Archive for August, 2011
The Power of God’s Word
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
August 14, 2011
Isaiah 55:10-13 Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 Psalm 119
Our Bible readings this morning speak of the power of the Lord’s Word. In Isaiah we read,
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish . . .
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire . . .
You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace (55:10-11).
In these few words, the whole of our regeneration by means of God’s Word is described. When we take the teachings we find in the Word into our hearts, and live by them, then we are regenerated by God. Then, we “will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” We find the same teaching in Jesus’ words about the sower.
What was sown on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.
These passages both speak to our need for God’s Word, and also how our lives can grow spiritually from hearing it and applying it to our lives.
God gives us everything we need for regeneration in His Word, or the Bible. The Bible teaches us about God; it teaches us about our neighbors; and it teaches us the good things we are to do in life in order to come into heaven. These are the truths that all come from the Bible. And regeneration cannot take place without truths. Swedenborg writes,
Regeneration cannot take place without truths, by which faith is formed, and with which charity conjoins itself. There are three agents whereby a person is regenerated,–the Lord, faith, and charity; these three would lie hidden, like precious things of highest value buried in the earth, if Divine truths from the Word did not reveal them (TCR 618).
So the Bible is what teaches us the things that we need for salvation.
The Bible is where our church doctrines are drawn from. Swedenborg wrote thirty volumes of theology. But this theology didn’t spring forth from his head. Every doctrine he taught is supported by Bible passages. The more I read Swedenborg, and the more I see his careful use of the Bible to support his teachings, the more I am in awe of his genius and his scholarship. He seems to find just the right passage for his assertions and very often supplies many passages from all through the Bible to support his doctrines. And this support is from the literal words of the scriptures. As he himself says, “Doctrine is to be drawn from the sense of the letter of the Word, and be confirmed by it” (TCR 229). It is true that there is an internal sense of the Bible, but the doctrines that lead to our salvation are in the Bible as it reads in its literal sense. The internal truths can be brought forth through Swedenborg’s special enlightenment, but the things we need for our salvation are in the literal sense. No one is without the truths he or she needs for salvation. So Swedenborg says,
The doctrine of genuine truth may also be fully drawn from the literal sense of the Word; for the Word in that sense is like a man clothed, whose face is bare, and his hands also bare. All the things which pertain to a man’s salvation, are naked there, but the rest are clothed; and in many places where they are clothed, they shine through, as objects seen by a woman through a thin veil of silk before her face (TCR 229).
What this means is that passages like the ten commandments or Jesus’ two great commandments to love God and the neighbor are perfectly clear in the literal sense of the Bible. Passages like those are the bare face and hands of the Bible. And if a person follows them, he or she will find salvation.
But the Bible can be a hard book to read. There are many passages in it that do not look Godly. For instance, Jacob having two wives and also siring children from servant women does not look like the way God wants us to live. Then there are passages that say God is angry and vengeful. This is in the first commandment, where God says that He punishes, “the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” But this is immediately followed by the words that God shows “love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments.” Then there are passages in Joshua and Judges where whole villages with their women, children, and even livestock who are all commanded by God to be put to the sword. These are difficult passages in the Bible for many to accept. I should say that there are equally many passages that are beautiful and show God’s everlasting love. One such passage is in Exodus 34, when God is telling Moses His very name,
The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin (6,7).
It’s my feeling that people who are already set against organized religion ignore those beautiful passages and see only the former disturbing passages. But the truth is, they are there.
When we read the Bible we need to remember two things. The Bible was written about 3,500 years ago in a very different culture and by a very different people. It was a warrior culture and a warrior people. They wrote about God the way they thought. They themselves were vengeful, so they projected their own vengeful ideologies onto God. The second thing we need to keep in mind is that the Bible has an internal sense. The stories we read about are symbolic of spiritual matters. While the literal sense of some stories may seem harsh, when we consider them in their spiritual sense they are more acceptable. Not only are they ameliorated, but we see how they can benefit our own spiritual growth.
Swedenborg teaches that there are three levels to the Bible: the natural, the spiritual and the celestial. The natural level is the Bible’s literal sense. The spiritual level treats of a person’s regeneration and the internal development of the church. And the celestial level treats of the Lord. Actually, there are different numbers of levels in different places in Swedenborg. In some places, the first level of the internal sense is said to treat the individual’s spiritual growth; the second level is the internal of the church; and the third level is of the Lord. Then in other places there are six layers of meaning in the internal sense. But when the Bible is seen to treat spiritual matters, and not matters that happen on earth, it becomes a book that we can embrace with all its apparent horror. For instance, the cities in Canaan that Joshua plunders signify evil tendencies in ourselves that need to be eradicated. Viewed this way, it makes sense that nothing in the city is to remain alive. We are to eradicate the evils it symbolizes completely. In fact, the whole story of the liberation of Israelites from Egyptian slavery to settlement in the Promised Land is a symbol of our growth from the bondage of sin to liberty in the heavenly freedom of God’s love.
Swedenborg wasn’t the only theologian to teach that the Bible is written symbolically. Before him, Philo of Alexandria interpreted the Old Testament symbolically. Then, the Christian Origen applied a similar method to the Bible, as well. So did Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine. Augustine wrote a whole book called On Christian Doctrine. In it, he said that any passage in the Bible that doesn’t teach love for God and love for the neighbor must be taken figuratively. He writes,
Whatever appears in the divine Word that does not literally pertain to virtuous behavior or to the truth of faith you must take to be figurative. Virtuous behavior pertains to the love of God and of one’s neighbor; the truth of faith pertains to a knowledge of God and of one’s neighbor (On Christian Doctrine Book Three, X, 14).
These wise men, along with Swedenborg, realized that those harsh passages can’t be taken at face value. They are rather passages that another culture generated in accord with their own ways of life and they symbolize matters that relate to our spiritual development.
But at the same time, the Bible is a holy book that teaches the way to God. The symbols that these theologians talk about for the Bible are what Swedenborg calls correspondences. For Swedenborg, the whole Bible is written by these correspondences, or symbols for spiritual realities. Without an understanding of correspondences, the Bible can indeed look like a savage book. We of the Swedenborgian Church are fortunate that we can see these hard passages as symbolic of the Lord’s life and of our own spiritual journey. I can’t say where I would be in relation to the Bible if I weren’t raised with this doctrine.
For some this isn’t enough. Some see the savagery in the Bible and reject it wholeheartedly. They ignore the beauties in it. They ignore the gentleness of Jesus’ sayings. They ignore the parts that make sense spiritually. I sympathize with their difficulty. But I also wonder if their rejection of the Bible isn’t based on a contempt before examination, and a wilful desire to reject anything that speaks of organized religion.
Well, it’s not for me to judge. I acknowledge the problematic nature of the Bible. But at the same time, I uphold its divine origin. For me the Bible is God’s Holy Word. And as such, for me, the Bible is like:
the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish . . .
For me, the Bible contains everything I need for regeneration. For me, the Bible is the meeting place for God and the whole human race.
Peace to the Nations
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
August 7, 2011
Zechariah 9:9-12 Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 Psalm 145
Our Bible readings promise us peace. And it is a peace that only spirituality can give us. It is a peace that only God can give us. Our prophesy from Zechariah states that the king to come will “proclaim peace to the nations.” We are told to “Rejoice greatly,” and to “shout.” And in the New Testament we find those precious words from Jesus, promising rest:
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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).
We need to look at our Old Testament reading in its internal sense for it to speak to us meaningfully. This morning’s passage speaks of a king to come whose rule will extend from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth. In other words, this king will rule the whole world. This king is the long awaited Messiah. Here, Jews and Christians are divided about the nature of the Messiah. Jews see the Messiah as a great king who will come to earth and unite the world under his rule. Christians see the Messiah as Jesus Christ. And the opening of our passage seems to predict Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It reads,
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey (9:9).
This sounds like Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when people threw palm fronds in front of Jesus as He entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. We could say that this prophesy has been fulfilled, if we read it as talking about Jesus. Like the king in Zechariah, Jesus’ rule is indeed over the whole world. He is indeed the Prince of Peace.
This interpretation is good, so far as it goes. But there is just one problem if we read this prophesy as being about Jesus. The king is supposed to “take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war horses from Jerusalem.” The “battle bow will be broken” and “He will proclaim peace to the nations.” As we know only too well, the battle bow is not broken in this world. And Jerusalem is even one of the flash points of international strife with Palestine. We are very far from finding peace proclaimed to the nations.
No, for this passage to read true, we need to see it as treating spiritual matters, not worldly ones. For while a time of peace may well come upon this troubled world, but if it does, I do not see it coming soon, but much, much later. In general, nations signify the good things of charity. Nations also refer to the reformed heart and mind of a person who is regenerating. Another meaning for nations is the worship of the church. This is in keeping with the other meanings, since worship is nothing else than love in a person’s heart, and truth in a person’s mind.
When we let our Divine King into our lives, then we first feel peace. Peace is a holy feeling that comes right from God through heaven. Some think of peace as quiet, or of the lack of problems from the world, or of the cessation of war. But spiritual peace is a special feeling that pervades the whole heart and mind and brings with it a holy clarity of thought and a heavenly rapture of emotion. Swedenborg distinguishes between heavenly peace and worldly ideas of it:
It is called peace in the world when wars and hostilities cease between kingdoms, and when enmities and discords cease among people; and it is believed that internal peace is rest of mind on removal of cares, and especially tranquility and enjoyment from success in business. But the angels said that rest of mind, and tranquility and enjoyment from the removal of cares and from success in business, appear as of peace, but are not of peace, except with those who are in heavenly good; since peace is not given except in good (HH 290).
I struggled with language when I tried to describe spiritual peace just above. It is a feeling that is very difficult to put into words. Swedenborg himself says this, “I am able to describe it, yet not in words as it is in itself, because human words are inadequate” (HH 284). Then Swedenborg goes ahead anyway, and tries to describe peace by talking about where it comes from. I have wrestled with this passage for years, and still find it quite out of reach. Maybe for some of you it will be more clear. It is certainly important enough that we all should be aware of it at least:
The Divine of peace in heaven is from the Lord, existing from His conjunction with the angels of heaven . . . peace in the heavens is the Divine inmostly affecting with blessedness every good they, and giving all the joy of heaven; and that it is in its essence the Divine joy of the Lord’s Divine love, from His conjunction with heaven and everyone there. This joy perceived by the Lord in angels, and by angels from the Lord, is peace (HH 286).
I get mixed up here as to who has the joy from whom and in whom. This much is clear: heavenly peace comes from the Lord’s joy in being conjoined with heaven. The best explanation I heard about this passage is a mother watching her children at play. Their joy in playing becomes the mother’s joy as she watches.
Clearly, this kind of peace can only be given to those who love the Lord. This kind of peace is from God and is God in us. This kind of peace is heavenly joy from God when we are in God. So Jesus says in the Gospel of John,
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in His love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete (John15:9-11).
This brings us to our passage from Matthew that we read today. Jesus says, “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.” If we learn from Jesus, we will find rest for our souls. If we become gentle and humble in heart, we will find rest for our souls.
Humility is a sure way to peace. No one is more frustrated than someone driven to greatness. Nothing is ever good enough. No deed comes out right. No possession is prestigious enough. No amount of reward is sufficient. No amount of wealth is large enough. But living in humility brings us to inward peace. Humility means that only God is great. It means we are content to sit in the last place at the dinner table. It means we are content with the goods we have in life. It means we do not need the praise of multitudes. And above all, it means accepting our finite condition. It means turning to God and turning away from ego.
Trying to make it according to the world’s standards is continual frustration. But living in relationship with God is peaceful. Jesus tells us, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I remember a time in my life not too long ago. I was working hard to publish articles, keep up my technique on the piano and bass, and to write poetry–all the while working full-time. A friend of mine asked me, “Do you have peace?” I replied, “I have satisfaction.” “That’s not what I asked,” She said. The fact is I was driven. I had ambition, but I did not have peace.
I still play the piano. I am still working on a book that I intend to publish. I have an article that I think is ready to send out. But my pace is much more balanced. And my attitude in doing these things is much different. I’m not driven to succeed. I don’t need to have these things. I see them as projects of love that will manifest in their due season. I am learning from Jesus and taking on His easy yoke and light burden. I now have moments of peace.
This is the peace that we all have open to us if we learn from Jesus and become gentle and humble. This is the peace we all have open to us when we let the Prince of Peace into our hearts and minds. This is the peace that results from God’s joy in being conjoined with heaven–in this world, or the next.