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Love is Life

Sermons

We Know

April 29, 2012

Bible Reading

In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, the prophet Hananiah son of Azzur, from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, and broke it. And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, “Thus says the Lord: This is how I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.” At this, the prophet Jeremiah went his way. Sometime after the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: Go, tell Hananiah, Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them! For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and they shall indeed serve him; I have even given him the wild animals. And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the Lord.” In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died.

(Jeremiah 28)


Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

(John 16:7-13)

Reading from Swedenborg

Each of us is born with the ability to understand truths even at the deepest levels where angels of the third heaven live. As our human understanding climbs up on a continuum around the two higher levels, it receives the light of wisdom from those levels in the manner described above (see §256). . . The reason we do not become rational to the highest degree we are capable of is that our love, which is a matter of our intent, is not raised up in the same way as our wisdom, which is a matter of our discernment. The love that is a matter of intent is raised up only by turning our backs on evils and then by those good, thoughtful actions that are helpful to others, acts that we are then performing from the Lord. So if the love that is a matter of intent is not raised up along with it, then no matter how high the wisdom of our discernment is raised, it ultimately falls back to the level of our love.

(Divine Love and Wisdom 258)

Sermon

Give me understanding, and I will keep your law; I will observe it with my whole heart. Psalm 119:34

Our reading from Swedenborg would seem to say that the Psalmist had things backward, since it says in effect that if we observe the law with our whole hearts, we will be given understanding. There are a couple of sentences in Secrets of Heaven (§3207:5) that deal directly with this discrepancy: “We believe that truth enables us to sense what is good because it teaches us, but this is just the way it seems. It is the good that enables the truth to perceive, since the good is the soul and life of truth.” In other words, the Psalmist would not have asked for understanding if he had not wanted to observe the law.

What we have, then, are two different views of the same process: a view from the outside and a view from within, so to speak. Much of the time, we are not thinking about how we are feeling, so in a broad sense we are relying on a kind of inertial navigation system. The Psalmist is speaking from one of those times when vague feelings of need come to the surface and prompt conscious thought. The question of understanding, of truth, does come first on that level of consciousness.

To take a more specific example, most of us go along from day to day, paying attention to what is going on around us, setting visible goals like getting the kids off to school, getting to work, getting home, and meeting the immediate needs of friends, colleagues, and family. We give our attention to figuring out what needs to be done, whether for others or for ourselves, and what our own part is in meeting those needs. This is the stuff of everyday life, the raw material of our own regeneration and of human community.

Every once in a while, though, we find ourselves asking, “What’s it all about? Why am I here? What am I, really?” We look in the mirror, so to speak, and wonder what it is that we are looking at, and the mirror doesn’t answer us. The answers do not seem to be on the level of our normal thought. No question, we have to look deeper.

This, when you stop to think about it, is intriguing. That is, we seem to feel that we have to look into ourselves more deeply in order to find the answers, which in turn would seem to mean that we believe the answers may actually be in there somewhere.

Are they? Doctrine says definitely, unequivocally, “Yes.” We exist because we are constantly being created by the Lord. We are alive because his life is constantly flowing into us. We are human because that life is essentially love and wisdom. That wisdom is most perfect as it flows into the very center, the core of our being. It loses clarity as it comes down through the filters of the inner levels of our being, and is therefore most obscure at the lowest level, the level of our consciousness of the material world (see Divine Love and Wisdom 274). This phenomenon is what underlies the very familiar phenomenon of knowing what we want to say but not knowing how to say it. We cannot “think it” on the level of physical language. However, when the right words do come to mind, we have no doubt that they are right. Our deeper wisdom tells us so very clearly. The same thing is happening when someone else says something that “makes the lights go on” for us. “That’s what I believe, too, but I could never get hold of it!” In more doctrinal language we might say, “So that’s what the Lord has been trying to tell me all these years!”

This in turn indicates that the Lord is trying to tell us profound things from the outside as well as from the inside. We are told in Heaven and Hell (§487) that we cannot know what our ruling love is if we want to deceive ourselves, but that if we were willing, we could learn from others who are wise, because they see what we cannot. That is one of the reasons we need true friends, people who care about us, people we can trust. It is not that they are authorities whose opinions should outweigh our own, but that they from their outside perspectives can see some things that we cannot and may offer us the “right words” that we are groping for, words that in fact will mean much more to us than they do to them. All this is summed up in a very few words in the Gospel of John: “However, when he, the Spirit of Truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). This says two things. Most obviously, it tells us that the truth is to be found in the right spirit, namely in the Lord’s presence. It also implies that it must find us, so to speak. It will come on its own schedule, not on ours.

One of my favorite Scripture passages has come to be the closing verses of Deuteronomy 18. The chapter foretells the coming of a second Moses at some future time, and the question is raised, “How can we tell which word the Lord has not spoken?” (Deuteronomy 18:21). This was a very real problem, which is the point of the graphic story told in Jeremiah 28. Here was Hananiah, with all the fire and conviction of a true prophet, saying one thing, and Jeremiah, with equal fire and conviction, saying the opposite. We know which was which. The question was answered decisively by actual events; and that is the down-to-earth commonsense counsel of Deuteronomy. “If the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the word that the Lord has not spoken” (Deuteronomy 18:22).

This criterion is not very satisfactory, simply because we want our answers now. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s remark that you can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else. We are currently being bombarded by solutions to our economic problems, solutions based on economic theories. The airwaves are full of Jeremiahs and Hananiahs. There is actually a fair amount of evidence from the past that could be consulted—what the tax rates were during times of stable economic growth, for example—but the view from the ivory tower of theory is much, much easier to understand, and facts have that annoying habit of not telling us what we want to hear.

By the same token, when we try to understand ourselves, we want answers now, and on our terms. Here our third reading seconds Deuteronomy’s motion, in a way. It says that if we want the answers, what we need to do is turn our backs on evils and be generous and caring toward others and toward ourselves. That is what raises our conscious thought up to the level where the answers to our questions are. It is the principle so nicely encapsulated in the advice of Wilson Van Dusen to “enter into dialogue with your works.” What have I been doing when I felt most whole, most appropriate? What was different about these times? What have I been doing when I felt most fragmented, most inappropriate? What was different about those times?

This needs to be an ongoing exercise for the simple reason that no two days are alike. Every day calls for something a little different, calls us to be in the present and not in the past, to pay attention to the person who is with us—in the light of our past experiences of that person, to be sure, but with the awareness that for all we know, she may have had a significant change of heart overnight. Probably not, of course—these changes don’t happen all that often— but who’s to say for sure?

The main message of our Scripture readings, our Swedenborg reading, and our text is that the answers to our most basic questions about ourselves are already there within us, but gaining access to them takes time and experience. What is needed is the opening of deeper levels of thought and feeling, moving out of the shadows of materialism into the realm of the clearer light of “the Spirit of truth.”

We cannot stop at this point, though. In and of themselves, moments of exceptional clarity are just that—moments. We need to come back down to our consciousness of the everyday world and to our responsibilities in it, and in that world the shallow is much more vivid than the profound; short-term goals are much more vivid than long-term ones. It is quite true that one jelly doughnut will not make any appreciable difference to our weight. The doughnut is right there, though. Next week is off in the future somewhere.

What is necessary is a fundamental shift in attitude, namely that we come to love the long-term goals. That is what experience teaches us, if we listen to it. That is what our third reading tells us in no uncertain terms. “So if the love that is a matter of intent is not raised up along with it, then no matter how high the wisdom of our discernment is raised, it ultimately falls back to the level of our love.”

Here again, we need to recognize that the kind of love we need is already there within us. The simple fact that we are alive tells us that it is flowing in constantly from the Lord. It flows all the way down into our most earthbound consciousness, all the way down into our craving for jelly doughnuts, so to speak. In fact, if we could probe within our souls about what we regard as our worst cravings, we would eventually find some genuine need. We do need a sense of autonomy, for example. Without it, we have no sense of responsibility. That sense of autonomy is constantly threatened by the fact that we simply are not self-sufficient, and the effort to defend it by controlling others can lead to such dismayingly destructive behavior as brutal domestic abuse.

So the statement that in order to understand truths at deeper levels we must turn our backs on evils is not just a pious sentiment. It is, or should be, a clarion call representing the most passionate commitment of which we are capable. It should so permeate our sensibilities that we refrain from even the slightest unkindness or thoughtlessness.

That is a lot to ask, but it is just what we need. Our lives are not made up of great, dramatic choices between the perfect brilliance of absolute heaven and the abysmal darkness of utter hell but of little shades of gray, and only as we turn our backs on the darkness and turn toward the light in the little ways that make up most of our lives will we find the answers for which we long, the answers that we already know. Amen.

Prayer

Lord, show us thy face once more, that all times may exult in thy brightness; give us the light of day, darkened on earth at thy death.
Out of the prison of death thou art rescuing numberless captives; freely they tread in the way whither their Maker has gone.
Jesus has harrowed hell; he has led captivity captive: Darkness and chaos and death flee from the face of the light.
- Easter Processional, Western Rite

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole