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Seeing God Face to Face
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 7, 2010
Isaiah 6:1-8 Luke 5:1-11 Psalm 138
I find the Bible readings for this morning both interesting and comforting. They both concern a meeting between man and God. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah sees God above the awe-inspiring cherubim. And in the New Testament reading, Simon Peter, James, and John meet Jesus while they are fishing. In both passages, God comes to the people—they don’t seek Him out. And God comes to the people where they are in life. He doesn’t appear in a period of prayer, or meditation—He comes right in the middle of their lives. The first response of the people to whom God comes is the same. They both feel conscious of their own unworthiness. Isaiah says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts (6:5). Likewise, Simon Peter bows down at Jesus’ knees and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). The striking thing about these responses is that they come from the people themselves, not God. It is Isaiah and Peter who see themselves as sinful, not God. And God stays right there with them; He does not depart. He cleanses Isaiah with a coal taken from the temple and despite his fear, Peter follows Jesus straightaway.
I take two basic ideas from these readings. One is how God sees us. And the other is God’s response of cleansing when we are brought into His presence.
I was comforted by the way God acts when He appears to Isaiah and Peter. Both men feel their own unworthiness, in fact, their sinfulness. Yet this is no offence to God. God comes to us regardless of our own spiritual state. We don’t have to be perfect for God to come to us. We need not be saints to encounter God. In so many passages in the Old Testament, we hear of God being angry, or punishing, or even vengeful. But Swedenborg teaches that these are all appearances. They are ideas about God that were given to a primitive, warrior people, who themselves thought that way. So they saw God that way. But Swedenborg sees God very differently. He makes a beautiful statement about how God views the human race. He says that God does not see our evils. And furthermore none of those dreadful images of God represent who God actually is.
The Lord imputes good to every person, but hell imputes evil to every person. That the Lord imputes to man good and not evil, while the devil (meaning hell), imputes evil is a new thing in the church; and it is new for the reason that in the Word it is frequently said that God is angry, takes vengeance, hates, damns, punishes, casts into hell, and tempts, all of which pertain to evil, and therefore are evils. But . . . the sense of the letter of the Word is composed of such things as are called appearances and correspondences . . . when such things are read these very appearances of truth, while they are passing from a person to heaven, are changed into genuine truths, which are, that the Lord is never angry, never takes vengeance, never hates, damns, punishes, casts into hell, or tempts, consequently does evil to a person (TCR 650).
In another place, Swedenborg tells us that God cannot even look at us sternly,
as He wills only what is good he can do nothing but what is good. . . . From these few statements it can be seen how deluded those are who think, and still more those who believe, and still more those who teach, that God can damn any one, curse any one, send any one to hell, predestine any soul to eternal death, avenge wrongs, be angry, or punish. He cannot even turn Himself away from humanity, nor look upon anyone with a stern countenance (TCR 56).
God doesn’t even judge us, let alone damn anyone to hell.
That the Lord imputes good to every person and evil to none, hence that He does not judge any one to hell, but so far as a person follows raises all to heaven are evident from His words: Jesus said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all persons unto Myself” (John 12:32); “God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17); Jesus said, “I judge no man” (John 8:15) (TCR 652).
And God’s love extends to the whole human race—good and bad. “The love of God goes and extends itself, not only to good persons and things, but also to evil persons and things” (TCR 43).
What would it feel like to see God face to face? Perhaps like the Bible passages we heard this morning, meeting God face to face might make us feel our own unworthiness. In the presence of infinite goodness and infinite love, we would probably see how far from infinite goodness we are. This brings to mind the second aspect of these Bible readings. In Isaiah, God purifies the prophet with a coal taken from the altar. And in the New Testament, despite his own feeling of sin, Peter drops his nets and immediately follows Jesus. When God comes to us, He brings us purification.
What purification means is seen differently in different churches. Some Christians say that Jesus bore our sins, and our sins are atoned for if we believe. Swedenborg sees the matter differently. For Swedenborg, our sins have become a part of our personality. They are in our emotions, our thoughts, and our behaviours. They are part of who we are. In order to be purified, we need to examine ourselves and see for what it is each self-limiting thought and response. We need to weed the garden of our personality and root out those aspects that would choke off the fruit of the Spirit.
Sins are removed so far as a person is reborn, because rebirth is restraining the flesh that it may not rule, and subjugating the old man . . . . Who that yet has sound understanding, cannot conclude that such things cannot be done in a moment, but successively, as a person is conceived, carried in the womb, born, and educated . . . . For the things of the flesh or the old man are inherent in him from birth . . . as an infant grows, reaches childhood, then youth, and then begins to think from his own understanding, and to act from his own will. Who does not see that such a house which has been thus far built in the mind, . . . cannot be destroyed in a moment, and a new house built in place of it? Must not the lusts . . . be themselves first removed, and new desires which are of good and truth be introduced in the place of the lusts of evil and falsity? That these things cannot be done in a moment every wise person sees from this alone, that every evil is composed of innumerable lusts; . . . therefore unless one evil is brought out after another, and this until their connection is broken up, a person cannot be made new (TCR 611).
Even though this is a lifelong process—indeed a process that continues to eternity in the next life—the good news is that everyone can be reborn if they are but open to God’s influence. Swedenborg states this in no uncertain terms, “Since all men have been redeemed, all may be regenerated each according to his state” (TCR 579). This idea of rebirth is inclusive, rather than exclusive. It means that everyone has their own path to take in the process of spiritual rebirth. One person’s path may be very different from another’s. Our path may be very different from someone else’s. The variety of ways in which people are reborn are as infinite as there are faces in the human race.
All may be regenerated, each according to his state; for the simple and the learned are regenerated differently; as are those engaged in different pursuits, and those who fill different offices . . . those who are principled in natural good from their parents, and those who are in evil; those who from their infancy have entered into the vanities of the world, and those who sooner or later have withdrawn from them . . . and this variety, like that of people’s features and dispositions, is infinite; and yet everyone, according to his state may be regenerated and saved (TCR 580).
There is a powerful force emanating from God that draws everyone in the whole human race upward to heaven.
There is actually a sphere elevating all to heaven, that proceeds continually from the Lord and fills the whole natural world and the whole spiritual world; it is like a strong current in the ocean, which draws the ship in a hidden way. All those who believe in the Lord and live according to His precepts, enter that sphere or current and are lifted (TCR 652).
I find these passages remarkably refreshing. It isn’t only people who have been brought up good who are regenerated, but even those who Swedenborg says “are in evil.” When I read this, I think about those unfortunate young people who are brought up in neighbourhoods where gangs dominate the culture. Or others who have had difficult upbringings. All these can be reformed and regenerated—each according to his or her upbringing and state of mind.
I think the main point in all this is to be open to God when He comes. In Revelation, Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Let us all listen for that knock. And let us all, regardless of what state we are in, open the door and eat the holy supper with our Lord.
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