GUARDING SPIRITUAL FREEDOM

GUARDING SPIRITUAL FREEDOM

A Sermon by Rev. Kurt H. AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn January 30, 1994

 

“Along the bank of the river, on this side and that, will grow all trees used for food; their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fall. They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food and their leaves for medicine” (Ezek. 47:12).

The final chapters of the prophecy of Ezekiel recount a great vision of a new city and a new temple in Israel. Our text, taken from this vision, describes a river of healing waters coming from the sanctuary. Along the banks, on both sides, grow wonderful trees that bear fruit every month and whose leaves never wither. “Their fruit will be for food and their leaves for medicine.”

There is an unmistakable similarity here to John’s vision of the Holy City in the final chapter of Revelation. Both tell of a river of life-giving water flowing from the throne of God; both tell of trees with fruit and leaves, fruit for food and leaves for medicine, the “healing of the nations.” The visions of the great city and temple with its river and trees of life should be an inspiration to us all. These are visions of the New Church. Both picture the vitality and importance of the New Church. Through it there is to be a healing of all the nations.

When we look at the world in which we live we see a desperate need for healing. Many evils are plainly evident. False ideas abound. We can look inward too. There is a world that lives in us as well as a world around us. We would have to admit that there are evils and falsities in this personal world of ours. Our responsibility to heal ourselves is immediate, and our influence in this private world is greater than elsewhere. Here again the New Church is vital for a healing.

But what is it that the New Church has to offer the world which is so vitally important? What does the New Church provide for each one of us that is unique and powerful?

One answer may be found in the symbolic meaning of the text, especially what is said of the leaves of the trees that they will be for “medicine.” The same is true of the Tree of Life which John described. Its leaves are for the healing of the nations. What is meant by these leaves? What do they have to do with the New Church or with us? These are questions we will answer presently, but first a word about the Last Judgment, what many people call the Judgment Day, which preceded the establishment of the New Church.

One of the unique teachings of the New Church in the Christian world is that the great judgment promised in the Scriptures has already taken place. It was not the end of the world as some believe. It was a judgment and a reckoning in the spiritual world. The prophecies of the overthrow of kingdoms, the darkening of the sun, the falling of the stars of heaven were fulfilled in the spiritual realm where all people are together after death. These pictures of the Last Judgment were symbolic of a reordering of the heavens and the hells by the Lord. The Last Judgment was an exposing of the real nature of hidden evil loves and false teachings by which people had been held captive for centuries. When the Lord revealed these, finally, people could be free from them.

One way we can imagine the nature of this great change is to think of the effect of a new discovery or a scientific breakthrough in the scientific community. Traditional thinking is shaken, overturned, perhaps completely rejected. Everything has to adjust to the new evidence. Schools of thought that have held sway become discredited. Beliefs and practices have to change.

The Last Judgment was this kind of change with regard to religious truths and deep-rooted religious beliefs. It was not, as most had assumed, a reordering of the political and ecclesiastical structures of this world. So we are taught, “the state of the world hereafter will be altogether similar to what it has been heretofore, for the great change which has taken place in the spiritual world does not induce any change in the natural world as to the external form … ” (LJ 73). In other words, the world will continue after this judgment much as it has before. There will be divided countries, war and peace, various religious sects teaching different interpretations of doctrine and practicing distinct rites. Since this judgment took place in the middle of the 18th century, we have more than 200 years of history showing that life in the natural world has continued unchanged.

The great change is an internal one. The Last Judgment has effected a new state of spiritual freedom. We are told that the people of the church will be “in a more free state of thinking” on matters of faith and about spiritual things.

What is the significance of this? This is far-reaching. To have spiritual freedom is the greatest and most precious of life’s treasures. We can compare it only to having natural freedom a much less important gift. Yet we prize our natural freedom. We fight for freedom and may be willing to die for it. The ability to choose what we shall do, where we shall live, and how we shall live is important to us. How much more should we prize the inner freedom that allows us to know what is true and right and to love what is good and useful. It was such a gift that Solomon, the king, chose when the Lord said: “Ask! What shall I give you?” And he said, ” … give to Your servant an understanding heart … that I may discern between good and evil … ” (I Kings 3:5-9).

Spiritual freedom involves being free from false ideas, seductive theories and perverted thinking. Spiritual freedom involves the ability to discern evil affections, destructive loves and selfish motives. To discern and identify these allows us the freedom to decide whether or not we will be swept up by them and carried away by them to certain unhappiness and slavery.

Spiritual freedom was what the Lord meant when He said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word … you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31, 32). He added: “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (Ibid. 34).

The Last Judgment has released the world from the grip of false doctrine; it has given each of us the opportunity to know the truth and to throw off the bonds of spiritual slavery.

This is where the New Church comes in. After the Last Judgment the Lord established a New Church in which the spiritual sense of the Word has been disclosed and interior Divine truths revealed. This church is pictured as the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven. That city signifies the doctrine of truth, foursquare, solid, and beautiful. Within its walls, straddling the river of water from God, is the tree of life, bearing its fruit every month and having luxuriant leaves said to be “for the healing of the nations.” Let us focus on those leaves.

We are told that the leaves of the tree signify “rational truths.” In the Word, a man is often compared to a tree, its fruit meaning his goods of life, its leaves his rational thoughts. So in the first Psalm the man who loves the law of the Lord is said to be like a tree by the water which brings forth fruit and whose leaf does not wither (see AC 885).

The leaves of the trees in our text were said to be for “medicine,” as the leaves of the Tree of life were to be for a healing. “Here [the word] `tree’ denotes the man of the church in whom is the kingdom of the Lord, its `fruit’ the good of love and of charity, its `leaf’ the truths therefrom, which serve for the instruction of the human race and for their regeneration, for which reason the leaf is said to be for `medicine.’ Further concerning this, we are taught that the leaves for the healing of the nations signify “rational truths … by which they who are in evils and thence in falsities are led to think soundly and to live becomingly” (AR 932:2).

Here, then, is a vital function of the New Church both for us as individuals and for the world in which we live. We have a mission to preserve and extend the state of spiritual freedom which was brought about through the Last Judgment and assured by the establishment of the New Church. The doctrine of the church delivers the spiritual rational truths which can bring about a healing. These truths are the necessary basis of that healing process. Without them, the hells will prevail, for we will not even know that we are in spiritual slavery. Listen to this teaching: “One reason why man does not … desire to come out of spiritual servitude into spiritual liberty is that he does not know what spiritual slavery is and what spiritual freedom is; he does not possess the truths that teach this; and without truths, spiritual slavery is believed to be freedom, and spiritual freedom to be slavery” (DP 149).

It is vitally important then that truths should be known and believed; “for man is enlightened by truths,” we are told, “but is made blind by falsities” (AC 2588:8). “Truths make evils manifest … but from evil none can see what is good and true … ” (HH 487).

Every New Church person should follow the example of Solomon and ask of the Lord a wise and understanding heart. It will be the unique capacity of those who love and study the Heavenly Doctrine of the New Church to discern the quality of their states and the quality of the civil, moral and natural states of the world around them. This is the special intelligence and the special use of the church. How can spiritual freedom be preserved and extended without some ability to see through appearances, to make critical analysis and practical judgment? This is not from us or according to our degree of knowledge. As Joseph said when they called him to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh, “Do not interpretations belong to God? It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace” (Gen. 40:8; 41:16). The “truly human mind,” we are told, “acknowledges that God alone thinks from Himself, and that man thinks from God” (DP 321).

That we should think from God and not from ourselves is the key to understanding the nature of the truly rational thought that will characterize the New Church. Only such thought can be a medicine for the healing of the nations. The doctrine describes true wisdom. “All have the capacity to understand and to be wise,” we are told, “but … they who ascribe all to the Lord are wiser than the rest, because all things of truth and good, which constitute wisdom, flow in from heaven, that is, from the Lord there … ” (AC 10227).

What makes a person truly rational, truly wise? Again, the doctrine is clear: while many in the world suppose that a rational person is one who can reason acutely about many things, and so join reasonings together that conclusions may appear like truth, “this is found in the very worst of people,” we are told, ” … [people] … who are able to reason skillfully and persuade that evils are goods and that falsities are truths, and the reverse” (AC 6240:2). The Heavenly Doctrine rejects this as the mark of rational wisdom. They state instead that “the rational consists in inwardly seeing and perceiving that good is good, and from this that truth is truth … ” (Ibid.).

Again, we are taught that “by the capacity to be wise is not meant the capacity to reason about truths and goods from memory knowledges, nor the capacity to confirm whatever one pleases, but the capacity to discern what is true and good, to choose what is suitable, and to apply it to the uses of life. They who ascribe all things to the Lord do thus discern, choose, and apply … ” (AC 10227).

The fact that we must ascribe all things to the Lord is shown and signified in the visions of the New Church we have referred to before. Both in the prophecy of Ezekiel and in the book of Revelation we read of the trees being nourished by the river of living water flowing out from God’s sanctuary or throne. It is the man who trusts in the Lord that is like a tree with roots by the river, whose leaf will be green even in the heat, whose boughs will bear fruit even in drought (see Jeremiah 17:7,8).

In the world today there is little recognition of the importance of spiritual truth. Few realize that wisdom in life is from a spiritual origin, not a natural one. Few realize how vulnerable rational thought about civil, moral and natural matters is to worldly opinions and emotional impulses. Reflect on the current issues and controversies that fill the pages of our papers and news magazines and that find a ready audience on our TV screens. What kind of reasoning do we find? Are justice and morality prevalent? And what about our own lives? Where do we turn to find direction and to make right decisions that affect our marriages, our jobs, our children?

Someone once said that the Writings of the church do not teach us about education. We may smile at that. Do they speak of any of our natural concerns? Do they tell us how to conduct a business? Do they provide legal guidance? Do they instruct us about mental depression? Yes, the Writings speak to all of these areas of life though not necessarily directly. What they provide is a spiritual perspective on every aspect of natural life. With this perspective the New Church person is able to reflect on natural life with rational wisdom, to see what is good and useful, to identify what is false and worthless. Without such a perspective, a person is awash in a sea of natural emotion and opinion, adrift from the basic principles that grant true freedom. This is taught directly in the Heavenly Doctrine. There we are told that “man would have no freedom of choice in civil, moral, and natural things if he had none in spiritual things … . From that spiritual freedom man has a perception of what is good and true, and of what is just and right in civil matters … ” (TCR 482).

It is said further, “when light from heaven flows into these things, the man begins to see them spiritually, and first to discriminate between the useful and the non-useful. From this he begins to have an insight as to what is true … From this then man has perception … Wherefore the knowledges of spiritual things must be with man in his natural in order that there may be spiritual perception; and knowledges of spiritual things must be from revelation” (AC 9103).

What could be more important to our life in this world than the knowledge of spiritual principles of faith? These are not simply theological abstractions. They are the insights that give us true rationality. We live so much of our life indiscriminately, without reflection or rational thought. Or else we respond to it with customary reactions based on previous training or prejudice. In either case, we are not free. We are either spontaneously moved by a natural affection of questionable origin or bound by a rigid traditional response. We have not made a choice, much less a truly rational choice.

The New Church has been established by the Lord that we might be free! free of the urging of natural affections; free of the false attitudes and theories that permeate the thinking of this world. What greater use could we perform in the world and for ourselves than to guard and use our opportunities for spiritual freedom? This is a clear and urgent need. It can be fulfilled only by the wisdom that the Lord has given for the New Church. For He has showed us a “pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). Amen.

 


Lessons: Ezekiel 47:1-12; Rev. 22:1-7; AC 10227:2, 3

Arcana Coelestia 10227

[2] All have the capacity to understand and to be wise, but the reason one person is wiser than another is that they do not in like manner ascribe to the Lord all things of intelligence and wisdom, which are all things of truth and good. They who ascribe all to the Lord are wiser than the rest, because all things of truth and good, which constitute wisdom, flow in from heaven, that is, from the Lord there. The ascription of all things to the Lord opens the interiors of man toward heaven, for thus it is acknowledged that nothing of truth and good is from himself; and in proportion as this is acknowledged, the love of self departs, and with the love of self the thick darkness from falsities and evils. In the same proportion also the man comes into innocence, and into love and faith to the Lord, from which comes conjunction with the Divine, influx thence, and enlightenment. From all this it is evident whence it is that one is more wise, and another less …

[3] By the capacity to be wise is not meant the capacity to reason about truths and goods from memory knowledges, nor the capacity to confirm whatever one pleases, but the capacity to discern what is true and good, to choose what is suitable, and to apply it to the uses of life. They who ascribe all things to the Lord do thus discern, choose, and apply; while those who do not ascribe to the Lord, but to themselves, know merely how to reason about truths and goods; nor do they see anything except what is from others, and this not from reason, but from the activity of the memory. As they cannot look into truths themselves, they stand outside, and confirm whatever they receive, whether it be true or false. They who can do this in a learned way from memory- knowledges are believed by the world to be wiser than others; but the more they attribute all things to themselves, thus the more they love what they think from themselves, the more insane they are; for they confirm falsities rather than truths, and evils rather than goods, and this because they have light from no other source than the fallacies and appearances of the world, and consequently from their own light, which is called natural light, separated from the light of heaven; and which light when thus separated is mere thick darkness in respect to the truths and goods of heaven.

BEARING WITNESS TO TRUTH

BEARING WITNESS TO TRUTH

A Palm Sunday Sermon by Rev Kurt H. AsplundhPreached in Bryn AthynApril 8, 1990

“You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37).

When the Lord rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday He was received as a king. A great multitude took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him. They cried out: “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! The King of Israel!” (John 12:13). It was a royal welcome.

Not everyone was pleased. The chief priests and Pharisees hated the Lord. They cried out from the crowd while the multitude of disciples praised Him saying, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.” He answered that the “stones would immediately cry out” if the people were silenced (Luke 9:38-40). The very rocks and stones of creation would bear witness to the sovereignty of the Lord.

It was less than a week later that the Lord’s enemies would bring Him to the court of Pilate where this issue of kingship would be argued again. The chief priests and scribes had condemned the Lord before their own religious council with the charge of blasphemy in His claim that He was the Son of God. For this they wanted to put Him to death. Being a subject people, however, the Jews could not impose the death sentence. They needed the permission of the Roman governor, Pilate.

Since the Romans had no interest in the religious laws of the Jews or their theological disputes, the Jews brought a different charge. Bringing the Lord to Pilate they said: “We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, saying that He Himself is Christ, a King” (Luke 23:2). It was on this charge that Pilate questioned the Lord in the Praetorium. The question was: Did the Lord pose a threat to the authority of the Roman government? Was He seeking a following to overthrow those in power? Pilate needed to determine if the Lord was indeed the King of the Jews.

In answer to Pilate’s question, “Are You the King of the Jews?” the Lord plainly said: “It is as you say” (Mark 15:2). But He added: “My kingdom is not of this world . . . . My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). This was a puzzling statement for the Roman administrator. What did Pilate know of other worlds? What kind of king could he be that had no temporal power? So he asked again, “Are you a king then?”

The Lord answered: “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37).

What is the meaning of the Lord’s answer to Pilate? It is clear to us now. What He said was that truth is a king and that He Himself had come to present the truth to the mind of man. So He added: “Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (Ibid.).

Pilate was not a religious or philosophical man, but neither was he unintelligent. He understood from this testimony that the Lord’s purpose was to bear witness to a truth that would rule the minds of men. While he understood this, he was skeptical of it. The Word records his well-known response. Pilate said: “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

“What is truth?” The Heavenly Doctrine comments on this. From the question of Pilate “it is clear,” we are told, “that he understood that truth was called king’ by the Lord . . . ” (AE 31:3). What he doubted was whether truth was, indeed, king. His words pose the crucial question: “Is truth a king?” (AE 27:4, AR 20)

The rest of the account of the Lord’s trial is a sad confirmation of Pilate’s skeptical attitude about the power of truth. The truth did not rule the decisions that were soon to be made. Neither truth nor justice held sway in the tumultuous events that followed. From the moment Pilate appeared before the Lord’s accusers with the verdict: “I find no fault in Him at all,” hatreds, fears, angry emotions, and selfish ambitions took over. The rulers of the Jews did not want the truth from Pilate. They wanted their will. Time and again, they demonstrated the rejection of the rule of truth. This first happened in the matter of Barabbas.

It was customary at their feast that one of the prisoners should be released. Pilate offered them “the King of the Jews” or Barabbas. As we know from exposition, this is a choice between the rule of truth or the rule of principles of murder and theft embodied by Barabbas. The crowd cried out vehemently: “Not this Man, but Barabbas!”

“Not this Man!” What could be more clear?

Later the Lord stood before the people wearing a crown of thorns and a purple robe after He had been whipped and mocked by the soldiers. “Behold the Man!” He said. He was inviting them to see how the truth had been violated, mocked and rejected. There was no remorse, no sense of loss. Impelled by another king, the spirit of self-love they had welcomed in their hearts, they cried out unmercifully, “Crucify Him, crucify Him.” Pilate asked: “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar!” Imagine what that really means! The inner sense of what they shouted was that they were ruled by nothing but practical expediency. The Lord’s truth was of no importance to them. After the priests had cried out, spiritually denying the Lord, Pilate gave Him up to their will.

He was crucified with two thieves at the place called Golgotha. The accusation affixed to the cross by Pilate read: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). Even in His condemnation, the Jews objected: “Do not write The King of the Jews,'” they said. Inwardly they were rejecting the Divine truth that should be king. Write “He said, I am the King of the Jews.'” But Pilate would not acquiesce to this. “What I have written I have written” ( John 19:21, 22). And so the title stood in spite of their objection, the very truth of the matter written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

It is not coincidental that the testaments which have borne witness to the Lord’s sovereign power also are written in these three sacred languages the Old Testament in Hebrew, which declares the creative power of the one God of heaven and earth; the New Testament in Greek, which records His incarnation and redemption of the race; and the Heavenly Doctrine of the New Jerusalem in Latin, which reveals the living Essence of His Divine Humanity.

“For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world,” the Lord declared, “that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:37).

Let us ask ourselves on this Palm Sunday if we can be numbered among those who are “of the truth” who hear the Lord’s voice. Pilate was not among these. As he was a Gentile and knew nothing from the Word, he could not be taught that Divine truth is from the Lord or that the Lord Himself bore witness to Divine truth (see AE 31:3). Pilate was not only skeptical of the power of truth but unaware that there was any source of authoritative truth. The Jews who wanted to crucify the Lord were not numbered among those who were of the truth. They had rejected the truth. We are told that “they desired a king who would exalt them over all in the whole earth. And as the Lord’s kingdom was not earthly but heavenly, they perverted everything that was said respecting Him in the Word, and mocked at what was foretold of Him. This is what was represented by their placing a crown of thorns upon His head, and smiting His head” (AE 577:4).

What of us? Are we “of the truth” and willing to hear the Lord’s voice? Do we welcome the King with joy and a willing heart? The greeting of the Lord with palms and Hosannas on that first Palm Sunday pictures a ready acceptance of the truth of the Word, an acknowledgment and confession of the Lord as our king.

Is this our welcome or do we share the rejection of the Jews or the skepticism of Pilate, asking, “What is truth?” Is truth a king?

Pilate recognized that the Lord was not a direct threat to the empire. Had He not said: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews . . . ” (John 18:36)? What Pilate had not learned and did not know was the Lord’s teaching that the kingdom of God is within. “The kingdom of God does not come with observation,” He had said to the Pharisees; “nor will they say, See here!’ or See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20, 21).

Here was a new concept to the Jews. Until now they had only an idea of kingdoms of this world, of nations and rulers and subjects under them. The Lord taught of a spiritual kingdom, a kingdom within us that is organized and developed by the spirit of truth. It is this “inner” kingdom that truth can rule. And when the spirit of man is ruled by truth, his actions in the world are also ruled by truth from within.

By creation every man is free. He can be compelled outwardly and be forced to live according to certain laws, but he cannot be compelled to think or believe against his will. We choose the king of our inner life. And this is our real life. The convictions, the principles, the ideals we choose to live by are the essentials of our true character. Is there power in these? The greatest power possible, far greater than the power of any dictator or outward force. The human spirit has proven indomitable. Tyranny’s rule is always short-lived. The desire for freedom that is deeply implanted in human hearts cannot be denied or forcibly suppressed.

The issue is not whether we have spiritual freedom, but what spirit will rule within us. Will it be the spirit of Divine truth or the spirit of the world? Will we choose the Lord for our king or Caesar?

The Lord has revealed Himself anew for the New Church, bearing witness to the truth as never before in the Heavenly Doctrine of the church.

The Palm Sunday account is prophetic of a new and conscious reception of the Lord now possible for us. The New Church is named the New Jerusalem. While we have established organizations for the promotion of the Lord’s church among men, the New Jerusalem is really in the individual heart. How does the Lord enter this New Jerusalem? His approach to us is symbolically pictured in the New Testament. There He rode upon the colt of a donkey with garments and branches strewed before Him. Thus He physically entered that city. To us this signifies something that can take place again and again in our personal life: the subordination and guidance of our rational mind by the Lord’s teachings and the acknowledgment that Divine truths from the Word are the truths that should rule in our life. Palm Sunday takes place in the hidden kingdom of our spirit every time we are ready to receive the Lord. Let us pray for His promised coming. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you. He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). “You say rightly that I am a king . . . . Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice!” (John 18:37). Amen.

Lessons: John 18:28-40; 19:1-22; AE 31:1, 3, 7 parts

 


Apocalypse Explained 31:1, 3, 7 (parts)

In many places in the prophetic Word, kings are mentioned, and he that is ignorant of the internal sense believes that by “kings” are there meant kings; kings, however, are not meant, but all those who are in truths from good, or in faith from charity, from the Lord. The reason of this is that the Lord is the sole king, and those who from Him are in truths from good are called His “sons” . . . .

That by “King” in the Word is meant the Lord in respect to Divine truth is clear from the words of the Lord Himself to Pilate: “Pilate said, Art thou a king then?’ Jesus answered,

Thou sayest it, because I am a king. For this have I been born, and for this am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is in the truth heareth My voice.’ Pilate said unto Him, What is truth?'” (John 18:37,38)

From the question of Pilate, “What is truth?” it is clear that he understood that truth was called “king” by the Lord; but as he was a Gentile and knew nothing from the Word, he could not be taught that Divine truth is from the Lord, and that He is Divine truth . . . .

As it is known from these things what is meant by a “king” in the Word, I will add to the above: why the Lord, when He entered Jerusalem, sat upon the foal of an ass, and the people then proclaimed Him king, and also strewed their garments in the way . . . .

The reason was that to sit upon an ass and the foal of an ass was the distinctive mark of the highest judge and of a king . . . . One who does not know the signification of “horse,” “mule,” and “the foal of an ass,” in a representative sense, will suppose that the Lord’s riding upon the foal of an ass was significative of misery and humiliation. But it signified royal magnificence; for this reason the people then proclaimed the Lord king, and strewed their garments upon the way. This was done when He went to Jerusalem, because by “Jerusalem” is signified the church . . . .

THE HOPE OF HELP

THE HOPE OF HELP

A Sermon by Rev. Kurt H. AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn November 13, 1988

 

“What ails you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is” (Genesis 21:17).

It is hard to imagine a more piteous scene: a woman and her son abandoned in the parched wilderness of Beersheba. The lad, faint with thirst, lies in the scant shade of a desert shrub, crying out for water. The mother, tortured by his cries and the sight of his anguish, has turned her back on the lad and gone from him the distance of a bowshot so as not to see his death. Here she weeps, not for her own plight, which is equally grievous, but as a true mother, out of love for her son. He is perishing.

Hagar wept for the lad, and in that moment of desolation and deep despair the angel of God called to her out of heaven with words of consolation and the hope of help to come: “Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the lad … Arise, lift up the lad and hold him with your hand, for I will make him a great nation” (Gen. 21:17f).

As Hagar looked up in wonder and wiped away her tears of despair, God opened her eyes to see a well of water. Here she filled the bottle and gave her son life-giving drink so that he did not perish, but lived, and grew, and fathered a nation. God saved Ishmael even though Isaac was to be preferred. Ishmael too was precious in the Lord’s eyes.

How fortunate for us that the Lord’s concern extends this far, that Ishmael too was preserved. Ishmael represents a spiritual heritage that is also ours. We are Ishmael-like, and deserve to be banished from the house of the Lord.

Ishmael represents the man who is spiritually flawed at birth, driven by self-interest and arrogance. Ishmael represents the man whose only hope for salvation is in the Lord Jesus Christ who came into the world for our welfare. The Heavenly Doctrine reminds us that “the Lord did not come into the world to save the celestial but the spiritual” (AC 2661), that is, the man of the fallen church. In the words of the Gospels: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick … ” The Lord said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Matt. 9:12,13).

The Lord spoke of His sheep who followed Him and knew His voice, “and other sheep I have which are not of this fold,” He said. “Them also I must bring … and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Ishmael represents those other sheep, those sheep that have gone astray that must be brought back to the fold.

The comforting message of the account of Hagar and Ishmael is that there is the hope of help. The promise is clear: there is no one who wants spiritual help who cannot receive it. Such is the purpose and reason for the Lord’s coming. In this way He could reach out the Divine hand to touch, to mercifully gather all those who wished His aid.

The promise of the Lord’s help is prophesied throughout the Psalms and Prophets. How true are these words, and how comforting to know they are true: “I cried to the Lord with my voice, and He heard me from His holy hill” (Psalm 3:4). “The Lord has heard the voice of my weeping. The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord will receive my prayer” (Psalm 6:8,9). “The Lord is my strength and my shield: my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped; therefore my heart greatly rejoices, and with my song I will praise Him” (Psalm 28:7). The beauty of these words, and so many others like them which can be found in the Word, is not only in their poetry but in their truth and in their promise of help from the Lord.

It is characteristic of the fallen spiritual man to believe he is self-sufficient in spiritual things. This is illustrated in the way we often approach life in this world. How often do we admit that we need another’s help? Yet we are constantly dependent upon others. So often we are afraid to admit our shortcomings or needs. We don’t want others to see our weaknesses or imperfections, or give them any opportunity to look down on us for a fault. So we maintain a bold and arrogant front that everything is all right, and that we are fully capable of succeeding in all our responsibilities and activities. As a result, we may rarely ask for the help we need.

How much more important it is for us to recognize that we need help on the spiritual plane of our life even more urgently than on the natural plane. One of the fatal errors of spiritual life is refusing to seek and accept help from the Lord. If we are too proud to do so, too self-assured, and if we rely on ourselves to attain to a heavenly state, we are doomed to fall.

Ishmael, Hagar’s son, pictures this state of mind in us. His desolation in the wilderness shows the result of such an attitude. So it is that the Lord allows us to come into spiritual states of desolation and despair. It is not that the Lord wills in this way to teach us our lesson through hard experience. We bring it on ourselves. Our desolation and despair is simply the result of our own choices and decisions. And when the state has run its course the Lord is there, offering the help we have always needed but were unwilling to accept before. This is what the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael is all about when understood as to its inner spiritual meaning.

Both Hagar and Ishmael picture faults which signify the faulty states of our own spiritual life. Hagar was contemptuous of Sarah, and fled from her mistress in a state of fierce pride when she dealt harshly with her. Ishmael displayed an arrogant self-confidence in mocking Sarah’s infant son.

Such can be our attitude toward what is Divine. Our reason and reasoning powers, based on natural experience, contend with genuine truths from the Lord. We doubt, even mock, the Lord’s truths. Who can believe that man does not live of himself but only appears to live so? Who can believe that man has no intelligence or wisdom of his own and that his having anything of his own is a mere fallacy? Our Ishmael states reject these truths. In these states we base all thought and conclusion about Divine and spiritual things on the testimony of the senses and reasonings from sense experience. We challenge spiritual truths with the conceit of a self-assurance and tacit confidence in our own insights.

If we are to make spiritual progress, this state and attitude must be changed. This is demonstrated in the account of Hagar and Ishmael, and the Writings reveal the inner significance of the story.

Abraham gave Hagar a little bread and water before sending her away with Ishmael. We may wonder why Abraham offered such meager rations for his servant and son. In fact, there was little given because a little is all that was spiritually acceptable. The bread and water signify the good and truth which the Lord wills to give us. At first we take a little but accept no more. In our early states of reformation we suppose we do what is good and think the truth from ourselves. We know from doctrinal teachings that this is not so, but that all good and truth are from the Lord. We do not deny this truth, nor yet do we really acknowledge it. It is something we just do not feel or interiorly perceive to be so. “As all who are being reformed are in such a state at first, they are therefore left by the Lord in what is their own; nevertheless,” the Writings state, “they are led by means of this without knowing it” (AC 2678).

While it appears that Abraham expelled Hagar and Ishmael, the real case is that we withdraw ourselves from the presence of the Lord and lead ourselves into a spiritual wilderness. Of such it is said in the Writings: “They are carried away into various wanderings; for it is given them by the Lord to think much about eternal life, and thus much about the truths of faith; but because from what is their own, … they cannot do otherwise than wander hither and thither, both in doctrine and in life, seizing as truth that which has been inseminated from their infancy, or is impressed upon them by others, or is thought out by themselves besides their being led away by various affections of which they are not conscious” (AC 2679). This is what is meant, we are told, by the wanderings of Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness.

Such is our typical state. We are led “here and there” in our life. Reflect on what it is that motivates or prompts us to act in one way or another. Is it not often a principle impressed on us by parents in childhood; might it be the influence or beliefs of our friends? How often, too, do subconscious affections or emotions drive our actions? When we think about it, we can see that much of our life is not directed by the Lord and His truth but by a variety of influences. Thus our life is wandering, inconsistent, lacking in spiritual purpose.

Are we content to wander through life aimlessly? At times, yes. Perhaps we are unaware that this is so. But with those who seek reformation and spiritual life, the day of crisis comes. The day comes, as it did for Hagar and Ishmael, when the bread is gone and the water is drained out of the bottle when the little truth we have received from the Lord fails.

Suddenly we come to recognize the weakness of our own rational thought. It is insufficient for us. We see the things of our life dying. We enter a state of despair. This state is pictured in the despair of Hagar who thrusts her son under a shrub and withdraws so as not to see his death. The Writings reveal that this is a state of those who are being reformed, “which is that they are reduced to ignorance till they know nothing of truth, and this even to despair” (AC 2682).

The Lord allows despair although He does not will that we suffer. It is for the sake of our benefit and is therefore permitted. Our self-satisfaction or feeling of self-sufficiency in spiritual things must be challenged and broken. So long as we live in our illusion of self-life, we cannot be saved. During this state we are gripped by what the Writings call “persuasive” light a light of falsity that darkens all light of truth. Such persuasive light is described in the Writings. “In the other life,” we read, “that which is persuasive appears like the light of winter, but at the approach of the light of heaven, instead of that light there comes darkness, in which there is ignorance of all truth. With those who are being reformed this state is called the state of desolation of truth … ” (AC 2682:2), and it is pictured by the despair of Hagar.

When despair has reached its depths and man finds himself truly ignorant of all truth and acknowledges his own ignorance the Lord brings consolation and the hope of help. For Hagar, hope came with the appearance of an angel of God. The angel consoled her: “Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the child where he is” (Gen. 21:17). For us the Lord sends consolation through the Word. Its truths still our fears and bring about a sense of hope and peace.

While few in the world may experience the desolation and anxiety described in the account of Hagar and Ishmael, those who do may find hope in it.

How beautiful is the reassurance to Hagar! “Fear not … Arise, lift up the lad … for I will make him a great nation” (Gen. 21:17,18).

And then she saw the well of water. It was there all the time but she had not looked for it. The well signifies the Word from which truths may be taken. The Word is always with us. It is there to refresh us and we often fail to see it.

To fill the bottle and give drink to Ishmael signifies a state of instruction. When we reach a point of turning to the Lord, we are eager for His instruction. The Writings teach that “with those who come into a state of enlightenment or of heavenly light they are then in the affection of knowing and learning truths; and when they are in this affection, they are easily and as it were spontaneously imbued with truths: those who are on earth, from the Lord’s Word or from doctrine, but those who are in heaven from angels” (AC 2704).

This is the message of hope in the story of Hagar and Ishmael. It is addressed to us all whenever we sincerely seek the Lord’s help. For as Ishmael was precious in the sight of Abraham, so we are precious in the Lord’s sight.

Notice that the angel said that the Lord had heard the voice of Ishmael “where he is.” So with every man: no matter what his state of life may be, his voice is heard “where he is.” Wherever we are, wherever we may be, whether in a state of desolation of truth or in the deepest of torments, the Lord hears our cry for help.

Through the power of the Divine Human, which He put on by life in the world, He reaches out to us at any level of life. He is there to guide us to his “well of water springing up into eternal life.” This is the truth of the Psalm where we read: “If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:8-10).

Wherever we are, in whatever state of life, we are not beyond the reach of the Lord’s holy arm. Let us seek His help. He comes with healing in His wings; He brings not condemnation but forgiveness, not anger but mercy, not punishment but peace. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). Amen.

 


Lessons: Gen. 21:1-21; AC 2694:1,2

Arcana Coelestia 2694:1,2

“Fear not, for God hath heard the voice of the child where he is.” That this signifies the hope of help is evident from the signification of “fear not” as being not to despair; for when fear is taken away, hope is present; and from the signification of “hearing the voice of the child,” as being help (see above, n. 2691, where the words are similar). In the verses which precede, the state of desolation in which those are who are being reformed and are becoming spiritual is treated of; now the subject is their being restored, and here their comfort and hope of help. That they who are being reformed are reduced into ignorance of truth, or desolation, even to grief and despair, and that they then for the first time have comfort and help from the Lord, is unknown at this day, for the reason that few are reformed. They who are such that they can be reformed are brought into this state, if not in the life of the body, nevertheless in the other life, where this state is well known, and is called vastation or desolation … They who are in such vastation or desolation are reduced even to despair; and when they are in this state they then receive comfort and help from the Lord, and are at length taken away into heaven, where they are instructed among the angels as it were anew in the goods and truths of faith. The reason of this vastation and desolation is chiefly that the persuasive which they have conceived from what is their own may be broken (see n. 2682); and that they may also receive the perception of good and truth, which they cannot receive until the persuasive which is from their own has been as it were softened. This is effected by the state of anxiety and grief even to despair. What is good, nay, what is blessed and happy, no one can perceive with an exquisite sense unless he has been in a state of what is not good, not blessed, and not happy. From this he acquires a sphere of perception, and this in the degree in which he has been in the opposite state. The sphere of perception and the extension of its limits arise from the realizing of contrasts. These are causes of vastation or desolation, besides many others.

CARE FOR THE MORROW

CARE FOR THE MORROW

A Sermon by Rev. Kurt H. AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn August 17, 1986

 

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own evil” (Matt. 6:34).

The Israelites in the wilderness had a real concern about the morrow, yet they were absolutely unable to store up extra food. They were commanded to gather enough manna for their households for a day and were not to save any for the next day. When some refused to obey this law and tried to keep extra manna for another day, it turned bad and became wormy. Only on the sixth day could they gather an extra ration for use on the Sabbath day. Otherwise, they were completely dependent upon the daily appearance of this miraculous food from the Lord. They had to trust the Lord. They had no other choice.

This forced way of life with the Jews prefigured the ideal way of life for Christians. They too were to learn trust in the Lord. Note that what the Jews observed from external compulsion sometimes became a matter of conscience for Christians. And so, echoing the necessity of the ancient past, the Lord taught His disciples not to worry about tomorrow. “Do not worry about your life,” He said, “what you will eat or what you will drink … Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? Therefore do not worry….” (Matt. 6:25, 27., 31). This was a new way of teaching that we should trust in the Lord’s providential care.

What of us today? Now, in the Heavenly Doctrine the Lord has repeated, in yet another way, the same eternal truth for the New Church. It is still true that we should not worry, that is, have an anxious concern about our life. What the Lord has added for the New Church is a rational expression of the truth and a deeper understanding of what is meant by trust in the Lord.

The Israelite in the wilderness was forced to trust that the Lord would care for him. The Lord’s disciple felt a personal obligation to trust his Lord and seek the kingdom of God. The New Churchman, in addition, is taught how the Lord’s Providence operates for his salvation, and how he may cooperate with the Lord’s leading. He is shown the nature of Divine order. He can have a rational trust.

Not worrying about tomorrow means accepting Divine order. It means being content with our lot in life, and not only that but being content with the mercy of the Lord.

There is a clear and beautiful teaching of the Writings about this matter of worry or care for tomorrow’s needs. It seems almost to contradict the teaching of our text, but actually gives it a new depth and dimension. So we read: “He who looks at the subject no more deeply than from the sense of the letter may believe that all care for the morrow is to be cast aside, and thus that the necessities of life are to be awaited daily from heaven; but he who looks at the subject more deeply…from the internal sense, is able to know what is meant by ‘care for the morrow.’ It does not mean the care of procuring for one’s self food and clothing, and even resources for the time to come; for it is not contrary to order for anyone to be provident for himself and his own. But those have care for the morrow who are not content with their lot; who do not trust in the Divine, but in themselves; and who have regard for only worldly and earthly things, and not for heavenly things” (AC 8478,.2).

Note here that the teaching applies to what is truly important in human life: our spiritual welfare. Often we are so bound up with anxiety about natural and material things that we fail to see that the Lord’s greatest concern is for our eternal welfare. Our Heavenly Father knows that we need the things of this world in order to live. He provides these for us just as surely as He put manna on the ground for Moses, but in such a way that we have a part in obtaining. them. Our natural concern for providing for daily needs for ourselves and family is not what the Lord was talking about. We must work and plan for the future. What we should not have is an anxiety or worry that comes from failing to trust that the Lord has the ability and the desire to lead us to heavenly happiness.

“Very different is the case with those who trust in the Divine,” we are told. “These, notwithstanding they have care for the morrow, still have it not, because they do not think of the morrow with solicitude, still less with anxiety. Unruffled is their spirit whether they obtain the objects of their desire or not; and they do not grieve over the loss of them, being content with their lot … They know that for those who trust in the Divine all things advance toward a happy state to eternity, and that whatever befalls them in time is still conducive thereto” (AC 8478:3).

Yet, this being said, it is well to note in addition that the Lord’s teaching also applies directly. While it is certain that we ought not to await a miraculous provision from heaven of all that we need for earthly life, it is also true that our concern for tomorrow should be free from anxiety. The Lord does not forbid thought about our material necessities. What the Lord literally forbids in this text is “anxious thought.” Anxiety and worry are outward signs of an inner lack of faith.

We should not expend our energies in anxious thought about what we may face tomorrow. Our energies should be directed rather to the faithful and sincere performance of our duties and responsibilities as they occur day by day. What we do today is providentially in preparation for tomorrow, and if we have prepared for tomorrow in this way, with a sincere and industrious effort to do what lies before us each day, there is no reason to harbor anxious fears about tomorrow. It is irrational to be anxious about what is beyond our power or control. Here, however, we are consoled by the Writings. We are told that while we live on earth we cannot entirely free ourselves from these worldly concerns (see AC 3938:7). Only the angels have “no solicitude about future things” (AC 1382). This is mentioned not to excuse our solicitude or anxiety of life, but to let us know our limitations as earthlings and so that we are not discouraged when such states recur.

But whenever possible we ought to try to reduce our degree of anxiety about the future. This is defined by the angels as “grief on account of losing or not receiving things that are not necessary for the uses of life’ (HE 278:2, emphasis added). Certainly, when a matter of concern involves something unnecessary, we should not allow it to become so important to us that we grieve over its loss. Why spend emotional energy worrying about things that do not really matter?

The text appears to deal with a matter of time: tomorrow. The truth is that there is no time in matters relating to the Lord and spiritual life. There is a succession of states of life. These are all immediately present to the Lord. This is well known to angels of heaven. “The more interior and perfect the angels are,” we are told, “the less do they care for past things, and the less do they think of things to come; and also that from this comes their happiness. They say that the Lord gives them every moment what to think, and this with blessedness and happiness; and that they are thus free from cares and anxieties” (AC 2493).

The angels live in the present. We too must learn to live in the present to the best of our ability, knowing that the Lord will prepare us by this for what is to come.

“Sufficient for the day is its own evil,” we are told. This is what our concern should be about, the particular states we see in ourselves at any given time. We must face these and put them behind us before we go on to a new day. Our strength to do this is from the Lord. To worry about tomorrow means to lack the trust that the Lord has power to lead us from state to state toward heaven. It means that we are unwilling to walk the narrow path of spiritual progress, enduring states of grief or sadness which may come, or apparent failure in temptation, thinking instead that we can lead ourselves better than the Lord can.

The conceit that we can lead ourselves to heaven better than the Lord results in a spiritual condition pictured by the condition of the overripe manna. It bred worms and stank. So trust in ourselves breeds both falsity and evil of life.

The Lord’s words in the text are a command to shun an evil. Again, the Lord said: “Take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with … cares of this life” (Luke 21:34). Why should we be careful to avoid anxious thoughts and worry? Because there is harm in it. “This care is not only forbidden,” the Writings teach, “but is also condemned” (AC 8478:2).

Reflect upon the harm done by anxious thought. Not only does it destroy our peace of mind and reduce our usefulness, it does something more harmful. “The cares of this world … entering in choke the Word” (Mark 4:19). It draws our mind away from spiritual things. Excessive concern for ourselves and our earthly welfare attacks our faith just as hatred attacks love. The effect of anxious thoughts was demonstrated to Swedenborg in the spiritual world. “It has sometimes happened,” Swedenborg wrote, “that I was earnestly thinking about worldly things, and about such things as give great concern to most persons … At these times I noticed that I was sinking down into what is sensuous; and that in proportion as my thought was immersed in such things, I was removed from the company of the angels … For when such thoughts possess the whole of the mind, they carry the lower mind downward, and are like weights which drag it down; and when they are regarded as the end, they remove the man from heaven…” (AC 6210).

We are all obliged by the Lord to shun the evil of excessive concern. We read: “Solicitude about the future, when confirmed by act, greatly dulls and retards the influx of spiritual life…” (AC 5177).

What holds true for anxiety about our natural welfare holds true equally for anxiety about our spiritual state. We should not concern ourselves with imagined evils, or evils we fear may be hidden within the depths of our mind. It is sufficient for us to face the active evils of our present state and work to overcome them. Meeting and shunning them one by one with humility of spirit, with a prayer for the Lord’s help and a confidence in His Divine power, is all the Lord requires of us.

We make but little progress against the entire hereditary nature. It is as though we are chipping at cracks in a seemingly impassable mountain of self-love. Yet, if we do each day the little that is required in that day, the Lord will care for the rest. “Have faith in God,” the Lord said. “For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be thou removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that those things he says will come to pass, he will have whatever he says” (Mark 11:22l 23).

This is the way we are to seek for the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Then all things we need, both those things of the spirit and those of the body, will be added by the Lord. “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own evil. (Matt. 6:25, 33, 34). Amen.

Lessons: Exodus 16:11-26; Matt. 6:19-34; AC 2493; SD 2190

 


Arcana Coelestia

2493 I have spoken with the angels concerning the memory of things past, and the consequent anxiety regarding things to come; and I have been instructed that the more interior and perfect the angels are, the less do they care for past things, and the less do they think of things to come; and also that from this comes their happiness. They say that the Lord gives them every moment what to think, and this with blessedness and happiness; and that they are thus free from cares and anxieties. Also, that this was meant in the internal sense by the manna being received daily from heaven; and by the daily bread in the Lord’s prayer; and likewise by the instruction not to be solicitous about what they should eat and drink, and wherewithal they should be clothed. But although the angels do not care for past things and are not solicitous about things to come, they nevertheless have the most perfect recollection of past things, and the most perfect mental view of things to come, because in all their present there are both the past and the future. Thus they have a more perfect memory than can ever be thought of or expressed.