our hearts, then we have the church with us. We carry the church around with us wherever we go. We have the church in us in our work and family life when we have God in us. This is what we bring to the church building on Sundays.
The church building is a place where our spiritual life can come out and manifest. The congregation is spiritually alive when everyone brings to it their own feelings and thinking about God. The minister leads the worship service, but it is the spirituality that people bring with them as they go through the liturgy that makes the church spiritually alive. It is God that calls us into communion with Himself, and when we are in communion with God, it is the minister who calls forth people’s living connection with God through the liturgy. When we join together in worship, God fills the sanctuary with His presence. And when worship works, we leave touched again by the living Spirit of God. Hopefully, the minister leaves the congregation with inspiration and something to apply to their lives in the sermon. But I think that it is the whole worship experience, from the first hymn to the final benediction, that elicits from everyone their experiences with God. I know when I come to church, almost always I leave feeling better than when I arrive. The service uplifts me, quiets my mind, and opens my heart to feel love for God and for my fellows. In this sense, the worship service is like a holiday. It refreshes the spirit and relaxes the mind, giving one energy to return to the world ready for the upcoming work week. It recharges our spiritual batteries.
For God calls to us in our work, too. Being busy in the affairs of the world is not a distraction from God. In the affairs of the world we have a place to do good to our neighbor. Ultimately, what is good, whatever it is, is the neighbor. Doing good in any way we do it is loving the neighbor. It doesn’t have to be only person to person. So Swedenborg writes,
Charity itself is to act justly and faithfully in the office, business, and work in which one is, because all things which a man so does are of use to society; and use is good; and good, in a sense apart from persons, is the neighbor (TCR 422).
People who act faithfully in their work life become more and more a form of charity, or goodness. Whenever we are honest, faithful, sincere, and just, we are practicing charity, or good will. And God calls us into such a life during the week when we are not in church. God may help us to make a business decision we need to make. God may help us to choose between two options we are confronted with in work. God may help us to apportion our time so that it is well-spent. These actions are our response to God’s call and form the church inside us. The kind of character that such a life forms is described by Swedenborg,
Charity may be defined as doing good to the neighbor, daily and continually; and not only to the neigbor individually, but also collectively; and this can be done only by means of what is good and just in the office, business, and work in which one is, and in his relations with whom he has dealings; for this he does daily; and when he is not doing it, it still continually has place in his mind, and he has it in thought and intention. The person who practices charity, becomes charity in form more and more; for justice and faithfulness for his or her mind, and their exercise forms his or her body; and little by little, from his or her form one wills and thinks only what is of charity. Such become at length like those of whom it is said in the Word, that they have the law written on their hearts (TCR 423).
Although Swedenborg here emphasizes the workplace, he also includes in this definition of charity one’s relations with others. Do we give others the benefit of the doubt? Do we refrain from judging–or at least do we judge with understanding? Are we honest and sincere? These ways of acting are what make us into an image of charity. And in acting in this way, we are responding to God’s call daily and moment by moment. For ultimately, God is our best friend. And our dealing with others is a reflection of how we deal with God.
When a person is living in this manner, then they are a church in its smallest form. Then a person has the church inside them. And then, when such a person comes to the church building and participates in the liturgy, they bring God to the whole. When a church building is filled with people who are all bringing God to the whole, then the church is a vital, living institution. The church isn’t only us calling to God. The church is also God calling to us, and us responding.