Readings: Amos 5:18-27, Revelation 21:1-2 & 22:1-5, Secrets of Heaven #63 (see below)
See also on Youtube
Our two readings today differ greatly in tone. One is full of lament, the other is bright with hope. During the last few years, we have seen much to fill us with both lament and hope. We saw so many lives lost to a pandemic, and also so much energy and love given to caring for each other through it. We have grappled deeply with seeing the fullness of how racism has poisoned our society and shaped the lives of people of color, and we have seen voices finally being heard and change starting to happen, even as much work remains to be done. We still see unjustifiable war, unexpected disaster, personal loss, division, greed and callousness all around us, but when we have eyes to see it, we can also see unity, competence, sacrifice, and accountability too. Now, as it probably is with any time in history, it is reasonable to find both lament and hope in our hearts.
Let’s first spend some time with the Amos text. Most of us are probably only familiar with verse 24, made particularly famous by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But I highly recommend reading the whole of chapter five at some point because it communicates so viscerally, as did our shorter reading, the depth of God’s lament. The whole chapter is a litany of complaints against the people of Israel, that they have turned away from God, that they have levied unfair taxes upon the poor, that they have oppressed the innocent, taken bribes and denied the poor justice in the courts, that they enriched themselves without any thought of others.
And in Amos God says, I can’t save you from this. If you insist on making these kinds of choices again and again and again, I can’t make it better. If you insist on replacing me with idols of your own making, if you insist on ignoring my words and replacing our covenant with your own selfishness….there will be no religious festival, no sacrifice, no special words that will be able to magically transform the world you have made.
And let’s be clear: God is heartbroken over the way things are going in the book of Amos. God is pleading with the Israelites to open their eyes and see what their selfishness and blindness has wrought. Those who have fashioned God in their own image, those who have twisted God’s word to serve their own purposes, those who have turned away from the suffering of God’s beloved, will not find likeness, will not find light or peace or safety, when they come to understand what God is really about. It will be a terrifying surprise, like running from a lion only to meet a bear, like pitch darkness without a flashlight. And this, not as a punishment, just as the soul-disorienting realization that God doesn’t exist to serve our self-aggrandizement, our worldview, our privilege.
And so God is pleading with them to wake up. To recognize that they cannot participate in festivals, or enact sacrifices in a purely external way. They can’t act selfishly and then act performatively, and expect God to be okay with it. “I will not accept [that]” says the Lord, “But let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-ending stream.”
Swedenborg writes of this verse:
'Justice' means truth, and 'righteousness' good. Both stem from charity (kindness) and are the burnt offerings and sacrifices of the internal self (1).
A river evokes something old and deep and unstoppable. If the hypocritical sacrifices that God is rejecting in Amos are paper-thin and surface-deep, a river is something timeless, reflecting the heart of God…a never-ending stream of justice and righteousness coming up from the deep well of God’s divine love.
God is asking us to connect with that depth, to offer up sacrifices that come from deep inside us, that reflect the depth and the power of that river. That reflect the divine love that gives it being. To give metaphorical burnt offerings that represent ways in which we have recognized our wrongness, and our willingness to use that burnt ash to fertilize new growth. There are so many ways that this applies to each of our own contexts, our own spiritual work, our own particular sacrifices of things we are holding on to. Whether it is the sacrifice of our complicity towards white supremacy, sexism, homophobia or materialism for example, of personal reputation and ego, of ideology, of ambition, of avarice, of complacency. Today, on the precipice of Juneteenth, a celebration of freedom from oppression, is a particularly good day to consider what God is calling for us to sacrifice, so that the river of justice can truly flow.
Now let us take a look at the Revelation text. This begins with the descent of the Holy City New Jerusalem, from which our church is named. And we are told that the river of the water of life flows down the middle of this city, and the tree of life bearing different fruits every month grows on either side, and that the leaves of this tree will be for the healing of the nations.
If in Amos, God spoke that justice and righteousness should flow like a river, here in the holy city we see that river, flowing right through the center. Swedenborg writes that a river indicates divine truths in abundance, and in addition, so do the leaves of the tree. And I quote:
The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. This symbolizes the resulting rational truths by which people caught up in evils and… falsities are brought to think sanely and to live decently(2).
We are invited into a vision in which justice, righteousness, and healing are paramount. A vision in which Divine truth flows in abundance and it leads to people thinking with clarity and living with kindness.
The holy city is thus built by truth being heard and then people changing the way that they live. The holy city is built by the kind of sacrifice that God desires, internal sacrifice, whereby people relinquish ways of thinking that serve themselves and take on ways of thinking that promote healing and service and equality.
And as peaceful as the image of the New Jerusalem appears, we know that doing this is hard work, and will often involve internal conflict. This might feel uncomfortable to us because we have been taught to avoid conflict, to feel like conflict means that we are doing something wrong. But as we heard in our reading:
The hour of conflict is the hour when the Lord is at work…Nor does [the Lord] rest until love is playing the leading part, at which point conflict ceases.
The Lord is at work in our hearts and in our world! I cannot think of anything more worthy of celebration and praise on this Holy City Sunday. When we look around and see conflict and denial and disagreement and anxiety in ourselves and in the world around us, it might not feel like the New Jerusalem is coming. When we see our world looking more like the book of Amos than the holy city, a vision where the leaves of the tree heal us all feels pretty far away, and maybe even a little naive.
But if the Lord is at work, so must we be. We know that the New Jerusalem is not something that we must passively wait for, something in our future that we will have no connection to. It is brought into being through each human heart. It is brought into being with each act of living courageously and decently. It is brought into being via our true and willing sacrifice, made in community together.
God will not rest until love is playing the leading part, And if the Lord does not rest, neither shall we rest until the holy city is embodied as fully as it can be in our world. Now of course, I don’t literally mean we shouldn’t rest. We are of course limited human creatures, we have a biological and emotional need to rest. But what I mean is that we cannot become complacent, content to rest in our privilege, however that privilege has become manifest. This complacency leads to an Amos world, full of blindness and selfishness, full of idols of our own making and myths of our own creating.
These days the invitation has never been more clear….The Lord is at work. Will we join Him? Amen.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #922:3
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Revealed #936
18 Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD! Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light. 19 It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. 20 Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light— pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? 21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. 22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! 25 “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel? 26 You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god — which you made for yourselves. 27 Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD, whose name is God Almighty.
Revelation 21:1-2, 22:1-5
1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
Secrets of Heaven #63
…the Lord is constantly fighting on our behalf against evils and falsities and by these conflicts is confirming us in truth and good. The hour of conflict is the hour when the Lord is at work, which is why in the Prophets a regenerate person is called 'the work of God's fingers'. Nor does the Lord rest until love is playing the leading part, at which point conflict ceases. When that work has reached the point where faith has been joined to love, it is then called 'very good', for the Lord then moves us to be a likeness of [God]self…