Readings: Psalm 103:1-2, 13-22, 2 Kings 6:8-17, Secrets of Heaven #5992:1-3 (see below)
Our text for today, one of the stories of the prophet Elisha, is powerful. When we are in moments of fear or anxiety, how comforting it would be to have our eyes be opened to an army of angels helping us! Fear and anxiety are compounded by feelings of aloneness, our own abilities and competencies and agency made smaller by a sense of being isolated. Conversely, our courage is often bolstered by togetherness and solidarity, by knowing that there are people in our corner. So this story resonates. We yearn to know that we stand in the company of those who have our best interests at heart.
This reality is reflected in our Swedenborg reading for today. We may not literally find ourselves facing an army but all battles in the Bible can metaphorically speak to the battles of our minds and spirits. In those moments, we might also know that we are not alone. As we heard in our reading, angels from the Lord lead and protect a person, doing so every instant and fraction of an instant, and they do this out of love for us, for nothing gives them greater joy. Inside every second of our lives, we will find fellowship, we will find encouragement, freely given. Two implications of this teaching strike me as interesting and poignant.
First, we often resonate with the idea of our loved ones being angels who are with us, that they might visit us, or that we might feel their presence with us. This is certainly possible, and lovely, and something that many people experience.
Or we might think of the powerful verse from the book of Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith (12:1-2).
These verses refer to those who have acted with courage and suffered on account their faith in the past, who now stand in solidarity with the early Christians to whom the letter was written. Again, an inspiring and beautiful scene not unlike the story about Elisha; we all look to people from history who have inspired us, whether they be well known or not, and it gives us courage to imagine that they stand with us now.
But Swedenborg doesn’t specifically speak of our guardian angels in either of those terms. Regardless of our family connections in this world, of who we loved in the world and who loved us, each human being is connected to and protected by angels from the moment of their birth, not necessarily angels who knew us, and not necessarily angels who have done something amazing or exemplary in this world. They are simply people like us, who lived a good life, who have done days and years worth of dishes, who breathed approximately 500 million breaths, who messed up and apologized and tried to do better, who lost and learned and prayed and ate and slept. These people, now in the spiritual world, their hearts and minds voluntarily refined by the work of love, have turned around to focus on helping us.
And if there is one thing that has really been brought home for me in doing this angel series with you all, if I had to choose just one thing that has been clarified, and made more meaningful to me, it is that there are people who are fighting for me who I do not know, or might never know. As we remember, angels are not some specially created race of beings so pure and good that *of course* they would support us and look after us. No. As we explored two weeks ago, angels are human beings in the spiritual realm who have chosen to fight for you and me, who delight in every small victory, who believe in us more than we could ever believe in ourselves. We might expect this of a parent, a sibling, a friend…but from someone we have never known? What an unfathomable gift of grace, of confidence, and of love. How could we ever deserve it? We don’t. It’s not about deserving. Angels delight in seeing the image of God in us, revel in our essential worthiness, and what’s more, they *believe* in our worthiness, deeply and unreservedly, now and forever, without ever having known us in the world. Good Lord, how could we ever accept this is true? It is a gift beyond comprehension.
And yet, this is the kind of universe that God has built. A universe that runs on connectedness with each other. A universe that is constructed so that it draws its strength and endurance from an intimate and co-responding relationship between heaven and earth. It is just a matter of course, that in this kind of universe, each us would be lovingly held within such a web of care.
The second thing that I find so fascinating is *how* angels guard and protect us. We often think of protection in terms of a barrier, like a windshield on a car or a railing on a balcony.
But consider this passage from Swedenborg’s Secrets of Heaven:
 A considerable amount of experience has proved the truth of this to me. For I have noticed that when evil spirits have thrust evils and falsities at me, the angels from the Lord present at the time have maintained in me the truths implanted in me previously and have thereby withheld me from those evils and falsities. From this it has also been evident that the truths of faith which, through an affection for truth, have become rooted in me serve as a level into which angels can operate…(1)
Notice that term - the affection for truth - that we spoke about last week. Angels do not bat away challenges like tennis balls or fend off raindrops like an umbrella. Their protection consists in the empowerment of ourselves. We human beings take our love of knowing true things (our affection for truth), and we search for truth to speaks to us, and we construct our dominant perspective piece by piece until it becomes a part of us, rooted in us, so to speak. We operate within a worldview built on the truths in which we have faith. And the angels use this worldview. The protection of angels is to remind us what we believe in. The protection of angels is to strengthen us in what we know to be right and good and true.
So, an example: we might have committed ourselves to a life guided by empathy and non-judgment. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t sometimes, or even often, instinctively judge people before knowing them, perhaps by their appearance or some other small or external thing. We might find ourselves already doing it before we even know it. And then we catch ourselves. That moment when we catch ourselves unfairly judging, that moment when we are reminded of what is important to us and how we wish to live our lives…this is our angels protecting us. Protecting us by reminding us who we are and what is important to us. What we decide to do with that information is our choice. How we interpret and employ that remembrance is up to us.
And, of course, it is not one and done. We are going to mess up again in the very same way. Like in meditation, when our awareness has wandered and we are ask ourselves to gently and without judgment return our awareness to our breath, so too our angels remind us to return to ourselves. We are going to have to do it again and again and again. But this is how a heavenly nature is built, through intention, sacrifice, forgiveness and persistence. Our angels walk us through this cycle as many times as we need.
And on the outside, that might seem like weak sauce to a world that believes that protection is about big strong actions. But, I actually cannot think of anything more powerful or loving. Angels have no interest in protecting us in ways that disempower us, or dis-incentivize us, or infantilize us. Yes, they love us but they love our freedom and our developing journey just as much. This is a mature love, a risky kind of love, a respectful and pragmatic love. And it is a love in which we must participate: a co-responding and reciprocal melding of heart and spirit.
And so, as we spiral along on our journeys, so too our angels spiral with us, protecting us by calling forth our own irrepressible humanity, our own hopefulness. No matter how deeply buried it might be, they will find it, for they know beyond a doubt that it is there.
So, let us now end with this blessing from Jan Richardson, A Blessing for Waking. As the armies of Aram doggedly set up camp before us, first here and then there, constantly enticing us to a world of warfare, of self-preservation, of winner-takes-all, let us remember those who surround us, those who are working to open our eyes to who we really are.
Blessing for Waking
This blessing could pound on your door in the middle of the night
This blessing could bang on your windows, could tap dance in your hall, could set a dog loose in your room.
It could hire a brass band to play outside your home.
But what this blessing really wants is not merely your waking but your company.
This blessing wants to sit alongside you and keep vigil with you. This blessing wishes to wait with you.
And so, though it is capable of causing a cacophony that could raise the dead, this blessing will simply lean toward you and sing quietly in your ear, a song to lull you not into sleep but into waking.
It will tell you stories that hold you breathless till the end.
It will ask you questions you never considered and have you tell it what you saw in your dreaming.
This blessing will do all within its power to entice you into awareness, because it wants to be there, to bear witness, to see the look in your eyes on the day when your vigil is complete and all your waiting has come to its joyous end. (2)
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #5893:3
(2) Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, p23-25.
Psalm 103:1-2, 13-22
1 Praise the LORD, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. 2 Praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits.
13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who revere him; 14 for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. 15 The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; 16 the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. 17 But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who revere him, and his righteousness with their children’s children— 18 with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts. 19 The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. 20 Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. 21 Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. 22 Praise the LORD, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the LORD, my soul.
2 Kings 6:8-17
8 Now the king of Aram was at war with Israel. After conferring with his officers, he said, “I will set up my camp in such and such a place.” 9 The man of God sent word to the king of Israel: “Beware of passing that place, because the Arameans are going down there.” 10 So the king of Israel checked on the place indicated by the man of God. Time and again Elisha warned the king, so that he was on his guard in such places. 11 This enraged the king of Aram. He summoned his officers and demanded of them, “Tell me! Which of us is on the side of the king of Israel?” 12 “None of us, my lord the king,” said one of his officers, “but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom.” 13 “Go, find out where he is,” the king ordered, “so I can send men and capture him.” The report came back: “He is in Dothan.” 14 Then he sent horses and chariots and a strong force there. They went by night and surrounded the city. 15 When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked. 16 “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
Secrets of Heaven #5992:1, 3
5992. [Regarding] The angels through whom the Lord leads and also protects a person…Their function is to impart charity and faith, to notice the direction in which the person's delights turn, and to modify and bend those delights towards what is good, so far as they can do so in the person's freedom. The angels are forbidden to act in any violent manner and thereby crush a person's evil desires and false assumptions; they must act gently…
 In particular the angels call forth the forms of good and truth residing with a person and set them opposite the evils and falsities activated by the evil spirits. As a result the person is in the middle and is not conscious of the evil or of the good; and being in the middle they are in freedom to turn towards one or towards the other. Angels from the Lord employ means like these to lead and protect a person, doing so every instant and fraction of an instant. For if the angels were to let up merely for a single moment the person would be plunged into evil from which after that they cannot possibly be brought out. The angels are motivated to do all this by a love they receive from the Lord, for nothing gives them greater delight and happiness than to remove evils from a person and lead them to heaven. This is their joy. Scarcely anyone believes the Lord has that kind of concern for a person, a constant concern lasting from the very beginning of a person's existence to the final moment of their life, and for evermore after that.
Photo credit: Castorly Stock
Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-8, Matthew 5:13-20, Secrets of Heaven #9207:1-2 (see below)
I remember, as a child growing up in rural Australia, being involved in a number of tree planting initiatives. It seemed at that point in time, deforestation had led to increased salt levels in the soil, which had decreased the soil’s fertility. The solution was to plant more trees again. My beloved choir teacher had even written a song about it, which still makes me so happy to remember to this day. The words went like this:
We can halt the salt, we can help heal the land
We can plant trees with our own two hands
We can bring back the balance, a little each year
’Til the soil is sweet again, and all the rivers run clear.
It was branded onto my childlike heart, the wonder that I, small as I was, could do something beneficial and important to bring about a common good, and that we could all do it together. I will never ever forget that.
So in that particular context, too much salt in the earth was a bad thing. When Jesus called this followers the “salt of the earth” he was trying to get at something else entirely. Salt is certainly ubiquitous in our lives, and Jesus enjoyed using metaphorical language that employed the everyday. We have come to understand the “salt of the earth” to mean noble, no-nonsense, grounded, hard-working people. And this is basically who Jesus was talking to in this text. He had just begun the Sermon on the Mount, had just blessed the poor in spirit, the meek and those who mourn, people who normally don’t see themselves as blessed. And then he likened them to a valuable and useful mineral, something that anyone would be delighted to find and use, something of worth. But he also delivered a warning: salt without the quality of saltiness is pointless. It might as well be a random rock. Being “salt of the earth” was not a designation that could be bestowed, it was a quality that needed to be lived, a way of being. Salt isn’t really salt unless it is salt-y.
In the Swedenborgian worldview, salt corresponds to the “affection for truth.” It is old-fashioned phrasing to be sure, but basically, think of that feeling of relief and openness and gratitude and contentment in our minds when something clicks into place and makes sense and we know that it is true. That is a good feeling. We love that feeling. We usually want more of that feeling. Swedenborg calls this drive for wanting more of that feeling the “affection for truth.” The affection for truth simply means the love that we have for things that are true, and more broadly, the love that we have for the notion and the existence of truth itself.
So going further then, Swedenborg tells us that the state of being salted or salty represents the desire truth has for goodness. Swedenborg is nothing if not consistent. He tells us over and over and over again, that truth is not actually true unless it is also good, unless its inherent truthfulness springs from goodness. So, if salt corresponds to loving the truth, having the quality of saltiness corresponds to recognizing how goodness is the soul of truth, how truth is necessarily conjoined to goodness, and that loving what is true must also mean loving what is good.
And because of this, because loving what is true also means loving what is good, that Swedenborg describes salt as representing the conjunctive power of the heavenly marriage, which is the union of love and wisdom in God. He says:
'Salt' receives this meaning from its conjunctive properties; for it makes ingredients all combine and consequently brings out their flavor. (1)
This is one way to think about the so-called conjunctive power of salt, but I cannot also help but think of the chemical make-up of salt. Table salt is the result of the conjunction of two different elements: an atom each of sodium and chlorine. These specific atoms of sodium and chlorine need each other because of an imbalance in their electrons; one has one too many and one has one two few. They conjoin so that they can share an electron, and the force of that sharing (a positive charge and a negative charge coming together) creates a totally new thing: sodium chloride or table salt.
Even in its molecular form, salt models a principle of conjunction, the union of truth and goodness, for together truth and goodness become something whole and useful. Truth alone is like an atom missing an electron, deeply, inherently and desperately incomplete. It yearns for conjunction. So truth cannot just refer to good, or be adjacent to good, but genuine truth fervently wishes to be conjoined to good, to share its life, so that they together may be essentially one thing and one thing only: Truth-that-does-good.
Now, the Sermon on the Mount is not the only time that salt is mentioned in the Bible. There is also plenty of wasteland imagery to be found that speaks to what happens when there is too much salt and nothing can grow. This was the burgeoning reality of my rural homeland (which good people worked very hard to reverse). Swedenborg tells us that the in the contrary sense, salt represents the perversion of the desire for truth, and the consequently destructive desire that falsity has for evil. (2)
Because the reality is that the innate desire we human beings have for knowing can be turned inward. That shining beautiful moment of having things make sense can be addictive, we want to feel that way all the time, we want to claim that we have all the answers, that complete certainty is the only good and that doubt and questioning and nuance are all a sign of weakness and moral relativism.
But, it is an illusion that truth can be grasped and captured and turned into an unshakable certainty that serves to assuage our fear of being alone, of being replaced, of being unworthy, of being broken. When truth is used thus, it is emptied of itself, it becomes a shadow, a shell. No matter how logical or sensical it might sound on the outside, truth emptied of good is falsity. It is soul-less. A black hole. A weapon.
This is a love for self, for safety, for superiority, and for power, that is dressed up as a love for truth. As Jesus suggests, it may look like salt but it is no longer salty. It cannot season or preserve, it cannot increase enjoyment or productivity, it is just sharp, spiky, hard and rocky.
And while I take Jesus’ point that such truth has lost its inherently useful quality, ie saltiness, speaking in this way downplays the dangerousness of a love for truth that is turned inward. The salt metaphor taken in another direction, the wasteland, brings this home more potently. Too much salt can lead to the ruination of the land, lays it waste, destroys it, prevents growth, fertility, generativity. Likewise, a grasping, rapacious desire for truth that keeps turning truth inside out like so many empty pockets, searching evermore for something that will finally prove the superiority of our selfhood, that will finally ensure the justification of our transgressions, that will finally erase the need for vulnerability…this desire will destroy everything it comes across, if given its way. This desire wants truth to serve and support power, but it cannot. Truth can only ever, and will only ever, serve love.
So for example, it is true that if we are to have nations at all, then it is reasonable that a nation should have borders and have some control over who gets to be a citizen. Certainly. But when this truth is used to justify north of five thousand children separated from their families(1), it becomes falsity, nothing but falsity. It is reasonable to think that migrants should attempt to enter our country legally. But when this truth is used to justify migrants requesting asylum be sent back to their country to be killed or tortured (2), it becomes falsity. It is reasonable to believe that justice should follow a due and transparent process. But when a hyper-focus on process is used to cover up wrong-doing and obstruction, it is a falsity. It is reasonable to think that voters at the voting booth should be who they say they are. But when this truth is used to create voter ID laws that systematically suppress the voting rights of certain groups, it is a falsity. It is true that we should be honest and authentic and real in our dealings with other people. But when this truth is used to justify willingly insensitive and unkind behavior, it is a falsity.
We read in Jeremiah… “But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.”
Just as I planted tree after tree in my childhood home, trying to halt the salt, heal the land, bring back the balance, so we too can strive to love truth in the right way, for the ways that truth grounds us and puts our hands in the dirt, makes us salt of the earth, salt-in-and-connected-to the goodness of the earth. We can strive to have an affection for truth-that-serves-good, not truth-that-serves-party, not truth-that-serves-power, not truth-that-serves-self-preservation, but truth-that-serves-good.
For we are the trees that will halt the salt, heal the land, bring back the balance. Let us plant ourselves by the Lord’s living water, truths that hydrate and flow, right through our branches and into leaves and fruit and flowers. A bounty of goodness for all.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #10300:1
(2) Ibid #10300:2
5 This is what the LORD says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in humankind, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD. 6 That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives. 7 “But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. 8 They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Secrets of Heaven #9207:1-2
…The fact that truths perish with those who have no desire for good is evident from what has been stated…regarding goodness and truth when joined together. But something further must be stated regarding that joining together. Truths that have been joined to good always hold within them a desire to do good, and at the same time to be joined more closely to good by doing it. Or what amounts to the same thing, those who possess truths always have a desire to do good and to join it thereby to their truths. People therefore who think that they are in possession of truths but who have no desire to do good do not in fact possess truths; that is, they have no belief in them, however much they imagine they do have.
 Their condition is portrayed by the Lord when He speaks of 'salt', in Matthew,
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt is tasteless, by what will it be made salty? It no longer has any use, except to be thrown outdoors and trodden down by people. (Matt 5:13)
The Lord says these things to the disciples and to the people. By 'the salt of the earth' He means the Church's truth that has a desire for good, and by 'tasteless salt' He means truth devoid of any desire for good. The fact that such truth is worthless is portrayed by the idea of salt which has become tasteless and no longer has any use, except to be thrown outdoors and trodden down by people. Having a desire for good means having a desire to do good and thereby be joined to good.
Readings: I Kings 19:1-13, Secrets of Heaven #5036:2 (see below)
Sometimes it can be hard to relate to the Bible. Without historical context, many of the stories seem strange to us. But chapter 19 in I Kings is one of those chapters in which the millennia that separate us and the time it was written just fall away. Who cannot resonate with the heart of Elijah’s experience? We may not personally be under threat of an evil queen, we may not have a wilderness to which we might flee or a broom bush under which we might pray. But we know what it is to feel like there is something that might destroy our life or happiness, some loss that will devastate us. We know what it is to feel like to need to run away. We know what it is to say: “I have had enough, Lord.” We know that feeling of weariness, emptiness, and aloneness.
These feelings are a part of being a human being. Jesus felt all these things too, in the garden of Gethsemane, on the cross, in being rejected by his hometown, in all those times the disciples just could not understand what he was trying to do. These are truths of our human experience; they are real and we honor how difficult they are.
But…as valid and as real as these truths of *our* personal experience might be, they do not necessarily tell us the truth about God. The ultimate truth is that we are never alone. God is always with us and never withdraws. Likewise, angels are with us in every moment and always desire to benefit us and do their best to help us. But, the truth is sometimes, like Elijah, we just don’t feel it. At all. What does Swedenborg teach us about these times?
First, it is important to note that not everyone experiences connection to spirit and to God in the same way. We are all unique and different, and likewise we will all have unique and different forms of spiritual experience, different ways that we perceive the presence of spirit, different ways we are moved by spirit. Some of us might feel the movement of spirit through music, or prayer, or nature, or silence. Some of us might feel the presence of spirit through ideas, through insight, through words put together in a way that illuminates, through story. Some of us might notice the presence of spirit more literally in sight or sound, or more diffusely through feeling, perception, intuition or dreams. One kind of experience is not better than another.
Second, Swedenborg teaches that we are not generally supposed to be able to feel our connection to spirit in a way that encroaches on our freedom.(1) Sure, it might seem like it would be comforting to have a literal angel by our side all the time, giving us whatever we need, or an angel showing up in times of challenge to give just the right advice, but the nature of that kind of occurrence can also be somewhat coercive. We are not supposed to feel the connection in a way that gives us no choice in acknowledging it. The natural power and transcendence of angels cannot help but naturally influence us, and might well force us into belief, erasing our ability to doubt.
And we need to be able to doubt. Swedenborg writes that doubt is extremely important to our spiritual process:
In addition it should be recognized that it is in accordance with the laws of order that no one should become convinced of the truth instantaneously, that is, should instantaneously be made so sure of the truth that he is left in no doubt at all about it. The reason for this is that when truth is impressed on a person in that kind of way, they become so fully convinced of it that it cannot be broadened in any way or qualified in any way. Truth like this is represented in the next life as that which is hard, not allowing good into itself to make it pliable. This goes to explain why in the next life as soon as some truth is presented through plain experience to good spirits, some opposing idea giving rise to doubt is presented. In this way they are led to think and ponder over whether it is indeed a truth, gather reasons in support of it, and so introduce that truth into their minds by the use of reason. This enables their spiritual vision in respect of that truth to be broadened, seeing even into the ideas that are opposed to it. (2)
Angels would never want to take away our ability to doubt, to influence our process in a way that ultimately does not serve us over time. So, angels typically work with us in a gentle and nuanced way, using that which is already within us to provoke feelings of hope, positivity and strength.(3)
But sometimes, even a gentle presence or connection may not be discernible to us. Swedenborg teaches that there are two reasons for feeling such a separation:
First, we ourselves might have turned away. Angels can only work with what we give them. If we are making choices that are evil and unkind, if we are entertaining and defending false notions, and if we do these things to serve our own selfhood and self-preservation, it is harder for angels to be present and useful to us. Think of it like turning our cell phone off, or literally turning our back towards a friend and plugging our ears.
We all make choices, and sometimes those choices will privilege our egos, our self-absorption, and our defensiveness. These states of mind are less open spirit and more naturally closed and inward-looking. We can’t receive calls with our phones turned off. We can’t hear our friend with our fingers in our ears. Yet, there is nothing permanent about this. We can always choose to turn our phone back on or turn around. A friend, even the best and most compassionate might at some point leave if we ignore them for too long but God and angels never will. They continue to work as best they can for us, as closely as they can, even if we are not letting them in.(4)
The second reason that connection to spirit might feel faint is if we are actively experiencing temptation. The Swedenborgian notion of temptation is a little more robust than our current cultural one, which generally seems to be about either seduction or an irresistible piece of chocolate cake. But really, true temptation is nothing other than a situation that exposes a challenge to our spiritual or moral conscience. We might just call it “spiritual struggle.” We come across these situations all the time, in lesser and greater forms, whereby we experience varying levels of agitation, confusion, sadness and anger. There are too many examples of spiritual struggle to list, and all of them deeply personal. We can all remember times we have been tempted to walk by, withhold love, give up hope, discount ourselves, make an assumption, lash out, close our eyes. We think of Elijah, standing up to to an evil regime, but empty, afraid, not sure what to next or how to move forward, doubting that anything he did mattered. This is temptation and it isn’t fun.
Not that it is much of a comfort, but it is through these experiences of temptation that we are forged, that we are propelled forward in our spiritual journey. Through them we shed notions and ideas that do not serve love, we let go of desires or fears that hold us back from doing good in the world. Temptations of many kinds are necessary, so that we might become progressively more heavenly.
But they are difficult and challenging work, and in those times when we are consumed by our own feelings, when it feels like we are fighting for survival, it can be hard to notice how God and angels are present with us. It is like having the phone on but not being able to hold it to our ear, or letting our friend hold us but crying so hard we can’t hear what they are saying. This is okay. Angels have nothing but compassion for us in this state. And again, there is nothing we can do that would make them leave, for they have been through all of it just as we have, and they know how hard it is.
But even more, they are not simply passive during times of temptation. Swedenborg teaches that angels and spirits are connected to our thoughts and feelings. When our selfish feelings and our false thoughts are in conflict with our good feelings and true thoughts, then the spirits and angels with us are in conflict as well. The angels are fighting for us. We heard in our reading that the angels defend us from within. That reading continues:
As stated, temptations arise primarily when a person is becoming spiritual, for at that time we are gaining a spiritual understanding of the truths of doctrine. The person themself is often unaware that this is happening; even so, the angels present with us see spiritual concerns within our natural ones since our interiors at this time are open towards heaven. (5)
What is most amazing is that the angels are not only fighting for us as we are now, they are fighting for who they know we can become. The angels present with us see spiritual concerns within our natural ones since our interiors at this time are open towards heaven. The angels know something about us more deeply than we ourselves know it. The angels see us truly, they see what is still obscure about us to us, yet they see the best of us and they draw that forth and protect it. What faith! Within our natural concerns they see the infinite and eternal, they see the heart of the matter, even if we can’t see it. They see our yearning and our deepest hoping, they see the cracks where the light can get in, they see our openness and they fight for it, even as we fail and stumble and fall. They bring us food and water, love and insight, nourishment for the journey. They believe in us. They say: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” They don’t fix our problems for us, but they give us the sustenance to make it to the mountain of God. And most of the time we don’t even know they are doing it.
Today, we will join together in what we call The Holy Supper, when we recall Jesus breaking bread and drinking wine with his disciples. We ourselves eat bread and drink wine as a remembrance of the how far God reached out to us, as a recognition of the ways that we are connected to spirit through God’s love and wisdom, and in gratitude for the ways we are nourished by what is good and what is true, what is loving and what is real. Today, let us also think of the angels attending Elijah and providing sustenance in the same way. Wine and water both correspond to truth, and so today we will have both wine and water available, so that if you wish it, you may enact a recognition of the ways that angels show up for us and nourish us.
All at once an angel touched him and said “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. (I Kings 19:5-6)
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4249
(2) Ibid #7298:2 (3) Ibid #2338
(4) Ibid #3402 and #2121
(5) Ibid #5036:3
I Kings 19:1-13
Elijah Flees to Horeb
1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” 3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.
9 There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Secrets of Heaven #5036:2
As for temptations themselves, they are going on while a person is in the actual process of being regenerated, for no one can be regenerated unless they also undergo temptations; and the evil spirits around then are the means through which those temptations are brought about. In temptation the person is brought into a state in which the evil that possesses them, that is, possesses their own essential self, is dominant. Once they enters this state evil and hellish spirits surround them, and when they realize that inwardly a person is protected by angels those evil spirits reactivate the false ideas a person has previously contemplated and the evil deeds a person has committed. But the angels defend us from within. This conflict is what a person experiences as temptation, yet the experience is so vague that we are aware of it as scarcely anything more than a feeling of anxiety. For a person, especially one who has no belief at all in influx, dwells in a state of complete obscurity and discerns scarcely the smallest fraction of the things over which evil spirits and angels are engaged in conflict. Yet a battle is taking place at such a time over us and our eternal salvation, with both sides using what is within us; for both draw on what resides with a person and engage in conflict over it. The truth of this I have been led most certainly to know. I have heard such conflict going on, I have perceived the influx taking place, and I have seen the spirits and the angels, to whom I spoke at the time and subsequently about what was happening.
Readings: Jeremiah 7:1-11, Matthew 20:20-28, Heaven and Hell #403 (see below)
There is an anecdote in the beginning of Swedenborg’s book, Married Love, about what constitutes heavenly joy. In it, newly deceased spirits arrive in the spiritual realm, and are allowed to experience whatever it is that they think heaven is or should be. Some spirits thought heaven was pure unadulterated bliss, some thought it was constant enjoyable conversation. Some thought it was feasting with the Patriarchs, some thought it was enjoying a paradise. Some thought it was experiencing great wealth and splendor, and finally, some thought it was constant praise and religious celebration. An angel tells them: “Follow me and I will introduce you to your joys…” and the spirits got to experience exactly what they had been hoping for. But we don’t have the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for” for nothing. Not surprisingly, the spirits tired very quickly of their perceived joys. The spirits wishing for endless diverting conversation were eventually driven to distraction by the sound of talking, the spirits wishing for endless feasting grew sick at the sight of food, spirits wishing for the exercise of power and wealth came to see themselves as playacting, spirits wishing for constant paradise found themselves becoming inured and numb towards beauty, the spirits looking forward to constant praise found themselves bored beyond telling.(1)
The angels tell each new spirit that they have mistaken the “subsidiary adjuncts to heavenly joys” for actual heavenly joys. Meaning: they mistook the external form of joy for the source of joy.
A spirit then asks: What then is heavenly joy? To which the angels answers: It is the pleasure of doing something that is of use to oneself and to others, and the pleasure of being useful takes its essence from love and its expression from wisdom. The pleasure in being useful, springing from love through wisdom, is the life and soul of all heavenly joys.(2)
Swedenborg’s book Heaven and Hell describes it this way:
This is because virtues for everyone in the heavens are virtues in act, which are functions. Everyone there does something specifically useful, for the Lord's kingdom is a kingdom of uses. (3)
All the things that are good about heaven, or about angels—love, honesty, integrity, compassion, curiosity, connection—are not abstract virtues that are good just in and of themselves, they become good when they become real in action. Thus heaven is a kingdom of uses. Elsewhere in Swedenborg’s writings heaven is described as a realm of mutual love. In both cases though, it is clear that the life and soul of heavenly joy is usefulness, a recognition that we do not exist so that we might benefit ourselves only, but rather, we exist so that we might extend love, benefit, and blessing outward towards others. As heard in our reading, joy that rests on the notion of idleness, necessarily rests upon the notion of wanting more happiness than another; such a view is ultimately inward looking, contracted, dwindling, static. A notion of heavenly joy that rests upon useful service is inexhaustibly generative, a mutual love feedback loop that builds ever more towards the renewal and perpetuation of each person’s humanity. The Buddha said: If you light a lamp for someone, it will brighten your own path.
And can anything else make sense to us? As we consider eternity, could anything else be palatable for the human mind and soul? “Forever” is beyond our true comprehension, but I think that we all sense the truth of the anecdote which with we began, that human beings are not very good at choosing what will make us happy. If an eternal afterlife is to exist, there is nothing else but active, loving and useful service that could be remotely tolerable for an eternity, that could actually lead to true and lasting joy and happiness.
So, when Swedenborg describes what do angels do in heaven, it is delightfully quotidian, delightfully grounded, delightfully varied.
There are angels who take care of children who have died, angels who teach or preach, angels who welcome and guide new spirits, angels who take care of new spirits as they awaken, angels who monitor and moderate the actions of people in hell, angels who see to domestic duties, angels who participate in civic endeavors and communal government, angels who organize and oversee divine worship, angels who study, read and learn, angels who build and garden, angels who create art and music. Swedenborg makes sure to say there is literally no way to list all the functions that people have in heaven. Because, even with an impossibly exhaustive list, each angel also contributes their own unique flavor to their function. A beautiful variety, guided by the principle that we heard in our reading:
…angelic life consists of worthwhile, thoughtful actions, actions that are useful to others, and that all the happiness angels have is found in service, derives from service, and is proportional to service.
But, it is very important to note, however, that an active life is not necessarily a busy one. The life of heaven is not doing for the sake of doing. It is not the “Busyness Olympics” which many of us fall prey to in our lives here, whereby our busyness quotient might prove just how important, or passionate or in demand we really are. The Sufi poet Hafiz wrote: I felt the need of a great pilgrimage so I sat still for three days. Love in heaven is expressed through wisdom, which is about knowing what is truly needed in any given moment. A great pilgrimage in a far away land might well feel exciting, but it is true wisdom to recognize when it is an internal pilgrimage that is warranted, and not an external one.
Heaven is not a realm of performative busy-ness, but a realm of true usefulness, of thoughtfulness. Swedenborg himself, though an active member of society, was a consistent meditator. He understood deeply how essential contemplation can be, how useful reflection, renewal and Sabbath can be. Usefulness has lots of different forms.
Sometimes the most useful thing is to not be active. Sometimes the most useful thing is to slow down. Sometimes the most useful thing is to receive: receive care, counsel, perspective, or renewal. Heaven is not a kingdom of martyrdom, about constantly ignoring ourselves and our needs, but rather, about not elevating our needs above all other things, all the time. The heavenly view sees the self through the lens of community, through the lens of usefulness to the common good, of which each angel is a part. They rest and renew and receive, in order that it might serve their own sense of connectedness to God and to their neighbor. We will pray in a few moments the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi…Lord make me an instrument of your peace. This is an angel prayer: Lord make me an instrument of your peace, Lord make me an instrument of heavenly usefulness and generativity, make me an instrument of your infinite flow of love, make me an instrument of connection for the sake of the wholeness of your creation.
Since heaven is a realm where the true nature of things is apparent, it is clear to angels how this connectedness plays out. Each angel is the microcosm to heaven’s macrocosm. Each individual is a reflection of the whole of heaven. Swedenborg writes:
It is a secret not yet known in this world that heaven, taken in a single all-inclusive grasp, reflects a single individual. In heaven, though, nothing is better known. Knowing this, knowing particulars and details about it, is the hallmark of angelic intelligence there…Since angels do know that all the heavens, like their communities, reflect a single individual, they refer to heaven as the universal and divine human…(4)
This, ultimately, is what I find so moving about the notion of heavenly usefulness. It is not so much about the virtue of activity, the virtue of creativity, the virtue of doing something good or even the virtue of love. It is participation in a grand symphony of inter-connectedness, whereby our unique individual identity is held in perfect balance with everyone else’s unique individual identity, like cells in the human body, because everyone agrees that everyone is a miracle but no one is the center of the universe.
Follow me, says the angel, and I will introduce you to your joy…I will introduce you to your place in the universal and divine human, where you might know your own value deeply but hold your selfhood lightly, where you might treasure your connectedness to others and every opportunity to be a benefit to them, where you might be alive in the truth of a loving God though whom all these blessings flow.
1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message: “ ‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. 3 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. 9 “ ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. 23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Heaven and Hell #403
On the basis of an opinion formed in the world, some spirits have believed that heavenly happiness consisted of a life of leisure, being waited on by others; but they were informed that there is never any happiness in idling around in order to be content. This would mean wanting the happiness of others for oneself, in which case no one would have any at all. This kind of life would be idle, not active, a life that would lead to atrophy. They might in fact have known that apart from an active life, a life has no happiness, and that idleness serves that life only for refreshment, in order to return them to the active life with more energy. Then they were shown in many ways that angelic life consists of worthwhile, thoughtful actions, actions that are useful to others, and that all the happiness angels have is found in service, derives from service, and is proportional to service.
Prayer (attributed to St. Francis of Assisi)
Lord make us an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine One, grant that we may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Luke 17:20-25, Matthew 6:19-23, Heaven and Hell #311:2 and #54 (see below).
So I’m sure that you have noticed that most of my sermons here are pretty theology focused. Certainly that arena is where I feel most comfortable and interested, and also, these are the types of explorations that are suggested by following the lectionary. The lectionary is gospel heavy, and following Jesus’ life brings up questions of the theological variety, like what does Jesus tell us about God, how can we be faithful to God’s kingdom, what does resurrection tell us about God’s universe? I believe that grappling with these question is very important and useful, as it is extremely important to the Swedenborgian tradition that we live out what we believe.
What is interesting about Swedenborg’s writings though, is that they represent not one but several different genres. There are his works on theology, yes, on single themes such as Divine Providence, Heaven and Hell, Charity, Faith, and Marriage. Then, there are the multiple volumes of scriptural exegesis, whereby Swedenborg works to elucidates an inner meaning to the books of Genesis, Exodus and Revelation, verse by verse. Finally, there are his volumes directed towards the Christian church, a systematic dismantling of prevailing religious thought, and his perspective on what should replace it. Throughout all these works though, are interwoven Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences. In between chapters of theology he will often relate an experience in heaven or a conversation with spirits that bears on similar themes. Taken together, these represent a multitude of accounts of what he experienced in the spirit, what he saw in heaven, and the angels and hellish spirits with whom he spoke.
So, there are actually lots of ways into the Swedenborgian thought-world. Some folks like me find the theology the most appealing, some are lit up by a new understanding of scripture, and some folks resonate with the spiritual experiences. I love this; there are twelve gates to city after all. But even if we individually might have a preferred focus, it is often good to try something new, and that is what I am trying to do here for you with this series. I have my preferred way of doing things, but that doesn’t mean it is the best. So, for the next several weeks, we will be abandoning the lectionary and we will be exploring Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences and what they suggest. And, we will be doing this through the framework of angels, hopefully in a way keeps the our exploration relevant and grounded in our everyday lives.
So as you may gather from our title —Angels 101— we begin with a few basic principles. The first thing that needs to said is that angels are us. Swedenborg makes very clear that angels are not a separately created race of beings but rather are people who lived in this world, who chose to live a good life, who died to this natural earthly realm and continue to live in the spiritual world. Though that may sound like common sense, and the way that most people instinctively view angels and the afterlife, it is also true that there has historically been an elaborate religious mythology around angels that persists even today.
The reality is actually pretty simple. God’s highest purpose is to be able to give love to us for eternity, to make a heaven from the human race. And, if Divine love wants to be able to give love in a meaningful way, there is at least one serious pre-condition. We all know love can only be meaningful when it is freely given, so we human beings, even as we ourselves are creations of God’s love, have been given the freedom to choose Divine Love over the self if we want to. As we progressively choose love over the self, in small and greater ways, we re-make ourselves into a fuller image and likeness of God. We come to reflect the nature and form of Divine Love and Wisdom. This is the process of becoming an angel. Swedenborg called it the process of regeneration. IT is not like passing a test or earning an award but rather more like becoming proficient and strong in a certain physical skill. Let’s take dancing for example.
In order to increase our proficiency in dancing, we will need to be open to learning, to being willing to work hard, mostly likely repetitively, to modify how we move our bodies and how we think about moving our bodies. Over time, we will gain muscle mass and muscle memory, greater flexibility, speed and agility. We will become a better dancer. And, instead of this proficiency being ultimately demonstrated by conformity or uniformity, great dancers express their personality through the technique they have acquired. They become more themselves the more they submit to the form and the craft of dancing.
And so it is with our process. There are ways to become a better, more loving, heavenly person. We can learn good communication, anger and anxiety management, compassionate practices, how to listen, how to stand up for ourselves, how to apologise, how to love people in the ways that truly help them. Our learning will depend on being open to teachers wherever we may find them, being willing to fail and try again, being willing to grow even when it is uncomfortable.
And so heaven, or becoming an angel, is not like reward because it is not about deserving. Neither is it about earning something or getting something. It is about being something. Not surprisingly, Swedenborg’s conception of heaven and how angels fit into the picture is not really a moral vision but rather, a scientific or even mechanistic one. Angels do not get to be in heaven because they deserve it. Angels get to live in heaven because they have made themselves into the kinds of people who love what heaven is: a realm of mutual love. Where angels reside is a direct consequence of what they have come to love the most. The more space we clear inside our own spirit for God, the closer we can be to God, because our nature, our deepest loves, will be in alignment with what God is. For people who choose the opposite, who privilege the self above all and close themselves off from God and mutual love, they go to hell. Again not because they “deserve it” but because they cannot abide being in heaven. They hate being in the sphere of mutual love because that is opposed to the primacy of the self. Hell is a mercy for those who have chosen not to transcend the smallness of their own concerns.
So, to recap, angels are us, humanity, and in this world we have the opportunity to do the work that will mould us into the kinds of people who will feel at home in heaven. And there isn’t a threshold, as in we have to achieve some specific level of goodness in order to find our home in heaven. Rather, we will be brought into a home in heaven that matches the heaven we have nurtured inside of ourselves. There will be a place for us; there is a place for everyone, wherever they can be the most happy. These are beautiful teachings, idyllic even. But, now is the time to ask the question: what do they mean for everyday life?
It is certainly reassuring, to know that God’s Divine Providence is leading and guiding us to our perfect heavenly home. But it is important to remember that this is a potentiality that we must actively live into. It is not a passive leading, as if we are floating above everything from one world to the next. There are choices to be made. Choices that involve us being open to new learning about ourselves, being unflinching in recognizing where we are falling short, where we are closing ourselves off from a heaven of mutual love. Choices that involve us sacrificing that which benefits our own ego, so that we might learn how to love others in the ways that they need. Becoming an angel will require determination, flexibility and resilience, for the human ego is relentless, human unconsciousness is pervasive, human defensiveness is the default.
For some further insight on this human condition, I turn to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, whom we will celebrate with a national holiday tomorrow. In a sermon considering how to be a good neighbor, Dr. King addresses segregation, and what is required to surmount it.
"But acknowledging this, we must admit that the ultimate solution to the race problem lies in the willingness of men to obey the unenforceable. Court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though necessary step toward the final goal we seek to realize, genuine intergroup and inter-personal living. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right. A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities that are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible inner law that etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation. True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.”(1)
True neighbors, living in genuine intergroup and inter-personal living, through willing obedience to unenforceable obligations. Mother Theresa puts it this way: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
In contemplating our status as angels-in-training, it is easy to get a little tunnel-focused on our own journey. Our own hearts, our own process, our own internal states, heavenly or otherwise. But, what creates our angel-natures within us is our attention and steadfast diligence regarding our unenforceable obligations towards our fellow human beings. What is it that we choose to do when we don’t have to? This is what will express the nature of our love. This is what will forge us a heaven within us. As Jeremiah expressed, God’s law in our minds and God’s love written on our hearts, transforming how we live in the world. The kingdom of heaven is within us, but it only gets put there through caring about what is outside of us.
(1) Martin Luther King, Jr, Strength to Love (Fortress Press: 2010), p 29-30.
31 “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ” declares the LORD. 33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD.
20 Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” 22 Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.
Heaven and Hell #311:2
…in all heaven there is not a single angel who was created as such in the beginning, nor is there in all hell a devil who was created as an angel of light and cast out. Rather, all the people in heaven and in hell are from the human race - in heaven the ones who have lived in heavenly love and faith, and in hell the ones who have lived in hellish love and faith. Hell as a whole is what is called the devil and Satan.
Heaven and Hell #54
It can never be said that heaven is outside anyone. It is within; because every angel accepts the heaven that is outside in keeping with the heaven that is within. We can see, then, how mistaken people are who think that getting into heaven is simply a matter of being taken up among the angels, regardless of the quality of their inner life, who believe that heaven is granted merely because of [the Lord's] mercy. On the contrary, unless heaven is within an individual, nothing of the heaven that is outside flows in and is accepted.
Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9, 43:7-10, Matthew 3:13-17, Secrets of Heaven #9596:5 (see below)
Those of you who know me, know that I am something of a theology nerd. My favorite book of Swedenborg’s works is Divine Love and Wisdom, which his most abstract and scientific theological tome, and which doesn’t mention Jesus even once. I can get lost in ideas. Not as an escape, but an act of hope, for ideas dictate how we live and exist in our world, how we interpret our experience. Ideas are important.
But sometimes, even I need something a little more devotional. A little more heart oriented. This week, maybe you do too. The news coming from various parts of the world in the first weeks of this new year have been concerning; natural disasters of various kinds, an increase in tensions between nations, erratic and confusing leadership. The news keeps coming hard and fast, which can cause us to feel somewhat whipped about and disoriented. This is all on top of a low hum of constant strain: climate change, abuse of power, eroding political norms, increases in anti-semitism, systemic racism, xenophobia and nationalism. And this doesn’t even include each of our own personal losses and challenges.
Sometimes it feels like too much. A portion of a poem called “what they did yesterday afternoon” by Warsan Shire, often makes the rounds on social media when things feel particularly bleak:
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
This feeling is not new, of course. A conversation with my own teenage daughter this week reminded me how of anxious I was about the state of the world at her age. Human greed and overreach will always be set in conflict with essential righteousness and justice, and this contrast, the very fact of it, the very depressing fact of it, will alway pain the hearts of those who wish to see a world forged in the image of Divine Love. And as much as the actual work we all do to bring love into the world is exhausting, so too even the act of hoping can be exhausting as well. Who can continue to hope when it all seems so futile?
Sometimes the heart needs some care, some reassurance, some comfort, so that hope can feel even slightly possible. This week, I found comfort in Isaiah chapters 42 and 43, in hearing good news about stretching, breath, covenant and witness. From chapter 42, verse 5-6:
“This is what the Lord God says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people and life to those who walk on it. I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people..”
The Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out…this verse speaks to God’s power, yes, and creativity, but also to God’s purposes. Biblical texts that talk about the creation of the universe also speak about the creation of our own spirit. We read in our Swedenborg reading today:
'Stretching out the heavens and spreading out the earth’…by this is meant regenerating a person and thereby creating or forming a new understanding in which there is a new will, which is the spiritual person's actual heaven in which the Lord dwells with that person.
As the Creator stretches out the universe, gives it form and shape and being, so too are we being molded and shaped progressively into the image and likeness of Divine Love. Being stretched is not always comfortable. We generally want to avoid tension and discomfort as much as possible. But the broad sweep of creation also includes *us*, and God the Creator of the heavens is also creating us moment by moment. If we can lean into this tension and let God do what God does, then new worlds are created within us.
This is not always easy, as the cares of the world often feel like they are pushing us down, pushing against us, making us smaller, weaker, more helpless. From this contracted place, we feel fearful, brittle, it feels like stretching will shatter us.
But we must remember that the way that God stretches us is not like stretching an elastic band further and further, thinner and thinner, with no end in sight, until it is pushed to and beyond its limits. Isaiah also uses God’s stretching imagery in regard to a canopy or curtains or tent. From Isaiah 40:22 “He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”
This is a stretching that has an enveloping quality, it contains something, it protects something, it nurtures something, like a mother giving birth to a child. The stretching comes from the the expanding potential of whatever is on the inside. What is it that is on the inside? Breath and life. Verse 5 continues:
“…who spreads out the earth and all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it.”
New space begets new life. We know enough of this natural world to recognize that life fills in every possible niche with something living, something that belongs there. We find bacterial life in the harshest of arctic climates, and in the bleakest crevices of the deepest ocean.
Within us, in the new space God creates, there will be breath and life. In the Hebrew, these words are neshamah and ruwach, both of which can also mean spirit. Our breath and life are deeply connected to spirit. Breath. Our lungs expand and stretch to contain life-giving oxygen, just as our minds expand and stretch to contain new insights, new understandings. Life. In our bodies, oxygen creates adenosine triphosphate or ATP, which is the molecule that provides energy for things our cells must do, all the things which collectively create our life. In our minds, a new understanding of our experience creates a new will to act and live differently, actions that also collectively create our life.
Our lungs expand and take in breath over 20, 000 times per day, and each time it is an image of God’s creative, generative, propulsive purpose for us. We are stretched and expanded, and breath and life infill the space. We were not made to hold emptiness, but to be a container for soul.
We were also not made to journey alone.
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people…” (v.6)
We stretch, we grow, we expand to contain new breath and life, and in this God takes hold of our hand. I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people…
Swedenborg writes that whatever conjoins is a covenant.(1) A covenant is not just superficial words, a transactional agreement for mutual benefit. A covenant is words that give form to a connective relationship. In the reality of that connectivity, we see that our journey is not just for us, we are made to be a promise and covenant for other people as well. We stretch, we are filled with breath and life, God takes hold of our hand and we are propelled forward into the only future that God has made…mutual love, useful service, belonging to each other.
What is important to remember about these Isaiah texts, these “suffering servant” texts as they are known, is that even as Christians see them as prophecies of Jesus—who he will be and what he will do—in their own context they are God talking to the people of Israel about how they should be, how they should choose to define their identity in their own moment. We cannot forget how these texts are rooted in covenant and presence. They are not about what will happen, but about what we choose.
We continue in Isaiah Chapter 43:
10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. 11 I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior. 12 I have revealed and saved and proclaimed— I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God.
You are my witnesses…that I am God. Sometimes it is really hard to hope. Yet, into that very fallible despairing moment, to a fallible despairing people, God says “You.” You are my witnesses. I don’t want anyone else. You are proof that Divine Love is real. You are my witnesses.
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove…” (Matthew 3:13-17). Jesus witnessed in that moment, the presence and the pleasure of God. He witnessed and experienced expansion, breath, life and covenant. Then he went out and lived as if that were true. And so must we.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Explained #701
Isaiah 42:1-9, 43:10-12
1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.” 5 This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8 “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. 11 I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior. 12 I have revealed and saved and proclaimed— I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God.
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Secrets of Heaven #9596:5
'Stretching out the heavens and spreading out the earth' is plainly similar in meaning to stretching and spreading out a dwelling-place by the use of curtains. And by this is meant regenerating a person and thereby creating or forming a new understanding in which there is a new will, which is the spiritual person's actual heaven in which the Lord dwells with that person.
Photo credit: Inbal Malca
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-13, Secrets of Heaven #9293 (see below)
Sorry, my friends, we are not going to escape Herod this week either. Today we explore our first glimpse of Herod in the gospel of Matthew: his interaction with the Magi. Although the gospel narrative makes it seem like the Magi showed up right away, it is more likely that several months have passed, at the very least, since Jesus’ birth. It would take a fairly long time for a caravan of travelers to make their way from the far east. Mary and Joseph and the baby would have settled into a routine, and a quiet life. But, it was not to remain so.
We explored last week how Herod is representative of the evil that exists in our world today. The type of spirit that would do anything to preserve power, the type of spirit that is afraid of necessary change, the type of spirit that can only see the primacy of the self. And this type of spirit can be found in actions both overt and covert, conscious and unconscious; it can find its way into social systems and structures that we depend upon and value. The resulting slaughter of the innocents that sprang forth from Herod’s paranoia and selfishness calls us to examine our own responsibility for the ways in which the vulnerable suffer in our world.
The Magi, though, represent to us a wholly different kind of spirit. The Magi were from a different nation and a different religion from Jesus. They were mostly likely devotees of Zoroastrianism. Yet they practiced an openness to learning new things, a willingness to move themselves from one place to another, a readiness to bow down to something greater than themselves. They could worship in a way that Herod never could. We can also see this spirit in the world if we look for it: movements and institutions that look toward the greater good, that delight in learning from those who are different and that understand our futures are bound up in each other’s well-being.
But of course, this wouldn’t be a Swedenborgian sermon if I didn’t also point out that Herod and the Magi additionally represent impulses and desires within each human heart. They are not just out there (in the world) but in here (within our hearts). They represent the ever-present potential of our freedom, the spectrum of choices that are available to human beings in their everyday. And as we stand here in the baby-days of a new year and a new decade…it is a great time to consider what kind of spirit we wish to cultivate.
Because, the conflict between Herod and the Magi goes beyond just being a nice story. It tells us the truth about what kind of responses there are to divine love being born in the world. Epiphany used to be one of the three main Christian holy days, before Christmas rose in popularity, and it was a celebration of the revelation of the incarnation. Not just the *fact* of the birth of Jesus but the *truth* of what that birth communicates. The truth that Divine Love reached out to a beloved world and a beloved people, but that this reaching out is going to change us and by extension, change the world we live in.
What is our reaction to this truth? Do we evade, conspire, defend, rage, and destroy, like Herod? Or do we rise up, do we commit to a journey, no matter how long or dangerous, do we seek with curiosity and humility, do we bow down and worship? Do we bow down and worship Divine Love and Wisdom in the whole of our life, in every relationship and interaction that we will ever have? Wow, that is a lot to ask. There isn’t a corner of our life the won’t need to journey further than we have ever journeyed, that won’t be asked to bow lower than we thought was possible. In a sense, Christmas is passive; we focus on the gift that is given to us. Epiphany is active and focuses on the journey we will make and the gifts we will give to God and others.
Our Swedenborg reading today talked about what the gifts of the Magi mean:
“For gifts which were offered to Jehovah meant the kinds of things that are offered to the Lord by a person from the heart…for deeds are nothing other than witness-bearers to such things as compose the will.”
The different gifts from the Magi represent different ways to give and receive love, different kinds of action we can take, different ways that each of us bear witness to the truth of the incarnation and bow down before the Lord. What were these gifts exactly and what do they mean?(1)
First, myrrh is a kind of resin from a tree that was used as an ingredient in perfume and medicines and also in embalming. In the Swedenborgian worldview, myrrh represents natural or earthly goodness, from both natural actions and natural motivations. Now, earthly or natural doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Natural needs are very very important. Basic dignity, basic comfort, basic safety, basic emotional support/community/resources are all integral to human well-being, and each person’s ability about to live up to their potential. So, giving a myrrh-kind-of-gift might mean giving money, giving food, giving clothing, giving shelter, providing community or resources. And a myrrh-kind of motivation would doing something because we have been taught that it is the right thing to do.
Now, frankincense is a similar kind of resin to myrrh, with similar applications, and was most especially used for incense. It represents what Swedenborg called spiritual goodness, from both spiritual actions and spiritual motivations. By spiritual he didn’t mean actions that somehow come from a different realm, but rather, actions and motivations that have an internal aspect to them, more than one level. These kinds of actions that are led by the thinking mind, they work to figure out a problem and fix it, to provide for natural needs but more widely, more sustainably, with more efficacy. These actions take into account psychology, sociology, systems thinking and context. The frankincense-kind-of-giving might ask “how can I help?” and then really listen to the answer. And a frankincense-kind-of-motivation would be doing something because it makes sense, and our mind tells us it is the right thing to do.
And finally, we all know what gold is: a precious and beautiful metal, characterized by both its rarity and its malleability. Gold represents celestial goodness, which is characterized by actions led by the heart in wisdom. Swedenborg talks about the nature of the highest angels and calls them celestial. The quality of their natures are such that the wisdom of love is so written on their hearts that their actions are spontaneous and do not require an intellectual justification. They just do it. When someone is suffering, they give presence and care. When someone suffers an indignity, they provide justice. When someone had a need, they fulfill it. Why? Because each human being is an image of God, and to exist fully in the reality of this notion is to exist fully within the practice of mutual love. The gold-kind-of-motivation is doing something because our heart tells us it is the right thing to do.
Many of the gifts that can be given will look the same on all three levels. This is not a hierarchy of giving, saying that gold is better than frankincense and frankincense is better than myrrh. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that human beings exist on multiple levels: earthly, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and so giving always exists on all of those levels as well. But which is it, we may ask. Do the gifts of the Magi represent things we do or how we do them? The gift itself or the approach to giving? It is, of course, both, because the giving itself is a journey. The giving itself is a process, affecting both giver and receiver, and moving them forward in their own spiritual transformations.
And this is why we can’t forget the other gift in the story: the star.
The star is knowledge learned from heaven and God(2), knowledge learned from something beyond us, knowledge that draws us forward, knowledge that guides us up and out of our own self-obsession, our own sense of rightness and privilege. It is important to remember that the Magi journeyed. Far. They rose up out of their own context and traveled to another, not knowing exactly what they would find, led by a star, led only by their belief that this star would teach them something. Herod, of course, could not see the star. The Herod-spirit refuses to look to anything but the primacy of the self. Such a spirit will never take the risk of journeying, of not knowing the answer, and of putting aside outward strength and perceived rightness.
And so, as we consider what Epiphany calls us to, as we consider how we want to live our lives and how we wish bow down before the Lord and give of our own resources, spirit and love, we must remember to be guided by the star. The Magi did not give because it served them. The baby Jesus was not going to remember what they gave and why. We all know that babies prefer the boxes the gifts came in to the gifts themselves. They gave because that is what journeying to find the Lord requires; the journey was the gift, the gold frankincense and myrrh were the natural culmination of the journeying.
Neither did the Magi give out of their own comfort. The Magi didn’t send gifts, they brought them, they journeyed out of their own self-conception to see what Divine Love had wrought, and then they bowed down to what they found, not to their own idea of what it would be.
We all, at different times, will be led in different ways, just like the Magi. Sometimes the myrrh-star will lead us in an earthly way, and we will take care of someones’s natural needs…that’s good, keep on going. Sometimes the frankincense-star will lead our minds in an intellectual way, and bring us around to a new perspective of some kind, a new insight might give us a new way to serve….that’s good, keep on going. Sometimes the gold-star will lead our hearts, and we will be touched and moved by love, dignity and solidarity…that’s good, keep on going! Keep on journeying, Magi-friends!
In the simplest of ways, when we give to another, we give to the Lord. And we get to choose to enact our nativity scene each day, even after it comes down from the mantle after Christmas. But rather than a static scene, it is truly a dynamic one. Perhaps this time, in my own home, I will keep the Magi out all year long and have them journey around my living spaces, as a reminder that the birth of divine love bids us move, and that the journey itself is the gift.
Arise, shine, your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4262 and Apocalypse Revealed #277
(2) Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #205
1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. 3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip. 5 Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. 6 Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Secrets of Heaven #9293
…For gifts which were offered to Jehovah meant the kinds of things that are offered to the Lord by a person from the heart and are accepted by the Lord. The situation with those gifts is as it is with all a person's deeds. A person's deeds are merely acts performed by the body, and when regarded in isolation from their will are no more than variously regulated, so to speak articulated movements, not unlike the movements of a machine, and so are lifeless. But deeds regarded together with the will are not like those movements. Rather they are outward expressions of the will displayed before the eyes, for deeds are nothing other than witness-bearers to such things as compose the will. They also derive their soul or life from the will…. So it is that by 'gifts' offered to Jehovah, that is, to the Lord, such things as are present in the will or the heart are meant, 'the heart' being what the Word calls a person's will…
Photo credit: Kat Jayne
Readings: Isaiah 63:7-9, Matthew 2:13-23, Secrets of Heaven 4572:2 (see below)
So, the lectionary doesn’t give us much of a breath after Christmas this year, does it? We are barely done with the sweet and joyous celebration of Jesus’ birth, when we are reminded by the gospel of Matthew that Jesus was born in a dangerous time, in dangerous circumstances. He was part of a poor Jewish family under Roman occupation, under the rule of a cruel and paranoid proxy king. This would have been a difficult life for any child. But for a child who is prophesied to be king of the Jews, to be the coming Messiah? There were many in power for whom that was not good news at all. And so, we brought face to face with Herod. We are brought face to face with the existence of evil.
So, yay, welcome to the first Sunday of the season of Christmas! This story probably the last thing that most of us want to talk about. But, sometimes if we focus too much on the *fact* of the incarnation we forget about the *why.* Yes, God loved humanity and that is why God came, but it wasn’t just a random or indulgent bestowal of love. It was a rescue. We —humanity—really needed God, so God came; came in a way that continues to help us wrestle with the Herodian spirit….even here and now.
So, right before our reading today we find the story of the Magi, which we will explore next week. They had been looking for the Messiah that the stars had foretold to them. Herod played along in order to find Jesus and destroy him. However, the Magi were warned in a dream to avoid Herod, and so Herod never learned of Jesus’ exact location. Herod became furious and ordered a unilateral massacre of young boys in Bethlehem. Thankfully, another dream warned Joseph to leave, and he and Mary and Jesus were able to escape to Egypt just in time. But there were no dreams for the other children. To describe the devastation, the gospel writer quotes Jeremiah, another time of mourning for children lost in war:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)
Herod perpetrated a great evil with this fabled slaughter of the innocents. He was well known as a blood-thirsty, cruel and paranoid leader, characteristics that worsened significantly as he aged. He executed his second wife and two of their sons, as well as his own first born son, his mother-in-law and his brother-in-law. Additionally, according to the historian Josephus, he was apparently so concerned that his death would not be properly mourned that he arranged for a number of distinguished persons to be killed after he died so that there would be greater sorrow associated with his death. Thankfully, his surviving children did not follow through with that order.
While there is no historical record of the slaughter of the innocents at Bethlehem, the event is clearly consistent with Herod’s character and approach and could easily have been inspired by Herod’s killing of his own children. If he was so paranoid and suspicious with his own family, we can only imagine how he would have reacted to a report of the birth of the “king of the Jews.” In Herod’s mind, and of course, in terms of the earthly political order, *Herod* was the king of the Jews. The little baby Jesus in the manger was a usurper, and if Herod was going to hold on to power, that baby must be killed. Out of anger, vengeance and fear, he did what he felt he needed to do to preserve his own power.
In our world, Herod is one in a long line of tyrants who have found their way to power and done unconscionable things to keep that power. History books are full of the slaughter of innocents, whether in terms of actual loss of life, or in terms of the death of personal dignity, identity and autonomy. Even today, we need look no further than our newspapers to learn of family separations at the border, the epidemic of sexual abuse in border facilities, the record number of deaths of black transgender women this year, or the record number of homeless deaths in some of our cities. Add #metoo, climate change, an increase in white supremacy and anti-semitism, and it seems that if we let it all in we might never be done with the weeping and mourning. When we come to understand, for example, the extreme psychological effects of thousands of children being separated from their parents, how can we ever be consoled? That loss is forever. That innocence will never be regained.
And for such things, I believe we must be like Rachel, and refuse to be comforted, we must refuse to be consoled by a world that tells us such dehumanization and indignity is par-for-the-course, is justified, is normal, is necessary. For there is the consolation that the world gives, a consolation that would wipe away, cover over, distract from, all that would make us mourn, all that still needs to be done. The world whispers: This again? Aren’t you done with that already? Go on: learn to be okay; learn to appear strong; learn to appear effortlessly Instagram-ready.
Now to some ears, a refusal to be comforted might sound like it is a dismissal of God’s peace and grace. But I would argue that it is a true assimilation of the spirit of Christmas, for Herod is as much a part of the Christmas landscape as are the angels, shepherds and the Magi. And in fact, the incarnation happened because *God* refused to be consoled and reached out to humanity, believing that we could do better, believing that when given direction and freedom and inspiration that we would more often than not choose to stand for truth and love. Evil exists —evil actions, evil consequences, evil systems—and this is why God came, to save *us*, not to save us from distress. Salvation is not a life-boat that takes us away from this world and all that is in it. God’s consolation doesn’t mean looking away from all that would make us mourn and cry out. It means knowing that God is with us when we go through the hard things, that God will be with us when we need to face down the Herodian-spirit in our world and in our hearts. This is what we hear in our Isaiah reading as well:
“For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them;” (Isaiah 63:8-9)
God’s consolation is not a simple, “there there.” God’s consolation is not for purposes of anesthesia, for proving we are chosen, or for escaping pain. Consolation is what happens after transformation, when we recognize just how present God has been with us during our difficulty. From our Swedenborg reading:
Yet the joy and comfort do not come because a victory has been won but because good and truth have been joined together. Joy is present within every joining together of good and truth, for that joining together is the heavenly marriage, in which the Divine is present. (Secrets of Heaven 4572:2)
Comfort comes from good and truth being joined together in life. God’s consolation is a bone-deep recognition of God’s love, and it comes from doing the work that joins good and truth together in practice. It is not a reward for being strong, and it was never a promise that we won’t mourn again. It is a promise that we won’t ever mourn alone.
“...he was their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them…” God is our savior *within* our distress, within our suffering, within our life and within our world…and thus that salvation is not characterized by a disengagement but rather an increased sensitivity to injustice.
Like Rachel, refusing to be comforted means understanding the stakes. It means choosing to eschew all that would anesthetize us, it means resisting the status quo. It means being willing to show up when it matters. Because, and I don’t mean to depress you, but Herod will always be with us, in some way or another. It is part of the human condition. The problem is not so much the existence of evil but the excusing of it. The problem is when we no longer see evil, whether evil actions or evil systems, when such things no longer cause us to weep and to mourn. The problem is when we accept the world’s consolation: there there, its really not that bad. They should have followed the law. They should have been more careful. They should have gotten a job. They shouldn’t have been wearing that. They should have known their place. They should have put their hands up. They should have known this is how things work.
Yet, even so, God said yes to being in our world. God said yes to being a vulnerable baby dependent on his father listening to a dream. God said yes to a ministry that loved the supposedly unlovable. God said yes to a death that upended our notions of power. And in doing so, God showed us what is real and lasting. God showed us that the Herodian-spirit can never have the last word.
In Richard Rohr’s phrasing, “incarnation means not just that God became Jesus; God said yes to the material universe, God said yes to physicality…[and] so it is always Advent. God is forever coming into the world.”(1)
And boy do we need that.
(1) Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Celebrating an Eternal Advent, 12/24/19
7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8 For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their savior 9 in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Secrets of Heaven 4572:2
In general it should be recognized that every joining together of good and truth is effected by means of temptations. The reason for this is that evils and falsities offer resistance and so to speak engage in rebellion, and by every means try to prevent the joining of good to truth, and of truth to good. This conflict takes place between the spirits present within humankind, that is to say, between the spirits governed by evils and falsities and the spirits governed by goods and truths. Human beings experience that conflict as temptation within themselves. When therefore the spirits governed by evils and falsities are conquered by the spirits governed by goods and truths, the former are compelled to depart and the latter receive joy from the Lord by way of heaven. This joy is also felt by the person concerned as comfort; they feel it within themselves. Yet the joy and comfort do not come because a victory has been won but because good and truth have been joined together. Joy is present within every joining together of good and truth, for that joining together is the heavenly marriage, in which the Divine is present.
A Christmas Eve Message...
I’m going to say something now but you have to promise not to get mad at me. Jesus probably wasn’t born in a stable. Now I promise, I’m not trying to ruin your Christmas. I would never bring this up unless I thought that it could actually increase the meaningfulness of our celebrations, not decrease it. So, let me explain:
The actual design of Palestinian houses in Jesus day was to have one single room in which the family would live. The family’s animals were not kept in a separate dwelling, but would be brought inside at night to a lower compartment in that single family room, which would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with hay, where the animals would feed. Each house would have a room for guests in the back or on the roof. There is actually a fair bit of evidence that the greek word that is often translated as “inn” or “guest room” most likely refers to a spare room or upper room in a private house, and not to an inn as we might think of it now, a public boarding place for travelers.
Additionally, many scholars maintain that given the standards of hospitality at the time, it would have been unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his ancestral home, would have been turned away from anyone’s house. Even very distant relatives, and Joseph would have had many in Bethlehem, would have immediately welcomed Mary and Joseph into their homes. What is most likely then, is that the guest room was already taken, and so Mary and Joseph needed to stay in the family room, with the rest of the family, and of course, the animals.
So where do we get the notion of the stable? We note that the text does not say anything about a stable. The idea comes from centuries of reading the birth narrative with Western eyes. A culture that places their animals in a stable separate from the family home will see those assumptions in the text. A culture that does not center hospitality in the same way will view Mary and Joseph as being “turned away.”
And so, let me just say that there is nothing wrong with the way that we tell the Christmas story as it is now. It communicates some very powerful and important things about the incarnation. The turning away from the inn brings home to us how easy it is to turn away from God in our lives, to say not now, not here, not me. It speaks of such a great love and humility on the part of God, to enter into our world, in the quiet, alone, on the margins, without fanfare. In a complicated and discouraging world, we long for simplicity and peace and inclusion, and God’s birth can certainly bring these things home to us.
But I think that it is also true that the way we tell the story creates a some distance. The picture of the holy family up on a hill, by themselves in a stable with only the animals…it’s beautiful and rarefied yes, but also a little remote. And perhaps this remoteness allows us to disengage from this immensely powerful story, to keep it relegated to the Christmas season, a beautiful nativity scene only to be looked at and not touched. Certainly having nothing to do with our lives from January to November. Certainly having nothing to do with our lives as they are, which are often complicated, raucous, messy and heartbreaking. Do we think that this is what Divine Love intends for us to believe, that God wouldn’t enter into our lives as they are?
So let me suggest an alternative.
When Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, there was no space in the guest room, so they were told to make themselves comfortable in the family room. Among the animals, yes, but also among the pots and pans and the paraphernalia of life. When it came time for Mary to deliver, it would have been a bustling place, aunties and cousins hovering, heating water on the fire, community midwives rubbing Mary’s back, Joseph and the men fetching wood, children peeking around the corners with wide eyes, animals munching on their straw. As Mary labored and paced and pushed, as Divine Love was birthed into the world with body and breath and life, our God was incarnated in the midst of human activity, in the midst of culture and family and connection. Jesus was born in a middle-eastern living room, his first cries heard with joy and applause, not because he was God but because he was loved.
And the reality is…this picture has more in common with the hustle and bustle of each of our own family Christmases than with the quiet peaceful pastoral scene we often look to. As you tumble downstairs tomorrow morning, or round the corner, into your raucous? Christmas morning, God is already there, being born into your Christmas living room, among the family dogs, cats, goldfish and gerbil, next to the sofa and the tv and the coffee table, the places where we spend our days.
God is being born amidst all the shrieks of joy and contented smiles, the Christmas pudding coming out a bit burnt and the cranberry sauce spilling on the floor, the tensions rising and falling, the lame family jokes, the dog getting into the garbage, the misunderstandings and the forgiving of them. This is where God would be born, within all of it. Exactly where new life should be found.
We don't have to become like our Christmas story, quiet, peaceful and perfect for God to be present. Sure, sometimes it helps to us take a breath, to silence our chattering thoughts…but that is about us being able to notice God’s presence, not about God’s desire to be with us, to be born within our very lives, messy and incomplete as they are. Our God was born into our world, as it was, as it is.
So, for all the ways in which the traditional telling of the Christmas story calls us to be brave, welcoming, generous, reverent and joyful, let’s definitely keep it. But perhaps it is time to question how it might also keep us at arms length from the immense love of God, from the ways in which God would be born into our lives right now, in each beautiful and difficult moment. From the way that God unabashedly embraced our human particularity and our human experience. In the words of Sarah Bessey, “it’s not Jesus otherness but his us-ness, his human-ness, his full experience as fully human and fully God together that is the miracle [of the incarnation.]” Let us welcome the birthing of God into our living rooms, and let us be not afraid, for we call our God “Emmanuel” God-with-us. Let us let God be with us.
Ian Paul, “Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable.” https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/once-more-jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable/?fbclid=IwAR0Q5khXkb-x4-aFWX9ujisBVjCnaxQqeyAJ9zDPDaSHEhLaxuFC9rkqVqg
Sarah Bessey, “Why everything you know about the nativity is probably wrong.” https://sarahbessey.substack.com/p/why-everything-you-know-about-the?fbclid=IwAR3YxC4JUHGDn28eakxkEbKpDnm3AMzlsycpXim3YfrPGDMZttUXwOOr9Wc
Photo credit: Egor Kamelev
Readings: Isaiah 35, Matthew 11:2-11, Heaven and Hell #522 (see below)
More than once this week, I heard from my various commentaries that the question that John asks in the Matthew text is an Advent question. Are you the one that is to come? It is a plaintive question, heavy with waiting, expectation, need, hope. And also, a little doubt, for underlying that question is another….Lord, are you really coming? The world often appears fraught to the people in it, we are but little and limited, and these days we are living through are no exception. We and those around us are grappling with loss, with anxiety, with change, with not having enough, with broken relationships, with a suffering earth. We grapple with a political realm in which it seems like truth doesn’t matter, with an economic realm in which it seems like compassion doesn’t matter, a cultural realm in which it seems like altruism doesn’t matter.
And so, in this Advent season, we ask the question that Christians have asked for two thousand years. Are you the one? How can we know if you are the one? Lord, are you coming to save us? We ask along with John the Baptist, each of us in our own prisons: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” We ask, in between the lines: Is our faith justified?
What it is that Jesus answers? What do you see happening? He says: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind have received sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Jesus tells us to look around, to notice birth and resurrection as it comes to us in our daily lives, in our world but in ourselves as well. Have we come into an insight that we were formally blind to, have we learned something new or empowered ourselves in some new way, have we cleansed ourselves of some habit that was holding us back, have we nursed back into health some part of us that we thought was lost, have we finally come to accept our worthiness in a world that would convince us we are nothing? Have we worked to bring any of these blessing to the life of another? Am I coming? says the Lord. I have already come.
Our Isaiah reading uses different but equally compelling imagery. We heard in our reading today about the desert bursting into bloom, about feeble hands and wobbly knees becoming strong, about song where there once was silence, about water flowing in the wilderness, about a road safe to travel. As we look around we see this too; we see crocuses bravely blooming in the snow, we see knees and shoulders replaced by capable doctors, solar powered desalination plants that bring clean fresh water to barren landscapes, hearing aids that allow babies to hear their mother’s voices, we see humpback whales rebounding from the brink of extinction,(1) we see #illridewithyou, a twitter campaign where Australians offered to ride with their Muslim neighbors afraid of islamophobia.(2) Am I coming? asks the Lord. I have already come.
This is what it looks like when God comes to us. When love is born in our lives. When divine love is incarnated in this world. But, these images are not the only thing included in the Isaiah reading. We also hear: “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
Wait, what? With…vengeance? With retribution? God will save us with these things? I don’t get it. I thought salvation was a blooming flower, a miracle, a gift, a waterfall, a healing, a leaping deer.
It is all these things. But it is not these things separated from their context. A superbloom in the desert only happens after a prolonged dormancy and a flooding rain. A healing surgery only becomes so in and through an intentional wounding of the body and the difficult therapy that follows. A movement of people offering rides to anxious strangers only happens when they reject the siren call of apathy and/or tribalism. A species is resurrected only when we humans refrain from hunting through law and consequence.
John the Baptist calls for us to make straight the highway for our God, the highway that Isaiah calls the Way of Holiness. It is our choice to clear that path. And anyone who has done even a little yard maintenance knows that this is hard work, and that it is not always work that we want to do. I used to dread when my parents would ask me to mow the lawn. I would do whatever I could to get out of it. And I resented them for asking me to do it, something that on this side of homeownership and parenthood, I recognize as a completely reasonable and necessary thing.
But sometimes things just need to be done. Sometimes the bandaid just needs to be ripped off. We can look our child in the eyes and tell them it needs to be done, and still they won’t agree, still they will barely allow it. And when we do rip it off, they look at us resentfully with a quivering lip and betrayed, watering eyes. Until the moment passes and they realize that the pain was momentary and now they are free.
Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.
Sometimes we just don’t want to do what salvation requires. Sometimes we don’t want to sacrifice what needs to be sacrificed. We are fearful, we believe we cannot survive without our emotional crutches, our justifications, our defenses. We want our transformations to be easy, safe, controllable. This is not what we are promised though.
C.S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce, imagines a busload of the newly deceased coming into heaven and being met by luminous angels. He tells the story of one spirit accompanied by a small red lizard on his shoulder. At first the spirit attempts to enter heaven, but after the lizard whispers in his ear for a bit, he decides to turn around. He is stopped by an angel who wonders where he is going. The spirit explains that “it’s no good,” the lizard on his shoulder won’t keep quiet, and he knows his murmurings don’t belong in heaven, so he’s just going to go home. The angel offers to kill the lizard but the spirit demurs, he shrinks, he makes excuses. He promises to think about it and come back another day.
“There is no other day”, says the angel. “All days are present now.” And he reaches a luminous hand towards the lizard.
“Get back!” shouts the spirit. “You’re burning me! How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
“It is not so.” says the angel calmly.
“Why, you’re hurting me now.” complains the spirit.
“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”
But still the spirit equivocates. “Why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me—before I knew. It would be all over by now if you had.”
“I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible.” explains the angel. “Have I your permission?”
And all the while, the lizard whispers and whispers in the spirit’s ear…
“Have I your permission?” says the angel again.
“I know it will kill me,” whimpers the spirit.
“It won’t. But supposing it did?”
“You’re right.” the spirit surrenders “It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature…Get it over….God help me."
And the spirit finally allows the angel to tear the whispering lizard off his shoulder. The spirit screams in agony, and the lizard is gone, and moments later the spirit is transformed, standing taller, brighter, stronger, lighter. (3)
Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.
This is your God, the divine band-aid ripper, the one who will do what we cannot actively do but only allow, because we are afraid and tired and weak. We look through tear-filled eyes at this God who at first seems terrible and then is wonderful. I never said it wouldn’t hurt. I said it wouldn’t kill you. The caterpillar dissolves completely in its cocoon, and emerges in beauty.
Salvation is not an intercession but a transformation, one that we must choose. Richard Rohr puts it this way:
“We must all hope and work to eliminate suffering, especially in many of the great social issues of our time…We don’t ignore or capitulate to suffering, yet we must allow it to transform us and the world. Suffering often shapes and teaches us and precedes most significant resurrections.
Christian wisdom names the darkness as darkness and the Light as light and helps us learn how to live and work in the Light so that the darkness does not overcome us. If we have a pie-in-the-sky, everything is beautiful attitude, we are going to be trapped by the darkness because we don’t see clearly enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Conversely, if we can only see the darkness and forget the more foundational Light, we will be destroyed by our own negativity and fanaticism, or we will naively think we are completely apart and above the darkness. Instead, we must wait and work with hope inside of the darkness, even our own—while never doubting the light that God always is, and that we are too (Matthew 5:14). That is the narrow birth canal of God into the world—through the darkness and into an ever-greater Light.”(4)
Are you the one that is to come? we ask in Advent. I am coming, says the Lord, I am already here. I will come with vengeance, I will come to save you. The God who insists that we are strong enough and good enough to survive without the lizard on our shoulder, whatever that represents for us, from the inside of our fear, this God looks punishing, unfair, insane and downright unsympathetic. But this God is birthing us, and God knows that, sometimes, an attitude that looks something fierce like vengeance is required to get that baby born.
What do you see happening? The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor.
(3) Adapted from: C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Simon & Schuster:1996), 96-100
(4) Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, 12/6/19, Adapted from Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr: Daily Meditations for Advent (Franciscan Media: 2008), 22-24.
1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. 3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4 say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. 8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the LORD has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” 4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosyare cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” 7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: “ ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Heaven and Hell #522
First, though, let me state what divine mercy is. Divine mercy is a pure mercy toward the whole human race with the intent of saving it, and it is constant toward every individual, never withdrawing from anyone. This means that everyone who can be saved is saved. However, no one can be saved except by divine means, the means revealed by the Lord in the Word. Divine means are what we refer to as divine truths. They teach how we are to live in order to be saved. The Lord uses them to lead us to heaven and to instill heaven's life into us. The Lord does this for everyone; but he cannot instill heaven's life into anyone who does not refrain from evil, since evil bars the way. So to the extent that we do refrain from evil, the Lord in his divine mercy leads us by divine means, from infancy to the end of life in the world and thereafter to eternity. This is the divine mercy that I mean. We can therefore see that the Lord's mercy is pure mercy, but not unmediated: that is, it does not save people whenever it feels like it, no matter how they have lived.