Prov. 8:1-11 (Paul leads two songs!)
Mtt. 6:19-21 #618 "Let Us Break Bread Together"
#132 "Teach Us, O God, To Listen To Your Word"
February 2, 2003 (Swedenborg's Birthday Sunday)
Rev. Kit Billings
This morning we celebrate much more than the birth of Emanuel Swedenborg, who was an 18th c. Swedish Saint that laid the theological foundation for our beloved church. We celebrate the doctrines he gave, which he felt were inspired by God, which enable us to delve purposefully into the depths of God's Holy Word. I've heard it said at times, "Gosh, why would we want to celebrate the birthday of someone who's not around in the material body sense?" Well, why do we celebrate Abraham Lincoln's birthday, or George Washington's birthday, which both land in the month of February by the way?
The answer must be that it's useful to celebrate the birthdays of significant figures in history…of those who contributed monumentally to the betterment of humanity or a nation. And for certain, Emanuel Swedenborg contributed a great deal to the spiritual life of people, most notably to the birth and beginnings of the Lord's New Church on earth.
Clearly, however, the one Person whose Spirit
gave rise to the Lord's New Church on earth
is Jesus Christ our Lord.
God will always be the cause and inspiration behind the renewal of His Church. But clearly, just as the Lord needed certain people to faithfully record every book of the Bible, so, too, did God need one very good, humble and beautifully intelligent person to spend decades of time discerning and recording the doctrines of the New Church.
Emanuel Swedenborg was the greatest revelator to describe what God's renewal of life was during the Age of Enlightenment. But there have been others who've been conscious of major cosmic transformational periods after Medieval Times, which I believe all have connection to the spiritual Second Coming of Christ. Matthew Fox, an ex-Catholic priest, is but one, while various artists and poets are others.
Swedenborg's religious teachings have inspired and helped tens of thousands of men, women and children to find the Lord within the organized New Church and by means of his books, which not only dig so wonderfully into the inner sense of God's Holy Word, but also expound upon the doctrines that set men's minds free. These teachings are one tool among billions of ways that our Savior reaches human beings, and today we celebrate that these teachings assist people like you and me to better understand and embrace God in a beautiful, deep and personal way. Swedenborg's science and his theology have touched and blessed many others in history as well, which simply illustrates the beautiful truth that God has many, many ways to steadily enrich, illuminate and transform human understanding, human feelings, human living, and our way of seeing the very structure of reality.
Now, may it not be said in this church do we even come near the idea of worshiping a mere human being-that would be idolatry. Why Swedenborg himself would turn over in his grave, so to speak, if he thought that anyone after reading one or more of the 30 theological books he wrote came to a belief that a mere human being should be worshiped. Later in my sermon you'll here a quote from one of the last conversations Swedenborg had that illustrates this point. And, may it always be understood that we do not elevate Swedenborg's writings to the level of God's Holy Word. That again would be blasphemy.
However, this theology is an INVALUABLE THEOLOGICAL TOOL for helping people to delve much more deeply into the literal sense of Scripture, allowing a higher light and meaning to shine forth that speaks directly to our human spiritual growth and salvation journey, and to the profound glorification journey of the Lord Himself. The wisdom in Swedenborg's writings are immensely useful. I would be in a cloud of unknowing without them-they're so very, very helpful in gaining clarity in the message of truth in the Bible. On the road to Emmaus the Lord said Himself that all the Books of the Prophets and the Psalms speak about Him. Well, this theology is a key that enables us to see just how that is so. This theology enables us to see God more clearly, and walk with him more nearly.
The Bible's outward level of meaning, its historical or literal sense, has deeper layers of truth within it, which the early church thinkers understood so very well. Swedenborg was one in a long line of theologians who knew that the Bible has both a literal and a beautifully symbolic level of truth in it. As John Sanford notes, "the worldview of the early church led the early Christians to a more introverted attitude that directed their gaze into the world of the soul, which for them was a living reality. Early Christian Bible interpreters [such as St. Augustine, Origen, Irenaeus, and Gregory of Nyssa] saw three dimensions to Bible interpretation: its historical or literal meaning, its moral or ethical meaning, and its spiritual or esoteric meaning." Thomas Merton once wrote, "What is hidden beneath the literal meaning is not merely another and more hidden meaning, it is also a new and totally different reality…. It is the divine life itself."
But the insight and understanding given to Swedenborg took Bible interpretation to a whole new level of clarity and surefootedness, and his teachings have this effect on many other areas of Christian thought, most notably that of the "TRINITY."
And so, this morning as we celebrate Swedenborg's birthday, we may give thanks for the awesome gift of New Church theology and the spiritual-psychology it encompasses; we may give thanks for Swedenborg himself in that he was one among many of God's good and faithful servants who worked tirelessly for the Church, whose pleasure and burden it was to systematize and carefully write down this coherent theology we enjoy today in the form of 30 books, which are still being sold today; and we may give our praises to God for inspiring one of Swedenborg's most important statements as humanity slowly crawled out of the Dark Ages and Medieval Times, which was: "Now it is permitted to enter intelligently into the mysteries of faith."
Who Was Emanuel Swedenborg?
Emanuel Swedenborg was a Swedish statesman, inventor, scientist, theologian and mystic who was born in Stockholm, Sweden on January 29, 1688 and he died in London on March 29, 1772. He was the son of a Lutheran Bishop and his second mother (his first died when Emanuel was nine) had family connections to Sweden's mining industry. I find it important to know these things about Emanuel Swedenborg, since the immensity of his spiritual claim causes us to pause and wonder if this man was raised in an unstable environment-on the contrary, it seems young Emanuel had a very blessed childhood except for the traumatic loss of his birth mother. In fact, we know that he was exposed to the practical, which came through the family's mining interests, and also to the spiritual and theological, by means of the pietistic and mystically sensitive Lutheranism enjoyed by his father.
The claim I make reference to with you is that at the age of 54, in the Spring of 1745, Emanuel Swedenborg in his own bedroom had a personal vision of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who came to him and revealed that He had a special mission for Swedenborg to make known to the world the heavenly doctrines of the Lord's New Church on earth. Swedenborg claimed that for the next 27 years of his life on earth he was blessed to have easy access to full, living exposure to the world of the spirit, of Heaven and Hell and the realm in between them.
NO ONE ELSE IN HISTORY
HAS MADE SUCH A CLAIM.
One might wonder what became of Swedenborg the man during these years. Did he become fanatical? Unstable? Reclusive? Or imbalanced? As it turns out, he not only became more feelingful and sensitive, but he also maintained his civic involvements and national work on the Board of Mines. He never wavered in his own embrace of a beautifully Christian attitude, faith and way of living. And best of all, he accomplished the primary task that the Lord wanted him to complete.
Swedenborg spent the first two years after receiving his calling in deep study and examination of Hebrew and Greek so that he could study the Bible in its original form. He came to learn that his special spiritual gifts were given so that a brighter and deeper understanding of God's Word might be gleaned. His theological doctrines born from these years were based within the Word, and often commented upon it.
Swedenborg never wrote that his writings were another Testament to the Bible, but instead inspired theology given to unlock the key to the inner layers of truth found in the Lord's Word. What came from these amazing years is one of the world's most sensible, beautiful and substantive doctrinal frameworks on the nature of the Lord and the Bible, the reality and structure of Heaven and Hell, and the great potential of human beings and the journey of growth we must embrace for salvation to gain hold of us-which emphasizes that salvation comes only from God, which for Christians means from the Infinite Divine through God manifest, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Thus, we are to believe in Jesus and live according to His commandments, and love each other, and ourselves. Over and over the Scriptures say that in the final analysis, it is how we live that matters most, that our love and faith must become grounded in good behavior and good works. Swedenborg commented on this Divine truth that those who want salvation need to HAVE THEIR RULING LOVE IN LIFE FOCUSED ON GOD, because love for the Lord is at the heart of having faith in Him. Such love and faith automatically draw us toward a life of simple and practical usefulness.
It's interesting to note that this tremendous last phase of Swedenborg's life, his final 27 years of devotion to God, happened after he had made a great deal of professional, scientific and political accomplishments-in fact he was financially independently wealthy. Thus, it would seem that Swedenborg already had fame and fortune…he could have easily rested on his laurels. Instead he went inward, beyond the level of life we call the material and scientific, and down into the psychological and spiritual depths of where life gets most beautiful, meaningful and challenging! By maintaining a useful life in his own country and beyond, and by very careful study and prayerful reflection upon God's Word, Swedenborg developed within himself what our two Scripture lessons call us to do as well.
"Lay Up For Yourselves Treasures In Heaven"
Coming out of the Dark Ages and Medieval Times, the Christian mind languished and thirsted for higher understanding. And now, during post-industrialism as our world leans heavily upon materialism, literalism and trust in what can be known from the five natural senses, God's Word teaches, yet again, what runs counter to our first inclination. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
The theology of the New Church stands upon this divine truth, which is given by our Lord. All Christians may see that Christ is ushering our attention to our concerns of every-day life, in terms of our habitually enjoyed thoughts and feelings. The Lord is teaching that not temporal but eternal things need to be the chief concerns of our thoughts and affections. The wealth of this world and the riches of heaven are to us like the comparison of the natural body to the soul. There is a correspondence between the two, but the natural one is meant to serve the spiritual one. Money was meant to serve the uses of God and heaven, and our greatest treasure must be not what is countable in the bank down the road but in the vaults of a heavenly heart and an intelligent mind. Yet clearly, material possession and wealth enables us to serve greater and enjoy a healthy stability in life. Material and heavenly forms of wealth can actually be affectionate bedfellows! As the Rev. William Bruce wrote so astutely, "In themselves earthly treasures are corruptible and precarious. In some way the moth and the rust are ever at work upon them; and if some turn in the wheel of fortune does not rob us of them, yet death, when he comes as a thief in the night, will sweep them all way."
Heavenly treasures are eternally solid and imperishable! They will last and will usher us into the gates of heaven after death when the possessions of this world are all stripped away.
But there's an even deeper sense to this teaching given by Christ, which the doctrines of correspondence unfold and enable us to understand. In their spiritual symbolism, treasures and riches correspond to the knowledges we may attain that deal with spiritual subjects. That is, the mental riches we attain by the gaining of knowledge, and our understanding of heavenly things, through the study of God's Word and through preaching and reading and the correspondences in nature. Divine truth from God flows directly into this world in the Word. But God's love and wisdom enters life and finds our minds by various other means. All of these avenues create the treasures we call spiritual knowledge, understanding and the ultimate of all, WISDOM. But Scriptural and doctrinal and philosophical wealth can be stored in one of two different aspects of the human mind. It can be left to a lifeless placement in our memory storage, or brought into the deeper depths of our will, our higher thoughts and our daily affirmations and aspirations. As we do this, the treasures of such knowledge are stored up not within the earthy part of the self but in the heavenly part of self, which allows the Lord to regenerate and save us.
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth,…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven."
Be sure, in other words, that the treasures of knowledge we find in the Bible go beyond your mere memory, but are taken into your own deep, heavenly level of self where God can use them! If we do not succeed in this spiritual venture, then the thieves of evil and falsity will steal in and corrupt these knowledges and lead us toward a life that leads to hell.
So we can see for certain that, indeed, humanity was ready during and after the Age of Enlightenment to turn the light on in our understanding of things that pertain to our love and faith in God, or as Swedenborg said: "Now it is permitted to enter intelligently into the mysteries of faith."
Certainly, there are other good, stimulating and growth-enhancing churches and world religions that inspire the soul toward saving love and faith. And by all means let us give our joyous praise for their presence and hard work on earth too. I feel that this church is simply one among many of the lovely and shining gems on the crown of God's universal and Christian church on earth. The Lord's presence and love are found everywhere and in all people.
But it is true that the Bible, being as vast and complex as it is, may be interpreted in many different ways. And it is the doctrine of love and wisdom, espoused by Swedenborg, and based solidly within the Word of God on our altar, that gives our church its marvelous and wise structure, yet one that we know is not rigid but open to dialogue. For here, in our church, God's beautiful Spirit is supported and loved-His Spirit of Infinite Love and Wisdom. And that, in and of itself, is a tremendous gift to the world! We're a church that does not accept that God is angry and wrathful, which scares people into submission. We teach, as the Word instructs, that Heaven and Hell are both very real, and that it is up to you and how you live your life on earth, either in cooperation with the Lord's saving Life and influence or not, that paves your way to one realm or the other. Here people can be led to seek, ask and find God for real, in all God's incredibly warm, soft and healing Love, which He is. Here we teach that God's wisdom is rational, and should strike a chord of sensibleness within you.
Here, in this church, people feel loved and supported, and respected in their unique walk with God-we're all aware that our journeys are unique, and that each one may well have many parallels and areas of connection. And while this list could go on and on…so stop me now while you can!…here we are encouraged to develop and embrace a real, non-judgmental, and compassionate level of charity toward the person sitting next to you.
During Swedenborg's final days on earth, several friends visited him to ask him to make a final comment about the truth or falsity of the amazing doctrines he devoted his life to putting down on paper. Emanuel answered them saying, "I have written nothing but the truth, as you will have more and more confirmed to you all the days of your life, provided you keep close to the Lord and faithfully serve Him alone by shunning evils of all kinds as sins against Him and diligently searching His Word which from beginning to end bears incontestable witness to the truth of the doctrines I have delivered to the world." And on another occasion, in answer to a similar question he said, "When you enter eternity you will see everything, and then you and I shall have much to talk about."
Happy birthday Emanuel, and thank you for a job well done! Amen.
John A. Sanford, Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John, p. 2, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1996.
Thomas Merton, Bread in The Wilderness, p. 166, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn., 1986.
Richard L. Tafel, Documents Concerning Swedenborg II, Swedenborg Society, London, 1875, p. 564-65, 546.