Heaven's Main Incentive. A Classic Sermon.
December 16, 2001
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and
the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things
were made through him, and without him not one thing came
into being that has come into being. In him was life, and the life
was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and
the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He
came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe
through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify
to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming
into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through
him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his
own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who
received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become
children of God—who were born, not of blood or of the will of
the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have
seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and
truth. John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I
said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was
before me.’ ” From his fullness we have all received grace upon
grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth
came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is the
only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him
known. (John 1:1–18)
The meaning of the Incarnation will probably never be apprehended
in its fullness in this world. Because it is God’s answer
to man’s search for the worth and significance of life, the more we
contemplate its manifold wonder, the more there open new vistas,
inviting inquiry and challenging perception. Its implications are so
vast we feel the need of eternity to follow them.
But while we resign ourselves with reluctance to see “as
through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), there is comfort in
Swedenborg’s report that this sublime, divine deed is the chief
delight of conversation in heaven. From this one gathers that it is
heaven’s main incentive.
Why not? Did not heaven itself have part in it? If “there is joy
in heaven over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:7, 10), is it
strange that there should have been jubilation over one Lord making
himself the means of the redemption of the race? To be sure,
in outgrowing the childish trimmings of its former idea of heaven,
our world has lost belief in its nearness and reality. The bright star,
the Annunciation, the song of the angels are commonly regarded
as parts of a lovely legend. But are they?
There is another world. Life is not all surface. Our thoughts
and affections move in a range of reality that escapes physical
measurements and that death cannot affect. Heaven is not a place
beyond the clouds. It is closer to us than that. We live in it here
already. Its reality is within. It is also all about, in those in whom
heaven is. Consequently, there is a communion of saints. Our
dear ones gone before still are near. Angels are not a special creation
but “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23).
As messengers of the Lord—which is what their name really
means—they are channels through whom his love is implement-ed,
his will done, and his truth given release. Together with the
“great multitude that no man can number” (Revelation 7:9), they are concerned and have much more to do with our destinies than
we know. Theirs is a world of causes, which means there is a live
influx from them to us.
We say, “There is no greater power on earth than that of an
idea whose time has come.” But ideas do not float in the atmosphere.
They are communicated to mind from mind, and reach us
through many minds, whether from this world or from the world
within. Indeed, through our minds we are in the world within.
Thus truth reaches us—ultimately from the mind of God—
through many minds, in various degrees of illumination, according
to our ability to receive it. Apart from this there would be no
inspiration and no revelation.
Whence, then, the power of an idea whose time has come?
There is a pressure from above—that is, from within. Swedenborg
speaks of the delight of angels when they can “flow” into an idea.
Would not this be heaven’s normal way of making its influence
felt, and of sharing with men the treasures of its peace?
So, the kingdom of heaven is always “at hand,” awaiting our
welcome. And if, at times, the pressure is so strong and human
receptivity so sensitive, why could not man—destined to outlive
his earthly body as a spiritual organism in perfect human form—
both see and hear what comes to him from his temporarily invisible
and inaudible surrounding?
Furthermore, remember that it was not only at our Lord’s
Advent that heaven made itself audible and visible. There is a long
record of its being articulate in the Old Testament. It is also an
integral part of the faith of the New Testament and of the church
from its beginning. But for our Lord’s Resurrection and the assurance
of his continuing spiritual presence, there would be no
Christianity today. The early Church came into being and over-came
persecution through the belief—no matter how apocalyptically
depicted—that a spiritual world was near; that in the world
within this one lay its real battleground with the powers of darkness;
that death could not annihilate the witnessing of the faithful, but that they were still part of the mighty drama. As it was at the
end of our Lord’s life on earth, why not then at its beginning?
How much is lost in our Christmas joy through our sophisticated
lack of belief in the reality, nearness, and concern of heaven
at all times—but even more so in the days of our Lord’s Nativity!
And, on the other hand, what depth and stimulation are given our
worship when the event is seen in its true and glorious magnitude:
embracing two worlds, encompassing past, present and future,
reaching into the realm of the eternal! Christmas opens to us
another world. It is not the mechanism through which heaven’s
joy was made known that matters so much as that it found its way
to us at all. It is not an exact answer to the question, “How did the
angels know in the first place?” that is all-important, but rather
that they were sensitive to what was taking place, and that the cup
of their rejoicing was so full that it spilled over onto the earth.
Indeed, if heaven’s chief delight is to share the love and truth
by which it lives, then one can see why it should have become
articulate and burst into joy. For though “man does not live by
bread alone” (Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4), there came a time in history
when those deeper things by which men live were practically
forgotten. There came a time when, on this account, mankind
was in danger of perishing. What then? Would not heaven sorrow
because men’s hearts could no longer be reached? Because, like a
dense cloud, a heavily naturalistic atmosphere prevented them
from receiving what heaven had to give? Because, in other words,
as men turned away from heaven, their angelic companions were
deprived of their life joy and their life use?
In such a condition, would not heaven suffer and pray that a
channel may be found, a path cleared, so that once more God and
men might meet? Through those long years of Israel’s decline and
increasing materialism, is it not heaven’s anguish that we hear in
the lone voice of the ancient prophets? “The heart is deceitful
above all things and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). “O
Lord, how long?” (Habakkuk 1:2). “O, that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1). And how else may
one interpret the long interval of silence between the Old Testament
and the New, when revelation ceased altogether?
Yet, it was not all anguish. And if on earth, even among a few,
there still was hope such as found utterance in glorious messianic
prophecies and such as was cherished in the days of the Nativity
by religious minorities, surely that hope was heaven’s own also,
and was heaven-inspired.
Then it happened. Then the earth’s need of a Savior and heaven’s
need of sharing its goodwill and peace found an answer. The
most daring expectancies of old were fulfilled. God saw that what
was wanted was more than another prophet, calling men to a
change of heart and greater obedience to a set of laws. He saw that
what was needed was more than a world-teacher or a new philosophy
of life. The situation could no longer be resolved by means of
intermediaries—unless the intermediary were to be his own adaptation
to man’s apprehension; the finiting of his infinity; the
embodiment of his eternity in time; his own essential humanness
brought forth and made manifest in a bodily life.
The situation called for nothing short of his very enactment,
before men, of human life as it should be truly lived, and of his
disclosure of himself as its source. So that, without thwarting our
freedom, and by the sheer fascination of his love so revealed, he
may draw us to himself. So that, having glorified the nature that
he would assume, he may find forever a further way of entrance
into our lives, dwell in us, empower us to overthrow our evils, and
fashion us in his image and likeness. “He saw that there was no
man and wondered that there was no intercessor; therefore his
arm brought salvation” (Isaiah 59:16). At last, the Word that was
with God and that was God, “was made flesh” (John 1:14).
In the Lord Jesus Christ, the God invisible made himself visible.
In him God was born in the limitations of our human life,
that he may be born in us. In him, at last, hope found a name, a
voice, hands and feet, and wrapped itself in the innocence of a babe. In the light of that deed, life itself became illumined.
Henceforth there was with men a Presence, challenging their loyalty,
not to a set of abstract ideals or theories, but to a Person.
There was with them a living Standard, with whom they could
match their lives, and from whom they could receive strength. For
heaven, it was as if a barrage blocking the way of a mighty river
had suddenly been removed. For men, it was as if, in the dark
clouds of a threatening sky, a shaft of light had broken through.
With Christ, in him, through him, at last, the kingdom of heaven
once more was “at hand.” With him, heaven could have a part
again in the redemption of the race.
Think what an exciting adventure these thirty years of our
Lord’s life on earth must have been for heaven, while the fate of
the world hung in the balance! Remember how close to him,
through all his ministry, the angels were! Little of this is mentioned
in the popular lives of Jesus with which we are familiar. But
heaven was ever in the background of his thoughts, teachings, and
deeds. Apart from this fact, our understanding of him remains
baffling and incomplete. Heaven constantly breaks through the
Gospel account—being implied even when it is not mentioned.
Angels not only sally forth into song at the time of his birth,
but carry on their brave music, now in minor chords, now in triumphant
keys, through all his joys and sorrows, his sufferings,
temptations, and victories. They watch over him in infancy. They
follow him in his formative years and all his delight in the Scriptures.
They are with him at his baptism and “minister unto him”
in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11, Mark 1:13). They are close to
him when, in long night vigils, he prays on the mountainside. On
a mountainside also, he graciously calls men to sense the angels’
nearness when teaching them to pray, “Thy kingdom come, on
earth as it is in heaven.” At the Transfiguration angel visitors are
there, supporting him in his acceptance of impending struggle
with physical death; in Gethsemane they strengthen him. Again,
compare the exuberance of the Nativity song with their restraint on Easter morn, and you will sense that at the Cross they were
near, and knew the cost of the victory.
Yes, that divine venture by which our Lord glorified his
Human and returned to his eternal Fatherhood with his power to
save must have been of greatest moment to our heavenly friends.
It is certain that even in heaven, a whole process of enlightenment
and reordering had to take place. For surely heaven could not
think of God before his Incarnation as it did afterwards. Although
heavenly thought of him may have been in personal terms—Love,
Wisdom, and Power—still, with the glorified person of the Lord,
a change took place in the Being of God himself, which made that
thought still more personal and definite.
It was this change, in God and hence in the heavens, that was
necessary for the redemption of the race. It is to it that we refer
when we state in our Faith, “without this no mortal could have
been saved.” It called for a “new heaven”; for a closer correspondence
of the entire structure of heavenly life with God, now more
clearly revealed and more closely present with angels and men in
his Divine Humanity. Heaven, in all its component parts, now
had to be fashioned into one great, corporate organism, the
“Grand Man,” in the likeness of the God-Man. This was necessary
so that by its influx, his church on earth may become one, the
“body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27), and the kingdoms of this
world, his kingdom—a social order based on human and humane
interdependence and mutuality; a striving to the perfect expression
of his at-oneness with mankind. Is not this what is meant by
the vision of John, in the Book of Revelation when he said, “I saw
a new heaven and a new earth?” (Revelation 21:1).
The Lord’s presence in the heart makes heaven, within and all
about, in both worlds. He is heaven’s main incentive. And heaven
in its perfection is the goal to which the whole creation moves. It
operates in and through us as we advance toward its perfecting.
For this reason, we cannot hope to have a “new earth” apart from
this “new heaven.” The new world of our hope must begin with a reordering, on the plane of the spirit, of our thoughts, aims, aspirations,
and motives in accordance with what is truly human in
the light of our divinely human Lord, rather than with another
adjustment of the unstable ambitions of men and nations. And
the wonder of it is that, knowing these things, we can be part of
this new heaven here and now.
Today there is all about us the pressure of a truth whose time
has come: that the world must be one, and our group relation-ships
expressive of what human life is at its best. It stems from our
Lord’s revelation of himself for this new age, and it bears in on us
from heaven. Today, in the dazzling effulgence of his Divine
Humanity, and through the insistent prompting of our invisible
surroundings, the God-Man is challenging us to match our lives,
and our ways of living together, with himself.
It will indeed be Christmas for our world when his Incarnation
is thus expressed. When he, the life-incentive of our angel
friends, becomes our living incentive. When with them we commit
ourselves and our all to him—our one Lord and only God,
the Lord God, the Savior Jesus Christ.
O Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, give us the view of the
angels as we approach your Incarnation, so that we may see the
brilliant light and love it brings to us: the light and love of your
Divine Humanity dwelling among all of humankind. Amen.
Rev. Antony Regamey