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Sermons

WWJS?

September 04, 2011

Bible Reading

Now the company of prophets said to Elisha, “As you see, the place where we live under your charge is too small for us. Let us go to the Jordan, and let us collect logs there, one for each of us, and build a place there for us to live.” He answered, “Do so.” Then one of them said, “Please come with your servants.” And he answered, “I will.” So he went with them. When they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. But as one was felling a log, his ax head fell into the water; he cried out, “Alas, master! It was borrowed.” Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick, and threw it in there, and made the iron float. He said, “Pick it up.” So he reached out his hand and took it.

Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, “Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.” The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert. The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, “Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?” Then one of his officers said, “No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.”

He said, “Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.” He was told, “He is in Dothan.” So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night, and surrounded the city. When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” Then Elisha prayed: “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:1-17)

When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.” (Luke 11:29-36)

Reading from Swedenborg

In an earthly state, we see things in the light of this world, a light we could call “earthlight.” We acquire this light by means of the observable things we take in through our sight and hearing and therefore by means of observable things in this world. So inside ourselves, we see these things almost as though we were seeing them with our eyes. What we take in through these senses affects us primarily in terms of pleasure and delight. Eventually, as little children, we distinguish between different delights and in this way learn discernment, which gradually becomes more discriminating. When some light from heaven flows into this, we begin to see things spiritually and for the first time to see what is useful and what is not. On this basis we begin to see what is true, because we see what is useful to us as true and what is useless as not true. This clarity of perception grows as heaven’s light flows in until finally we can tell the difference not only between what is true and what is not true but can identify the truths within the truths, more and more clearly as the communication between the inner and the outer self improves. This is because heaven’s light flows into the outer self through the inner self. (Secrets of Heaven 9103:3)

Message

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)

One of the watchwords of evangelical Christianity in the nineties was the question “What would Jesus do?” It was commonly known by its acronym, “WWJD.” It is a very good question. Its roots, of course, go all the way back to the Gospels themselves. When Jesus called the disciples to follow him, he was not talking simply about following in his physical footsteps. “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

It is of critical importance, though, to recognize that he did not say we were to take up his cross. We cannot lay down his life. I must take up my cross. You must take up your cross. We cannot just mechanically imitate what Jesus did. He acted in response to his circumstances, and we are to act in response to our own. This means that we cannot answer the question “What would Jesus do?” until we have found an answer to the question “What would Jesus see?”

This is a searching question, because while physically we “see” everything within our range of vision, we attend to only a fraction of that. Some people, I gather, are very clothes-conscious, and can tell you in considerable detail what different people were wearing on some particular occasion. Others scarcely notice. From a strictly physical, materialist point of view, all are seeing pretty much the same thing. The signals that scoot along their optic nerves to their brains are carrying pretty much the same information. Something, something non-material, seems to be filtering that information and allowing only part of it to reach our waking consciousness.

Our theology tells us that the filter is our loves. They determine what actively interests us. To the extent that our main interests are physical, our attention will be drawn to physical attractiveness or unattractiveness. It often happens, though, that sooner or later this physically unattractive person turns out to be truly thoughtful, and we begin to see the facial expressions of this thoughtfulness rather than the facial terrain on which those expressions are displayed. We can “see” this person giving us her or his full attention, responding to what we are saying or doing. These signals were there before, but we did not see them because we were preoccupied with the terrain.

The basic principle is right there in the Sermon on the Mount. “The lamp of the body is the eye, so if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. If your eye is bad, though, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:22-23). Jesus saw with extraordinary clarity, a clarity that must have increased as, step by step, he overcame the failings of our human condition. He was, according to John’s gospel, “the true light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world” (John 1:9). It is a light that shines in our darkness, and our darkness cannot master it (John 1:5).

There is a striking statement in Secrets of Heaven (§6917) that is well worth close attention. “The same facts are false for evil people, because they are applied to evil ends, that are true for good people because they are applied to good ends.” Take just a moment to adjust this notion to our experiences of ourselves so that the “evil people” include ourselves at our worst and the “good people” include ourselves at our best, and we can put it to the test. When someone has offended us and we are caught up in resentment, all we can see is the negative side of “the facts” about that individual. Suppose we realize that behind the words that offended us lay pain and a plea for help, and those same “facts” take on a very different color.

This calls us to rethink what we mean by the word “truth.” It seems to be telling us that truth is not simply something that we can learn and know. It is first and foremost a way of seeing. The church teaches us about our relationship with the Lord. The most urgent question is not how accurate this information is, but how it affects the way we see ourselves and each other. “If you know these things,” Jesus said to his disciples, “you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17).

Functionally, nothing is true unless it enables us to see what is good, which includes distinguishing it from what is not good. That is “truth” not as what we see but as the light that enables us to see. An essential feature of the beauty of this space in which we are gathered is that it is full of light. If the eye of the church is clear, the whole body of the church is full of light.

The Lord came into the world as “the true light,” the light in which he saw everyone and that enables everyone to see clearly. The gospels keep telling us what he saw. He saw that his disciples were the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13). He saw the spirit of God descending like a dove (Matthew 3:16). He saw Jerusalem and wept over it (Luke 19:41). He saw potential disciples and called them (Mark 1:16, 19). He saw the faith of the people who let the paralyzed man down through the roof (Luke 5:20).

If we take seriously the thought that truth is something we are to do, this generates another list. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is full of truths that we are to do. He told us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43). He told us to be forgiving (Matthew 6:15). He told us not to lay up treasures on earth (Matthew 6:19). He told us not to judge (Matthew 7:1). He told us to seek first the kingdom of God and his answer to the question “Are we a Christian country?” we have a handy checklist to go by.

This brings us to the brink of our third reading with its contrast between “earthlight” and spiritual light. Current research is making it quite clear that while we give conscious attention to only a fraction of what we are seeing and hearing, we are taking it all in. This means that our subconscious mind is vastly better informed than our conscious mind. If we look at ourselves in the light of our theology, this comes as no surprise. Life is constantly flowing into us from the Lord, and that life is a union of love and wisdom. As it flows down through the discrete levels of our inner being, it runs into problems. In the words of Secrets of Heaven (§7270), “. . . the Divine-True that emanates directly from the Divine-Good flows in by stages, and in its course, or at each new stage, it becomes more general and therefore coarser and hazier and it becomes slower and therefore more sluggish and colder.” The more earthbound our thinking is, the coarser and hazier it is.

Our third reading goes into a little more detail on this subject. “When some light from heaven flows into this [earthlit thinking], we begin to see things spiritually and for the first time to see what is useful and what is not. On this basis we begin to see what is true, because we see what is useful to us as true and what is useless as not true. This clarity of perception grows as heaven’s light flows in until finally we can tell the difference not only between what is true and what is not true but can identify the truths within the truths, more and more clearly as the communication between the inner and the outer self improves.”

Jesus, we may be very sure, saw everything and everyone in heaven’s light. This means that he would see when what they were doing and saying was groping in the darkness of earthlight. “Do not judge by appearances,” he said (John 7:24). “You judge according to the flesh. I do not judge anyone” (John 8:15). Time after time, we find him knowing what was going on in the hearts and minds of both those who supported him and those who resisted him; and in every case, he saw a potential angel. He saw everyone as in process, everyone as following some way. When he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), he was not giving Thomas three separate facts. The truth that he taught was the way that he followed and the life that he led. It was the truth that he called his disciples not simply to believe but to do. When he sent them forth as apostles, he charged them to teach this way, truth, and life, to teach all nations to observe everything he had commanded them (Matthew 28:20).

The words of our closing hymn, “Lead, Kindly Light,” were written by the nineteenth-century British clergyman John Henry Newman, evidently late in his life. They give us a kind of autobiography of one devoted Christian’s long journey out of darkness into light. In some church traditions, members are expected at one time or another to “give witness,” to tell the stories of their own rebirth, and that, clearly, was Newman’s intent. He had come to see this world as dark, “the encircling gloom,” and prayed to be led by the Lord’s light. He looks back on his life and sees that he was not “ever thus.” He had wanted to lead himself, to choose his own path, and he was easily misled by superficial appearances that now seem merely “garish,” gaudy, all show and no substance. Pride, he says, had ruled his will. In this we can see his need to think well of himself; and we need to be mindful at this point that during those dark years he was a faithful, respected, and beloved pastor.

Through all this, he now can see, he was being led toward the light. “So long Thy power hath blessed me, sure it still will lead me on”; and though he cannot see very far ahead, he can trust the love and wisdom of that power. “I do not ask to see that distant scene; One step enough for me.”

“Keep thou my feet.” Keep them on the way, step by step by step. This, I would suggest, is how a life looks when it is seen in heaven’s kindly light. It is the light that the Lord brought into the darkness of this world, the light that the darkness could neither comprehend nor control, could not “master” in either sense of that word. It does help to be honest about how things look to us. If we accept responsibility for this, then the way is open for the truly enlightening question, “What would Jesus see?” Amen.

Meditation

It is God’s will that we receive three things from him as gifts as we seek [him]. The first is that we seek willingly and diligently, without sloth. . . . The second is that we wait for him steadfastly, out of love for him. . . . The third is that we have great trust in him, out of complete and true faith, for it is his will that we know that he will appear, suddenly and blessedly, to all his lovers. For he works in secret, and he will be perceived, and his appearance will be very sudden. And he wants to be trusted, for he is very accessible, familiar, and courteous, blessed may he be. - Julian of Norwich (1342-ca. 1423)

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole