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Sermons

The Open Word

August 11, 2002

Bible Reading

He said to me, "Son of man, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you." And when he spoke to me, the spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me.

"He said to me, Son of man, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God.'

"Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. And you, O mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house. But you, mortal, hear what I say to you; do not be rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you."

Then I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe. (Ezekiel 2)

Read also: Revelation 5

Reading from Swedenborg

"Sealed with seven seals" means entirely hidden from angels and people. It is clear that "sealed with a seal" means hidden. Therefore "sealed with seven seals" means what is entirely hidden, since "seven" signifies all, thus also altogether. That it is entirely hidden from angels and people is said soon afterwards in these words:

And no one in heaven, nor upon the land, nor yet under the land, was able to open and to read the book, nor to look into it (Revelation 5:3, 4).

This is how the Word is to all to whom the Lamb, that is, the Lord, does not open it. Here, because it speaks of the examination of all before the last judgment, it refers to the states of life of all, in general and in detail, which are entirely hidden.

"And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a great voice" means divine truth from the Lord flowing inwardly into the thoughts of angels and people, and examination. In the spiritual sense, "an angel proclaiming" means the Lord, because angels do not proclaim and teach from themselves but from the Lord--though they do it as if it were from themselves. It says a "strong angel" because it is with power; and anything proclaimed with power flows inwardly into the thought. "A loud voice" means divine truth from the Lord in power or vigor. It also means examination, because he asks, "Who is worthy to open the book?" (Apocalypse Revealed #257, 258)

Sermon

A distinctive feature of our traditional worship service is the practice of signaling the beginning of worship by the opening of the Word. As with most if not all traditional practices, it originated in a strong sense of meaning; but with the passage of time, and with frequent repetition, that sense of meaning tends to fade. This morning, I should like to look at some of the aspects of this very familiar symbolic act.

Most obviously, the opening of the Word symbolizes the Lord's presence. Our knowledge about the Lord comes essentially from the Word. In its pages are stories of his leading of Israel, messages through his prophets, accounts of his Advent, and accounts of his deeds and words among us in the flesh. Physically, it is an object, a book; and we do not worship a book. But opening it provides us with an image of confronting its content--and its content is the focus of our devotion.

We do need to remind ourselves that the Lord is never absent. In that sense, the book is always there. Worship is a time we choose, with activities we design, for the purpose of coming into consciousness of that constant presence. It is our hope that this consciousness will spread into the other hours of our week; that we will become more aware of the Lord's love and light in the course of our daily activities--which, after all, is when we need that awareness most. In fact, if worship does not foster this awareness, it is rather pointless.

For the Swedenborgian, though, there is a more specific meaning to the opening of the Word. Swedenborg understood his mission to be "the opening of the Word"--enabling people to understand the meanings that lie beneath its surface.

It takes very little observation to discover that different people understand the Word differently. I am sure you all remember vividly the tensions between us and members of a nearby Evangelical congregation. They tended to take the Bible literally--and we were, in essence, on their list of heretics. Both of us regarded the Word as the primary source of the Lord's truth, and yet we differed significantly in our understanding of it. This is the kind of situation that prompted Swedenborg to state that "the church is where the Word is, and its nature is determined by the way it understands the Word" (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture #79).

As far as we are concerned, the Word is a closed book to the literalist. The realm of the spirit is the realm of causes, and everything physical is an effect. We do not really understand effects unless we understand their causes, which is a philosophical way of saying that we need to know why things happen as well as simply knowing what happens. The Lord says a great many different things in the Word, and we do not understand them except as we begin to see why he said them. As a simple example, we do not understand his descriptions of himself as angry until we see them as expressions of love--as efforts to break through our resistance in the only language we can hear when we ourselves are angry.

Swedenborg wrote voluminously about the deeper meaning of Scripture. His approach is part and parcel of his whole outlook on the relationship between the physical and the spiritual worlds. In his theology, this world is an ambiguous reflection of a realm that really makes sense. As William Gilbert observed, in this world "things are seldom what they seem." We are rarely sure that we understand each other, largely because we ourselves tend to be fearful of being understood. We try to keep up appearances, and in so doing we contribute to the general state of ambiguity.

The Word is written in the language of this ambiguous world. In that sense, it is one of the most realistic books ever written. It contains very few idealized or romanticized characters. We find stories of love and of hate, of honesty and of deception, of faithfulness and of betrayal. We find facades maintained and facades crumbling. We find stories that do not have happy endings, stories of evil people succeeding and of good people suffering, as well as stories of evil people being punished and of good people victorious. We find both inspiring examples and horrible examples.

The result is the situation we have noted: that there are a great many different ways to understand the Word. The ways that appeal most to us may not be the ways we most need. In fact, it is quite natural for us to hear what we want to hear, to understand in ways that confirm our own opinions. Clearly, this undermines the possibility that the Word might actually correct our thinking--that we might learn something really new from it.

But once we begin to see beneath the surface of Scripture, we find subtle and persuasive images of ourselves. In a sense, the focus shifts from our understanding of the Word to the Word's understanding of us. We find most centrally a marvelously wise and loving Lord--and gradually our fear of being understood is dispelled by the warmth of that love. It is in the spiritual meaning of the Word that we find oneness rather than alienation or fragmentation. It is in the spiritual meaning of the Word that we find peace rather than war.

This, then, is a more distinctively Swedenborgian meaning of the opening of the Word at the beginning of our worship. Ours is a theology that opens the Word on a deeper level than the literal. This meaning leads directly to one other, which we often overlook. For some people most of the time, and for all of us some of the time, the Word is not merely a closed book; it is a sealed book. There are times when we really do not want to believe or to know. There are times when we deliberately close our minds.

The fifth chapter of Revelation provides us with a vivid image of this. God is on the throne, holding a book that is sealed with seven seals. These seals symbolize our deepest, most fundamental resistance to the Lord's presence and light. It is uncomfortable to realize that this is essentially a courtroom scene. The fourth and fifth chapters of Revelation introduce a correspondential account of the process of judgment, portrayed as a traumatic process. As the seals are opened, disasters fall on earth.

Again, the spiritual sense helps us to see what lies beneath this forbidding surface. Most simply, how we respond to the accounts of disaster depends on whose side we are on. If we have reached that point where we are distressed or dismayed by our own tendencies toward inhumanity, then the stories are heartening. We are already well aware that only the Lamb can open the book, because we have tried and failed. For the same reason, we know that our deepest inhumanity resists all our efforts to eradicate it, and that we need the Lord's help to overcome it. We want a Lord who is totally opposed to evil; who is utterly uncompromising in his war against all that is destructive.

To the extent that we cling to our own self-satisfaction, though, the stories read very differently. Then we are the enemy, and there are good reasons for us to be terrified at the prospect of inescapable judgment.

It would be well for us to be aware of this image when the Word is opened at the beginning of our service. If we do associate this symbolic act with the presence of the Lord as judge, then we can get a clear indication of our state and of our needs. Is this judgment welcome? Do we really want the Word opened? Or are we, more probably, in that "state of opportunity," not really wanting it to be opened, but realizing that it needs to be?

Wherever we are, the opening of the Word can help us to face facts. And as it becomes a symbol of seeing ourselves in the Lord's light, it can effectively move us to a deeper participation in the meaning of worship for the sake of life. Amen.

Prayer

O God of judgment and justice, help us overcome our resistance to the opening of your Word and the revealing of who we are underneath our masks. Help us face the fact of our need for you, and for the corrective, healing truth of your Divine Word. Amen.

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole