There Went Out a Decree. A Classic Sermon.
December 12, 2004
I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people. Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve. And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him unto them. And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money. And he promised, and sought opportunity to betray him unto them in the absence of the multitude.
Reading from Swedenborg
In a universal sense, "the kingdom of God" is used to mean the whole of heaven, in a less universal sense the Lord's true church, and in a specific sense every individual who has true faith--that is, who has been reborn through a life that flows from faith. This is why individual people are also called "a heaven," since heaven is in them. Individuals are also called "the kingdom of God," since that, too, is within them. The Lord himself teaches this:
The Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would come. Jesus replied, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is!' or 'There in is!' For the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:20-21)
(Arcana Coelestia #29.2)
There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (Luke 2:1)
Next week we will celebrate the Advent of the Lord. The Advent of the Lord has a twofold meaning: its historical meaning and its spiritual meaning. Historically, we celebrate an event that took place over nineteen centuries ago, and that was a turning point in the history of mankind. Spiritually, that event marks the beginning of a divine work by which evil was subjugated, the light of truth brought into the world, and spiritual freedom restored to humankind.
That work, begun with the Incarnation, was completed on the Lord's part when his work on earth was finished. The birth was the dawn of a new day, and well was it accompanied by angel songs.
But wonderful as was the historical event, and important as it is that we should know of it and believe it, it is not sufficient that we think of it merely as an historic event--an event that took place about twenty centuries ago. For the Lord, unlike all others, came into the world never to leave it. He said to his disciples, "Lo, I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20), fulfilling the prophecy of Daniel: "His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed."
Let us now turn to the words of our text: "There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed." Augustus was king of Rome, then the capital of the world. Herod was king in Judea. The reign of Augustus and Herod gives the historical setting of the Advent. Caesar, at Rome, was the symbol of worldly power. Herod, at Jerusalem, was the symbol of power in the Church. Herod represents not the power of heaven--he was a wicked king--but the power of evil in the heart. It is recorded that when, through the wise men who journeyed to Jerusalem, he heard of the birth of the Lord, "he was troubled" (Matthew 2:3). There is no record that Augustus even knew of the birth of the Lord. But his command that all the world should be taxed brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where the Lord was born. Caesar enrolling the world is a picture of the power of worldliness seeking to make all mankind subject to it. Just as the world was externally subject to Caesar, so was it spiritually under the dominion of worldly interests and ambitions.
The world has advanced since the Advent and as a result of the Advent, spiritually as well as materially. This ought to be obvious even in these critical times, when the forces of evil are so active.
Today, looking only upon the surface of things, and having seen the widespread destruction of material things by war--in some cases the destruction of a great part of the property of a whole country--it would seem that the Lord's Advent was in vain. And war goes farther than this. It seeks to destroy ideas and principles. It seeks the destruction of the rule of God in the lives of human beings.
Yet we should also be able to see that war is more and more looked upon as an evil, and that selfish and worldly principles are more and more under question. Some victories over external evils have already been won in the Lord's name, but the spiritual conquest is barely begun.
A large part of the world is still under tribute to Caesar. The prophecy "on earth peace, good will toward men" (Luke 2:14) is not yet fulfilled.
The unrest throughout the world is the result of evils being brought to light and to judgment--evils that exist in the hearts of millions throughout the world. We should also realize that the evils that now afflict mankind did not spring up in a day.
There are two great departments in human life: the religious and the secular, or the spiritual and the natural. The Church ministers to our spiritual life, bearing witness to the fact that we are spiritual beings, belonging to a spiritual world, and having relations with and duties to God, who made us. Nevertheless, the world and its affairs, its interests, cares, and duties, are of pressing importance to us all. We have to live as citizens in the world; we have to live in the world among our fellows, in cooperation with them to produce the means of living and to perfect life in the world.
The Church and the world comprise the whole of human life, and these two fields cannot be separated without disaster. A religion that is of the thoughts alone and does not express itself in outward act and conduct is worse than useless. It is the modern form of monasticism, shutting religion out from the problems of daily life . . . yes, shutting the Lord out.
On the other hand, there are those who confine themselves wholly to the interests of the world, and take no active part in the Church. This ought not to be. It indicates that something is fundamentally wrong in the life of the community, the Church, and the world.
The religious and the secular, the spiritual and the natural, are aspects of life that should enter into every life, The same people, all people, ought to constitute both the Church and the world. It is not good for anyone to live without cultivating that part of his nature to which the Church ministers, just as it is not good for anyone to try to serve the Lord by shutting himself within monastic walls.
Doubtless each person would interpret present-day conditions a little differently, according as he feels the pressure of his particular problems. But no one can help the world who has not in his heart the acknowledgment of the Lord, and of his obligation to serve the Lord by loving the neighbor as himself. Without knowledge of the Lord, without love of him and faith in him--and without that faith and love being expressed in life in justice and righteousness in all our dealings and acts--distress will increase.
Caesar enrolling the world to be taxed is the symbol of the bondage that results from seeking first the things of this world. The only value of strength is to protect the weak; but where strength is used for self, the strong get more than they need, and the weak less than their due.
The claims concerning the Lord at his Advent are that he came to conquer the world. He said to his disciples, "Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). This is an enormous claim, and it has been ridiculed. The Lord's conquest was not an external one; it was not visible to the material eye. It is in the realm of spirit--in the hearts and minds of men. The cause of all conflicts and of all misery is in the spirit of man, and it is with the spirit of man that the Lord deals. He wishes us to come to worship him, but not for the sake of his own glory. There is need today of coming to him. For from him only comes the power to shun evil. He alone can displace ill will with good will.
By his power hate is dispossessed by love, selfishness by altruism, greed by generosity. By him the selfish love of the world is transformed into love of the neighbor. The Lord is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). When he is worshiped, truth appears, the mind is enlightened, fairness, justice, honor, virtue, mercy, and kindness become ascendant. This meaning the Advent should have for us.
What in these times is our duty as a Church? Is it not that we acknowledge him, study what he says to us in his Word, and make the Word, rather than human philosophy and intellect, the standard of our conduct?
May we know that the Lord has this purpose for us, and that in this purpose we will find our happiness and blessing--find them in doing his will in our part of the life of the world, whatever others may or may not do. This is our contribution to the world's life in this time of crisis. How long uncertainty and distress will last, what are its stages yet to come, for better or for worse, no one knows. But there is only one hope, one refuge, one solution: the acknowledgment and worship of the Lord Jesus Christ in our daily life. The victory can be won only by the Lord through those who follow him. Amen.
Our spirits rise to you, O Lord, in praise and thanksgiving for the joy that you brought to humankind with your advent on this earth. We rejoice each year in the celebration of your birth, and feel anew the love you have showered upon the human race. We pray that these gifts that mean so much to us may not be kept in our hearts, but that we may be inspired to share them with all who pass our way. Help us through your love to bring peace to the mourner, comfort to the lonely, and new visions of hope to those who suffer in mind or body.
Reveal yourself to us, so that we may learn to find you everywhere, in the world of law and its unveiling, in the wonder of life and its unfolding. Teach us to find and follow you in the dark places of life, when we walk alone in temptation, or in the desolation of unshared sorrow. Build us up in your image in faith and faithfulness, in loyalty to the truth, and in service to the ideal. Use our fleeting days to do your will. Make our hearts shrines of your grace, and join our hands in the fellowship of the good life of earth and heaven. Amen.
Rev. Louis A. Dole