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Sermons

The Light and the Glory

December 01, 2002

Bible Reading

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord; that is my name. My glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. (Isaiah 42:5-8)

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, "Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel." (Luke 2:25-32)

Reading from Swedenborg

In the highest sense, "glory" is the Lord as divine truth. So it is divine truth that flows out from the Lord. But glory in a representative sense is the good that love toward the neighbor does, meaning kindness--which is the outward good of the Lord's heavenly kingdom, and the inward good of his spiritual kingdom. For in the genuine sense, this good is divine truth in heaven. (Arcana Coelestia #5922.3)

Sermon

"The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwell in the land of the shadow of death, on them has the light shined" (Isaiah 9:2). "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together" (Isaiah 40:5). "But unto you who fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise, with healing in his wings" (Malachi 4:2). "Through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high has visited us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death" (Luke 1:78, 79). "The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world" (John 1:9). The glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds. A star led the wise men to Bethlehem. The Lord's coming is a sunrise, the coming of light to banish darkness. Advent is a season of light.

Physical light is one of the most familiar images of truth. Everyone knows what we mean when we describe ourselves as being in the dark about something, or about shedding a little light on a subject, or when we speak of "enlightenment." Understanding and sight are closely akin, and physical and spiritual light have corresponding functions. So it is surely no coincidence that while nothing is more familiar to us than physical light, it turns out on close examination to be quite mysterious. The story of the study of light is a fascinating one, full of unexpected twists and turns. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it seemed as though optical theory was complete and coherent; but the discovery that light had both wave and particle properties threw everything into a confusion that is still not really resolved. Science has found it necessary to adopt paradoxical views, knowing that a particle is one thing and a wave another, and that light seems to be both.

It is this way with spiritual truth as well. There is a level of understanding at which everything seems simple and consistent. But when we probe just a little deeper, we find ourselves facing bewilderment. The simplest reason is that the Lord we worship is infinite, and our minds are finite. This is a primary reason for the incarnation. The full depths of Deity are wholly beyond our comprehension. If pure Deity were to draw near, we would "melt away like wood in the focus of a powerful magnifying glass, or rather, like an image thrown into the sun itself" (True Christianity #370).

Why not stay at that level of simplicity? Perhaps the most direct answer is found in Luke: "And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature" (Luke 2:52). In taking on our nature, the Lord took on the whole process of growth. We are designed and created not to reach some plateau and stay there forever, but to keep learning and growing. Every day is different from the last, bringing to us things that have never happened before. The fact that our finite minds are confronted with infinity means that there will always be more, that eternity will be fascinating--as fascinating as the study of light is to the physicist--rather than boring.

It also means that our grasp of truth need not become petrified. When we think of spreading the good news of the second coming, for example, we might think of following the Golden Rule. If we want others to be open to what we have to offer, we should model that openness ourselves. We do, indeed, have something to learn from everyone we meet. At the close of a meeting I attended some years ago, a disgruntled minister declared very emphatically that he hadn't learned a thing. I'm afraid this said as much about him as a learner as it did about the meeting.

If we turn again to the Christmas story--the story of the coming into the world of the true light--we find that not many people noticed it. The light was seen by a few people only: by some shepherds and some scholars. I should like to spend a little time looking at the forms the light took in those two instances.

Simeon, filled with the holy spirit, sang of "a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel." That is exactly how it happened. For the shepherds it was a brilliant burst of glory that came suddenly, unexpectedly, and surrounded them. There was no way they could miss it--in fact, it terrified them. But evidently no one else even noticed it. For the wise men, it was not glory but light: a particular star they identified in their careful study of the night skies. It was there for everyone to see, but it took deliberate effort to pick it out from the rest, and to interpret its meaning. Two very different events both led to the infant Jesus, who was neither a star nor a multitude of the heavenly host.

If my recollections of high school physics are correct, light disperses according to the inverse square law. At twice the distance from the source, it is four times as dim; at three times the distance, nine times; and so on. The glory of Israel and the light for the gentiles, the radiance of the heavenly host and the star that the wise men saw, these are the same light, but seen in the one instance at close hand, and in the other from afar.

The traditional understanding of this rests in the difference between the simplicity of the shepherds and the erudition of the wise men. The shepherds typify an innocent trust that goes straight to the heart of things. The wise men typify a much more skeptical attitude that needs to understand before it decides. It is not that one approach is better than the other. The world needs both, since shepherds are not very good at explaining things to the bewildered, and wise men are not very good at tending sheep.

Our reading from Swedenborg takes this distinction deeper. It speaks of a love for the Lord that is the very heart and soul of heaven, and takes on substance in caring behavior. That focus on caring behavior is, in turn, the heart and soul of the next lower level of heaven, which is the heaven characterized by "glory." The very essence of that "glory" is "the Lord as to divine truth"--the blinding brilliance of the spiritual sun. What that light shows us, if we are willing to see, is the full beauty for which we are created. The prophets saw it as the peaceable kingdom. John saw it as a radiant city coming down from God out of heaven. In that light, each one of us is indescribably dear--which is why love for the Lord in the heart demands to be given substance in caring actions.

So inevitably, "glory in a representative sense is the good that love toward the neighbor does." The visible face of divine truth, the visible face of glory, is our care for each other. At the close of the Gospel of John, Jesus gives Peter his commission. It is not to study or to teach, but to "feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17). That is what it is all about. If the star leads to the glory, it is at heart a pastoral star. It leads to a life of charity. The truly enlightened mind comes from the tender heart. "The glory of your people Israel" consists in radiant, beautiful lives.

Lives of this kind gather strength as they go. Swedenborg remarked in Divine Providence #60 that "there is knowing the way from walking in it, and there is walking in the way through knowing it." Experience yields knowledge, and knowledge guides experience. It is a shame that we do not have an idiom that means the opposite of a "vicious circle," because that is what we are offered: a circle, or better a spiral, that leads us closer and closer to the Lord and to each other. The caring heart wants to understand, and true understanding awakens care.

The shepherds and the wise men did both come to Bethlehem, but they came separately. Apparently they never met each other. The shepherds returned to their sheep; the wise men departed for their own country. This is why we do not find them mentioned again. They are not on the scene during all the stories of the Lord's ministry. Spiritually speaking, each represents a kind of quest. That of the shepherds was brief and instinctive, that of the wise men was long and reflective, and each led not to the end of the story, but to the beginning. What they found was not an enthroned king or a teacher or a healer, but an infant.

Whatever brings us to the manger scene also brings us only to the beginning. But what a beginning it is! One of the reasons people keep having babies is the experience of incredible promise in each new life. And the promise of the new life in the manger is infinite. All the other images of human life are dim and partial by comparison: images of life as a journey or as a climb or as a school or as a contest. They highlight some particular aspect of what it is to be human. They do us the service of defining humanity as a process rather than a state. But they are abstract and skeletal compared to the reality of a newborn baby. There is the promise of growth in love and wisdom in its fullest representation. There is the glory of "the good that love can do," not as some static achievement, but as a potent longing of the human spirit.

That is the light that has come into the world. We see things truly, we see each other truly, to the extent that we see in that light: the light of the longing to see what good love can do. The clearer this light is, the more clearly we see ourselves as infants in the process, wondrous not so much for our achievements as for our promise. In the words of Malachi, the Lord wants to "open the windows of heaven and pour us out a blessing so great that we will not have room to receive it" (Malachi 3:10). And the message of love of the neighbor is that this is true for everyone we know, everyone we meet, everyone who walks through these doors.

The spirit of Christmas, then, is not so much a spirit of triumph as it is a spirit of promise. As we hear the familiar words and see the familiar scenes and hear the familiar music, may something awaken in us of renewed trust in that promise. It is our promise, not in the sense of an obligation we have undertaken, but of a promise made to us: the promise that we are all truly angels in the making. Amen.

Prayer

O Light of the world, who came in glory to your people Israel, and as a light to lighten the gentiles, we pray that you will also come into our world today as a light to guide all nations, and into our own hearts as a glory that moves us in the paths of love. Open up the windows of our spirits, and pour into us the rich blessings of a world renewed by your light and your glory. Amen.

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole