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Sermons

The Lord's Word

August 04, 2002

Bible Reading

Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous.
Praise befits the upright.
Praise the Lord with the lyre;
Make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.
Sing to him a new song;
Play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

For the word of the Lord is upright,
And all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

By the word of the Lord were the heavens made,
And all their host by the breath of his mouth.
He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle;
He put the deeps in storehouses.

Let all the earth fear the Lord;
Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
He commanded, and it stood firm.

(Psalm 33:1-9)

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 came into being 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 did not overcome it. . . .

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14)

Sermon

The thirty-third Psalm is only one of the many striking Bible passages in which the term, "the word of the Lord" is found. The meanings are always related, but there are various shades of significance. It can refer to the outward expression of God's will and the effective means of accomplishing that will. It also refers to God's instrument of creation. And it is also what inspired the prophets and gave them their message.

In the New Testament, John the Baptist is led to his mission by the word of God; and Jesus not only teaches it, but is, in a unique sense, identified with it. The outstanding instance of this identification is in the first chapter of John's Gospel. While it is everywhere clear that the term has to do with God's self-communication to human beings, there is wide difference of opinion and considerable confusion as to its specific import.

One scholarly source notes that in the Old Testament there are two main usages: 1. The Law by which Israel's life was to be regulated. 2. Any prophetic or priestly "oracle." In the New Testament the following uses are found: 1. A specific "call," such as that of John the Baptist. 2. Jesus' words, his message as a whole, and he himself. 3. The contents of the preaching of the Gospel. 4. The whole Christian movement. No wonder there is confusion!

Even this listing omits the most common present-day use of the term "the Word of the Lord": the body of Sacred Scripture found in the Bible. An important part of the liturgy of our New Church worship services is called "The Opening of the Word." What takes place physically is that the minister opens the Bible on the altar. The symbolism of this is twofold: first, it expresses in action our belief that the Lord is present with us through his Word; and second, it expresses our belief that through the enlightenment given to the world in the writings of the New Church, the Bible is now truly an opened or unveiled book.

We do accept the traditional definition of the Word of the Lord as the Sacred Scriptures. But we also take very seriously the definition given in the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

Now if our God is a person--the risen and glorified Lord and Savior Jesus Christ--it would be nonsense to say that the book on the altar is our God. Yet we stick to our twofold belief that identifies the Word as the Scriptures, and at the same time accepts the teaching that the Word not only was but is God. That, it seems to me, is a dilemma that requires explanation. Perhaps a couple of quotations from the teachings of our church will clarify it:

The Word is divine primarily in this respect: every single thing in it does not refer to one nation or one people, but to the entire human race, including everyone past, present, and future. It also refers what is still more universal: the Lord's kingdom in the heavens. And in the highest sense, it refers to the Lord himself. That is why the Word is divine. (Arcana Coelestia #3305.2)

This quotation sets the stage for the second one that I shall read in a moment. It helps fortify the belief that the church is right in identifying the Word of God with the whole of Scripture. But it does little to explain the teaching that the Word is God. Let me, then, quote a passage that appears a little later in the same work:

In the highest sense, every single thing in the Word refers to the Lord. And the Lord is doctrine itself--that is, the Word--not only as to the highest sense in it, but also as to the internal [or intermediate] sense, and even as to the literal sense. The literal sense is representative . . . of the internal sense, and the internal sense is representative . . . of the highest sense. Everything in the Word that is representative . . . is in its essence that which is represented; therefore it is the Divine of the Lord. For a representative is nothing but an image of the one who is represented; and is the Lord himself presented to view in an image.

This may be seen from human speech and gestures. These are merely images of the things that are going on within us, in our thought and will; so the speech and gesture are the thought and will in form. If you take away from them the thought and will, what is left is something entirely lifeless, and therefore not human at all. This shows the true nature of the Word: that it is divine even in the letter. (Arcana Coelestia #3393)

To me, the above statement seems eminently clear--and helps to establish the case for the teaching that the Word is God. But I also realize that it is a profound statement; and it may be only fair to share with you some of my thought processes concerning it.

First of all, it alludes to another New Church doctrine that deserves to be considered separately as a principal subject itself, namely, the teaching that there are three levels of meaning to the Scriptures: 1. the highest or inmost, which treats of the Lord himself; 2. the inner or intermediate sense, which treats of the spiritual realm, and thus of the spiritual development of every human being, as well as of the human race as a whole; and 3. the obvious or literal sense, which we find when we open the Bible and read it as we would any printed matter. However, our main concern today is the claim that the whole of the literal sense is written in a most special way. The word "representative" is used by Swedenborg to describe this special form of writing.

A modern grammarian might say that what our author is telling us is that the Bible is written entirely in figurative or symbolic language. This, I believe, is a fair analysis, and should help us get to the meat of the argument. The crux of the matter is in this statement: "For a representative is nothing but an image of the one who is represented; and is the Lord himself presented to view in an image." Here we are told that a representative is the same thing as an image, and therefore if the Scriptures are written entirely in terms of things that represent the Lord in one aspect or another, then the Word is an image of the Lord.

What is the practical effect of this? Simply that the Word as we know it in printed form is perfectly adapted and, by inference, intended to serve to bring us close to God. In short, so far as we are concerned, in a very practical sense the Word is God.

There are several imperfect examples that we can draw on to show how we unconsciously apply this same principle in everyday life. When we look at a photograph of a loved one who is far away--say, of our mother--we will show it to a friend and say, "This is my mother." Neither person confuses the actual person with the piece of paper which bears the visual image; yet the statement is perfectly true: this is my mother. As I look at the picture, I can vividly recall all the wonderful qualities that are so dear to me, and my love for her is renewed and refreshed by the image.

Another example is when we hear a familiar voice and say, "That is so-and-so." Or we hear a distinctive tread on the stairs and know that Father is coming up. Or we see a person at a great distance, and because of a unique mannerism of gesture or peculiarity of stride, positively identify the person as one known to us.

The imperfection in each of these examples is that as images, they are incomplete. They tell us only part of the story. They are what some psychologists call "reduced cues": hints that serve to identify a whole thing or person by a minor part. In each case, the fuller identity and thought process depend on a much closer previous contact with the individual.

For instance, in showing a photograph of a person well known to us to a friend who has never met or heard anything of the person, the most our friend can do is become familiar with certain physical features, and draw a tentative conclusion as to the temperament of the person from the facial expression. If the image in the photograph has a broad smile and a generally cheerful look, our friend might conclude that the actual person is a bright and happy individual who is a joy to be around. We, on the other hand, may know that the smile was "turned on" for the camera, and the person is actually cranky, crabby, and generally miserable.

Another example is the subject of a biography. We might feel that by reading a forthright and meticulously detailed account of a person's life, we really know that person even though we may never have seen him or her face to face. It is true that we may learn a great deal about the things the person has done, and even a great deal about that person's inner thoughts. But if we reflect, we realize that we can never know the real human being by reading a mortal, and therefore imperfect, account of that person's life.

This leads us to the point I would like to make. According to our doctrinal belief, the Bible--the Word--is the spiritual autobiography of our Lord. And if the Lord is divine and perfect, then the Book must also be divine and perfect. Not, to be sure, in its outer covering, or literal sense--which is adapted to the apprehension of human beings in all states and walks of life, and at all levels of spiritual development. But, as Swedenborg puts it, "The Word of the Lord is such that its inmost contents focus on the Lord himself, and on his kingdom" (Arcana Coelestia #155).

He also says just as clearly, however, that the literal sense is the basis, container, and support of the internal sense (Doctrine of the Sacred Scriptures #27). This means, to resort to figures of speech, that we cannot start our climb to communion with the Lord on the top rung of the ladder, any more than we can start building our house of character with the roof.

Do you see what this means to us? If we really believe that the Bible speaks to us of the Lord, and helps draw us closer to him in all its pages, there should be no question as to which is our favorite and most-read book.

Prayer

O Word who was with God in the beginning, and who is God, we come before you with heartfelt thanks for revealing yourself to us as the Light of the world. Open our minds and hearts to that light, and flow into us every day and every moment. Overcome the darkness in us, so that our eye may be single in its focus on you, and our spiritual household may be full of light. Amen.

Rev. William Woofenden