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Sermons

A Right Idea of God

March 02, 2003

Bible Reading

When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army. When they stood still, they lowered their wings. Then there came a voice from above the expanse over their heads as they stood with lowered wings.

Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell face down, and I heard the voice of one speaking.

He said to me, "Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you." As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. (Ezekiel 1:24-2:2)

Reading from Swedenborg

We can see how important it is to have a right idea of God from the fact that if we are religious, our concept of God forms the very core our thinking. Everything in religion and worship focuses on God. And since God is involved both overall and in every detail of religion and worship, without a right idea of God there can be no communication with the heavens. (Divine Love and Wisdom #13)

When the Lord appears to us, he does it in a way suited to the kind of person we are. He does this because we are incapable of receiving the Divine in any way other than one that fits our character as a person. (Heavenly Secrets #6832)

Sermon

Pause with me for a moment and think about your idea of God. Is there an image that comes to mind, or a feeling, or a specific mindset? I randomly asked a group of thirty Christians about their idea of God. Some relayed a physical representation of God as a father, shepherd, king, and so on. Some felt God as an ethereal essence or ever-present spirit. Some had three different images of God in their conception of the trinity. And some could not come up with any definitive idea of God. Each of us has a distinct way in which we see God. This idea of God is as unique to each of us as is our own spiritual journey. The progress we are making in our faith development reflects our attitude toward God, and that determines what we experience as our idea of God.

In Divine Love and Wisdom #13 we read that it is important to have a right idea of God, since our idea of God exists in the inmost of our being, is the basis of our religion and worship, and affects our communication with God.

What is this "right idea of God," and how can we find it? In the Ten Commandments we are warned not to make a graven image (Exodus 20:4). This "graven image" represents something we make from our own intelligence. Thus we must be careful that our image of God comes from God's revelation to us, rather than from our own conjecture. We are also told that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This pure image is in our inner self. We find it through our relationships with others: the more we love God and our neighbor, the more we reflect the image of God.

Let's look at the visions of God recorded in the Bible. We know that the Scriptures have a literal level and an inner meaning. The inner meaning relates to our development and our spiritual journey. We can trace the development of the image of God from Genesis to Revelation, and study the changes in relation to our own developing faith.

In the Garden of Eden, God walks and talks directly with Adam and Eve. In this early phase, we are operating in the innocence of ignorance, or of infancy. We have no evil intent and no self-image from a love of self and the world. It is fitting that this phase is recorded in the Bible through a parable with no historical connection. In an individual, this phase is inaccessible to narrative research because it is the pre-language stage. Our pre-image of God, observers hypothesize, is based on our first experiences with our mother or primary caregiver. The Adam and Eve image of God is very direct; they believe that they can hide from the Lord.

As we progress through the Scriptures to the Patriarchal period, God calls Abram to "leave your country, your household, and go to the land I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). Abram's idea of God is still parental: "Go here. Do this." This is a state of simple trust and obedience--even to the willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. Studies show that all school age children have constructed an image or images of God, irrespective of religious instruction. They assume without question that the perception they have of an event is the only alternative, just as Abraham did when he thought he had to sacrifice Isaac. During our faith journey, we must separate from this childlike image of God, just as young children must separate from embeddedness in their parents. The terrible twos can be difficult in our physical life--and in our spiritual progress.

Jacob's vision of God came in his dream of God standing at the top of a ladder up to heaven and proclaiming, "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac" (Genesis 28:13). The image is now a separate God in heaven looking down on us and ruling over us. We need a ladder for our thoughts to get to God (the angels ascending) and for God's thoughts to get to us (angels descending). This ladder, or path, is the Word. Jacob was afraid, and made a vow to God, indicating a stage of literal faith in which we believe that if we want God's help, we must do our part.

At this point we seem to take a developmental detour. We become slaves in Egypt--meaning we get caught up in our own worldliness. This represents the danger of not progressing from this faith stage, since it is based primarily on what others have told us, and has not yet become our own. As with Moses, it may take God speaking from a burning bush to get our attention.

Moses' image of God was as an angel of the Lord appearing to him in flames of fire from within a bramble bush (Exodus 3:1-6). The fire is divine love burning in the bramble bush--which symbolizes the truth of knowledge in our memory. Even when caught up in worldliness, the Lord works to get our attention, and to fire up the remains of good within us. The lowly bramble bush signifies that at this stage we are operating externally. We think all that matters is how the world sees us. But God calls us to take off our shoes--to put aside our worldly concerns--and remember God.

In Heavenly Secrets #6832 we read that when the Lord appears, he appears according to our character, because we receive the Divine based on our own quality. Our idea of God, our attitude toward God, is as unique as each one of us. God does not change; only our relationship to God changes as the quality of our faith changes. To move to the next level of faith, we must step outside our comfort zone and examine why we believe what we believe. Like Moses, the burning love of God will come to us where we are, but we must accept the challenge, and go forward.

Guiding Moses and the Israelites was an image of God as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). At this stage there is a continuous, but obscure, presence of the Lord. Clouds symbolize the literal level of the Word, through which the Lord speaks to us where we are; clouds are veiled truth accommodated to our ability to understand. At night (our states of doubt and despair) the pillar of fire, or faith in divine love, leads us.

It is a big step to the next stage of faith, in which we reflect on who we are, and examine our inner feelings. This may occur in early adulthood; but for many it happens during middle age, if at all. It requires us to cross the Red Sea, which represents our accumulation of evils and of false ideas. We have made the decision to follow the Lord, but are confronted with a sea of doubt, disbelief, and fear. To overcome, we have to trust the Lord to open the way, realizing that by ourselves we cannot cross this barrier. Our idea of God must be strengthened. We need a powerful God to sustain us. Escaping worldliness means setting aside our reliance on our own intellect, and relying on this higher idea of God. Even after we cross the Red Sea, our journey is a continual struggle as we wander in the wilderness, laboring to organize our outward life.

When we arrive at the period in which Joshua is leading the children of Israel, we have crossed over into the Promised Land and are fighting the battles of our inner selves. Those who get to this point in their spiritual journey may think, "I have made it; I am in the Promised Land." We are then in a state of enjoying the orderly outward life, but there is much more work to be done. This is when we are searching to reveal the image of God within us, which comes through love toward the neighbor.

There are many visions of God in the prophets. Isaiah's elaborate and detailed vision of the Lord was as an omnipotent king and judge sitting on a throne. Like Isaiah, we need a clear image of God's power, which fills our temple. We also must acknowledge our own unworthiness, and be cleansed by the fire of the Lord's unselfish love so that we may go forward and say, "Here I am. Send me!" (Isaiah 6:8). This stage in our faith is characterized by being comfortable with the unknown. We do not have to know everything; we can allow God to be king. We do not fear the unknown or other people's views, which may be different from our own, because we have access to this spiritual power.

No matter how far we have progressed, there are times on the journey when we fall--just as the children of Israel fell captive to Babylon. Babylon represents the desire to be in control instead of letting God rule. Some of us find God only when we have bottomed out and are finally ready to open our ears to hear, and our eyes to see. From exile in Babylon the prophet Ezekiel gives us a stunning vision of God. He first hears the voice of the Lord like the sound of great waters, which is divine truth speaking to our minds. Then he sees the Lord as a man on a sapphire throne, full of fire and brilliant light, with a rainbow of radiance around him. The fire and brilliance are symbols of divine love and wisdom.

This idea of the Lord as a person is important. In Heavenly Secrets #8705 we read, "We cannot think of the Divine itself unless we present to ourselves the idea of a Divine Human."

In order for our progress to continue, as reflected in the Bible story, the visions of God as depicted in the Old Testament have to become alive and real. God must come to earth and actualize the idea for human beings. And so Jesus was born. Jesus became our living image of God. And as he lived among us, understood our temptations, and taught us how to live and love, we found a friend in God that we could relate to.

But that is not the end. The final Scriptural image of God was given to John and recorded in the book of Revelation. It was a vision of the glorified Christ. John recognized the Lord because he had known the Master on earth. We can see the image of the Lord as the Divine Human, too, if we take time to know Jesus. That is why we study the Scriptures. That is why we gather here on Sunday. We want to have a right idea of God in our hearts not just as a persona, an essence, or a spirit, but as the Divine Human.

Prayer

O God, open our eyes that we may see visions of you revealed to us. Show us the vast panorama of your presence throughout the Scriptures. Give us the eyes to see our own spiritual journey, our own developing vision of you, reflected in the sacred pages. Bring us ever closer to your iridescent radiance, and warm us eternally in the presence of your ever-flaming love. Amen.

Rev. Jane Siebert