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Sermons

Flight from Tyranny

August 01, 2004

Bible Reading

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But as they called them, so they went from them. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them.

(Hosea 11:1-4)

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. He said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

(Matthew 2:13-15)

Reading from Swedenborg

In reference to the Lord, "Egypt" means the knowledge of deeper subjects. But in reference to all others, it means knowledge in general. This is clear from the meaning of that country in the Bible, which I have explained elsewhere. The ancient church existed in Egypt, as it did in many other places. While the church was in that region, all kinds of knowledge flourished there more than anything else. This explains why "Egypt" came to mean knowledge. But after those people desired to penetrate the mysteries of faith through all this knowledge, and so inquire into the truth of divine secrets by their own power, Egypt turned into a place of magic, and so came to mean knowledge that corrupts, and that gives rise to falsities and the resulting evils. Used in a good sense, though, Egypt stands for people who have facts, or natural truths, that are vessels for spiritual truths. (Arcana Coelestia #1462)

Sermon

On the surface, the stories of the Lord's infancy in Matthew and Luke do not offer much help to those who would like to form a picture of the Lord's childhood development. In Luke, all that is told of Jesus' infancy is condensed into the second chapter: his birth, the adoration of the shepherds, the circumcision, the presentation in the temple in fulfillment of the law--and then silence, except for the brief incident when he was twelve years old.

Matthew adds to this the visit of the wise men, the flight into Egypt, and the return from Egypt to Nazareth. Notwithstanding the various fanciful legends that have been woven about the childhood of Christ, this is all the literal Scriptural information we have of the life of the Lord up until he began his active ministry at the age of thirty.

Does this paucity of direct information mean we should not delve further for lessons from his childhood to guide us in our lives? Certainly not in the New Church, where we believe that in the deeper sense of the sacred Word, from Genesis through Revelation, we may learn in orderly sequence profound facts about the spiritual development of Jesus throughout his life on earth.

One Gospel passage that supports this is the statement of the risen Lord to the disciples on the road to Emmaus:

He said to then, "How foolish you are, and slow heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things, and then enter his glory?" And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)

And further on in the same chapter we read:

"This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and Psalms." Then he opened their understanding so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45)

If, as Thomas à Kempis suggested in the fifteenth century, our pattern in life should be one in imitation of Christ, it seems to me that we should be deeply concerned to learn whatever we can not only of the birth and the last three years of the Lord's life, but of the whole of his life. This we can do with the help of the deeper sense of the Word. Just as the Lord in his first advent opened the understanding of his disciples so that they could understand the Scriptures, so at the beginning of this new age of Christianity, the Lord opened the understanding of the man Markham described as "the prophet of the North": Emanuel Swedenborg.

Over a period of twenty-three years, Swedenborg wrote thirty volumes that contain the distinctive teachings of this new church. He signed himself, "servant of the Lord Jesus Christ," and claimed to have been a specially prepared instrument whose understanding was opened in order to make available to all people the possibility that they might understand the Scriptures. His claim cannot he "proved" in any usual way, but must stand on the basis of the internal consistency of his works. Those works clear up for all time the problems and so-called mysteries of Christianity, and offer to all people a truly rational religion.

To come into such a position of belief requires patience and much diligent self-directed research in addition to the services of the Church. But to the earnest seeker after truth, this labor is soon accepted with joy, for it is frequently punctuated with long-sought insights of breathtaking depth.

Realizing that we can at best touch on the wisdom of one small portion of the sacred narrative this morning, let us turn our attention for the remaining minutes to the account of the flight into Egypt. There is, I believe, a lesson of great significance to all of us in this tersely worded incident.

If this child really was Immanuel, God with us, why was a flight necessary to save him from the wrath of an earthly tyrant? Could he not have been surrounded with such a sphere of protection that no power on earth or in hell could have injured him?

We think of the words Jesus spoke as an adult: "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" (Matthew 26:53-54). The flight to Egypt is not an evidence of any lack of power to protect the divine child, but is, as our text says, an orderly step in the Lord's avowed purpose in life of fulfilling the Scriptures: "So was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'"

Anyone who studies the Bible thoughtfully will be struck by the similarities between this New Testament event and the Old Testament account of Israel going down to Egypt and sojourning there. By going back still further in the account in Genesis--the book of beginnings--we find that Abram also went down to Egypt to sojourn there. We know, too, that both Abram and the children of Israel returned from Egypt laden with riches. Can we not conceive that the Lord himself was also in some way enriched by his sojourn? And that therefore "going down into Egypt" must be symbolic of some necessary stage in human development?

Let us briefly outline the symbolic significance of Egypt in the deeper sense of the Word. In ancient times, Egypt was known as the granary of the world. The secret of its fertility during times of famine in the other parts of the then-inhabited world was that it depended not on water from the heavens, but on water from the earth: from the Nile River's periodic overflowing of its banks.

Egypt was also famous as a land of great learning. In the first book of Kings we read, "And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt" (1 Kings 4:30). Putting these facts together, we should readily see that a sojourn in Egypt represents a stage in life in which our minds are nourished by knowledge--knowledge that owes its existence to worldly rather than heavenly sources.

This type of learning occupies a large part of our time not only in early childhood, when children seem never to stop asking questions about all manner of things that adults take for granted, but also during the school years and the years of training for a vocation. The traditional translations of Swedenborg's works use the term "memory-knowledge" for this type of learning, and it extends even to acquiring a knowledge of the literal sense of the Bible. Both children and adults in Sunday School are adding to their store of memory-knowledge. If no further use is made of this knowledge in later life, it is of little more value than a knowledge of the multiplication tables.

Jesus Christ himself literally went down into Egypt to signify that he, like every other human, was born in ignorance, and had to acquire knowledge in the ordinary way. We might suppose that if the Lord was God manifest in the flesh, he would have no need for human instruction, but would have had all knowledge and wisdom directly imparted to him by the Divinity that dwelt within. Yet we know from the Gospel story that this was not the case.

Even though in the Lord's case the Divine was within the human, the principle holds true that the soul does not in some mystical way inspire the external nature with knowledge, but only gives the capability of acquiring it. Nor can the soul manifest its powers in and through the body until the mind is prepared through "growth in wisdom and in stature" (Luke 2:52) to be a suitable instrument for its use. To use an analogy, knowledge is the "body" of which reason is the "soul." And reason can no more act without knowledge than the soul can act without the body.

The Lord, when he was a child, had to acquire knowledge by the use of his senses just as we do. In particular, he had to be taught, and to store in his external memory, the literal sense of Scripture; for this was the measuring rod by which he was to grow and develop.

We learn parts of Scripture as our sense of its importance directs us. And our finite reason, acting on our limited level of knowledge, enables us partially to understand its meaning, and partially to live up to what we understand.

The Lord had the ability and the will to learn the letter of the Word in the highest degree, and therefore he learned more quickly and more perfectly than any mere mortal ever did or could. Yet he still had to learn. This necessity, as we have said before, is pictured by his being taken into Egypt as a young child.

This is surely a sobering thought as we look at our own lives. We realize, as individuals who place differing degrees of importance on Bible study, that the Lord himself found it necessary and desirable to gain a thorough knowledge of Scripture.

If the reason for this necessity even in his spotless life is not yet fully clear, perhaps further illustration will help.

In our text, the literal reason given for Jesus' flight into Egypt is this: "For Herod will seek the young child to destroy him." We remember that little children represent innocent goodness. "Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). But innocence and goodness, without sufficient knowledge to protect them, are an easy prey to selfish desires and false ideas. Children who are not taught what is right soon fall into bad habits.

Even the Lord could not safely come into direct contact with the evil forces that were at large in the world of his day until he had put on the armor of a knowledge of the letter of Scripture. It is striking that when we first read of his being tempted by the devil, he faced the temptations by responding, "It is written . . . ."

This knowledge is also our armor against the forces of evil, both in our own natures and from outside. If we are not fortunate enough to be equipped during childhood with a knowledge of the Scriptures, we face maturity without a proper defense against its temptations. If we become aware of this shortcoming, surely it is wise to take all possible steps to make up the loss as best we can.

On the other hand, those who are so equipped may choose to "remain in Egypt," basking in self-satisfied complacency, thinking that since they have the knowledge, this is all that is necessary. But to do this changes Egypt from a place of salvation in time of need to a place of slavery. Although the children of Israel were saved from starvation by journeying to Egypt, by staying there too long and losing sight of their goal of the promised land, they became slaves. Their destiny as a race was not fulfilled until, with the help of the Lord, they broke away from the bondage of Egypt.

The same is true of our spiritual and psychological development. The "Egypt" stage is as necessary in us as it was in the life of our Lord. But the pattern does not end there. Perhaps all of us have known people whom we might describe as Scripture-quoting bigots. They can rattle off Bible quotations a mile a minute, but their lives fail to show the accompanying charity of heart that we might expect. This is an example of becoming a slave to Egypt in our religious knowledge. This is not by any means the only field of knowledge in which this phenomenon may appear, but it is by all means the most telling in our spiritual development.

Let us return to our New Testament reading to complete the pattern. It is recorded that the Lord remained in Egypt only "until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'" The Lord remained in the stage of acquiring memory-knowledge of the Word only as long as was necessary for the removal of the particular dangers that accompany ignorance. The signal to move on to the active use of this knowledge in life came from above.

It should be the same in our life. We desperately need the knowledge of the great truths of religion. That is the first essential step. But we cannot remain a perennial student, even in things of religion. The Lord will not leave us in doubt; he will signal us in some way. We will surely recognize when the former dangers that beset our spiritual life because of our ignorance of spiritual things are no longer factors to be reckoned with, and the time has come for us to begin to practice the knowledge we have acquired.

This is not to suggest that we will ever reach a point where our knowledge of the Bible is adequate. The systematic and regular study of the Word should be a lifelong pursuit. However, if we are reading the Word in the proper spirit--that of seeking truth to guide our lives--there will come a time when we see clearly that the Bible is unlike any other book, and that it contains depths of meaning that we will never be able to fathom fully.

This realization will be intimately connected with a signal that the Lord will give us to start living some of the truths we have learned. From this point on, our consciousness will move up out of the "Egypt" of a purely natural perception of the Scriptures toward the "Canaan" of a gradually developing spiritual perception. "Egypt" will remain a part of our mental complex, but it will be on the periphery rather than the center of our mental activity.

Here, then, is a lesson of vital, practical application that we can draw from this succinct account--only three verses--of one of the Lord's childhood experiences. And while we need the help gained by exploring from many sides the great truths stored in the Word, it may be helpful in closing to point out that the Lord, in a few words, stated the principle that I have attempted to illustrate here when he said, "Now that you know these things, you will be happy if you do them" (John 13:17).

Prayer

Dear Lord, when we were languishing in a famine of spiritual ignorance and doubt, when we were beset by inner and outer foes that we could neither understand nor overcome, you blessed us with incredible riches of spiritual knowledge to strengthen and arm us against all doubt and despair. Now that we have been fed with abundant knowledge from the storehouses of Egypt, send us back to the Canaan of active practice of the spiritual principles we have learned. For you have taught us that we will be blessed if we not only know, but live by what we know. Amen.

Rev. William R. Woofenden