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Sermons

Search the Scriptures

March 24, 2013

Bible Reading

But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die. Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

(Ezekiel 18:21-32)


“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”

Reading from Swedenborg

“Having a wall great and high” means the Word in its literal meaning as the source of the theology of the new church.

Given the fact that the holy city Jerusalem means the theological aspect of the Lord’s new church, its wall can only mean the Word in its literal meaning as the basis of its theology. You see, that meaning protects the spiritual meaning that is within it the way a wall protects a city and the people who live in it. On the literal meaning as the grounding, container, and support of its spiritual meaning see Teachings of the New Jerusalem on Sacred Scripture 27-36. See also 97 of the same work on the fact that this meaning is a guard to prevent the more inward divine truths that are its spiritual meaning from suffering harm; and on the fact that the theology of the church is to be drawn from the literal meaning of the Word and supported by it, see 50-61 of the same work.

Sermon

Search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life, and they are they which testify of me. (John 5:39)

This verse from the Gospel of John greets everyone who enters this sanctuary. It stands front and center on above the Bible on the altar, and it raises questions. Whether or not that was the intention of those who chose it, that may well be a very good thing. To ask a question is to open our minds to receive something new, and a little bewilderment is a small price to pay for learning.

What are some of the questions the verse may raise?

An obvious one is simply, “Why is there no cross?” The newcomer may wonder whether this really is a Christian church. There is a very simple answer, namely that we do not focus on the crucifixion but on the resurrection. According to the Book of Acts, the first apostles went forth not with the message that Christ had died for our sins, but as witnesses to the resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). This leads straight into the heart of our theology: the belief that Jesus was the embodiment of divine love and wisdom. God was not angry with us. God does not want to punish us. There was no need of an atoning sacrifice. Ezekiel heard this, and heard it well: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23).

But why was this particular verse chosen? For that, we may look at its three main components.

“Search the scriptures” (which could equally well be translated “You search the scriptures”) says that we are a Bible-centered church; and it calls us not only to read the scriptures but also to search them, to probe for meaning, to come to them with a questioning mind. Our third reading was taken from the interpretation of the Holy City found in the Book of Revelation, the only description of “the new church” found in Swedenborg’s theological works (sadly neglected by the churches that identify themselves as “the New Church”). The wall of the city is mentioned no less than six times in that description, which surely gives impressive prominence to “the Word in its literal meaning.” That wall stands as a kind of boundary of the church.

Obviously, though, we are not simplistic literalists. The gates of the wall stand open day and night, inviting us in. The value of the literal meaning is as a container of deeper meaning. In and of itself, it is highly problematic. The little work Sacred Scripture (§51) referred to in the Swedenborg reading alerts us to the fact that scripture contradicts itself, saying, for example, that God repents (Exodus 2:12,14; Jonah 3:9, 4:2) and that God does not repent (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29); and saying that God visits the iniquity of the fathers on the sons (Numbers 14:18) and that the father shall not die for the son (Deuteronomy 24:16).

So Swedenborg’s use of the literal meaning is not to select one or two “proof texts” but to survey the whole field, so to speak. A most striking example of this is in section 4 of Sacred Scripture, where he presents no less than a hundred and one references to the day of the Lord. The clear implication is that there is a common, unifying theme to them all, a theme that can be expressed in many different ways and wordings and that therefore cannot readily be seen in any single verse by itself.

The ambiguity of scripture is central to a particular incident in Jesus’ life. All three of the synoptic gospels tell of Jesus being asked what commandment was most important (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28- 35, Luke 10:25-28). There are a great many of them, far too many for the average person to keep track of. Jesus identified the command to love the Lord above all (Deuteronomy 6:9) as the most important, and the command to love the neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18) as the second; in Matthew he added the statement that “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). This, then, for the Christian, should be the meaning for which we should be searching when we “search the scriptures”; and while at times it is beautifully clear, as for example in the twenty-third Psalm, at times it is most definitely not.

Why should we search? Not just out of idle curiosity, but “because in them ye think ye have eternal life.” We share the belief that the Bible is truly the Word of God, a lamp to our feet, showing us the path to eternal life. Again we might turn to the Book of Revelation, to the judgment scene where the books of our lives are opened and compared to the contents of the book of life (Revelation 20:12).

This brings us to the closing statement, “And they are they which testify of me.” The scriptures, that is, are all about the Christ. Bearing in mind that “the scriptures” that the Gospel of John is talking about are the Law and the Prophets, basically the Old Testament, there is some literal truth to this. The Christ is the Messiah foretold by the prophets, and that Messiah is the successor of a hereditary line of kings stretching back to David, who in turn is a climactic figure in a story that begins with Abraham, set in a world whose beginning is described in the first chapter of Genesis. The Gospel of Matthew in particular is concerned to present Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecies; and the gospels are unintelligible in a number of respects apart from their roots in “the scriptures.”

For the theology of this church, though, the “testimony” goes far deeper than narrative continuity. Swedenborg wrote copiously of deeper levels of meaning in the biblical narrative, of an inner story of our own spiritual growth and of an “inmost” story of the spiritual transformation of Jesus, by which an indwelling divine nature gradually cleansed and filled a more external mortal nature until at last the whole was divine. The defeat of the body on the cross was the victory of the soul.

This is not just a matter of abstruse theological pedantry. In traditional terms, the Lord’s glorification is the model for our regeneration. In less abstract terms, the best in us is parallel to the divine in him, and the worst in us is parallel to the mortal in him. To be human is not merely to have a certain physical form and physical abilities, not merely to have certain mental abilities, but to be in process. “The way of the Lord” and the Lord as “the way,” the image of “following the Lord,” and the image of being led, all imply motion.

So it is entirely appropriate, even inevitable, that the scriptures are essentially a story. It is a story that contains songs, yes, but it is not a hymnal. The songs are part of the plot. It is a story that contains laws, but it is not a law code. The laws are part of the plot. It is the story of a people called into being by God and led by God toward goodness, drawn by dreams of greatness, following often very reluctantly, and finally reaching a point of convergence at which Deity itself, the embodiment of divine love and wisdom, could become manifest. It is a story that leads from the Garden of Eden to the Holy City.

It is an intensely human story, so much so that many find it impossible to believe that it is “the Word of God.” Yet we can readily see its divine origin in the candor with which it shows us at our worst, our usual, and our best. We can see its divine origin in its testimony to a God who never gives up on us, especially when we give up on ourselves. We can see its divine origin in a God whom we can perceive as angry, unjust, loving, capricious, patient, and even absent—as we in fact are.

It is the story of a people, remarkable particularly for its length, since it purports to cover a span of almost two millennia. It is remarkable because for a national epic, it is singularly lacking in idealized heroic figures. It is not a story in which virtue is always rewarded, either. Jehu loyally eliminated the worship of Baal from the northern kingdom and lost all the territory east of the Jordan valley (2 Kings 10:32-33). Jeroboam the Second “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” but ruled for forty-one years, and apparently regained much or all of the territory that Jehu had lost (2 Kings 14:25). Josiah, the greatest reformer of all (2 Kings 23:25), was killed in battle at the age of thirty-nine (2 Kings 23:29). The list could go on and on.

There is also a most revealing situation that is actually hidden in plain sight. The prophet Isaiah, for example, comes into the narrative of the divided kingdom only for his engagement with King Hezekiah (2 Kings 19-20). When we turn to his book, though, we find him passionately opposed to the whole sacrificial system that centered in the temple and justified the monarchy. This was not the opposition of Elijah, protesting the worship of Baal; this was protesting orthodox, state-sanctioned and state-sanctioning worship of the true God instead of practicing the truer worship of justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow (Isaiah 1:17).

This “testifies of the Christ” in the most meaningful sense of pleading the case of the Messiah who was to bring the mighty down from their thrones and lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53), the one who came not to be ministered to but to minister (Matthew 20:28).

The scriptures contain this and much more—the whole story, including prophecy and fulfillment, transgression and forgiveness, tragedy and triumph, doubt and faith, cross and resurrection. That is why the focal point of our worship is the Bible on the altar— it contains the whole story. It is why our service begins with the opening of the Word and its illumination, and why that illumination is dimmed when the Word is closed. We might see the inscription as rising from the Bible on the altar below it, inviting us to open it, enter into its world, and search it for the light it can shed on our own path. Amen.

Prayer

Eternal God, you are a deep sea, into which the more I enter the more I find, and the more I find the more I seek. My soul hungers in the mystery of your depth and longs to see you in and through your own clear light; as the deer yearns for clear spring water, so my soul yearns for your truth.

- After St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)


Open wide the windows of our spirits, O Lord,
and fill them with your light.
Open wide the doors of our hearts,
that there we may receive and entertain you
with all the powers of adoration and love;
through Christ our Lord.

- Christina Rosetti (1830-1894)

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole