Forgiving Trespasses

Forgiving Trespasses

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (MAT 6:14, 15).

Our text for this morning is taken from the Sermon on the Mount; the verses that immediately follow the Lord’s Prayer. These words are extremely familiar to us as the responsive that follows the Lord’s Prayer in our services of worship: The minister says, “O Lord forgive us our trespasses,” and we respond, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Forgiveness is an extremely important topic, because we are all affected by it in so many ways, and in so many different aspects of our lives. We look at the course of our own lives and we pray to the Lord for His forgiveness. We examine our relationships with family and friends and we become painfully aware of things that we have done to anger or hurt the ones we love – and we long for their forgiveness. Perhaps we even look deeply enough to see things that we profoundly regret that we have done to ourselves or to others against our better judgement, things that cause us to grieve, to say, “I’ll never be able to forgive myself for that.” We need to forgive ourselves so that we can be at peace with ourselves and get on with the uses of life.

All these kinds of forgiveness – from the Lord, from others, and from ourselves – have one thing in common: that we have done something that has caused offence to others and for which we need to be forgiven. This is the forgiveness that is given the most attention in the Heavenly Doctrines, for it specifically regards our personal relationship with the Lord.

However, there is another side to forgiveness that is just as important to our spiritual welfare, and that is that we must be forgiving to others.

While the natural world is governed by the Lord, yet He permits evil men to act, so that the evil can be seen, and rejected. If He did not allow men to express their evils, they would forever remain in the will, and would corrupt the spirit from within. Therefore, in order that a person can be saved from his evils, the Lord allows him to act them out. That means that things do not always happen the way we think they should. People try to say one thing, and something else is heard. A friendly jest made in passing strikes deeply into an unsuspected emotional wound and causes extreme pain instead laughter.

We could go on at some length compiling a list of the ways in which we can offend people without intending it, or even knowing that it has happened, but the picture should be clear enough by now. Giving and receiving offences is a fact of life in the natural world. These offences lead us to feelings of anger, enmity and even hatred towards those with whom we live and work. Everyone can immediately see that feelings of anger, enmity, and revenge make it impossible to act in charity toward the neighbour, and since the life of religion is to do good, these angry feelings actually remove us from a life of religion. Forgiveness is the only salve for these painful emotional wounds.

The Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church tell us that in the other world new spirits sometimes do or say what is wrong. Spirits who intend evil to another and then act on it are severely punished. However, good spirits, if they happen to speak something unkind or thoughtless, or do something that has been forbidden, are not punished, but pardoned and excused; for it was not their intention to do evil. The angels know that the evil actions were excited in them by the hells, so it is not judged to be their fault. The nature of their intention can be determined by whether or not the spirit has resisted the act on previous occasions, and, if he has failed in his resistance, by whether he was obviously grieved by his failure. (Remember that in the spiritual world no one is able to be hypocritical, their true nature shines forth from their face for all to read.) These are the signs that the angels use to judge a spirit’s intentions. We can use these same signs (resisting beforehand and grief if there is failure) ourselves in our everyday relationships with other unregenerate human beings (See AC 6559).

It has happened to every one of us that an unkind word, or an evil act has simply popped out before we could do anything about it. If it’s a minor thing, we can sometimes smooth it over with a quick and sincere apology. Since it has happened to all of us, we should then be able to recognize in the abstract that the same thing can, and does, happen to anyone – and when it does, it is no more their fault than it was when you did it.

As long as we are not personally involved we can stand aloof, be objective, and try to calm the angry parties down. We frequently excuse one person’s actions to another by saying, “yes, I heard what he said, but he didn’t mean it that way…”

This is even easier to see when we think of an adult trying to settle an argument between squabbling children. We find it so easy to tell the children to stop being angry at each other because the offences were not intended. We insist that they stop being so silly, that they make-up, and be friends.

It is much more difficult for us to be calm and objective about a situation where we are personally involved, because our built in defences are immediately called into play. Sometimes we think it is more important to find someone to blame than it is to solve the problem. The Lord created us with a strong love of self so that we could defend, care for, and educate ourselves. It was intended to be controlled by the rational adult mind and be fully subservient to the loves of the Lord and the neighbour. However, very few of us can say that our self-love is under our full rational control. Instead, it intrudes into our lives, blinding us to reasonable explanations, turning us away from peaceful solutions, and making us feel angry and vengeful instead.

Our text tells us two essential truths about forgiveness. First it tells us that the Lord wills to forgive us for those things which we have done against His commandments, and secondly, it tells us that in order to receive the Lord’s forgiveness – which every one of us needs – we must first forgive those who have offended us. We may be able to see that we should forgive those who have offended us, but not know how. We might be able to say, “I forgive you” but find that the anger still burns within, the grudge is still carried. How can we forgive in such a way that we feel better for it ourselves? We must look to the Lord’s own example for our answer.

The Lord tells us that He can forgive any sin, except one: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven because it is in effect the denial that the Lord has the power to save. If a person denies that the Lord has the power to save him, or if he believes that he does not need to be saved, he will not ask for forgiveness. Since we know that the Lord preserves and protects our spiritual freedom above all else, it can be seen that the Lord will not forgive a man who does not wish to be forgiven, who does not ask for His help. The Lord can forgive any sin, He can help a person out of any trouble if only that person sincerely asks for His help. This is why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven: it is not the Lord who refuses to forgive, but the man who refuses to seek the Lord’s help. The Lord will not enter a person’s life without an invitation.

We should try to adopt the Lord’s attitude, to learn from His example. We need to cultivate a forgiving attitude in ourselves, be willing to forgive any offence. This is, of course, extremely difficult to do at first, since our emotions become stirred so quickly – but it might be helpful to remember the arguing children and try to ask ourselves, when offences come, if we really believe that the other person intended to cause harm. And, if we believe that there was no intention of harm, what then were they trying to do? We may find that in most cases where we take offence that there never was any real offence to be forgiven!

In our third lesson, we read about three degrees of hatred. The first, signified by being “angry without cause,” is to have evil thoughts about another person, and could be exemplified by common gossip – telling stories that show people in an unflattering light. The second degree of hatred, signified by saying “Raca” is to intend evil for another, and could be exemplified by slander – telling what we know to be lies to harm the reputation of another. The third degree, signified by saying “Thou Fool” is the evil will, which would lead to harmful action towards another. In forgiveness, each of these three degrees of anger and hatred must be met by the appropriate degree of love and charity. We need to be prepared to counter evil thoughts with good thoughts, evil intentions with good intentions, and evil will with good will.

As we saw in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant in our first lesson, and as can also be seen in many other places in the New Testament, the Lord wants us to forgive others in the same way He will forgive us. And in the same way the Lord fails when a man chooses to refuse His forgiveness and join others like himself in hell, we too will sometimes fail in our relationships with other people. We may be willing to forgive, but they cannot bring themselves to ask for it. It is unfortunately true that there are people who, for one reason or another, act as if they either don’t care about the feelings of others, or else they seem to enjoy hurting their feelings. There is not much we can do about such people, for that is the path which they have freely chosen for themselves, except to hope that they may eventually see the light and change their lives.

There is not one of us who has gone through life without making a mistake, without doing something that causes pain and grief to another, pain that we certainly did not intend. We need to look at the deeds and words of others as we would have them look at ours. We need to try to look at the words and deeds of others in the same way that the angels look at the words and deeds of new spirits in the other life. We need to recognize that the feelings of anger, enmity, and hatred that we feel come from hell specifically so that they can destroy charity while at the same time appealing to our loves of self. We must be as aware of these feelings and shun them as we would adultery, theft, or murder – for they are just as dangerous to our spiritual life.

We must even judge ourselves honestly according to the actual intentions we had at the time, and not according to facts that only came to light after the action had already been taken. The Lord judges us only according to the intentions of our hearts, and forgives all those who ask for mercy, provided that they themselves have during their life in this world, conscientiously practised mercy and forgiveness.

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (text). AMEN.

First Lesson: MAT 18:21-35

Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” {22} Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. {23} “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. {24} “And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. {25} “But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. {26} “The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ {27} “Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. {28} “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ {29} “So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ {30} “And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. {31} “So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. {32} “Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. {33} ‘Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ {34} “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. {35} “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”

Second Lesson: LUK 6:20-38

Then He lifted up His eyes toward His disciples, and said: “Blessed are you poor, For yours is the kingdom of God. {21} Blessed are you who hunger now, For you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, For you shall laugh. {22} Blessed are you when men hate you, And when they exclude you, And revile you, and cast out your name as evil, For the Son of Man’s sake. {23} Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets. {24} “But woe to you who are rich, For you have received your consolation. {25} Woe to you who are full, For you shall hunger. Woe to you who laugh now, For you shall mourn and weep. {26} Woe to you when all men speak well of you, For so did their fathers to the false prophets. {27} “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, {28} “bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. {29} “To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. {30} “Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. {31} “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. {32} “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. {33} “And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. {34} “And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. {35} “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. {36} “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. {37} “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. {38} “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”

Third Lesson: AE 746f. [18]

That one who thinks ill of his neighbor without adequate cause, and turns himself away from the good of charity, will be punished lightly as to his soul, is signified by “Whosoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be liable to the judgment;” “to be angry,” signifies to think ill, for it is distinguished from “saying Raca,” and “saying Thou fool.” “Brother” means the neighbor, and also the good of charity, and “to be liable to the judgment” means to be examined and to be punished according to circumstances. That one who from wrong thought slanders the neighbor, and thus despises the good of charity as of little value, will be punished grievously, is signified by “whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be liable to the council,” for “to say Raca” signifies to slander the neighbor from evil thought, thus to hold the good of charity to be of little value. That one who hates the neighbor, that is, one who is altogether averse to the good of charity, is condemned to hell, is signified by “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be liable to the hell of fire.” These three describe three degrees of hatred, the first is from evil thought, which is “to be angry,” the second is from consequent evil intention, which is “to say Raca,” and the third is from an evil will, which is “to say Thou fool.” All these are degrees of hatred against the good of charity, for hatred is the opposite of the good of charity. Amen.

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Divine Worship

Divine Worship

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

O come let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand (Psalm 95:6-7).

It is our common heritage that we gather together to worship the Lord, to bow down before Him. It can be very useful then, for us to take some time to reflect on the nature of Divine Worship, to take some time to think about the One Whom we worship, and to think about why and how we worship Him.

If we look around us and observe the great number and variety of churches in the world, we note that not only is the New Church a small minority among Christian Churches, all of Christianity constitutes a minority of the people living on this planet. Consider the following teaching from the Arcana:

It is commonly supposed that those born outside the Church, who are called heathens and gentiles, cannot be saved for the reason that they do not possess the Word and so do not know the Lord, without whom there is no salvation. But that gentiles too are saved may be known from the single consideration that the Lord’s mercy is universal – that is, it reaches out to every individual human being. For gentiles are born human beings the same as those within the Church, who are a relative minority; and they are not to blame because they do not know the Lord. (AC 2589, emphasis added)

This teaching is very reassuring because it shows how the Lord implements His goal of creating a heaven from the human race. It also leads us to consider that because there are great numbers of people who either consider themselves members of some sect, or regularly attend some form of religious service, outside of the Christian world culture, it can be seen that there is a common urge among all created human beings to take part in some form of Divine worship. We can also see that those forms are dependent not on some arbitrary and objective standard of behaviour, but on application of principles provided by the Lord in different forms for a wide variety of peoples and nations.

Anyone who beholds the universe, who considers the magnitude of creation and its underlying order, has to acknowledge some supreme being or entity. The Lord inflows through good spirits associated with us with the sense that He is present with us, and that He desires our worship. We are taught in the Heavenly Doctrine that any person who does not have this sense of a need to worship, or who can look at the universe and not acknowledge a Creator is under the dominion of infernal spirits, for such selfishness can only be from hell. (See AC 1308)

The Lord flows into everyone of us with a sense of His presence and a feeling of desire to worship. He does this in secret ways because it is essential that no person be forced into doing something he cannot love, that is totally contrary to his ruling love. We are told that the Lord bends us towards heaven, little by little, ever gently. He never breaks our spheres or attempts to compel our thoughts. He leads us by establishing a spiritual sphere in which we can thrive and uses this to lead us to new truth and consequently to new loves.

This must be done in secret, for He knows that if He were to openly enter our lives, we could no longer be free. How many times have we told someone we love something that was the opposite of what we really wanted to say because it was what we believed they wanted and needed to hear? Would we not also make the same effort to tell the Lord what we thought He wanted us to say? Since He is always with us, would we ever be free to be ourselves if we were constantly aware of His presence?

A person can worship many things. He worships himself when he puts himself above all others, including the Lord – which he does when he believes that his needs are more important than everything else. Divine Providence 250 teaches,

…The worshipper of self and of nature believes that dignities and wealth are the supreme and the only happiness that can be granted, thus happiness itself. If in consequence of worship begun in infancy he has any thought of God, he calls them Divine blessings, and as long as he is not too puffed up by them, he thinks that there is a God, and even worships Him. But there lies hidden in the worship a desire, of which he is unaware at the time, that he may be raised by God to still higher dignities and to still greater wealth. If he attains these his worship tends more and more to outward things until it so falls away that at length he thinks God of little account and denies Him; and the result is the same should he be cast down from the dignity and opulence on which he had set his heart.

A person worships the world when he puts acquiring positions of power, honours, and wealth above all else. Of course, neither worshiping self nor worshiping the world is genuine worship, for genuine worship has the Divine Human of the Lord as its object, and nothing else. Thus the Divine Human is both the source and the object of all proper Divine worship. (See AC 6674:4)

It is a key point to understand that although the Lord inflows into every person with the perception that there is a God and that He is to be worshipped, it is not enough to simply worship a nameless, formless entity. Can you really, genuinely love a person whom you have never met? Can you really worship “energy” in the abstract? Of course not. That is why the Lord provides the inclination to worship internally, but allows each of us to choose the forms from those available to us in the world, but especially effective are those which He Himself provided for us in the Word.

Why does the Lord provide us with the inclination to worship, but not provide us with specific forms? For the same reason He gives us the control over our understanding while He Himself governs our will according to the choices we make in our rational minds: He does it for the sake of our spiritual freedom. It must be clear to everyone that while someone could be compelled to perform the external rituals of worship, no one can be compelled to genuine, internal worship. Real worship can only arise through spiritual freedom. (See AC 1947:2, 2880, 2881)

There are two reasons why worship cannot be compelled. The first is that worship does not really belong to us. We may suppose that worship is from ourselves because it is performed by us by our own free choice. But reflect for a moment and you will see that it is really love and faith that make worship genuine and rewarding, and they do not come from a within, but rather they come from the Lord. Worship then becomes the acknowledgement that all love and faith are from the Lord by returning them to Him who is their Source (See AC 10203). It’s like bringing forward a gift of fruit at Thanksgiving. By so doing, we show that we know that He is the One who gives all gifts.

This in turn leads us to the second reason why worship cannot be compelled by another, which is that genuine worship must be accompanied with a sense of adoration or elevation of the Lord, and since God cannot be raised any higher by a person, this relative change of positions can only be accomplished when a person lowers, or humbles himself. There is no way that a one person can humble another person’s proprial loves in relation to the Lord by any kind of external influence. Since genuine worship requires humiliation before the Lord, and this cannot be compelled, therefore genuine worship cannot be compelled in another.

The church in a person, like the church in the heavens and in the world, must have both an internal and an external. This means that in order for there to be a genuine spiritual church there must be forms in which it can live and thrive. The church cannot exist without rituals and structures and traditions any more than we can live in this world without a body, clothes, and routines. The challenge to us as members of the Lord’s Church is to see that the external things of the church are arranged in such a way as to properly contain spiritual things, yet not restrict the freedom of people in the church to worship and live according to their own understanding of doctrine. And, as our understanding of doctrine grows and changes, this will be reflected in changes in the rituals and traditions of the church.

Although the rituals of the church are important forms which serve to receive and hold spiritual things, we must remember that merely performing the rituals of the church, no matter how regularly and devotedly, does not, in itself, confer salvation.

The person who is of the internal church, that is, who has begun to be regenerated by the Lord, makes worship of the Lord from charity the essential of his religious life. He worships the Lord not just by going to church, but by guiding every activity of his life according to what he knows to be true from the Word. Such people are found in every culture, and in every organized church. They express their worship and charity in a great variety of forms, but they all hold their own forms to be essential.

The person who says that he needs no outward forms of worship, that occasionally reading the Word or thinking about spiritual things is sufficient, fools only himself. (See AC 1098) It is the same as saying that you can be in love without desiring to embrace your loved one. If that’s the case, then the love is not true or genuine, for true love not only seeks to love one other than self, it also desires to make the one loved happy, and to be conjoined with the one loved. All three of these qualities must be present for it to be real love (See TCR 43).

In this context it would be useful to remember that the simple habit of regular church attendance is an important part of worship. Human nature is such that we have a great deal of inertia. It always seems like such a huge amount of bother to get ready and go to some event on time. But most of us will recognize that if we give in to the inertia and stay home, we don’t feel any better for it. On the other hand, if we overcome the inertia and attend the service, or the meeting, or whatever we almost always feel enlivened and invigorated by the experience, and are willing to admit to ourselves that we are glad we made the effort. So, making the effort to attend church is something that provides a benefit to the individuals.

At the same time, it’s a benefit to the others who attend. Being part of a lightly attended service makes people uncomfortable. Not only does it make the singing less heavenly, but there’s an underlying suspicion that maybe you missed the memo and really you’re supposed to be somewhere else with all the other people! We are, after all, social animals, and have a fundamental need to be a part of the crowd, and it makes us nervous when the crowd seems to be somewhere else.

The Heavenly Doctrines further teach the amazing idea that the Ancient Church and the Christian Church did not differ at all from each other as to their internal worship (nor, one could suppose, do any of the Lord’s five churches), but they differed only as to their external forms. The true worship of the Lord from charity does not differ from church to church or from age to age because the Lord, who is the only and true source of genuine worship, does not change. Only the external expression of true worship will vary. (See AC 1083:3)

All worship has as its goal that each one of us may be purified from evils and falsities, and consequently that goods and truths may be implanted in us by the Lord so that we may be reborn into spiritual life. (See AC 10022:e) Real worship consists of a life of use and charity towards the neighbour. The externals of worship, such as attending church, attending the festivals, and saying daily prayers, are necessary. But, without the life of charity, they have no effect on a person’s spiritual life.

Although our forms, our rituals, are important because they are our best expression of internal things, we need to recognize that the forms themselves are not true worship of the Lord. They can, and must, change from time to time, and from place to place. The internal of worship inflows from the Lord, and like all other forms of influx, it is receive (and thus takes form) according to the receiving vessel.

Our goal then should be to create forms that can embody the internal of worship from the Lord, and also remember that there is no genuine worship that does not express itself through love towards our neighbour.

And so we need to turn to the Lord as our shepherd and our guide to lead us in His paths of truth, to learn worship the Lord by our loving care of those around us, for He said, Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me (Matthew 25:40). AMEN

First Lesson: Genesis 14:14-20

(GEN 14:14-20) Now when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. {15} He divided his forces against them by night, and he and his servants attacked them and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. {16} So he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the people. {17} And the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him. {18} Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. {19} And he blessed him and said: “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; {20} And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” And he gave him a tithe of all. Amen.

Second Lesson: AC 1175 (portions)

…It has been stated and shown already that internal worship, which springs from love and charity, is worship itself, and that external worship without that internal is not worship at all.

Making internal worship external however consists in making external worship essential instead of internal, which is the reverse of worship itself. It is like saying that internal worship without external is no worship, when in reality external worship without internal is no worship at all. Such is the religion of people who separate faith from charity. That is to say, they make matters of faith more important than matters of charity, … and so make outward forms more important than inner essentials.

… It is like saying, for example, that if a person lived where there was no Church, no preaching, no sacraments, and no priesthood, it would be impossible for him to be saved or to have any kind of worship, when in fact he is able to worship the Lord from what is internal. It does not follow from this however that there should not be external worship.

[2] To make the point plainer still, take as another example people who make the essential of worship consist in going to church, attending the sacraments, listening to sermons, praying, celebrating the festivals, and many more practices of an external and ceremonial nature, and who convince themselves, while talking of faith, that these activities, which are the outward forms of worship, are sufficient.

People, it is true, who make worship springing from love and charity the essential engage in the same activities, that is to say, they go to church, attend the sacraments, listen to sermons, pray, celebrate the festivals, and much else, doing so most earnestly and carefully. But they do not make these practices the essential of worship. Since their external worship has internal worship within it, it has that which is holy and living within it; whereas the worship of the people mentioned above does not have anything holy or living within it for it is the inner essential itself that makes the external form or ceremony holy and living. Amen.

Copyright © 1982 – 2007 General Church of the New Jerusalem.

Page constructed by James P. Cooper

Page last modified September 27, 2009

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Prepare for the Lord

Prepare for the Lord

A Sermon by James P. Cooper

Bible Meanings Home

The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert a highway for our God” Isa. 40:3.

These familiar words of the prophet Isaiah stir deep affections within us. Each year we hear them as we prepare for Christmas, as we begin to read and think about the many Old Testament prophecies that prepared the way for the Lord by planting the seeds of true ideas about Him in the minds of those who longed for His coming. These are powerful words, whether they inspire us to picture Isaiah as he spoke them, or whether we picture John the Baptist as he stood by the Jordan river and actually did the work of preparation by calling Israel to repentance.

The doctrines of the New Church teach in many places that Isaiah was inspired to speak these words in order to announce the Coming of the Lord. First of all, he was to announce it to the children of Israel, to tell them that the Savior and Redeemer of Israel, which had been first promised in the third chapter of Genesis, and since promised in many other prophecies, was still to come; that God had not forgotten His promise. Isaiah was inspired to renew the promise, to tell the children of Israel that He had not yet come because the time was not right. Isaiah was to speak the words that would give those troubled people hope even though their country was conquered by enemies, hope that their enemies would soon be driven away. The children of Israel clung to Isaiah’s words of hope and promise throughout their generations, looking forward to the time when the Messiah would come to lift them up out of their oppression.

The words of our text were to announce the Coming of the Messiah to all people. But who was the Messiah who was coming? Do we really understand who the Messiah was, and what He intended to do? It is quite apparent from scripture that the 12 disciples themselves had only the slightest idea of importance and nature of the Lord’s ministry until after the Lord had been crucified, risen, and visited them in his Glorified Human. Until then the disciples were convinced that the Lord was to be the Messiah in the traditional sense, that is, a military leader, a charismatic revolutionary who would lead the Jews first to cast off the yoke of Rome and then begin to build their power until they were the richest and most powerful nation in the world.

That the disciples themselves did not understand the Lord’s mission should be a warning to us to make sure that we do understand. They thought of Him as the Messiah, the leader of a political revolution, and as a teacher. It is easier for us to have a clearer understanding of His purposes because we have the advantage of the recorded experience in the gospels, as well as the doctrine of the Church which explains those events so that it should be very clear to us that Isaiah is announcing nothing less than the fact that the Creator of the Universe, the One and Only God was going to take on a human body and live among men on earth for the purpose of saving us all from spiritual destruction.

We are sinful by nature, and by ourselves there is nothing we can do about it. Unless God had provided the means for us to know what evil is and given us the power to shun evil as-if-from-ourselves, we could not be saved. Jehovah God Himself took on a human form in the world in order to accommodate Himself to our needs, in order to teach us what evil is, what heaven is, and what we must do to prepare ourselves for heaven. He came in person to show us the way, and since it is the Power and Divine Providence of God which alone can save or Redeem us, we call Him the Redeemer. By the Lord the Redeemer is meant Jehovah in the Human, for Jehovah Himself descended and assumed the Human in order to effect our redemption.

We can see from the many prophecies in the Old Testament that the coming of the Lord into the world had been promised from ancient times, and that ancient peoples believed that it would be Jehovah God Himself who came into the world, and He would come as a man. We see from Scripture that it was announced many times, in many different ways, and to many different people. We might ask why it was so important that the Lord’s birth be announced in all those ways to all those people. What is the essential purpose of all these prophecies and warnings?

For the answer, we need to look to what is the most important possession that man has from the Lord–his freedom of choice in spiritual things. The Lord announced His coming in these many different ways so that everyone could freely accept to believe in the miracle of His birth into the world or not. It had to be freely received and understood because nothing remains with a man unless it is received in freedom. Even more than that, with a matter as important as the Lord’s incarnation, it must be intelligent, informed consent, or there cannot be any conjunction between God and man. (See AC 3157e)

The Lord’s birth on earth was announced for the very simple reason that we might be warned to prepare for it, so that we could receive Him freely, with understanding, and therefore be conjoined with Him through our reception. It can be difficult to visualize how we should prepare ourselves to receive the Lord without some kind of illustration or parable, so let us use our own preparations for the Christmas holidays as an example.

When we begin to make our plans for the Christmas Holidays, we remember the many good times we have spent working together as a family preparing for the holidays. Even those who seldom cook anything fancy during the rest of the year spend some time preparing special Christmas foods. The house is carefully cleaned. Special decorations are lovingly brought out from their places of safe storage and put in traditional places for all to enjoy. The week or so before Christmas, so filled with the busy activity of preparation, is almost as important as the day itself in many families. The Christmas spirit begins to glow in us, and begins to grow until it reaches its peak on Christmas day. Who is there who does not make some preparations to celebrate Christmas?

It is so obvious to us that we need to clean and decorate our homes in anticipation for the many guests that will come during the holidays, that it should come as no surprise to realize that the Lord asks us to prepare ourselves for His advent in much the same way as we prepare our homes, for after all, a home corresponds to a man’s mind.

To prepare for Christmas, we need to “Cease to do evil; learn to do well.” (Isa. 1:16) Just as it would be very unusual to put up decorations and invite guests into our home without first thoroughly cleaning it, the very first step in preparing for the Lord’s Advent is to look to the course of our life and bring it into order by ceasing to do evils, and no longer thinking the falsities that arise from those evils, that is, those lies that make it seem all right to do what we know is wrong. We need to remember that the Lord is continually reaching down to uplift us, and all we need do to receive him is to not refuse him! (See AC 3142) We need to get rid of those feelings of selfishness and worldliness that turn us away from the Lord, that stand in the way of influx, so that He can flow in with heavenly affections. The Lord is indeed present with everyone at all times, but He can only enter insofar as He is invited, because His presence with man is according to man’s reception of Him. (See AC 4190) The Lord has no desire to intrude in our lives.

The Heavenly Doctrines tell us that John the Baptist was to be that “voice” which would cry out in the “wilderness,” and that by the wilderness was not meant the physical deserts of that land, but the state of the Jewish church. The Word calls the Jewish Church in those days a “wilderness”, because it was a church that no longer worshiped the Lord or served the neighbor. Like a land without water, a church without the truths that teach the need to love the Lord and serve the neighbor is a spiritual wilderness.

As the “wilderness” or “desert” describes the state of the Jewish church at the time of the Lord’s coming, it can also describe the state of the church within each of us when we are in states where truth from the Word, and the good of charity that comes from living according to the truths we find in the Word, are very distant from us. We cannot leave this desert of selfish states until we hear the “voice” of the Lord speaking to us in a clear voice to us from the Word.

In the Word, mountains correspond to love to the Lord, because when we look at the beautiful scenery in the mountains, our eyes are naturally lifted up to their peaks. When we look down at our feet or the ground, it stands for our concerns with worldly things, so angels walk with their faces turned up because their minds are elevated to thoughts about the Lord and heaven. So, when we lift our faces up to look at mountains, it inspires the angels with us to think of love to the Lord, and then their state of genuine worship flows back to us and inspires a similar state in us.

But in our text from Isaiah, the mountains are used in the opposite, evil sense, representing the loves of self and the world that are in opposition to love to the Lord. This is why we are told by Isaiah that the mountains will be made low, that is, when we live in obedience to the Lord’s laws, our loves of self and the world will be made low, they will be removed by the Lord through the states of repentance, reformation, and regeneration.

On the other hand, valleys usually represent hell, but here valleys are used to represent a man who has humbled himself, brought his loves of self low, by desiring to lead his life not from his own understanding, but from the Lord’s guidance in the Word. This man is lifted up by the Lord into heaven. Thus we can see that our text means that when we begin to listen to what the Word teaches, when we begin to try to obey the Lord’s commandments and live according to them, He will heal our lives. The mountains of our self-intelligence, our conceit, our loves of self and the world can be smoothed out, brought down to their proper size and place in life. And at the same time, when we have truly humbled ourselves through obedience to His commandments, He will then lift us up out of the valley of our despair.

The cycle of the seasons brings us to the Christmas season once each year, reminding us, in spite of our natural tendency to put such things out of our minds, that the Lord took on the Human and came into the world, conquered hell through temptation, was crucified, and rose with His Glorified Human so that we might live to eternity. However, being reminded yearly, and actually receiving the Lord into our lives are different things. If we are to truly receive the Lord the Redeemer, Jehovah God in His Divine Human, we must prepare ourselves to receive Him, we must examine the house of our minds, sweep out the dust of false ideas, the cobwebs of cupidities, and ready ourselves for His visit. We need to see the loves of self and the world in ourselves and shun them, so leveling the mountains of our self-intelligence and conceit. We must open ourselves up to receive the Lord, to hear His voice in the Word. As this happens, and the Lord is able to regenerate us, the announcement of the Lord’s advent will become a continual thing, for it will come from an internal dictate, a constant, inner awareness of the Lord’s presence with us. Prepare ye the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, And every mountain and hill shall be made low. (Isa. 40:3-4) AMEN.

Lessons: Isaiah 40:1-8, Mark 1:1-11, AC 3142

Bible Meanings Home

Doing Your Best

Doing Your Best

A Sermon by James P. Cooper

To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed (is better) than the fat of rams (1SA 15:22).

One of the things that we all love to do is to sit around with our friends and talk about the future. We love to make big plans about the things we hope to do, the places we hope to visit in our travels, the things we want to do next year in school. Everyone likes to make exciting plans for the future. But when we think about the various people we know, who are the ones we admire? Those who are able to tell a great story, to make a fabulous plan, but who never actually gets around to doing anything; or do we really admire the quiet friend who is always doing interesting and useful things?

One of the best things about Scouting (and there are many good things) is the emphasis on doing. Yes, there is some book learning: some of the badges, by their very nature, seem like school reports. But most of the badges, most of the learning that you do as Cubs and Scouts is for the purpose of giving you the knowledge that you need to do something practical, something that will be helpful to you, or to others: like backwoods cooking, pioneering skills, or life-saving.

One of the qualities that makes people very special, distinct from the other animals of the world, is that they love to learn new things throughout their lives. The little baby crawling on the floor and putting everything it finds into its mouth is trying to learn about the world through its most developed sense, the sense of taste. The little boy taking the clock apart to see how it works–and not being able to put it back together again; the teen-ager learning to drive a car; the business man going to a seminar to learn new ways to improve his business–all demonstrate how important learning is to human beings, that it is something that we keep doing throughout our lives. When we stop learning, we stop growing. But again, just knowing something isn’t enough. The whole point of learning is to prepare yourself to do something that is of benefit to somebody.

The Lord Himself teaches the importance of following through, of doing what you know you should do, in a number of places in the Word. In the the first book of Samuel we read about how king Saul lost his kingdom because he didn’t do his best. God had sent the prophet Samuel to command Saul to take the armies of Israel and to utterly destroy the Amalekite nation to punish them for the terrible things they had done to the children of Israel when they were trying to find their way into Canaan after fleeing from Egypt. King Saul was specifically commanded by God to utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey (1SA 15:3).

King Saul led his army into the battle, and the children of Israel were victorious. They captured Agag, the king of the Amalekites–but they did not kill him. They destroyed most of the possessions of the Amalekites, but they kept the best of the sheep, the best of the oxen, the lambs, and everything that they thought was nice. They only destroyed the things that were worthless to them (See 1SA 15:9).

When the Lord saw how Saul and the army of Israel had disobeyed His commandments, He once again sent the prophet Samuel to Saul to confront the king with his disobedience. As unbelievable as it sounds, the first thing Saul said when he saw Samuel coming, as he stood there surrounded by the animals he had been commanded to destroy, was “I have performed the commandment of the Lord!” (1SA 15:13) When Samuel challenged him, asking where all the sheep and oxen came from, Saul told him that the people had wanted to keep some of the animals to sacrifice to the Lord.

This made Samuel very angry because Saul had let his desire to keep the valuable animals lead him into disobeying the clear commandments of God, and then lying about it. Saul tried again to cover up, saying that he had obeyed by capturing Agag and destroying the Army, even though the command had been to kill Agag, and then he tried to shift the blame onto others by saying that it was the people who took the animals, and that he had been unable to prevent it.

King Saul was trying to excuse their disobedience by saying that they stole the animals so they could make a sacrifice to the Lord! They did something that would make God unhappy so that they could do something else to make Him happy again. It’s like stealing money to buy your parents a present to make them happy again after they find out that you stole the money. That doesn’t make any sense, does it? Wouldn’t it have been better for Saul to just do what the Lord commanded in the first place?

That’s what Samuel thought. He told Saul that the Lord does not really care for burnt offerings and sacrifices, but He cares for our obedience. He said, to obey is better than sacrifice (1SA 15:22). The Lord is trying to tell us through this story in the His Word that empty gestures are of no spiritual value to your life. It doesn’t matter what you say you are going to do, what matters to God is what you actually do.

Jesus Himself gave us a parable that teaches about this when he said, A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father? (MAT 21:28-32)

Those who were with Jesus answered correctly when they said that it was the first son who did the will of his father, for this simple story makes the point so very clear that anyone can see the point that the Lord is making: There are two boys who are asked to do something. One says he will do it, but does not; while the other says that he won’t, then does it after all. Since their father wanted some work done, the son who actually does the work is the one who did the will of his father, no matter what each of them may have said. In other words, it’s not what you say, but what you actually do that counts.

Everybody has broken a bone–or knows someone who has. Think about what happens to a person who breaks their arm and has to have it put in plaster for several weeks. Although you get used to having the plaster on, towards the end you are really anxious for it to come off so you can move your arm around freely again. The great day arrives, the plaster comes off–and you can’t move your arm! It stays in place as if the plaster is still there. The muscles have become stiff and inflexible through lack of use. You have to gently stretch them, get them moving again, and over a period of several weeks, exercise them until they regain their former strength and flexibility.

This is an example of a very important law of nature: that if you don’t use something, you will lose it. If you bind your arm so that you cannot use it, it will eventually wither away and become permanently useless. This is why people who wish to keep fit need to exercise their muscles regularly to keep them strong and flexible.

The same thing is true of our minds. When I was fifteen years old and in the Sea Scouts, I took a course to learn how to safely navigate our ship along the coast and in the bays and harbors of the northeastern United States. While I was still in the Sea Scouts and regularly helping to take our ship from one place to another, the things that I learned from the books became very real and important to me, because I was using them. But today, sadly, I hardly remember any of it. I do remember some of the principles of navigation which apply to other things, but the detail is lost. I stopped using it, so I lost it.

The same principles apply in our moral and spiritual life. We can make all the plans we want about how we are going to change our life; we can learn all kinds of wonderful truths about life and about God; but they don’t mean anything unless we put them to use, unless they are regularly exercised so they remain flexible and strong.

At the end of every Cub meeting, Akela says, “Cubs, do your best.” And the Cubs respond, “We will do our best!” And every Scout has promised on his honor to “do his duty to God and Country.” The whole structure and concept of Scouting is to help and encourage young people to learn new things that excite the mind and broaden their view of the world and the people who live in it. But all the learning in the world, no matter how interesting, means nothing unless it is put into action.

King Saul did not understand that. He thought that as long as he said the right things, and went through the correct motions, that he could do pretty much what he wanted. Unfortunately for Saul, he was quite wrong, and as a result the kingdom was taken away from him and given to David instead.

When God came to earth to take on a human body and teach us directly, He taught the same lesson over and over, in many different ways. He taught us that it was not enough to proclaim our love to God, but that we had to obey the commandments, avoid loving the world for its own sake, to care for others, and to do all these things because He has asked us to.

Everyone of us, whether we are involved in Scouting or not, can benefit from remembering these ideas. For each of us to take our proper place in this world, a place where by our efforts we can add to the comfort, safety and well-being of others, we must do our best to put the principles of our lives into effect, to live our lives every day to the benefit of others. As the Lord taught in the 25th Chapter of the gospel of Matthew, then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ (v. 34-40) AMEN.

Lessons: 1SA 15:1-23, MAT 21:23-32, LIFE 1

The Lord of the Sabbath

The Lord of the Sabbath

A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper

“…If you had known what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Matt. 12:7-8)

The supreme reason for the Lord to bow the heavens and take on the Human was so that He might unite the Divine Itself with the Human, and so save the universal human race from self-destruction. This was the Divine purpose behind the Incarnation that every one who desires it might have the peace and rest of heaven. This is the reason the Lord came to earth, and took on a Human through which He might be tempted by the hells and conquer through victory in temptation; and when the combats were over, He ascended once again with His Glorified Human in His spiritual kingdom where His rule brings rest and peace to all who genuinely desire it.

At the same time that the Lord was waging His hidden battle with the hells for the sake of our eternal lives, He walked on earth among us as a man, teaching all those who were willing to hear the true meaning of the laws of Moses, opening minds to the idea that we could follow God s laws according to the spirit, not merely the letter. He had intended from the beginning that His laws should be upon our hearts so that they might lead us to do good to others. It was, however, the nature of those who kept His laws on earth to use them to bring power and authority to themselves, and by abusing God s laws, by twisting them into unrecognizable forms, the Scribes and the Pharisees had made the laws of the Lord of no effect.

This contrast between the law of the Lord and the law of man is clearly established by our first two lessons this morning. In the Ten Commandments, the Lord commands us not to work on the Sabbath, nor to allow those who serve us to do our work for us, but that we are to dedicate one day each week to things pertaining to God. By the time the Lord came to earth, this commandment had been changed by tradition and practice to the point that it had become ridiculous in the extreme, for, as we read in the second lesson, the Pharisees condemned the Lord and the disciples for breaking the third commandment by merely plucking a handful of grain to eat. Such action was considered by the Pharisees to be “harvesting” the grain, and therefore forbidden work. The Pharisees depended on the law for their authority and power, and they saw Jesus as a threat to their position because He was teaching that it was the spirit behind the law that was important. They feared that if people began to believe and act upon that, there would no longer be a need for Pharisees to interpret and enforce the law. Therefore the Pharisees were eager for the Lord and His disciples to break the law, for then the law could be used to destroy Him.

As always, the Lord turned this challenge by the Pharisees into an opportunity to teach His disciples in every age about His law in general, and the Sabbath in particular. First, He reminded the Pharisees that king David himself had broken commandments when he entered the house of the Lord and ate the showbread. The Pharisees, and all Jews, recognized the justice in that, for king David represented to them the height of their power and influence in the world, a state to which they all wished to return. It was not possible for them to consider condemning king David s actions, since they all knew the story and knew that he only did it out of necessity and from his authority as king of Israel, the anointed of God. The point would not have been lost on the Pharisees that if God s anointed could eat of the showbread, then certainly it was permissible for the Messiah, Himself the “Anointed One” to eat grain on the Sabbath.

The Lord then reminded them that the priests themselves worked on the Sabbath, for it was required of them to perform the various duties in the temple. Again, the point was made that if the law allows God s other servants to work on the Sabbath, certainly the famous Rabbi Jesus and His assistants could not be criticized for gathering a few handfuls of grain for a meal. The Lord continued to develop this point, telling the Pharisees that He was greater than the temple, referring both to the rituals and to the laws of the scribes and Pharisees.

We don t know how the Pharisees took this answer, for their words are not recorded in scripture. We might guess, however, from their extremely literal nature, from their inability to see the spirit behind the letter of the law, and from their desire to sacrifice all for the sake of their own positions of power, that they probably thought that He was openly challenging their power and authority but of course we don t know for certain.

We do know that when the Lord taught that He was greater than the temple, He was teaching by representatives that the temple existed on earth to represent Him to mankind; that the temple was inferior to Him because it was from Him as a source. Indeed, the whole of the ritual to which the priests, scribes and Pharisees so tenaciously hung was nothing but a representation of the Lord to men on earth. This is why the Lord taught them that He was greater than the temple.

The Lord concluded His answer to the Pharisees by saying to them, “But if you had known what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (text) The children of Israel had never really known what was behind the Mosaic law, they had never inquired into their ritual. They were interested only in going through the commanded motions in the commanded sequences. They were not interested in the reason for the sacrifices. For them, it was enough to know that as long as they performed the ritual, and remained in a semblance of external order, they would be the “chosen” people. They ignored the Lord when He taught them through the prophet Samuel that “to obey is better than sacrifice, to hearken than the fat of rams” Through the psalmist, He taught them, “you do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit & and a contrite heart”. Through Isaiah, the Lord taught, “I am full of burnt offerings & Bring no more vain oblations”. But the Word of God fell upon deaf ears.

There are, of course, many more passages of scripture which openly carry this same message, and yet the Pharisees were living examples of how the Israelitish church had ignored the clear teachings given by the Lord through His prophets; how they had refused to turn away from their literalistic, materialistic views; and had so perverted the Lord s laws that they were being used not to lead men to eternal life, but rather to persecute and punish the innocent. The Lord told the Pharisees that if only they had looked to mercy and justice, they would not have condemned the guiltless, because they would have understood that He was the Lord of the Sabbath, that is, they would have been able to see the truth about the Lord, that He was the true Messiah.

The word “Sabbath” is from the Hebrew for “rest,” and it represents both the rest that comes to people when they finally conquer in temptations and the state of rest for the Lord that comes when He is finished fighting the hells for the people who have been in temptation. This is why, when the six days of creation represent our combats with evils, it is said that on the seventh day, the Lord rested. It is because it is the Lord who actually fights for us in the combats of temptation, although it seems to us that we are fighting for ourselves.

The Sabbath comes at the end of the battle, and it is a state of rest for those weary from the battle. It is also the state of peace and rest that comes to those who are victorious in their battles, have driven the enemy away, and have restored order into their lives. The Sabbath represents the state of peace and happiness that the Lord gives to people after good and truth have been conjoined in their minds by means of the combats of temptation. In regard to the Sabbath, the Word teaches that there are only two states for mankind the first is a state of truth alone, where there is combat while the will and the understanding are not as one the person knows one thing but wills to do another. The second state is a state of peace that follows the combat when the will and the understanding are in accord, the one part willing what the other part now knows with a certainty to be true.

It should come as no surprise that the state of heaven is one of peace and rest, for the King of Heaven is the Lord of the Sabbath. The peace and rest of heaven is from the conjunction of the Divine Itself with the Divine Human in the Lord, for when good is conjoined to its proper truth, there is no conflict, nothing to disturb the peace. From the conjunction of the Divine Itself with the Divine Human in the Lord come all other states of harmony and peace, all other states of conjunction of good and truth in the descending planes; the conjunction of the Lord with Heaven, the heavenly marriage of good and truth in the minds and hearts of angels and regenerating men, the fact that doing what is true feel good, and brings a calmer state all these states of peace on all levels of life arise from the supreme truth of the Lord s conjunction of the Divine with the Human in Himself by His own power.

The Sabbath represents the unition of the Divine Itself with the Divine Human. It is the essential truth of the church that it is the Lord in His Divine Human that is to be worshipped. The reason why this truth is the essential truth of the church is that the salvation of the human race depends solely on the union of the Divine Itself with the Divine Human. If the Lord had not come down to earth, taken on the Human, and Glorified it by means of victories in combats with the hells, it would not have been possible for people to freely choose to live according to the truth. It is mankind s nature to try to make God as distant and mysterious as possible. God has reveled truths about Himself to man in many ways in many times, and in every case there have been men who quickly took the simple and open truths and made them so complex and confusing that no one could follow them, let alone understand them. This then prevents mankind from having to actually repent and reform. When we read the Word carefully, we can see that the whole Word treats of the Lord s Incarnation and Glorification, and indeed the very rituals of the church instituted among the sons of Israel represented and signified this essential truth.

To keep the Sabbath inmostly means to worship the Lord in His Divine Human, for the acknowledgment of the Divine Itself in the Lord s Human is essential, for it is according to each one s under standing and acknowledgment of the true nature of the Divine that determines his final resting place in heaven.

Everyone alternates between states of truth, and good, combat and rest. When we are in states of truth alone, we are in conflict and temptation as we try to find our way through falsity and evil. When we seek the Lord s help, and conquer in temptation, then good is conjoined with the newly fought for truth, and there comes a state of peace. But this peace can come from one source only, the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord God Jesus Christ. The Sabbath state cannot come without the acknowledgment of the Lord in His glorified Human. The Lord taught this supreme truth to the disciples in the presence of the Pharisees, that by the extreme contrast between what the Pharisees were doing and what the Lord was speaking of, all who heard these words of the Lord would be able to understand His message that we are to seek to live according to the spirit of His truth, not the letter. Truth by itself condemns. No one can stand in the sight of the Divine truth untempered by the Divine Mercy. No one can stand in the sight of his fellow men in the light of the law applied literally and without regard for circumstances.

The essence of keeping the Sabbath is not the mere change of pace, the cessation of work. The essential idea contained in the third commandment is that we are to keep the Sabbath by putting aside time in our lives to reflect on the marvelous truth of the Lord s incarnation for the sake our own personal eternal life, to reflect on the sacrifice, the effort, the supreme expression of love that the Glorification represents. We can read the Word and see that inmostly it speaks of nothing else than the Lord s efforts to save, to ever uplift, to continuously draw us into His Heavenly kingdom, and eternal peace. Amen.

1st Lesson EXO 201-11

And God spoke all these words, saying {2} “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. {3} “You shall have no other gods before Me. {4} “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; {5} you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, {6} but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. {7} “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain. {8} “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. {9} Six days you shall labor and do all your work, {10} but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. {11} For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. Amen.

2nd Lesson MAT 121-14

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. {2} And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” {3} But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him {4} “how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? {5} “Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? {6} “Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. {7} “But if you had known what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless. {8} “For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” {9} Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue. {10} And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”; that they might accuse Him. {11} Then He said to them, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? {12} “Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” {13} Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other. {14} Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him. Amen.

3rd Lesson TCR 3011

In the natural sense, which is the sense of the letter, [the Third Commandment] & means that six days are for man and his labors, and the seventh for the Lord and rest for man from the Lord. In the original tongue Sabbath signifies rest. With the children of Israel the Sabbath, because it represented the Lord, was the sanctity of sanctities, the six days representing His labors and conflicts with the hells, and the seventh His victory over them, and consequent rest; and as that day was a representative of the close of the whole of the Lord s work of redemption, it was holiness itself. But when the Lord came into the world, and in consequence representations of Him ceased, that day became a day of instruction in Divine things, and thus also a day of rest from labors and of meditation on such things as relate to salvation and eternal life, as also a day of love towards the neighbor. Amen.

Copyright © 1982 – 2005 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009

DOUBT: A Way to Faith

DOUBT: A Way to Faith

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, July 10, 2005

The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hand the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)

What would our reaction be if we had witnessed a close friend being brutally executed with our own eyes, and then just a few days later, when meeting with others who also knew him, we were greeted with the news that our friend was alive and well?

“I don’t believe it,” we would say. “I have to see this with my own eyes!” Our natural doubt and suspicion of anything that is outside of the ordinary would probably cause us to react just as Thomas did, and which caused him to be forever known as “Doubting Thomas.”

His expression of doubt, disturbing in its graphic quality, forcefully describes a state of deep religious doubt. Upon being suddenly faced with an idea that was beyond his ability to believe in his present state, Thomas declared that unless he was given sensible proof of the Lord’s resurrection, he would not believe.

Perhaps today, being separated from those events by almost 2,000 years, we would criticize Thomas for his outburst. Perhaps we feel that if we had been in his position ourselves, we would have been more receptive, more willing, more faithful. Perhaps we feel that doubt itself should have no part in our religious life, that doubt is a sign of weakness, of a failure of faith, of insufficient study, or of a lack of understanding. We may feel that to admit to any kind of doubt at all, let alone a doubt as powerful and fundamental as that which Thomas expressed, is a sign of spiritual ignorance and weakness. After all, the angels never have any doubts – or do they?

If we reflect on this for a moment, it can be readily seen that doubt about any new thing is universal and instinctive. We all hesitate before accepting information simply on face value, especially when it contradicts what we already believe to be true. How often have we heard the phrase, “But I’ve always thought that….” when we’re trying to tell someone about some interesting new discovery. A new idea might be accepted without hard evidence provided the source has a history of strict accuracy and integrity, and provided some kind of evidence is forthcoming. Think about little children, and the look on their faces when you tell them something: often their faces will mirror their feeling that they really want to believe you, but they are not sure whether or not they should; while at other times they might stubbornly deny what you say, no matter how carefully and patiently you explain it to them. Little children instinctively doubt everything, even when it is from the parents whom they love and trust.

This is even true of little children who are growing up in heaven, and are constantly in the presence of angels (whom one would presume to be trustworthy)! Swedenborg wrote that when he was visiting groups of children in heaven, he was surprised to find that,

The spirits with me could not refrain from inducing [the children] to talk. This desire is innate in spirits. But I noticed, each time, that the children resisted, unwilling to talk in this way. This refusal and resistance, which were accompanied by a kind of indignation, I have often perceived; and when an opportunity to talk was given them they would say nothing except that “It is not so.” I have been taught that little children are so tempted in order that they may get accustomed to resisting, and may begin to resist falsity and evil, and also that they may learn not to think, speak, and act, from another, and in consequence may learn to permit themselves to be led by no one but the Lord (HH 343).

Doubt, our instinctive questioning whether a thing is so or not, is not a weakness, or a failure of our faith. Doubt is a faculty given to each and every one of us by the Lord from birth so that we might be able to protect ourselves from what is false, so that we might be able to freely choose to believe what agrees with what we have already learned from the Lord through the Word. Doubt, like the loves of self and the world, was given to us as a protection and also as a means of becoming spiritual; and like the loves of self and the world, doubt can be misused and inverted and so lead the mind into confusion and error upon error (See AC1072:2).

When we are born, our minds are natural, that is, they focus on and use information from and about the world of nature, the things that we perceive through our five senses. However, the Lord has intended that from being natural we are to become rational and finally spiritual. The rational and spiritual degrees of the mind both rest upon the natural degree as a two story building rests upon its foundation.

Doubt plays and important part in becoming rational and then spiritual, for the rational degree of our mind is so named from the word “ratio.” A ratio is a mathematical expression of the comparison of two values. The rational mind is that part of the mind which is used to take two different truths and compare them, one to the other, imagine their implications, weigh their values, and finally accept one or the other (or some parts of both) as something true that can be lived. If everyone simply accepted every idea they heard without question, there would be no ratio of truths, and the rational could not be opened. It is doubt, the questioning, challenging part of our nature, that allows us to take a truth, and as it were turn it over every which way, examine it, test it, and finally confirm it and make it our own.

Doubt is a powerful tool in the Lord’s hands, for by means of its judicious use, the rational and spiritual degrees of the mind can be opened. However, not everyone wants to have a spiritual mind. Not everyone wants to be led by the Lord, and with these, doubt becomes a powerfully destructive force that infects the mind and even reaches out to try to infect others. We read from the Arcana Coelestia:

Spirits are clearly distinguished from one another as to whether they possess, or do not possess, faith that inheres in charity. Those who possess such faith do not engage in reasoning about the truths of faith. Instead they immediately declare them to be true, and also confirm them, so far as they are able, by means of sensory evidence, factual knowledge, and analytical arguments. But as soon as something obscure comes up which they do not perceive they lay it aside and never allow anything like that to lead them into doubt. They say that the things they are able to grasp are very few and that therefore to think that something is not true because they themselves do not grasp it would be madness. These people are those who are governed by charity. But those who do not possess faith inhering in charity have no other desire than to reason whether a thing is true and to know how it is so. They say that if they cannot know how it is so, they are unable to believe that it is so. From this attitude of mind alone they are instantly recognized as those who have no faith at all, and it is a sign not only that they entertain doubts about everything but also that at heart they are deniers. And even when they are informed as to how something is so they remain unmoved and raise all kinds of objections, and would never give up even if this went on for ever. Those who are thus unmoved pile up errors upon errors. These people, or such as they, are in the Word called ‘drunk from wine or strong drink’.

Herein lies the essential teaching regarding doubt, that when a man is in good, that is, when he is in the effort to live according to the things that he believes to be true from the Word, he is then in the faith of charity, and his doubts serve to confirm the truth for him. On the other hand, when a man is not in the faith of charity, that is, when he does not wish to live according to any truths, but to live from himself and for himself alone, then he is as it were spiritually drunk, for he cannot be rational, and he proclaims his doubt and disbelief to all. He will stubbornly hold to the smallest point, and never give up his view even when presented with overwhelming factual evidence to the contrary. Instead of attacking the facts presented, he will turn on the motives and character of his opponent. Such people make every effort to negate what does not favor themselves and their own particular view of the world, and so it is said that they are in the negative principle (See AC 6479).

We have all seen examples of this negative principle, and examples of its opposite, the affirmative principle. Sometimes we see them in the same person at different times. An example of the negative principle might be the student who continually challenges the teacher, picking on minute points, and who seems more interested in finding fault than in finding out. On the other hand, we have all known people who greet each new day and each new situation with delight and interest. They see everything as a new opportunity to learn and grow. Their questions are designed to increase their own understanding of the subject, not to contradict the opinions of others. We feel delight and enthusiasm just being around such a person. Each of us is capable of having the negative or the affirmative principle become the dominant influence in our lives. We need to be able to see which one is dominant in ourselves right now, and do our best to keep becoming more and more affirmative about the Lord’s truth. This is done by shunning evils as sins and living according to the Lord’s commandments.

Doubt also plays an important role in temptation, and thus in our regeneration, for we are taught that,

He who is in temptation is in doubt concerning the end in view. The end in view is the love, against which the evil spirits … fight, and thereby put the end in doubt; and the greater the love is, the more do they put it in doubt. If the end which is love were not put in doubt, and indeed in despair, there would be no temptation (AC 1820).

Without doubt, there would be no temptation, for if a person did not feel in his heart and believe in his mind that it was possible for him to fail in temptation, if his loves were not being challenged, if there was no doubt concerning the eventual outcome, there would be no point in the temptation. If he could not lose, he would not feel the need to fight, he would not feel the need to call upon the Lord for help. In short, temptation would be reduced from being the means whereby one puts off evil and acquires new loves to being a annoyance without spiritual benefit. Only when doubt and despair are present with the man can the Lord flow into his mind with hope, comfort, and peace, for then the man recognizes his need for the Lord, and is finally ready to put himself aside and receive the gift of new loves from the Lord (See AC 5044).

Doubt has a similar function in the confirmation of truth, in that the Lord has given to man the faculty of doubt so that he would be selective about the things he allowed to enter his mind. Everyone begins with “historical” faith. By historical faith is meant that faith, or system of thought and belief, that one gets from one’s family, environment, and culture, without having actually confirmed any point for one’s self from doctrine or life. It is our first form of faith, and it is borrowed from those around us. Since this faith is borrowed, it is necessary for us to build up a faith of our own for ourselves as soon as the rational degree of the mind begins to open.

It is remarkable to note that even in heaven, it is of order that doubt is introduced by the Lord so that the angels will not simply accept what they hear. It is a law of heaven that whenever angels are taught something, they are soon also taught the opposite so that they must examine both ideas, compare them to what they know from the Word and from their own experience with life, apply the laws of the spiritual world, and finally when they see the truth itself, they make it their own (AC7298:2). It is of order that all truths, even those presented to angels in heaven are to be of life, not merely accepted by faith alone.

This essential doctrine is illustrated in the rituals of the New Church. The rite of Confirmation was created specifically to celebrate and support a state of affirmative doubt, a young mind taking to itself the responsibility of looking at the world with new eyes, guided by the Lord alone, and so beginning the lifelong journey of regeneration, of recreating the mind into heavenly order.

The design of a New Church chancel also illustrates how important this is in the daily life of the church. On the one side there is the lectern, where, except for the occasional sentence of introduction, everything presented is directly from the Word itself. On the other side is the pulpit where what is presented is drawn from the Word but subject to human limitation and understanding, and where every idea presented by the minister must be affirmatively doubted because it reflects a human understanding and experience of the Divine.

The Lord’s own disciple Thomas doubted His resurrection (Text), and the Lord was willing that Thomas actually explore His wounds if that was what was needed. This can illustrate for us how important doubt is in our spiritual development, what a powerful tool it is if it is used properly. The proper use of doubt comes from the attitude with which we use it, and the measure of our lives.

If we choose to be in evil, and delight in negative states, if we seek to destroy or deny anything that does not favor our lusts, then doubt becomes a dangerous weapon in our hands.

If, on the other hand, we are questioning, comparing, learning, and growing in intelligence and wisdom, daily seeing new applications of the teaching of the Lord in His Word, then our doubt will be like that of the angels, confirming that what is from the Divine is true, and that to live according to the truth is good. Then we can, like Thomas, stand before the Lord and we will be able to see His Divine Humanity with our own eyes, and, like Thomas, we will be moved to say, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) AMEN.

The subject of today’s sermon is the importance and usefulness of doubt. In the first lesson, used for the children’s talk, we saw how the power of evil caused Aaron and Moses to doubt their mission to Pharaoh.

In our second lesson we read how the disciples themselves doubted the Lord’s resurrection:

Second Lesson: JOH 20:19-31

(John 20:19-31) Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” {20} When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. {21} So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” {22} And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. {23} “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” {24} Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. {25} The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” {26} And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” {27} Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” {28} And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” {29} Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” {30} And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; {31} but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. Amen.

And finally, our third lesson from the Arcana gives the reason why Pharaoh’s magicians were permitted to challenge Moses and Aaron and cause doubt among the children of Israel.

Third Lesson: AC 7298:2

[2] It is according to the laws of order that no one ought to be persuaded about truth in a moment, that is to say, that truth should be so confirmed in a moment as to leave no doubt whatever about it; because the truth which is so impressed becomes persuasive truth, and is devoid of any extension, and also of any yielding quality. Such truth is represented in the other life as hard, and as such that it does not admit good into it so as to become applicable. Hence it is that as soon as in the other life any truth is presented before good spirits by a manifest experience, there is soon afterward presented something opposite which causes doubt. In this way it is given them to think about it, and to consider whether it be so, and to collect reasons, and thus to bring that truth into their minds rationally. By this there is effected an extension in the spiritual sight in respect to that truth, even to its opposites; and thence it sees and perceives in the understanding all the quality of the truth, and thence can admit influx from heaven according to the states of the objects, for truths receive various forms according to the circumstances.

This is the reason why the magicians were allowed to do as Aaron did; for thereby doubt was excited among the sons of Israel about the miracle, whether it was Divine and thus an opportunity was given them of thinking and considering whether it was Divine, and of finally confirming themselves that it was so. Amen.

Copyright © 1982 – 2006 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009

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The Shepherd of Israel

The Shepherd of Israel

A Holy Supper Address by Rev. James P. Cooper

As we begin our celebration of Easter, our thoughts are naturally drawn to the stories we have loved since childhood: the story of the Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, riding on a colt as the people welcomed Him as a king shouting their “hosannas” and laying their garments and palm branches in His path. We think of Him boldly preaching His message of peace and charity towards the neighbor in the synagogues and streets of Jerusalem during the day, but returning to the Mount of Olives at night while His enemies plotted His death. We feel the hatred and fear of Him that has been growing throughout His ministry beginning to focus and intensify as He enters the center of the Jewish church to challenge the scribes and Pharisees in the midst of their own strength. Once again we feel the grief and sorrow as the wolves and other wild beasts gather to attack and kill the shepherd, scattering the terrified flock.

The prophet Zechariah foretold the events of the Lord’s crucifixion when he wrote, “’Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, Against the Man who is My Companion,’ Says the Lord of hosts. ‘Strike the Shepherd, And the sheep will be scattered.’” (ZEC 13:7) And so it seemed to the disciples. The Lord had led them, taught them, protected them, and suddenly they were without Him. They were lost, afraid that the same mob anger that had crucified the Lord might turn against them next. They were indeed sheep without a shepherd, scattering in terror.

The prophet Ezekial was also inspired by the Lord to write of Him as the Good Shepherd: “For thus says the Lord God: ‘Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day.’” (EZE 34:11, 12) Has not Ezekial eloquently described how we sometimes feel? It may be very well to speak of flocks of sheep contentedly grazing in fields of green grass, watched over by a gentle shepherd, but that is not always our state. Too often we feel instead the growing frustrations of too many things to do, and no time to do half of them. We can feel as if we are being pulled in a hundred different directions by the demands that are placed on us by our families, our work, our fears, our physical aches and pains, and our spiritual failings – both real and imagined.

At such times we don’t see ourselves as sheep grazing contentedly under the watchful eye of a gentle shepherd. Rather, we feel scattered, like sheep dispersed and lost during a storm in the night. At such times we should remember that the Lord really is our good shepherd, we should have the confidence that He knows our fears and our pains for He Himself has lived on earth as we live, and has felt as we feel. He has even given His life for His sheep, and in so doing has conquered death itself for our sakes. No more do we need to fear death, for we know that the grave cannot hold us, the Lord has gone before us to show the way to eternal life. He assures us through the prophet Ezekial that He will seek out His scattered sheep, and deliver them; He will bring them into a land all their own where He will feed them in good pasture; He will bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick. (EZE 34:16)

The Lord called Himself the “good shepherd” and told us that the “good shepherd gives his life for the sheep.” (JOH 10:11) As we approach the Holy Supper at this time of year, having prepared ourselves by reflection and self-examination, we may find that we bear a considerable burden of guilt and sadness. And yet we should celebrate! for by shunning what is evil, and vowing to do what the Lord commands, we bring ourselves into the full warmth of the Lord’s love, for as He Himself told us “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are my friends if you do whatever I command you.” (JOH 15:13,14)

The Lord laid down His life for the sake of our eternal, spiritual lives, and He conquered death for us, reminding us that every state of genuine humility is followed by a state of glorification. The disciples came to the tomb full of grief and despair, but found that the stone had been rolled away and that He was not there. That Easter morning was the dawning of the disciples understanding of what had been happening during the past three years of the Lord’s ministry, that Jesus Christ was not an earthly Messiah, but that He was God with us.

Let us remember this as we prepare for Holy Supper this Easter season. The self-examination that we do in preparation is a temptation similar to that which the Lord Himself went through during the week before Easter. We, like Him, are battling against Hell. What we need to remember is that we too will pass through the temptations and make it to Easter morning if we trust in the Lord’s power to save us, a power which He has shown by doing something never done by any other, before or since – raising Himself from the dead by His own power. As the angels told the women who came to the tomb with balm and sweet spices that long ago Easter morning, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but risen!” (LUK 24:5-6) Amen.

The Swedenborg Project

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life

A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper

“On either side of the river is a Tree of Life bearing twelve fruits, each month yielding its own fruit.” (Rev. 22:2)

In the Word, the Tree of Life is mentioned in two places the story of the Garden Eden in Genesis, and in the description of the descent of the Holy City New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation.

As we read in our lessons, the Tree of Life stood in the center of the garden of Eden representing our perception or inmost feeling that life is from the Lord. This perception that all life is from the Lord and not, as it sometimes appears, from ourselves, is the most important of all the perceptions that the Lord gives to us to help guide our lives. For this reason the Tree of Life is described as being in the midst of the garden. Man and his wife were permitted to eat of the Tree of Life, and every other tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The Tree of Life represents the perception that life is from the Lord, but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents the perception that life is from oneself. Therefore, to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents our desire to feel and believe that life is our own, and not at all from the Lord.

The desire to feel life as one s own was the cause of the fall of mankind, and since the fall it is the heritage of all of us to be born full of the desires to do all manner of selfish and thoughtless things, and convinced of the falsity that life is our own. When people remain in this conviction and manner of life, they move the Tree of Life to the outskirts of the garden, and put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the midst of the garden in its place, which is to destroy the Lord s created order. In a sense, it could be said that the whole of the Word between the second chapter of Genesis and the final chapter of Revelation describes the Lord s attempt to lead fallen man back into the order of the garden of Eden, that is, to move the Tree of Life back to the center of the Garden.

In the book of Revelation, the Tree of Life stands as a central representative in the establishment of the New Church. Our text is from the final chapter, and describes what the Holy city New Jerusalem would be like after its descent from heaven like a bride adorned for her husband, after the establishment of the New Church in the world. The Word uses the imagery of the Tree of Life to help us understand our own creation into this world as living beings in the Creation story, and concludes by using the imagery of the Tree of Life to help us understand the purpose of the Lord s New Church, that all people should eat of the Tree of Life, that is, should be conjoined with the Lord in heaven.

Scripture often uses a tree to represent a man, or the quality of a man. For example, in the ninth chapter of Judges, Jotham s parable uses the olive tree, the fig tree, the grape vine, and the bramble to tell us of Abimelech s evils, and what kind of king he will be. (JDG. 97 ff.) The first Psalm compares a righteous man to a tree planted by rivers of water, and that brings forth good fruit in its season. (PSA. 13) In Matthew and Luke the Lord taught His disciples that as a good tree must produce good fruit, and a corrupt tree must produce useless fruit, so in this way you may judge men by their fruits. (Mat. 717, Luke 643)

The Tree of Life represents that most important perception that all life is a gift from the Lord. We are taught in the Heavenly Doctrines that this is not something that every man immediately perceives. We are taught that the celestial man, or an angel of the highest heaven, “acknowledges, because he perceives that all things, both in general and in particular are the Lord s.” (AC 122)

The spiritual man, or angel of the middle heaven, is not so perceptive. The feeling of life from the Lord is somewhat removed from the activity of his own life. He does, however, read the Word, and believe what he learns there, so he too can acknowledge that life is from the Lord, although he does so only “with the mouth, because he has learned it from the Word.” (Ibid.)

The worldly, corporeal man, or angel of the lowest heaven, while he may live in obedience to the precepts of the Word, does not much care for such things. He “neither acknowledges nor admits” that life is from the Lord, and “whatever he has he calls his own, and imagines that were he to lose it, he would altogether perish.” (AC 123, Cf. AC 141)

A tree is truly a beautiful representative of our relationship to the Divine Creator. Our natural world is full of trees in seemingly infinite variety. Trees, and their products, have sheltered, protected, healed, and nourished people from the beginning of time. At the same time trees have caused people to wonder at their beauty as they change from day to day, season to season, year to year. The gardens of heaven are filled with beautiful trees, put there by the Lord as the angels minds turn towards the perceptions about the life they receive from the Lord.

In the Worship and Love of God, a little work of devotional literature written soon after his call, Swedenborg wondered if perhaps the first men were literally born from a “Tree of Life”, a tree caused by the Lord to produce special fruits which could be miraculously infilled with human life. We may smile at this poetic idea at first, but upon reflection, there is much that commends such a creation. The vegetable kingdom is the kingdom of uses, and what higher use could there be than to provide the first forms to receive human life? Is it any greater miracle for eternal human life to be implanted in a form created by the vegetable kingdom than for it to be implanted in a form produced by the animal kingdom?

Everything about a tree represents some aspect of our life the branches serve to carry the food produced in the leaves to be stored for use in the trunk, and in this function they represent how truths are introduced into the mind through our senses; when we think of a tree s leaves blowing and playing in the wind, we are reminded of the way that various ideas flow into our mind, turning this way and that as we decide what to do with them, and so represent rational truths, knowledges that we reason about, comparing one to another, and turning them over in our minds. And when all the trees systems work together they produce fruit. The fruits of the tree represent the things that we do in the world.

Even the changes that trees go through during the seasons of the year represent the changes of each of our states as we pass through life. Imagine a stark winter scene the black silhouette of a single, leafless tree in a field of wind-driven, drifting snow. Is this not a very powerful symbol of a our relationship to the Lord while in the depths of temptation? From the tree s point of view, the warmth and light from the life-giving sun are simply not present. Whatever life and warmth there had been before seems to be forever lost. This illustrates how a we feel in the depths of spiritual combat. In the same way that we draw comfort and hope from our remains, that is, from the affections of good and truth secretly stored up deep in our minds by the Lord while we are fighting our spiritual battles, so a seemingly lifeless tree draws life from the sap stored deep in its roots. As soon as the state is ready, as surely as a tree begins to produce new flowers, leaves, branches and fruit, when we ask for the Lord s help as we fight the combats of temptation, we will begin to feel that there may be hope; that the state of temptation may end; that there is, after all, reason to live.

Just as we know that the leafless tree in winter is not dead, even though it appears to be dead, so also we can be certain that the Lord never leaves us in our times of trial and doubt. As the tree s sap draws inward for the winter, so our perception of the Lord s life and presence is drawn deep into our minds where it is protected during the winter storms of our temptations. It resides there in safety, until, at the Lord s bidding, it begins to have its effect in more outward ways. We look across the valley, and see the branches tipped with a hint of red. We become aware that spring is returning, and begin to notice that green flowering things are appearing all over the land. So too the person who has fought side by side with the Lord in temptation begins to feel the warmth and light of the Lord s life within him; and the more he acknowledges that this feeling of life is from the Lord, the more the Lord give to him the feeling that it is his own, to do with as he likes.

We are taught that the general sphere of heaven is that of perpetual springtime; and what better represents the state of joy that comes to men and angels when they have brought themselves into a state of order and have vanquished some evil in their lives? Their minds are clear, their muscles strong, and they are ready to do the Lord s work in any way that might present itself. Imagine an apple or peach orchard in full bloom, making a fragrant promise of the delicious fruit to come; and compare that to image of the leafless tree in the wind-swept field. Does this not powerfully represent the difference between what we are in and of ourselves, and what we can be when we accept the Lord s leading?

Our text tells us that the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem was bearing “twelve fruits, each month yielding its own fruit.” (text) The Heavenly Doctrines teach that this means that the “Lord produces goods with the man in accordance with every state of truth with him.” (AR 935) It is obvious that people change as they go through their lives. They acquire new knowledges, new experiences, new wisdom. If they are seeking to follow the Lord, they will be continually trying to apply these new truths to their lives. The important point brought out here is that although we know that all good is from the Lord, for He alone is the Tree of Life, the source of all things, yet He does good in us according to own state of truth, or faith. If we know that the Lord alone lives and acts, and also know that He freely gives us the feeling of life as our own, and the freedom to choose our own path, then we act as if from ourselves in accordance with heavenly order.

In the same way that the seasons pass through their yearly cycle in the world, so men pass through their own seasons of doubt, temptation, rejoicing, and usefulness. We are given the memory of spring and summer to sustain us through the fall and winter of our lives. Each time we pass through such a cycle, we are changed for better and can produce new and better uses. These uses or fruits are the twelve fruits of the Tree of Life. By the image of each month yielding its own fruit we are to understand our progression through life to eternity, continually learning, revising, perfecting, and doing, all at the Lord s bidding, with the Lord s help.

The inmost of the doctrine and life of the Church is the Divine Love of the Lord, represented by the Tree of Life. This Divine Love is the source of all the good that a person does apparently as from himself. (See AR 931, ref. to 222) When anyone approaches the Lord directly, that is, approaches the Lord in His Divine Human as revealed in the Word, and out of love for Him flees from evils as sins, then, because he has the two essentials of the New Church, he will be conjoined with the Lord; he will eat of the Tree of Life.

Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have power in the Tree of Life, and may enter through the gates into the city.” (Rev. 2214) AMEN.

1st Lesson GEN. 24-9

This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, {5} before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown. For the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; {6} but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground. {7} And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. {8} The LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. {9} And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Amen.

2nd Lesson Rev 221-5

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. {2} In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. {3} And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. {4} They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. {5} There shall be no night there They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever. {12} “And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work. {13} “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.” {14} Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have power in the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. Amen.

3rd Lesson AR 933

From these things collected into one sense, it follows that by “in the midst of the street and of the river, on this side and on that, was the tree of life bearing twelve fruits,” is signified that in the inmosts of the truths of doctrine and of life in the New Church is the Lord in His Divine love, from Whom all the goods which a man does apparently as of himself flow forth.

[2] This takes place with those who go to the Lord immediately, and shun evils because they are sins; thus who will be in the Lord s New Church, which is the New Jerusalem. For they who do not go immediately to the Lord cannot be conjoined to Him, and thus neither to the Father, and hence cannot be in the love which is from the Divine; for the looking to Him conjoins, not a mere intellectual looking, but an intellectual looking from the affection of the will; and affection of the will is not given, unless man keeps His commandments; wherefore the Lord says

He that does My commandments, he it is that loves me; and I will come unto him, and make an abode with him (John 1421-24).

Opening Prayer

O Lord Jesus Christ, You are our Father, You are our God. You are the rock of our salvation. All life and love are from You, and whoever seeks to live his life according to belief in You shall live to eternity. Your kingdom is over all, and Your mercy endures forever. Amen.

Closing Prayer

O Lord, our heavenly Father Jesus Christ, everywhere we look today we will see the trees which You have created and given to us as symbols of Your eternal presence with us. Some are dormant, some are flowering, and some are forming seeds and fruits to prepare for another generation. O Lord, let these beautiful, useful trees remind us of Your presence with us during the different states of our lives, and wonderful variety of life You have created and given to us to hold and feel as our own. Amen.

Copyright © 1982 – 2005 General Church of the New Jerusalem  .

Page constructed by James P. Cooper

Page last modified September 27, 2009  



A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

When the children of Israel finally reached the Jordan River, the Lord selected Joshua to lead them into their new home in the promised land. We remember how when the Lord first commanded them to enter the land of Canaan and conquer it with His help, they were too afraid, they were unable to trust the Lord’s guidance; and we remember how as a result of their fears and lack of confidence in the Lord they had to wander for forty years, until every single person who had been in slavery in Egypt had died and a new generation, born and bred in the difficult conditions of life in the wilderness, had taken their place.

Joshua and Caleb were the only two of the Egyptian Hebrews to enter Canaan because they alone were constant in their trust in the Lord and courageous in their willingness to do His bidding. They knew the risks they faced. But they had also seen the 10 Plagues in Egypt, and had seen Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea. They had genuine courage based on trust in the Lord’s power.

Now it was time for Joshua to lead his own army, forged in the desert heat by his own hand, guided by the Lord, into the Land of Canaan. Joshua called the people together and spoke to them of the task ahead of them, and reminded them, as Moses had before him, that if they would only have courage, if they would only trust in the Lord’s help, that they would soon have their promised rest. “Be strong and of good courage,” Joshua told them, “for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (text)

It is remarkable to note that although the Word is full of stories of courageous men, that the Heavenly Doctrines have very little to say on the subject of courage. Perhaps this is because the doctrines have so much to say about the human emotion that is conquered by courage, that is, fear. Therefore we must learn about courage by considering the nature of fear.

There are people in the world who claim to be, or seem to be, fearless. These men are not brave or courageous if they actually are without fear, for courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the ability to function in the presence of fear. Everyone has fears of many kinds, so much so that the Heavenly Doctrines speak of fear as the “common bond” among men (see AC 7280) meaning that fear of one sort or another is the one thing that every human being has in common with every other human being — including those living in the spiritual world!

To understand how it is possible for angels to have fears, it is necessary to understand that there are two kinds of fear; internal and external. In the heavens, there is only internal fear, in hell, only external. With men in the world there is a mixture of internal and external fears according to and depending upon each individual’s spiritual development. External fear is the fear experienced by those in hell. It is the fear that external things might be lost or destroyed. The examples given in the Heavenly Doctrines are:

the fear of the loss of one’s reputation among men;

the fear of the loss of one’s honors;

the fear of the loss of wealth;

the fear of punishment;

and the fear of death. (See Ibid.)

On the other hand is internal fear, or, as it is sometimes called in the Word, “holy fear”. This is a fear or anxiety for the sake of something good, that is, a fear that something or someone might be harmed by one’s action, or by one’s failure to act. When a parent holds a newborn baby for the first time, there is a fear that they might hurt the child because it is so small and tender. Parents’ fears for their children continue through childhood as they struggle to find the appropriate balance between learning through experience and perfect safety.

Angels do not experience much anxiety or fear on a daily basis. The fears that they have would most likely take the form of careful thought about what would be a kind and helpful thing to do for their partner, a companion, or their heavenly society. The angels would be most careful and thoughtful to see that the things they do for one another are really appropriate and delightful. The fear of the angels would not seem to be bothersome to them, but rather, it should be seen as a loving concern for the welfare of others, that others might not be harmed or offended in any way by their actions.

In the natural world, as we are caught between the influences of the spiritual worlds and our own varying states, our fears are not clearly defined as being only external or internal. The quality and kind of fear we experience is related to the state of our ruling love, and to external circumstances that are beyond our control.

We cannot simply say that the fear of the loss of wealth, for example, is an external or hellish fear. We may fear the loss of wealth because we love money, or we may fear its loss because without it we cannot properly care for and nurture those under our protection. In the case of children and young people, the fear of punishment is an external fear, but for them it is a step on the road toward having a genuine conscience, and is therefore an acceptable means to instruct them in the way of life according to spiritual principles. Again, we may think we are experiencing an internal fear when we are anxious about the welfare of another, but we may only be anxious because we fear that they will blame us for their misfortune. The examples could go on and on, but the essential point remains that all humans have a common bond in that we all fear something, and courage is how we deal with that fear.

Let us reflect for a moment on our fears, and how we deal with them. Think about something that causes anxious moments, such as walking down a dark street, working late in an empty building, being in a high place, taking a trip in an airplane, or whatever. Everyone, when faced with doing something they fear, will instinctively wish that there was someone else around to be with them, to keep them company. A dark hallway never seems so frightening when you walk down it engaged in a cheerful conversation with a friend. It doesn’t even matter if your companion couldn’t possibly protect you. You still feel better. The dark is always darker, the monster always lurking when we think we are alone.

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC were bad enough in themselves, but far worse is the byproduct of fear. Suddenly we are forced by the actions of evil men to look for the possibility of mortal danger in such everyday things as a rental truck, a trip by commercial airliner, a simple envelope that arrives in the mail. The Sniper crisis made it feel dangerous just to go outdoors. Safety, and the apparent lack thereof, has become a central feature of our lives, even to the point that we are beginning to speak and act as if the only function of government is to keep us all safe, not only from foreign enemies, but even from our own foolish choices. We are beginning to act and speak as if safety itself is a reasonable goal of life on earth. When was the last time a kid yelled through the screen door, “Me and the guys are goin’ for a bike ride” and all Mom said in reply was “Be home before dark”? Today, just the thought of a bunch of kids going off exploring on their bikes, without helmets and possibly accompanied by one or more dogs – causes us to be fearful.

The Lord teaches in Divine Providence 139 that no one is reformed in a state of fear, because fear closes the interiors of the mind, thus taking away rationality and freedom of thought in spiritual things. Love opens the interiors of the mind, but fear closes them, leaving only a few thoughts – those that present themselves to his animus or to the level of the senses.

Fear, then, must be conquered in order for the rational mind to be able to function, and the rational must be opened in order for the adult mind to prepare itself for heaven. As said before, courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome our fears, to do what is right and proper and necessary in spite of the risks. Life requires us to learn how to be courageous by first facing little fears on the playgrounds, and then, little by little, taking on greater and greater challenges. We must to do this, or we will never be prepared to face the really frightening prospect of facing up to our own evils. One of the features of adult life is that we must, with the Lord’s help, confront hell. We are not going to be able to do that without practice, without learning to be courageous by facing other, smaller battles first. As in all things, balance, perspective, and judgment are all essential, and most important of all is being able to see the “big picture” – that it’s not about getting through childhood without and illness or an injury, but learning how to cross the wilderness first, so we can cross the Jordan later and begin the real battles with our hereditary evils

War is the most fearful thing imaginable, and it both represents our spirituals battles as well as serves to illustrate the point about feeling alone. Because of the incredible fears that must be faced, soldiers form exceptionally strong bonds with one another, based upon their mutual support in the face of fear. War is horrible, yet in the face of its horror men perform heroic, courageous acts of self-sacrifice for the sake of their friends, for the sake of civilian strangers, for the sake of their country, for the sake of high principles. Where do people get this courage? How can we learn from them to face the misfortunes and difficulties of our own lives with their confidence? Such courage comes from the acknowledgment of the heart that no one is ever really alone, that no one ever has to walk a dark hallway alone, because the Lord is with them.

Before the battle (the soldier) raises his mind to the Lord, and commends his life into His hand; and, after he has done this, he lets his mind down from its elevation into the body, and becomes brave; the thought of the Lord, which he is then unconscious of, remaining still in his mind, above the bravery. And then, if he dies, he dies in the Lord; if he lives, he lives in the Lord. (Charity 166)

It is a simple matter to carry this description of a soldier battling for his life, and in simple humility putting his life in the hands of the Lord over into our own lives, our own experience in the battles against evils and falsities. We may think that warfare, with its bombs and guns, pain and death, is the most horrible thing there is; but consider our own spiritual temptations for a moment. When a soldier dies in battle, he loses his natural life, but he dies “in the Lord.” The man who loses his spiritual battles has lost his spiritual life. As the Lord said, “My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body.… Fear Him who, after He has killed, has the power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:4,5)

Our spiritual battles are represented by Joshua’s entrance into the land of Canaan and defeating the various nations found there. Joshua was heroic and courageous as a leader all his life because he knew that the Lord was with him; Joshua lived with the confidence that he would succeed while he did what he was bidden by the Lord, and that the Lord would fight his battles for him, and that the land would eventually be conquered.

The natural world is not always fair. Things happen to us that cause pain and misery. There are things that we have to do that frighten us; and while we are trying to deal with the fears and anxieties of the natural world, we keep being reminded that we are supposed to be fighting spiritual temptation as well! It can seem like too much to bear. We wonder where we will find the strength to carry on, to face the challenges of each new day.

If we try to carry the burden entirely on our own, if we insist that we are the only ones who can do it the right way, then we are doomed to failure. If, on the other hand, we can develop within ourselves the confidence in the Lord’s guidance and protection; if we can examine the course of our lives for the evidence of the Lord’s direction and Divine Providence in the past, and from that evidence assure ourselves of His operation in our present and future; if we can think of Joshua patiently building an army for forty years in the wilderness, and then conquering the land of Canaan for his people while yet giving all the credit to Jehovah, perhaps we can begin to feel, to believe that the Lord is always with us, always seeking to lead us to eternal blessedness and peace, always willing to fight our battles for us if only we would ask Him to. Then we can begin to have the real courage that comes from trust in the Lord’s power to save, and we can courageously meet our spiritual foes – and win. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me” (Ps. 23:4) AMEN.


First Lesson: Josh 1:1-9

After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, it came to pass that the LORD spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying: {2} “Moses My servant is dead. Now therefore, arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them; the children of Israel. {3} “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given you, as I said to Moses. {4} “From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the River Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your territory. {5} “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life; as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you nor forsake you. {6} “Be strong and of good courage, for to this people you shall divide as an inheritance the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. {7} “Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. {8} “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. {9} “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

2nd Lesson: LUK 2:41-52

His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. {42} And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. {43} When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and His mother did not know it; {44} but supposing Him to have been in the company, they went a day’s journey, and sought Him among their relatives and acquaintances. {45} So when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him. {46} Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. {47} And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers. {48} So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.” {49} And He said to them, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” {50} But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them. {51} Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart. {52} And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

3rd Lesson: AC 7280 (port.)

…fear is the one and only means by which those in hell can be constrained and held in bonds. For fear is a bond shared by both those who are upright and those who are evil. But with the upright it is an inward fear, that is, fear for their salvation, or fear lest they should lose their own souls, to be exact, and on that account lest they should do anything contrary to conscience, that is, contrary to the truth and goodness which compose conscience. Consequently they fear lest they should do anything contrary to what is just and fair, thus contrary to their neighbor. But this fear becomes holy fear to the extent that it is wedded to charitable affection in them, and especially to the extent that it is wedded to love to the Lord. Such fear then becomes like that which young children feel towards their parents whom they love. When this happens, then so far as they are governed by the good of love fear is not apparent; but so far as they are not governed by good it is apparent, and develops into anxiety. This is what the fear of God is like to which the Word refers many times.

[2] But with those who are evil there is no inward fear – no fear for their salvation – and therefore no fear that belongs to conscience, for in the world they completely rejected that kind of fear both by the life they led and by basic ideas of falsity that were used to justify it. But in place of inward fear there is with them an outward fear, the fear, to be exact, lest they should be stripped of important positions, monetary gain, and reputation on account of these, be legally punished, and be deprived of life. These are the things that those governed by evil fear for when they are in the world.

Copyright © 1982 – 2006 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009

Bible Meanings Home

Silence and Music in Worship

Silence and Music in Worship

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Mitchellville, March 7, 2004

We frequently begin services of worship with the words, The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him. (HAB. 2:20) These words are usually followed by a very brief moment of silence before the minister and the congregation go on with prayers, music, responsive readings, and so forth. Upon reflection, we find that there is almost no silence anywhere in our services: even the interlude between the lessons and the sermon is filled with music. Perhaps some have wondered what is meant by the call for silence that is apparently never answered.

“Noise” stands for all the activity in our mind, all our thoughts and concerns about things of this world. Our plans, our hopes, our mental lists of things to do – our things. Whenever we sit quietly for a moment, all these ideas begin to flow into our mind, fighting for our attention. They make a kind of noise, they cause us to be distracted from thinking about elevated things. Our attention is totally directed towards ourselves, and we become self-conscious. Is the chair comfortable? Is the room too hot or too cold? Is it time for lunch yet?

Sometimes we feel self-conscious when reading aloud during the service, such as during the prayers and the psalter. We may worry about how we sound to others, whether or not we are doing it right, whether or not we are saying all the words correctly. Others of us are distracted by the songs – we may either sing an old favorite with too much enthusiasm, or worry about hitting all the notes in an unfamiliar hymn. There are a lot of different ways that we can become self-conscious during the responsives and the singing in the office.

Then, when we are sitting and listening to the lessons or sermon, we begin to make use of the quiet moments to get a little thinking done. We begin to work on the problems we are having at home or school or at work, or perhaps to plan the new patio, or redecorate the living room. And before we know it, the service is over, and we cannot remember a thing that happened or was said during the whole thing. We couldn’t hear it over the noise of our own thoughts. This is the noise that needs to be silenced.

We should not be embarrassed by this, for it happens to everyone of us any time we relax our attention. If this never happened, the Lord wouldn’t have mentioned it in the Word! Our invitation to worship tells us that we must do everything we can to enter into the true sphere of worship of the Lord by stilling the noise in our heads, by turning our attention away from the cares and concerns of the natural world and turning our attention towards the Lord and His Word.

In the Jewish Church, and to some extent in the early Christian Church, the function of the congregation was only to witness acts of worship performed by the priesthood. In the ancient Jewish Church, the average person’s contribution to worship was to bring the item to be sacrificed, and then watch while it happened. The priests and the Levites conducted the worship, the people stood outside the gates and watched. This carried over to a certain extent into the Catholic Church. The classic illustration is that of a monastery where each monk performs the mass by himself in his room rather than all joining together in a common service of worship; and is further illustrated by the practice (ended in the US in the 1950’s) of delivering the service in Latin no matter what language the congregation understood. Since they were only witnesses to something that the priests were doing, they didn’t need to understand. The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to provide services in Greek, proudly holding to ancient traditions and rejecting modern innovations.

In the New Church, the function of the priest is to lead the congregation in their own personal worship of the Lord, to help provide such forms as are suitable for genuine worship. The priest does not stand between the people and the Lord, but during the course of the service alternately represents the people to the Lord (as when he approaches and opens the Word), and the Lord to the people (as when reading the lessons). There is a whole body of doctrine on the subject of “Liturgics” that provides the basis for deciding how the priest will move on chancel, which direction he faces, the kinds of chancel furniture, and where the furniture goes, but the essential point is that in the New Church it is the whole congregation that is worshiping the Lord, and the priest worships as a part of that congregation.

The appearance is that worship is a passive thing. After all, the congregation spends most of the time during a service quietly sitting and listening either to lessons from the Word, to a children’s talk, or to a sermon, or waiting for the next thing to happen. But such listening is passive because no response is expected. Ask yourselves this question: would you listen differently if you were going to be tested on the material presented in the sermon? If you were going to be tested in some way, would you not wish to have pencil and paper handy to take notes to study from? Would you not wish to have a text book to follow along in? Would not our whole approach to listening become active instead of passive?

Everyone of us has spent a lot of time in school, and each one of us learned along the way that we enjoyed best and learned the most from those courses we took where we conscientiously did the work assigned by the teacher. Simply stated, we found that the more we put into our study, the more we got back out!

If such a thing is true in other areas of life, is it not also true in worship? Will not our own personal worship of the Lord Jesus Christ be as valuable and meaningful to us as the amount of effort we ourselves put into it? Does this not tell us how important regular study of the Word is? Does it not also mean that if we simply bring our bodies into church and expect worship to happen to us, it will not be a meaningful and valuable experience?

We need to learn to take part in the worship service by actively listening, that is, by listening to what the priest is saying with a sense of affirmative skepticism. –Think about what is being said. – Does it sound true? – If you lived according to it, would you being living a good life? – Would you feel right making decisions that way? – Does what the priest says agree with your understanding of the Word? – If not, why not?

Such questioning is essential to the development of the rational mind. Even in heaven the angels must be skeptical of what they hear, for we are told that they are never taught something without the opposite idea being presented at the same time, so that they will have to think about it, compare it to what they already know to be true, and come to a decision about it based upon their own understanding (See EU 77). Even in heaven, we will not be able to accept what is taught with blind faith. We must prepare ourselves for heaven by practicing active listening and affirmative doubt in this life first.

Actively listening, challenging, questioning and testing your understanding against that of the priest during his sermons or messages is also important, for by so doing you are actively taking part in the worship of the Lord, you are using your gift of intelligence in the way that God intended.

But, active listening, being fully involved intellectually is only half the story. Everyone knows that if we want to communicate ideas we use language. Words, either written or spoken, are the means by which ideas move from one mind to another. The Writings tell us that there is also a communication of affection from one will to another, and music is the means of that communication. In other words, music is to our loves as words are to our thoughts!

This concept is well known as shown in common speech. When we share an affectional bond with someone, we say that we are “in tune” with them. When things are going well with the people around us, we say that things are “harmonious.” We see further evidence of this when we remember that happy people hum, whistle, and even burst forth into song – any song – any fragment of a song! We say that people who are happy have a “song” in their heart! There are no doubt many other examples that we could use.

Not only is music a sign of a happy heart, but we also find that music is a good way to change a heart. Studies have shown that music is very effective in changing your mood. If someone is feeling low, you cannot just play happy, cheerful music and expect them to change. It’s far more likely that they will angrily turn the music off. However, it has been found that if you first play music that approximates the person’s mood, and you gradually change the selections from moody to cheerful to bright, the mood will follow.

We can see that, used properly, music can be used to bring a person’s state from depression to cheerfulness, from hell to heaven. If we agree to that view, then can we also assume that the opposite is true, that music is capable of taking someone from a heavenly state to a hellish one? Are there kinds of music that express anger and frustration and hatred and by means of presenting these affections in a powerful way actually bring people into a state of hellish affections? While we should be very careful before postulating a direct cause and effect relationship between heaven or hell and certain kinds of music, we must look carefully at the kinds of affections that any piece of music inspires in our hearts.

In heaven, the harmony is actual, not symbolic. Time after time Swedenborg reported hearing heavenly choirs. He explained that each heavenly society has its own distinctive affection or love, and this distinctive love is expressed in the songs of that society. These teachings were in the minds of the priests of the New Church as they set about the task of forming a distinctive new ritual for the New Church. These teachings about music, affection, and harmony are the reason why each service begins with music followed by congregational singing, so that the whole of the congregation can be brought into a common sphere of worship. In the same way, the service ends with congregational singing, followed by a period of quiet music, so that the people can quietly and gently leave the sphere of worship behind.

Music is a powerful tool for creating a response in worship. Just as words are carefully selected by the priest to bring an idea into form in the sermon, so, ideally, the music should be selected to bring the affections of the congregation into a focus that supports and develops the ideas presented in the sermon. The choice is also limited to those songs that a congregation is capable of singing with some confidence and pleasure.

Congregational singing is supposed to bring the diverse collection of people present for worship into a harmony of affection, a harmony that is more perfect according to the variety within it. In order for us to feel the harmony with the others in the congregation, it will be necessary for us to deliberately, consciously put aside our fears about singing in church We must try not to think about how we sound to the others nearby. We must instead try to think about the sound of many people singing together, and how each voice blends in and contributes to the beauty and the quality of the whole.

To do this, we must first find silence. We must leave our thoughts and cares about the world outside the church door as we enter. We must put away the thoughts about the cares of the natural world so that there will be room for the Lord to enter through His Word. Then, as we hear His Word read and preached, we must focus our attention on it, compare what we hear to what we already know, to what we believe, to what we have learned from experience. Finally, we must un-self-consciously take part in the affectional side of worship through song and prayer. Prayers are offered to the Lord by the priest for the congregation, and by the priest and the congregation together. This speech with the Lord is an important part of every worship service, for it turns the mind away from self and towards the Lord. It can be an effective means of silencing our self-consciousness.

When the noise of the world is put off, we will find our worship to be satisfying to us in many different ways. The more effort we put into the worship experience, the greater the spiritual benefit we shall receive.

“Oh, sing to the Lord a new song!

Sing to the Lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, bless His name;

Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.” (Psalm 96:1,2)


First Lesson: HAB 2 (port.)

{2} Then the LORD answered me and said: “Write the vision And make it plain on tablets, That he may run who reads it. {3} For the vision is yet for an appointed time; But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it; Because it will surely come, It will not tarry. … {18} “What profit is the image, that its maker should carve it, The molded image, a teacher of lies, That the maker of its mold should trust in it, To make mute idols? {19} Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Awake!’ To silent stone, ‘Arise! It shall teach!’ Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, Yet in it there is no breath at all. {20} But the LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”

Second Lesson: MAT 19:16-22

Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” {17} So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” {18} He said to Him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, ” ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ {19} ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” {20} The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” {21} Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” {22} But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Third Lesson: AC 2594,5

Gentiles living on earth today however are not so wise, but for the most part are simple in heart. Nevertheless those of them who have led charitable lives one with another acquire wisdom in the next life. Let these be spoken of in what follows next.

I was once listening to a certain [choir] which sounded tuneful yet harsher than [choirs] normally do. From their sound I recognized straightaway that they came from the gentiles. Angels told me that they were gentiles who had been raised from the dead three or four days previously. I listened to this … choir for many hours and perceived that throughout the short period I was listening to them they were being perfected more and more. Wondering at this I was told that these people can be inaugurated into choirs, and so into harmonious groups, within a single night, whereas with the majority of Christians the same is scarcely possible within thirty years. …Choirs exist when many speak simultaneously, all as one, and each as all.

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