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…