Readings: I Kings 19:1-13, Secrets of Heaven #5036:2-3 (see below)
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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, experiences that we particularly try not to shy away from during the season of Lent. 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.
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 to what is important. We think of Elijah, standing up to to an evil regime, but empty, afraid, not sure what to do 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 in the moment, 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 might feel like God is absent, even though we know that God is always with us and never withdraws. This is okay. Angels have nothing but compassion for us in this state. 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, our angels, the ones who connect us to heavenly influence, are not simply passive during times of temptation. As we heard in Swedenborg reading, angels and spirits are connected to our thoughts and feelings. When our selfish feelings and our false thoughts are in conflict with our caring feelings and true thoughts, then the spirits and angels with us are in conflict as well. Our angels are fighting for us, and defend us from within.
But 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. As we heard in our reading: 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 yet know it. The angels see us truly, what we truly want but can’t yet see, they see the best of us and they draw that forth and protect it. What faith! Within our earthly concerns they see the infinite and eternal, they see the heart of the matter, even if we are yet to discern 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.
And so, when finding ourselves in our wilderness times, underneath our broom tree, ready to give up, what do the angels suggest to Elijah? To take a nap and find something to eat. And then to listen to the still small voice. They show up where we are, and help us to be open to what we need. A gentle help, small nudges, designed to fortify our own resilience, courage and groundedness.
As we learned last week, 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 spiritual reality cannot help but naturally influence us, and might well force us into belief, erasing our ability to doubt, and the ability to doubt is very important for our spiritual process. So God has ordained that heavenly spiritual influence should be gentle in nature. But when something is gentle, it is easy to ignore, easy to miss.
We see that the angels first minister to Elijah’s physical needs, and so too, in our times of challenge, we can ask, is there a pause or a renewal that we require? We are not machines. Many times our challenges look different on the other side of sleep, or meditation, or a walk, or time outside, or a proper meal. About this time last year, we did a sermon series on the Seven Types of Rest, seven types of renewal that are important to make time for.
Next, we can ask ourselves if something is getting in the way. Our angels can only work with what we give them. If we are making choices that are unhelpful 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. Our times of spiritual struggle are sometimes an indication that we have some untangling to do, some unhooking of unhelpful ideas from our self-identity for example, or perhaps noting what ideas might make us act in unkind ways, including towards ourselves.
We note that even when Elijah regained his strength to journey again, he then spent the night in a cave. Swedenborg writes that being in a cave is a representation of being enveloped in false ideas and that in particular, in times of temptation, it represents false ideas that are obscuring something good, some good thing we are trying to reach.(2)
In that cave, God’s voice delivers the all-important question: What are you doing here, Elijah? How is being in this cave serving you, Elijah? On the internal level, the question begs us to do as the angels are already doing for us, to focus on our allegiance to divine love, and to come out of the cave, to come out of whatever false idea is holding us back.
Including, how God ought to show up. For Elijah, God was not in the earthquake, or the great wind, or the fire. The voice that finally, fully, pulls Elijah out of the cave was a small whisper, Swedenborg writes that “Divine Good and Divine Truth on the highest levels are peaceful and altogether without any agitation(3)”
This is what our angels are guiding us towards in our times of struggle. A peaceful connection to our God, one that is open and listening and ready to step out of the cave. 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. For this we give thanks.
I Kings 19:1-13
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 #5036:2,3
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…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 enter 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…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.
 As stated, temptations arise primarily when a person is becoming spiritual, for at that time they 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 them see spiritual concerns within their natural ones since their interiors at this time are open towards heaven.