Archive for April, 2011
Hope for the Whole Human Race
Isaiah 25:6-9 John 20:1-20 Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26
The Easter message is a message of hope for the whole human race. On the natural level, it means that death is not the final word. Easter teaches that there is life after death. And that there is the hope of living in heaven forever in loving relationship with the risen and glorified Lord. On the spiritual level, Easter teaches that there is hope of deliverance from all the aspects of our lives that vex us. Easter gives us the hope that peace and love will prevail in the end, and that we will find a way to live in harmony with our God and with one another.
We live on earth but for a short time. Our true home is in the heavens. Swedenborg teaches us that God’s intention in creating us was to have a heaven from the human race. In Divine Love and Wisdom n. 330, Swedenborg writes, “The goal of creation is a heaven from the human race.” God is love itself, and it is God’s desire to enter into a loving relationship with the whole human race. Love is the happiest state a person can know, and when one considers that God’s love is infinite, there is no end to the joys that God can give us. Lovers want what is good for their beloved, and they want their beloved to be happy. And to the extent that it is possible, lovers try to give their beloved everything they can to make them happy. How much more is this the case with God, who is love itself. Swedenborg has much to say about this. And his discussion is so beautiful and clear I can’t resist quoting him at length.
Two things make up the essence of God, love and wisdom; but three things make the essence of His love–loving others outside of itself, desiring to be one with them, and making them happy from itself. . . . loving others outside of itself, is known from the love of God toward the whole human race; and for their sake God loves all the things He has created . . . desiring to be one with them, is known also from His conjunction with the angelic heaven, with the church upon earth, with every one there . . . . Love also, viewed in itself, is nothing else than an effort to conjunction; therefore, that this object of the essence of love might be attained, God created human beings into His image and likeness, with which conjunction may be effected. That the Divine love continually intends conjunction is manifest from the words of the Lord, that He wills that they be one, He in them and they in Him, and that the love of God may be in them (John 17:21-23). The third essential of God’s love, which is making them happy from itself, is known from the eternal life, which is blessedness, joy, and happiness without end, which God gives to those who accept His love in themselves; for God, as He is love itself, is also blessedness itself; for every love breathes forth from itself enjoyment, and the Divine love breathes forth blessing, joy, and happiness itself to eternity. Thus God from Himself blesses angels, and also people after death, which is effected by conjunction with them (TCR 43).
It is to give us all these blessings of love and happiness that we were created. And heaven, which is being in God and God in us, exists in order for us to live in these blessings of love and joy forever.
These blessings are ours when we are conjoined with God. And Easter gives us the hope that we can be joined with God. God came down to earth in the form of Jesus in order to make this conjunction possible. Before the incarnation, God Spirit was blocked. The forces of darkness were overpowering the forces of light. Therefore, in John’s Gospel we read, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (1:5).
Our understanding of the incarnation is different than that of traditional Christianity. Traditional Christians say that Christ came to earth in order to bear our sins on the cross. But we are responsible for our own sins. Jesus’ crucifixion did not take away our sins. A little introspection will show this. Rather, for us, God came to earth in order to unite the infinite Divine with the Human Christ so that God and man became one.
. . . a conjunction of the Infinite or Supreme Divine with the human race was effected through the Lord’s Human made Divine, and . . . this conjunction was the purpose of the Lord’s coming into the world (AC 2034).
Then, because God has a human body, God is now present to us in a more direct way than was possible before the incarnation. So Swedenborg writes,
When the Human was made Divine, and the Divine was made Human, in the Lord, there was an influx of the Infinite or Supreme Divine with man, which could not otherwise have existed at all (AC 2034).
This is the reason for God’s coming to the earth in the form of Jesus Christ. God is now present on earth in His Divine Human in a way that wasn’t possible before. The union of the Infinite Divine with the Divine Human is what gives us the power to receive God’s Spirit in our lives. God can come to each and every one of us directly through His Humanity. We can commune with Jesus as with any other human with one great exception. Jesus gives us all the life, love, and joy that we have. Jesus gives us the ability to enter into positive relationships with each other. And we can love each other and God because of the Spirit that comes to us through the Divine Humanity of the Lord. This is what salvation means for us.
The Lord came and united the Human Essence to the Divine Essence, so that they were altogether one . . . and at the same time He taught the way of truth, that every one who . . . should love Him and the things which are of Him, and should be in His love which is love toward the whole human race . . . should be conjoined and be saved (AC 2034).
It is God’s Spirit, acting through His Divine Human that gives us the power to resist and overcome sin. It is God’s Spirit, acting through His Divine Human that lifts us up and out of our fallen nature. Jesus Himself teaches this. He says, “But when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself” (John12:32).
This is what gives us hope spiritually. It means that we are not trapped in unhealthy behavior patterns that we may have acquired in our upbringing. It means that we are not doomed to follow self-destructive habits that we may have acquired. It means that there is another way. It means that the way we have been doing things does not have to be the way we always must do things. It means that God can lift us out of all limitations and bring us into joys we cannot imagine. God acts on us throughout our whole lives and even into eternity. He continually shows us how to move out of one lesser way of living into one better way of living–and then He gives us the power to change.
There is no limit to the progress we can make spiritually with God’s help. Step by step, inch by inch, we grow as seeds in a garden. As I suggested above, we are responsible for our own spiritual growth. God did not take away our sins on the cross. Through the process of self-examination and self-modification we are able to move out of sin and into love. (For sin is nothing else but love twisted.) This is what is meant by the blessing we sometimes use in our church. “God keep our going out and our coming in from this time forth, and even for ever more.” The blessing means that we go out of our shortcomings and come in to greater happiness and heavenly joy. The Easter story gives us the hope that this is possible. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself.” We will find the insight to change, with God’s help. We will find the power to change, with God’s help. We will find people around us who can support us and lead us, with God’s help. So Swedenborg writes, “The man who is made new by regeneration . . . is withheld from evil by an influx of the life of the Lord`s love, and this with all power” (AC 3318).
This is what the resurrection did. God’s Infinite Being united with His Divine Humanity so that the Human became fully Divine and Divinity became fully Human in one person. This is what is meant by that passage in John, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him” (13:31). The Son of Man is glorified by God’s Spirit completely filling Him, and God is glorified by being in the Son of Man fully. Humanity and Divinity meet in one total union in the risen and glorified Christ. And that union gives us all the power to be children of God, as John puts it,
To all who received him, to them he gave the power to become sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (1:12-13).
Now risen and glorified, Christ gives us all the joys that His infinite love can possibly give to His own beloved human race. It remains but for us to accept it–here on earth, and afterward eternally in heaven.
The Love of God in the Face of Human Sin
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is almost the catalogue of human sin and weakness. It shows the many ways we can act on our worst instincts. It shows envy, mob violence, intimate betrayal, mockery, self-interest, and negligence. These sins are bad enough when they are done amongst each other. But when we consider that these sins were levelled against our God, then they become all the more terrible. The crucifixion shows humanity at its worst.
And at the same time, when we consider Jesus’ reaction to the crucifixion, we see divinity in all its glory. Despite being confronted with all these terrible human sins, in Luke, Jesus forgives the whole human race. Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This statement shows how powerful is God’s love for the whole human race. It was for love that God assumed the human, and came to us down here on earth. And in his horrible crucifixion, God’s interest was still on the human race that He so loves. Jesus’ divinity was so manifest that the centurion guarding him said, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”
As we go about our spiritual journey, we need to keep both these themes in mind. We need to be aware of human evil; and we need to be aware of Divine forgiveness. We can picture ourselves in the presence of Jesus Christ at any time, and measure ourselves against God’s divine forgiveness and our own shortcomings. To make this idea concrete, consider one of Jesus’ parables. In the parable about the sheep and the goats, Jesus says, “Whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did to me” (Matthew 31:40). We are each and every one of us God’s creation. And God lives in each of us. When we meet another person, we are meeting God in him or her. What we do to that person we are doing to God in that person. That is one way of noticing Jesus’ presence in our lives. But we can also see Jesus with us by means of an inner vision. We can picture Jesus with us as we go about our daily lives. Jesus is actually with us all the time. The only time there is separation between Him and us is when we fall away from His teachings. And even then, Jesus is still with us, it is us who distance ourselves from him in our own hearts. We can picture our union with Jesus when we are in a spiritually good space. We can see Jesus smiling on us, or we can picture ourselves resting our heads on Jesus’ breast as we read the Apostle John did. Then we can picture Jesus forgiving us when we do hurtful actions–or even actions that show an indifference to our neighbors–recalling that Jesus forgave the woman who wept over Him in Luke 7. She was called a sinful woman, and the Pharisee whom Jesus was dining with questioned Jesus allowing her to caress Him. But Jesus taught the Pharisee a lesson in forgiveness and love. Jesus told him,
Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much (Luke 7:44-47).
What forgives this woman are her tears and her love. I would imagine that she was aware of her status as a sinful woman, yet her love for Jesus changed her status completely. In order for us to be forgiven, I think that it is important for us to be aware of our own fallen nature. We need to be aware that at every moment of our lives, we need God’s love and forgiveness in order for us to find heaven’s joy. We need to remember that we do not have our spiritual gifts because of our own power. It is God’s Spirit in us that gives us our gifts. The love we have for others, the joy we have in our meditations about God, our own capacity to forgive others–these are all God in us. And should we be tempted to claim them as our own, we will lose them. Recognizing our utter dependence on God’s grace, as did the woman, is what will save us.
Do you think that you are capable of calling for Jesus’ crucifixion? Do you see yourself capable of being caught up in the spirit of a crowd and having your own feelings stirred up? Have your feelings of spite ever grown when you find yourself in a group of others who are also spiteful about someone? Are you capable of envy for those around you who are very good at what they do, particularly something that you do as well? Do you see yourself capable of turning your back on a friend when you are in a group of others who are talking him or her down? Do you see yourself capable of ignoring a problem you could solve simply because you didn’t want to bother with it? Maybe not. Maybe so.
These are some of the human weaknesses that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. It was envy that led the Pharisees to bring Jesus up on charges. It was the spirit of mob violence that called for His crucifixion. It was intimate betrayal that led Judas to hand Jesus over to the Pharisees. It was self-interest on the part of the Jewish leaders that saw Jesus as a threat to their own power. And it was negligence on the part of Pilate that caused him to wash his hands of the whole matter. Good Friday is a time for us to reflect on the ease with which we can fall away from Godliness, into the place of human sin and error. But we also have the promise that Jesus is always pulling for us, always forgiving us, always calling us back to Him. Though He suffered emotional betrayal and experienced the very worst that humanity is capable of, Jesus still forgave. Even though Peter denied knowing him out of fear, Jesus still called him to ministry after His resurrection. We may fall short of God’s ways. We may sin and display spiritual weaknesses. But we also may acknowledge it when we turn away and ask Jesus for His forgiveness. Like the sinful woman in Luke, when we acknowledge that we are capable of sin and that we have committed it in moments of weakness, we can still come to Jesus, who will never turn us away. In humility for what we may have done, what we are capable of doing without divine help, and what we can do with God’s help, we may come to Jesus and find love and forgiveness.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 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 (Matthew 11:28-29).
Your God Reigns!
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 17, 2011
Isaiah 52:7-15 Matthew 21:1-11 Psalm 118
Palm Sunday is a day for celebration. It celebrates the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, while people received him with shouts of joy, spreading their cloaks in front of Him. They recited a line from Psalm 118, which we read this Sunday, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” That same psalm speaks of parading up to the altar of the temple waving palms fronds. In our reading from Isaiah, we heard about watchmen who shout for joy when the Lord returns to Zion. (Zion was where the temple was in Jerusalem.) The Isaiah passage celebrates God redeeming His people from the destruction of former conquests. God’s glory will be manifest. Isaiah says, “Kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see.” In fact, all the world will see God’s deliverance. Isaiah says, “All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.”
These passages bring to mind the many ways and times we celebrate what God has done in our lives. We may celebrate what God has done for us when we are healed from illness. Beethoven wrote a beautiful string quartet to celebrate being delivered from a long illness. He called it a song of prayer for deliverance, and it is one of my favorite string quartets of Beethoven. We may celebrate a new job, or feel grateful for the one we have in a difficult economy. We may celebrate in prayer. We may celebrate in a church. We may celebrate in a quiet word of thanks spoken only in our hearts.
But what brings the deepest and most heartfelt celebration is when we feel God moving in our souls. Palm Sunday was one special day of celebration. After it, Jesus returned to teaching as he had done before it. And those special times when we feel a particular closeness to God may not always last throughout the other times in our lives. Today, though, we celebrate those times in our life when it feels as if God has filled us with His Spirit and we feel a particular closeness to God. It is as if we see God with an inner sight, and we are filled with joy. We, like the psalmist, say, “You are my God, and I will praise you; you are my God, and I will exalt you.”
The Isaiah passage celebrates God’s power after Jerusalem had been ruined by Babylon. Though the city had been devastated by Babylon, this prophesy tells the Israelites that God will reign again in Jerusalem. He tells the Israelites, “Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted His people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.” It is often the case in our lives that we feel God most strongly when we have gone through some kind of struggle–either physical or spiritual. I’ve already mentioned things like illness or work issues. Maybe our life is difficult and we are beset with trouble, and worry, and strife that comes to us seemingly undeserved. Then there are other struggles of a more spiritual nature. There may be issues in our character or personality that we have wanted to change. Maybe our trust in God is wavering. Maybe we have a certain sin that is disturbing our peace. Maybe we feel we have lost our spiritual footing and are wandering without clear guidance. These are times when we echo the psalmist’s words, “The LORD has chastened me severely.” We know that God never does chasten us, as the Bible suggests. This line would be called by Swedenborg an “appearance” of truth–not actual truth. But when we are in desperate straits, it may feel like God is heaping burdens on us, almost that we cannot bear. But when these times subside, or a solution is found, when we are no longer disturbed by our difficulties and peace returns–these are the times when we celebrate God’s return to Zion. Then we sing for joy along with the psalmist, “I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. . . . the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
What I like about the Psalms is that they speak to the whole human situation. In them we find lines of struggle and even despair. But they usually don’t end there. Usually, after the verses about trouble, there are verses about gratitude to God. This is the case in today’s psalm. We didn’t read the whole psalm, as I wanted to emphasize the celebration of Palm Sunday. But in the early parts of the Psalm, we find the words, “In my anguish I cried to the LORD, and he answered by setting me free.” This pattern is so much like the lives we all lead. We go through periods of struggle. And we go through periods of celebration for deliverance. Swedenborg suggests that we need to go through trials and struggles in order to shake up our love for the world and our self-interest. Only by means of trials and struggles are our externals broken up and our spiritual internals able to shine through them. Our internals are made up of what Swedenborg calls remains. They are all those innocent feelings of love that we were gifted with in childhood, and continue to be gifted with throughout our lives. These shine through our external degree when it has been broken down by temptations, or trials and struggles. Swedenborg describes this process:
The second state [of regeneration] is when a distinction is made between the things which are the Lord’s and those which are the person’s own. Those that are the Lord’s are called in the Word remains; and here are especially knowledges of faith which have been learned from infancy. These are stored up, and not manifested until he comes into this state; which is a state rarely attained at this day without trials, misfortune, and sorrow, that cause the things of the body and the world . . . to become quiescent” (AC 8).
After our worldly interests have been broken up, then the remains of truth and love can show themselves in our external person. That is the time when we celebrate God entering Zion. That is the time, especially, when we feel God working in our lives. And God indeed is working more powerfully in our lives in these times. By breaking up our external person, God can bring His love and wisdom more deeply into our lives. We feel God closer because He has penetrated our souls and our personality more profoundly.
God’s love is continually flowing into every person always. But we are not always in a state of mind to accept it. Only after we have gone through trials and temptations does God’s love become part of our whole person. Before periods of temptation, God is so far above our consciousness that He is only present as life itself. After temptations, God flows down into our very personality and life. Swedenborg writes, “temptations remove what is of self-love and of contempt for others in comparison with self, consequently what is of self-glory” (AC 3318). After going through these periods of trial, our external person becomes aligned with the love that flows in from God. All the things we call spiritual knowledge, or truth, are nothing more than vessels that hold love, or good. Truth is nothing more than love put into language. Before temptations, the truths we have learned resist God’s love and serve self and the world. But after they are softened by temptations, then they are able to receive God’s love. Our whole personality changes into a humble, mild disposition.
When therefore the vessels [or truths] are somewhat tempered and softened by temptations, then they begin to become yielding to, and compliant with the life of the Lord’s love, which continually flows in with man. Hence then it is, that good begins to be conjoined to truths, first in the rational man and afterward in the natural . . . . From these considerations it may now be evident what use temptations promote, namely this, that good from the Lord may not only flow in, but may dispose the vessels to obedience, and thus conjoin itself with them (AC 3318).
Last Sunday we looked at the three levels to the human personality. There is the internal, the rational, and the natural. The truths that Swedenborg is talking about above are in the rational and natural degrees of our personality. While we always have God in the deepest level of our soul, in order to actually feel God’s Spirit and in order for us to become angelic, God’s love needs to penetrate down into the rational and natural degree of our personality. It is by means of temptations that our rational and natural degrees are made compliant with the love flowing down from God. And that is why, after the periods of struggle we go through, we so often feel God’s presence more keenly than before. God actually has entered our lives more deeply. God has come into our rational and natural degrees, so we feel Him more closely. The truths we have in our memory now lead our steps into what is good and loving.
I need to be clear about one point, though. God does not bring about our struggles and trials. He does not lead us into temptation. We fall ill because of our body’s biology. There are viruses and bacteria out there. And our bodies are subject to stress, fatigue, and aging. We encounter economic hardships because we live in a society that has an unjust distribution of wealth. We encounter spiritual struggles, not because God gives them to us. Rather it is actually because God is flowing into us with His love that we feel struggles. We want to hold on to our ego-driven ways, and God’s love is unselfish and reaches out to everyone. So our innate drive for self kicks against God’s inflowing love and we feel struggles. While God doesn’t bring on any of these trials, He turns them all to our spiritual wellbeing.
But as we progress spiritually, step by step we celebrate with joy our new awareness of God. Like the residents of Jerusalem, our hearts shout and sing as we welcome the Lord into the Holy City of our souls. It is times like this, that the words of Isaiah seem so fitting,
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation;
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!” (52:7)
Life from the Lord
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 10, 2011
Ezekiel 37:1-14 John 11:17-43 Psalms 130, 131
In our Bible readings this morning, we heard about God giving life. In Ezekiel, we heard about dry bones that were in a valley. They came together, and God breathed into them the breath of life. Then in our passage from John, Jesus gives life to Lazarus, who had been dead for four days. There are two ways to look at these stories, naturally and spiritually. On the natural level, these stories tell us that our very life itself is from God. On the spiritual level, we are taught that God lifts us up into spiritual life, and gives us the joys of heaven.
The natural level of this story is not how things appear to us. It doesn’t feel like we have life from God. It feels like the life we have is ours. It feels like we live by our own power. But his is only an appearance. The life we have is given to us. God alone is life itself; we are only recipients of life. Swedenborg tells us,
Man is nothing else but an organ, or vessel, which receives life from the Lord, for man does not live from himself. The life which flows in with man from the Lord is from His Divine love (AC 3318).
So everything that we call life is God’s Holy Spirit in us. All those millions of chemical reactions that go on without our knowing or even without our power to control is God flowing into our souls, and our souls flowing into our body. Our life is God in us.
All the good we do and all the truth we understand is also God’s Holy Spirit in us. In this case too, God is Good Itself and Truth Itself. We are mere recipients of God’s good and truth. Our life consists only of those things that we love and those things that we understand. (This idea was first put forth by the philosopher David Hume.) The things that we love and understand are called goods and truths. Goods are what we love, and truths are what we understand. These two constitute who we are. Therefore Swedenborg says that, “the very essential of life consists in thinking good and willing good . . . these things are not of man, but of the Lord, therefore, all life flows in” (AC 4151).
Some Christian churches teach that good works do not save us. They say this because they believe that we can do nothing good. They exaggerate a line from Isaiah that Luther took up. It goes, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). And they are afraid that if we try to do good by our own efforts, we will believe that we deserve heaven. They believe that people will think that they deserve heaven because they have done good. In some regards, they are right in this. To claim that we deserve heaven because we have done good is very injurious to our spiritual wellbeing. Swedenborg calls this claiming merit for our good works. But we are still called upon to do good deeds. Jesus tells us,
I am the vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he trims clean so that it will be even more fruitful (John 15:1-2).
John the Baptist confirms this when he says, “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). So it is clear that we are called to bear fruit, which I take to mean do good things. But it is harmful to take credit for the good we do. This is as strange a teaching as is the teaching that we live from God, not ourselves. It sounds strange because we do good by choice and by an act of will. We try to do good and we do good by our own effort. At least that is how it looks to us. But when we do good, we need to remember that we are only recipients of good and truth. We are able to do good because God’s goodness is in us. This is implied in the Swedenborg passage I cited above which said, “the very essential of life consists in thinking good and willing good . . . these things are not of man, but of the Lord” (AC 4151). But Swedenborg is even more clear in this. “No one ever has good and truth which is his own, but all good and truth flow in from the Lord” (AC 4151). All life is from God. All good is from God. On our own, we can do nothing. Everything we do is from God’s life in us and all the good we do is from God’s goodness in us. So Jesus says, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). This is why we cannot claim merit for the good we do and this is why we cannot claim that we deserve salvation because of the good things we do. It tarnishes the good we do with self-righteousness. We need to keep humble, and not claim the good we do as our own. If we claim it as ours, we will be like the Pharisee that Jesus denounces in Luke 18:9-12. In that passage,
The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like all other men–robbers, evil-doers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.
This Pharisee is puffed up with pride for all the good he does. Yet Jesus says that he is not justified before God. “For he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
So far we have been looking at life itself as a gift of God. Now we turn to spiritual life. On a spiritual level, it is God who gives us spiritual life. The dry bones in Ezekiel signify a person who is not yet regenerated. Lazarus’ death symbolizes the same thing. We are born into the world an image of nature. We are reborn into heaven as an image and likeness of God. Now we are entering into Swedenborg’s mysticism. By mysticism, I mean the condition in which a person is joined with God, or in which God is actually in the person and the person is in God. Jesus describes this in John, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (14:20). In one sense, God is always in everyone. He is in us as life itself. But God isn’t in us completely until we let His love and wisdom into our lives. We are only fully conjoined with God when we return His love–”you are in me, and I am in you.”
Before God is in us spiritually, we are in thick darkness. We are formless and void, as is described before creation in Genesis. We need to be lifted out of our darkness in order to come into heaven. Our minds need to be enlightened so that we understand spiritual truth and our hearts need to become purified so that we can love unselfishly. This is the teaching of Jesus, Swedenborg claims:
He taught the way of truth, that every one who . . . should love Him and the things which are of Him, and should be in His love which is love toward the whole human race . . . should be conjoined and be saved (AC 2034).
But knowing the way of truth is not enough. Believing is not enough. We need to actually let God’s Spirit shine down into our personalities so that we are reborn spiritually. God flows into us from our inmost soul down into our very behavior–and everything in between. Swedenborg breaks the human personality down into three degrees: the internal, the rational and the natural. On earth we are only conscious of our rational and natural degree. We may have moments of inner peace and joy that seem to come over us when our higher degrees are more open to us. But for the most part, we are not fully conscious of these higher degrees. We become fully aware of them when we come into the next life.
Our spiritual regeneration happens when God flows into our higher degrees and our higher degrees flow down into our natural degree. Swedenborg tells us that,
there is a continual Divine influx of celestial and spiritual things through the internal man into the external; that is, an influx of celestial and spiritual things through the rational man into the natural (AC 3085).
But our natural degree begins an image of the world, and we need to be reborn into an image of heaven. We learn a lot of things from a lot of sources–from our upbringing, from religious study, from conversation, from experience. Some of what we learn is true and some is false. I once heard a person say how his truths changed in life. He grew up thinking, “Anything you don’t do perfectly is not worth doing at all.” But in later life he abandoned his perfectionist attitude, and now operates under the statement, “Easy does it.” As we pray and stay open to God, our natural degree is perfected. The truths in our natural degree are elevated, and our falsities are dispersed. So our natural degree is reduced into conformity with our internal degree. Swedenborg describes this process:
Divine good flows into the natural man, than is, into the knowledges outward and inward, and doctrinal teachings therein, for these are of the natural man so far as they are in its memory; and that by this influx it enlightens, vivifies, and disposes into order all things therein; for all light, life, and order in the natural man is from an influx from the Divine (AC 3086).
Our natural degree becomes more open and able to receive influx from our higher degrees as we remove obstacles. The obstacles to influx are chiefly selfishness and worldliness. We need to be ready to abandon truths that only serve self and to take on truths that teach us how to love God and our neighbor. Our inner degrees sift through the knowledges we have in our natural level and lift up into our conscience truths that are heavenly. These then become our guiding principles. This process continues throughout our life on earth and into the next life.
This is the process that brings our dry bones to life. By removing the obstacles to influx, our higher degrees flow down into our natural degree and make it into an image and likeness of God. This is actually God flowing through the degrees of our personality, giving us the breath of spiritual life. This is how we are elevated into heavenly thought and feelings. This process happens to us with our effort and without our effort. At times we need to consciously reject limiting doctrines. And at other times, we will have intuitive perceptions about truth that come from our higher degrees. But whatever the means, it is actually God lifting us ever upward to Himself. It is never a process that we can take credit for.
The man who is made new by regeneration . . . is withheld from evil by an influx of the life of the Lord`s love, and this with all power (AC 3318).
All our life, and all our spiritual life is a gift from God. As Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” We are indeed called upon to do good and to bear fruit. But we can never claim the good we do for ourselves. It is God in us doing the good, lifting us upward out of self into an ecstatic relationship with Himself.
The LORD Looks at the Heart
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 3, 2011
1 Samuel 16:1-13 John 9:1-41 Psalm 23
Our Bible readings this morning concern different ways of seeing. In the Old Testament reading, we heard about how man sees, and we heard about how God sees. In our reading, we heard about Samuel being sent to anoint a new king after Saul. Samuel is sent to Jesse in Bethlehem, to look at his sons. For God tells Samuel that one of Jesse’s sons will be king. When Samuel first sees Eliab, he thinks to himself that Eliab is the one who will be king next. Apparently, Eliab is tall and strong–a fitting king. We know this because God tells Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him” (1 Samuel 16:7). Eliab was like Saul, Israel’s first king. Saul, too was tall and strong. We are told that, “as he stood among the people he was a head taller than any of the others” (1 Samuel 10:23). So to Samuel’s thinking, Eliab would be the next king, as was Saul before him. But although this is Samuel’s own thinking, he yields to God’s word. One by one, all of Jesse’s sons are brought before Samuel, and God rejects them all as the next king. Then Samuel asks if these are all Jesse’s sons. Jesse says that there is still one more, David, who is tending sheep. When David comes to the prophet, God tells Samuel to anoint David as Israel’s next king.
David is peaceful and mild, being a shepherd and a singer. There is a striking contrast between him and Sau. Saul was also chosen by God, but the people found him quite to their liking. He stood head and shoulders over the others. This was the kind of king a person would want to lead them in battle. But what about David? David was just a boy when he was anointed, and not trained in the arts of war. He was a mere shepherd. In the eyes of man, David would not be a likely choice for king. But God chose him to be Israel’s next leader. And God’s words to Samuel are words to us as well. God tells Samuel,
The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’” (1 Samuel 16:7).
To the outward appearance, to the eyes of man, David is not a likely choice for kingship. But in the eyes of God, who looks at the heart, David is chosen to be the next king of Israel. In King David, we see the contrast between how the eyes of man see, and how the eyes of God see.
In our New Testament reading, we find the contrast between blindness and sight everywhere. Our story begins with a man born blind. Jesus gives him sight. This is the first contrast between blindness and sight. It is a physical image–a blind man who can see. But as the story progresses, blindness and sight become symbols. The story begins to contrast believing that Jesus is the Christ and disbelief that Jesus is the Christ. The first contrast concerns belief that the miracle even took place. We are told, “The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and received his sight” (John 9:18). They go to the man’s parents and ask them if he is their son, and if he had been born blind. Saying just as little as they can, the parents admit that he is their son and that he was born blind. The next contrast is whether Jesus is of God or a sinner. The Pharisees say that Jesus is not of God because he does not keep the Sabbath. They say this because Jesus healed on the Sabbath, which they consider work. The Ten Commandments forbid working on the Sabbath. Others say that no sinner can do such miraculous things. The blind man himself testifies to Jesus’ godliness. He says,
We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing (John 9:31-32).
A striking blindness overcomes the Pharisees. They deny the miracle of sight that happened right in front of them and condemn the blind man who praises Jesus for restoring his sight. They say, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they throw him out of the synagogue. The final play on sight and blindness becomes spiritual. Jesus says, “For judgment I have come into the world, so that the blind may see and those who see will become blind” (John 9:39). The Pharisees ask, “What? Are we blind too?” Jesus then talks of sin in relation to blindness and sight, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (9:41). A similar line is in Luke 8:10, Mark 4:12, and Matthew 13:13-14. Mark’s line goes as follows,
To those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
they may be ever seeing but never perceiving
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven (4:12).
When I hear these words, I can’t help but think of some people I know who can’t seem to see God’s hand working in their lives or in the world around them. For me, everywhere I look I see God. Just looking at a flower, and its beauty, is clear testimony to me of God’s work. Why would such a beautifully designed living thing come into this world? When I see nature falling asleep in the winter and waking up in the spring and look at the great cycles of the seasons, I see God’s hand. Snow and biting cold does not kill nature–it merely puts it to sleep. Then as the weather warms, the plants come back to life after their period of dormancy. When I think how a single cell is impregnated and grows and develops into a heart, lungs, a brain and head, limbs and becomes a living human being capable of self-direction, I see a divine miracle. When I look back on my life and see the changes and growth that I have been through almost without my knowing it, I see God acting in my life. And yet I have friends who tell me, if there were a God, they would see evidence somewhere. I am not judging such people. I am simply expressing surprise and wonder that something that seems to obvious to me is so hidden to others. Are these those whom Jesus says are, “ever seeing but never perceiving?”
But for us the most important seeing is how we see ourselves. How are our thoughts, feelings, and actions measuring up against our understanding of Godliness? Jesus taught in parables so that His deeper truths would be hidden in the simple nature stories. When we are ignorant of truth, we are not responsible. But that doesn’t leave us off the hook. It is still incumbent on us to seek God and try to learn God’s ways. It is still incumbent on us to remain prayerfully connected with God. And in our prayerful connection with God, God will reveal to us more and more about how to live in His kingdom. He will reveal to us sins we are to get rid of, and show us good things we are to love and do. He will open our eyes and give us sight.
And the more we see, the more we are responsible for. But the upside of this is that the more we become responsible for our spiritual development, the deeper God penetrates our lives with His loving and joyous Spirit. Our faith may start out very simple with something like the Ten Commandments. But from a very simple start, God will open our minds further if we seek Him and His kingdom. We learn truths from many different sources–conversation, study, reading spiritual works, inspiration, and life’s experiences. If we begin our spiritual journey with faith as small as a mustard seed, we can grow into a faith as grand as the tree that birds nest in. Swedenborg tells us that faith is perfected according to the abundance of truths we learn. These truths reinforce each other and the more we learn, the more support we have for what we have learned.
So far we have been looking at sight from a human perspective. We not consider sight from God’s perspective. Here, the words that God spoke to Samuel come in:
The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’” (1 Samuel 16:7).
God looks at our heart. He doesn’t look at our dress, our money, our status, but how our heart is. We are all children of God. And God sees us as His children. God loves us with the kind of love a mother has for her children. And God judges us with a mother’s love. God looks at what we are trying to do. God looks at our intentions. God does not make up a list of our right and wrong deeds. He looks at what we are trying to do right now. We all fall short of the ideal. We may have done things in our past that we regret. But what really matters is what we are trying to do right now. Are we walking with God? Are we walking into the light? Is our heart turned toward goodness and godliness? Do our actions stem from goodwill? Are we but trying to turn toward God? These are the kinds of things God looks at. I once heard a man say, “When we take one step toward God, God takes three giant steps toward us.” We don’t need to be saints to find God’s love and joy. As the Big Book in AA says, “We claim spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.
We may falter at times. We may stumble around in the darkness. But if we are still seeking God, and remaining prayerfully connected with Him, He will hold us up when we falter; He will lift us when we stumble. God is with us in all of our wanderings, stumblings, misguided actions, blindness, and trials. God is with everyone, everywhere. God seeks continually to bring light into our darkness, so that we may see. God is a “lamp for our feet and a light to our path,” the Psalmist says (119:105). With God in our hearts, may our light shine before men.