The Plank and the Splinter

This is a sermon I gave June 27, 2009, at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.

The Plank and the Splinter

A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn


Matthew 7:1-5 (1) “Judge not, that you be not judged. (2) For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. (3) And why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? (4) Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the splinter from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? (5) Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.

Genesis 9:20-23 And Noah began to be a man of the ground, and he planted a vineyard. (21) Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. (22) And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. (23) But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.

Arcana Coelestia 1079.  [That Ham saw the nakedness of his father] signifies that he observed the errors and perversions, [which] is evident from the signification of “nakedness”, as being what is evil and perverted. Here, those who are in faith separated from charity are described by “Ham” in his “seeing the nakedness of his father” that is, his errors and perversions; for they who are of this character see nothing else in a person; whereas-very differently-those who are in the faith of charity observe what is good, and if they see anything evil and false, they excuse it, and if they can, try to amend it in him, as is here said of Shem and Japheth. Where there is no charity, there is the love of self, and therefore hatred against all who do not favor self. Consequently such persons see in the neighbor only what is evil, and if they see anything good, they either perceive it as nothing, or put a bad interpretation upon it. It is just the other way with those who are in charity. By this difference these two kinds of people are distinguished from one another, especially when they come into the other life; for then with those who are in no charity, the feeling of hatred shines forth from every single thing; they desire to examine everyone, and even to judge him; nor do they desire anything more than to find out what is evil, constantly cherishing the disposition to condemn, punish, and torment. But they who are in charity scarcely see the evil of another, but observe all his goods and truths, and put a good interpretation on what is evil and false. Such are all the angels, which they have from the Lord, who bends all evil into good.

“First cast out the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to cast out the splinter from the eye of your brother.” (Matthew 7:5)

Do not judge.  This is a familiar teaching, but we can’t hear it too many times.  After we’ve conquered other evils, the inclination to judge others often remains, and can even grow stronger.  What can we do about it?  What is the solution?

Today we read the familiar passage in which the Lord says, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”  But in another place in the New Testament, the Lord said, “Judge righteous judgment.”  So what did the Lord mean when He said, “Judge not”?  What judgments does He want us to make and what judgments does he forbid us to make?

Immediately after saying, “Do not judge,” the Lord illustrates this command with an image.  “Why do you look at the splinter that is in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank that is in your own eye?”  Part of the message is clear: we shouldn’t judge other people for their faults, since we have faults of our own that we’re blind to.

But this is not the whole message.  The Lord went on to say, “First cast out the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to cast out the splinter from your brother’s eye.”  In the end, we are supposed to help our brother remove the splinter from his eye.  In fact, that is the purpose of removing the plank from our own eye.

There are three parts to this illustration of judging.  First, the Lord calls us to notice when we are looking at a splinter in our brother’s eye despite the plank in our own eye.  Second, He tells us to cast that plank out of our own eye.  And third, He encourages us to use our new clear sight to cast the splinter out of our brother’s eye.

The Lord says, “Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own?”  This is the first part.  We all have a tendency to focus on the faults of others.  And sometimes we see the most faults in the people closest to us – we see the splinters in our brother’s eye.  If we know someone very well, we come to see their shortcomings; and because we see these so closely and so often, we can make them out to be larger than they are.  We pay inordinate attention to the minor faults – the splinters – in the way our friends and our neighbors see the world, the way they act.  Maybe they have a tendency to gossip.  Maybe they complain too much about other people.  Maybe they don’t seem to take religion seriously.  There are many, many different ways that people can have a splinter in their eye – that is, a fault in their understanding of the truth, or a minor evil in their lives.

But what if someone really does have a major evil in his or her life?  What if it’s not just a splinter?  This is certainly possible; there are people who are in extreme disorder.  But the book Arcana Coelestia tells us that when angels see a person, they excuse his evils.  This does not mean that they say that evil is not evil; but they assume that a person is good at heart and is doing evil from some mistaken idea or from ignorance.  It seems that the angels may see all faults in another as nothing more than splinters in their eyes.

We have a tendency to focus on those splinters in our brothers’ eyes.  But what about the plank in our own eye?  Arcana Coelestia says, “’To behold a splinter in the eye of a brother’ means something erroneous in respect to the understanding of truth; and ‘the plank in one’s own eye’ denotes a huge evil of falsity” (n. 9051).  When we are looking at others from a judgmental place, we are looking at a minor fault from a “huge evil of falsity” in ourselves.  There are many kinds of evil intentions and false thoughts that go along with the attitude of judging another person.  If we look at another person with contempt, we are in evil from falsity.  We are in evil – in contempt, or hatred, or derision, or self-righteousness – from falsity.  There are many different falsities that we might be in.  Maybe it’s the falsity that we are better than that person, or that we are more worthy.  Maybe we’re in the falsity that we are able to see what a person is really like inside.  When we look at another person with contempt, we are looking at them with a plank in our own eye – we are looking them in evil from falsity.

This is the kind of judging we are forbidden to do.  While we can judge a person’s actions to be good or bad, we can’t judge someone else’s motivations – we can’t judge what he is like in his hearts.  This kind of judging goes hand in hand with contempt – and contempt for others is forbidden by the Lord. If we do judge another person’s internal character – or if we do view other people with contempt – we have no chance of removing even a splinter from anyone else’s eye.  We have a plank in our own eye.

So what are we supposed to do?  From ourselves, we might think that the solution is to ignore the splinter in our brother’s eye – to leave it alone.  In fact, we might think that this is the message of this story.  We are not supposed to judge – therefore, we shouldn’t acknowledge that anyone else has a splinter in his or her eye.  But that’s not what the Lord says.  The Lord says, “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”  We are told that we should try to remove the splinter from our brother’s eye – but first we have to remove the plank from our own.

Remove the plank from your own eye.  How do you do this?  It’s easier said than done, and it can’t be done in an instant.  It is a lifelong process.  The Lord is talking about the process of self-examination and repentance.  If you want to help others remove splinters from their eyes, you have to dig those planks out of your own eye.

The first step is to try to see what the plank is.  Look for the falsities that are clouding your vision.  I mentioned two of the biggest planks earlier.  First, see if you are acting under the falsity that you can see what another person is truly like in his or her heart.  Even if we acknowledge with our lips that we can’t know what a person’s intentions are, we often think that we can.  But the Lord says time and again that only he knows the hearts of men.  We cannot judge another’s spiritual state.  This is the first plank we need to remove from our eyes.

And second, see if you are acting under the falsity that you are better than the other person.  How do we remove this falsity?  First, by acknowledging that we have evils and faults of our own.  And second, by acknowledging that all good and truth is from the Lord; that we did not earn any of the goodness or kindness in ourselves, but we received it as a gift from the Lord.  We need to humble ourselves.  And we need to fight against the tendency to view others with contempt.  We need to pray to the Lord to remove those feelings, that love of self above others.  To remove that plank from our own eye involves coming to a point where we acknowledge that we are no better than the person we are trying to help.

There is one more plank that we need to remove before we can help remove the splinter from our brother’s eye.  The book Divine Providence says, “The hardest of all combats is with the love of ruling from the love of self.  He who subdues this easily subdues all other evil loves, for this is their head.”  If we are going to help cast out that splinter, we need to first get rid of the love of ruling, of the desire to control another person.  We need to cast that plank from our eye – by praying to the Lord for the strength to resist the desire to control others, and by fighting with all our hearts against the inclination to do so.

Only then can we remove the splinter from our brother’s eye.  And we should seek to remove that splinter.  Remember, the Lord said, “Judge righteous judgment.”  We need to acknowledge that certain things really are harmful – both to society and to the person himself who is doing those harmful things.  This is why we lock up criminals: not because we want revenge on them or believe that they are going to hell, but to keep them from harming society, and so they do not hurt their spiritual lives by continuing to act in evil.  And if your brother has a splinter in his eye, that splinter is hurting him.  If you have shunned the evil of arrogance and contempt, you can see clearly to help him remove that splinter.

The story we read from the Old Testament gives a beautiful example of how to help others through their problems without judging them.  In the story, Noah became drunk and fell asleep naked in his tent.  In that culture, nakedness was shameful.  Noah’s middle son, Ham, told his brothers about it and expected them to join in with him laughing at their father.  But Shem and Japheth took a blanket, walked backwards so they wouldn’t see their father’s nakedness, and placed the blanket over him.  The Writings tell us that this is a picture of how angels respond to the faults in others.  They do everything they can to put a good interpretation on anything evil they see in another.  They assume that the person’s motivations are good even though they might be doing something wrong.  That’s like Shem and Japheth walking backwards to avoid seeing their father’s nakedness.  But this does not mean that they do nothing to help him change – they still lay a blanket over him.  Just as Shem and Japeth covered their father with a blanket to amend his nakedness, angels try to help that person overcome his faults – even as they are looking for the good in a person and putting a good interpretation on what is bad.  The passage we read this morning from Arcana Coelestia puts it this way: “If they see anything evil and false [in a person], they excuse it, and if they can, try to amend it in him.”

This is what it means to remove the splinter from our brothers’ eyes: to give assistance, if they can accept it, in changing their lives.  What does it look like to remove the splinter from our brother’s eye?  It might look like gently encouraging a friend in a struggle she is having.  It might look like telling a loved one about something from the Word that helps him overcome a bad habit.  A passage from Arcana Coelestia says that in the Ancient Church, everyone taught his brother, and that this was one of their chief acts of charity – but if his brother did not acknowledge the teaching, he did not become indignant.  If we are continually reminding ourselves that only the Lord can change people’s lives, and that we have no power of our own, we can help our brothers and sisters overcome their struggles without a sense of condemnation and without trying to control them.  We judge an action, or an attitude, to be harmful, rather than judging a person.  We act out of a love for protecting another from harm, rather than a love to dominate or control.

Removing the plank from our own eye is not a one-time thing – and we don’t have to wait until we’re perfect to help other people.  But every time we want to help someone, we need to acknowledge our enormous tendency to put ourselves above others, and to realize that this evil (the love of self) is more harmful than whatever we are trying to help in the other.  We need to rid ourselves of the desire to control others, and instead replace it with a sincere desire to serve.  If we continue to cast out that beam, we are able to help others see the splinters in their eye and remove them – not from a place of condemnation, but from love.  The Lord said, “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”


Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister

Bitter Waters Made Sweet

Sermon: Bitter Waters Made Sweet

I preached this sermon on Sunday, July 11, 2010 at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.


A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn

“And they came to Marah, and they could not drink the waters for bitterness, because they were bitter; therefore he called the name of it Marah.” (Exodus 15:23)

This morning we read a story about the Children of Israel’s journeys in the wilderness.  It’s easy to read the story without really grasping what the experience was like for them – but if we put ourselves in their place, we might start to understand how this story comes into play in our own lives.  Picture what the experience would have been like for just one of the children of Israel.  Picture him in a desert.  He has just finished crossing a great sea that was parted before his people so that they could walk through on dry land.  And the Egyptians, who since he was born have beaten him, chained him up, and forced him into labour, were completely swallowed up by the sea.  Moses and his sister Miriam have just finished shouting out a song to Jehovah, his God, who has the power to do miracles unheard of by Egypt’s magicians.  He is going to a new land, a land where he will be free, a land flowing with milk and honey.

He looks around him – at the thousands of his fellow Israelites, at his tribe, at his friends, at his family.  And they begin, setting out over the desert for the promised land.  The sand is hot, and there is not any water, but he hardly notices it – he is free!  He walks along through the desert, he and all of the other sons of Israel.  At night, they rest, then they start again the next morning.  Again, he walks and walks through the desert.  The sun is beating down.  There’s not much vegetation.  He hasn’t had anything to drink since yesterday.  And still he walks along following an enormous pillar of cloud.  Night begins to fall, and the pillar of cloud turns into a pillar of fire, lighting the way.  Eventually, he stops with the others to set up camp.  His mouth is parched.  His stomach hurts from thirst.  His skin is dry and dusty.  It seems like another lifetime that he crossed that sea.  He doesn’t sleep very well.  And the next morning, he wakes up, and they start walking again.  The pillar continues on ahead.  He trudges and trudge and trudges through the desert.  It has been three days since he has had anything to drink.  He is close to fainting.  His muscles are cramping from lack of water.  He knows that he can’t go on like this for much longer; his body is going to collapse.

And then he sees it up ahead: water!  There is a surge of bodies as he and all his thousands of companions rush toward the water.  He reaches the water.  He leans down to take a drink.  He brings the water to his mouth – and immediately he spits it out.  It’s bitter.  It’s undrinkable.

The people around him start to discover the same thing.  All around him are people spitting out water.  The crowd starts to grumble.  He hears people shouting out to Moses, “What are we going to drink?”  He is almost ready to give up hope – it feels like he will never drink again.  And then he sees the people parting.  Moses is coming through carrying a large piece of wood, which he carries to the water, and throws it in.  A few people take a drink – and then drink, and drink some more!  He cautiously approaches the water.  He leans down, and he tastes it.  And it is sweet!  After three days with no water, he drinks and drinks until his thirst is gone.

The experience I just described is foreign to almost all of us.  Most of us will never go longer than a day or so without anything to drink, let alone three days without water in a wilderness.  But we can imagine the thirst, the longing for water, and the disappointment when we find out that the water is bitter.  And maybe you can already start to see what this story might mean in its internal sense.  The children of Israel had just crossed the Sea of Reeds (mistranslated as the Red Sea in many Bibles).  They were elated – they had escaped from Egypt, and the Egyptians would oppress them no more.  Think of the times in your life when you’ve felt that joy of a new beginning.  Times when you looked at your life, noticed that you were sinning against the Lord, and made a commitment to stop.  The first day of that commitment brings a feeling of joy and elation.  Finally, you’re going to be free – free from the desire to control other people, maybe, or free from lust, or free from the need to tell lies.  You have made a commitment to the Lord to change, and you have prayed for His help.  You know that you are on the way to the Promised Land.

And then daily life sets in.  Maybe for a week, two weeks, a month you see the progress you’re making.  You catch yourself a few times when you’re about to break one of the  commandments.  But as work starts to pile up, you dedicate less time to your spiritual commitment.  You start to fall into old patterns.  Maybe you stop reading the Word as often; you stop taking the time to work on your spiritual life.  You haven’t given up, but you don’t give much thought to these things anymore.  And you can feel it.  You know that something is missing, that the very thing that gave you such excitement only a little while earlier is gone.  You thirst.  And it might not even be on a conscious level – just a nagging, empty feeling that you’re missing something important.  You’re trudging through the wilderness, and you are becoming thirstier and thirstier.

And then you realize it: you’ve stopped focusing on the Lord.  You’ve stopped focusing on your commitment.  You’ve stopped taking the time to think about how to love the Lord, how to love the people around you.  Maybe you’ve stopped reading the Word.  Maybe you haven’t been going to church.  You realize what’s been missing. And so with hope you open up the Word to your favourite passage, you attend a doctrinal class, you go to church.  You recommit yourself to your goals.  You’re ready to get back on the right path. You see the cool waters right in front of you, and you take a deep drink.

And there’s nothing there.  The same words that in the past have inspired you fall flat.  You read the Word, but it’s not joyful; it’s a chore.  Your doctrinal class feels meaningless.  Church is boring.  The waters that looked so refreshing, so cooling, so life-giving, are bitter!  And this is a very real feeling, as real as the feeling that the children of Israel had when they discovered that the waters of Marah were bitter.  When you want nothing more than to feel the Lord’s presence, to taste the living waters of His truth, and you cannot do it – you feel hopeless.  You need these truths.  They are what tell you how to live!  Without them, you don’t even know how to love your neighbour!  In some cases, you may actually be brought to tears.  I’m a bad person.  I’ll never get this.  I might as well give up now – there’s no life in these words, and I’ll never find life in them.  We groan against Moses, who represents the Lord’s Word.  If we cannot have water from you, how will we survive?

We call out to the Lord in our anguish.  We say, “Lord, give me your truth!  I am dying!”  And the Lord hears us.  The Lord Jesus Christ hears us.  He knows that we need truth, and He knows that we feel like we’re dying.  And He wants nothing more than to give it to us.  When He was in the world, He Himself said, “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst to eternity, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a fountain of water springing up into eternal life.”

So Jehovah shows Moses a piece of wood, or a tree, and Moses knows that he needs to throw this wood into the water.  But why does Moses need to do this?  Jehovah is all powerful, and He could easily make the water sweet without using a piece of wood.  But by showing Moses the wood to throw into the water, the Lord shows us what is really missing from our lives.  “Wood” in the Word represents good.  And it is good that will make truth delightful again.  It is not truth that we are lacking – the water is right there.  But the goodness has gone out of it.

The truth that we found delightful before gave us delight because, whether we knew it or not, it held love within it.  Every single truth in our minds is connected to goodness in our heart – to love, to kindness, to compassion.  And when these connections to the good in our heart are cut off, the truths become stale and meaningless.  The truth that the Lord Jesus Christ is God becomes real and powerful only when we feel the joy of Him acting through us.  The truth that marriages last to eternity is only delightful if we can connect to the joy and blessedness of true conjugial love.  The truth of the Ten Commandments, for example “You shall not steal,” is delightful only when you can feel the heavenly joy of giving to others replacing the hellish pleasure of taking from them.  For truth to have life, it needs to exist not just in our heads, but in our hearts as well.

But how can we reconnect to these truths?  How do we re-join the truth in our mind to the good we used to feel in them? When the water is bitter, we can’t force ourselves to feel the love behind the truth.  That is the problem – even if we know in our minds that the good is there, it still means nothing to us, because we cannot feel it.  And so we ask the question: what does it mean to have Moses throw the wood into the bitter waters?

The wood that is thrown into the waters is the goodness that we feel in our hearts – a love for our neighbour, a love for the Lord.  It inspires us to learn truth and to use that truth.

But the wood is not just good in our hearts.  It is also goodness in our lives, in our actions.  Throwing the wood into the water means focusing our attention on how we can serve others, rather than on our own desire to be satisfied.  And so return in your mind to that place of desperation.  Remember how the children of Israel might have felt as they watched Moses throw the wood into the water.  It seems like such a simple thing – why should this make any difference in the waters?  Why would a piece of wood help out?  How can he be doing only this when we are dying of thirst?  How can the simple act of doing good make a difference in the way truth affects us?

But Moses does throw the wood in the water, and the people do drink.  How do we throw the wood in the water?  We make the effort to apply what we know to our lives even though it feels like a chore.  We again make that conscious effort to resist the evil tendencies we’ve seen in ourselves.  We act according to the Lord’s commandments, knowing that to break them is to sin against Him.

And maybe for a while, truth will still seem stale and tasteless and bitter to us.  But as we keep at it, the wood will start to work.  As we add good actions to our lives, we start to feel the good love in our hearts.  And gradually, perhaps with little hope of success, we’ll try again to taste the truth.  And a miracle does eventually occur – those truths that seemed empty come to life again.  The water that tasted bitter does become sweet.  The Lord lifts us up out of temptation, and He leads us to a new sight of truth, to new feelings of love.

Picture yourself now in the place of that Israelite, in the deserts of the Middle East, having just drunk from the now-sweet waters of Marah.  The pillar of cloud is on the move again, and with joy and confidence you follow after.  And within hours you come to an enormous oasis: not one spring of water, but twelve!  Not four or five palm trees, but seventy!  Your journey is not complete; you still have miles and years to go before you reach the holy land; but after we come through hardship, the Lord blesses us with truth and goodness in abundance.  Even though the truth may at times become bitter, we continue to follow it, and the love we feel returns.  Then we can see the truth of the Lord’s words to the Samaritan woman:

Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst to eternity, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a fountain of water springing up into eternal life.


Lessons: Exodus 15:22-27; John 4:1-14; AC 8349

AC 8349. ‘And they could not drink the waters for bitterness; for they were bitter’ means that truths seemed … to be unpleasant, as being devoid of an affection for good. … All the delight of truth comes forth from good.  The reason why an affection for truth has its origin in good is that good loves truth, and truth loves good; the two go together as though joined in marriage. It is well known that everyone wishes to learn more about the things he loves and has as his end in view. One who loves good, that is, wishes in his heart to worship God and benefit his neighbour, loves to learn more about ways to do so, and therefore to learn truths. From all this it becomes clear that every affection for truth arises out of good

…. A genuine affection for truth consists in wishing to know what the truth is for the sake of life in the world, and for the sake of eternal life. People with this desire enter temptation when the truths they possess begin to be lacking, and especially when the truths they know seem to be unpleasant. The origin of this temptation lies in the fact that the links with good have been broken. These links are broken the moment that a person moves in the direction of his proprium, for in so doing he slips into the evil of self-love or of love of the world. The moment he does so he begins to find truths unpleasant; but as soon as he emerges from that state the truths become pleasant. This is what is meant in the narrative that follows, describing how the bitter waters were cured by the wood that had been thrown into them; for good is meant by ‘wood’.

Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister

Spiritual Frontier – Emanuel Swedenborg

Bringing the Ark to Jerusalem

Sermon: Bringing the Ark to Jerusalem

I preached this sermon at the Carmel New Church in Kitchener, Ontario, on July 18, 2010.


A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn

This morning we read the story of David taking the ark to Jerusalem, and the sad story of Uzzah touching the ark.  But the story actually begins long before our reading takes place, before David was king, before his predecessor Saul was king, when Samuel had just become the leader over Israel – decades before the story in our reading took place.  In those days, the ark was captured by the Philistines, but it brought curses on them, and so they returned it to the people of Israel.  The people of Israel took it and brought it to the house of Abinidab on the hill.  There the ark stayed for decades.  Samuel grew old while the ark was there.  Saul was anointed king, and then after him, David was anointed king, and all the while, the ark was in the care of Abinadab and his household.

It stayed there for seven even after David had become king, while he was ruling Israel from the city of Hebron.  It was not until David finally conquered Jerusalem in the seventh year of his reign that he called for them to bring the ark to Mount Zion, the site of Jerusalem, which was then called the city of David.

This story is a literal history of the movement of the ark.  But like all the stories in the Word, it contains an internal sense that is about our spiritual lives.  The progression of the ark represents our spiritual progression – our progression from being merely natural, to being spiritual, to finally being celestial.  The ark represents the Lord’s presence with us along the entire journey, and especially His Divine Truth, or His Word, because the ark contained the Ten Commandments, which are the heart of the Word.

In our story, the ark began in the home of Abinidab in Baale-Judah, in Gibeah, where it had been for decades.  This represents the most external things of the church in a person.  This is where we all begin.  Here we view the Ten Commandments mostly as rules to be obeyed.  This is where we spend our childhood, growing up and learning about the Lord.  We act according to a sense of obedience rather than charity or love.

As we follow the teachings of the commandments on a natural level, we begin to move.  The ark leaves the house of Abinidab towards the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite.  We progress from mere obedience toward acting from love toward our neighbour – from the natural to the spiritual.  The home of Obed-Edom represents the spiritual with us, when we are acting from charity toward the neighbour.  And the final destination is Mount Zion, which represents celestial love – acting not only from obedience, not only from charity toward the neighbour, but from a deep and abiding love for the Lord.

In this summary, it sounds like a simple progression.  But it’s not always as simple as that.  The journey was far from straightforward, and it contained both joy and heartbreak.  When the ark first left the house of Abinadab, it was placed on a new cart drawn by oxen, and driven by the sons of Abinadab, Uzzah and Ahio.  From the outset of the journey, there was music and rejoicing.  We read, “Then David and all the house of Israel played music before Jehovah on all kinds of instruments of fir wood, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on sistrums, and on cymbals.”  The book Apocalypse Explained tells us that the playing on these instruments represents “the gladness and joy that result from the affection of truth and good from the Lord through the influx of Divine truth.”  They represent the gladness that comes along with enjoying the truth on a natural level and on a spiritual level.  From the very beginning of our journey, we experience satisfaction in learning truth from the letter of the Word, and as we progress, we experience the pleasure that comes from living by the Word and treating our neighbour with charity.  That is the music of the instruments that accompanies the ark.

When we start to follow the Word – when the ark starts to move – we usually notice that it just works for our lives.  Our interactions with other people start to become more pleasant.  Right from the beginning, there is pleasure and happiness associated with learning and doing the truth.  If there weren’t, it would be impossible to motivate ourselves to continue – the ark couldn’t move by itself.  The oxen that were pulling the ark represent natural good – that is, the pleasure and enjoyment that come from following the literal sense of the Word.  For example, if you decide to start being more honest – from the first day you start, there’s just a natural sense of peace from the fact that you don’t have to worry so much about thinking of lies.  Even though you’ve just started your journey, you already start to see some benefits.
At the beginning of the ark’s journey, everything went smoothly.  But after some time, something seemed to go wrong: the oxen that were drawing the ark stumbled.

Remember, the oxen represent that natural good.  At first, following the Word just seems to work, and it makes you happy.  But as time goes by, you might find that it’s not making you as happy as before.  Even though you were excited about reading the Word, and it gave you pleasure, now you’re starting to come across things that are hard to understand, or that are hard to accept.  It seems that the oxen are stumbling – something just seems wrong.

Recall what happens in the story.  At the threshing floor of Nachon, the oxen stumble, and the ark begins to slip.  Abinidab’s son Uzzah, who has been accompanying the ark, puts out his hand to touch it – and he is immediately struck down dead.  In the historical sense, this happened because Uzzah was breaking a commandment, that only a consecrated priest could touch the holy things.  But it’s also a picture of the way we can do ourselves harm by trying to “steady the ark” – trying to “fix” what the Word says if it doesn’t seem to match up with what we’d like it to say.

Think about Uzzah’s life.  He was the son of Abinadab, in whose house the ark had been stored for so many years.  He had grown up with the ark in his house.  And he and his brother were charged with taking care of it as it made its way from their home to its new home in Jerusalem.  He probably felt a special sense of closeness with it.  And all of this so far is good.  Uzzah, for the most part, seems to represent something good in us.  David wept for him when he died.  And Arcana Coelestia says that he represents, “the truth that ministers to good.”  He seems to represent our understanding of truth.  He represents something good – but he makes one mistake – he touched the ark and tried to steady it.  If we put ourselves in his place, it’s easy to understand why he would do so.  If the ark fell, he might have been embarrassed.  He was used to having it around – although he knew it was holy, it was also a familiar thing.  It seemed perfectly natural to try to steady it, to keep it from falling.

But in doing so, he put his faith in his own abilities, rather than trusting that the Lord’s Word could take care of itself.  And we can find ourselves in a very similar position.  We have the Lord’s Word with us always.  We know that it is holy and true.  And yet there are times when we “put out our hand to steady it” – and in doing so we put our faith in ourselves, rather than in the Word.

Remember, when the oxen stumble, it is a time when the Word suddenly seems to stop being so enjoyable, or it seems to have something wrong – it’s about to fall over.  Maybe it makes a statement about the difference between men and women that makes us cringe a little.  Maybe it says something about love-of-self that seems to contradict what psychology says.  And in cases like that, we might be tempted to put out our hands to steady it.  We might say, “Oh, it doesn’t really mean that.”  We’re a little embarrassed for it – we don’t want other people to know what it says, and we’re quick to explain it away.  And we can explain away things that don’t seem to be working in our lives.  We’ve decided to stop lying, for instance, and we’re finding that telling the truth, while rewarding at first, is just getting us into trouble.  We might tell ourselves, “Well, there must be some exceptions – the Word can’t really mean we’re supposed to be honest all the time.”

This tendency comes from a fundamental error.  When we live with the Word for a long time – and especially for us in the New Church, when we are familiar with a revelation that is unknown to most people – we can start to feel like it belongs to us.  If there is something a little off-putting about it, we feel embarrassed about it, because we feel like we’re somehow responsible for it – that it is a reflection of us, rather than the other way around.  This may have been a little how Uzzah felt – remember, the ark had been in his family’s possession for years and years and years.  The Writings tell us that Uzzah reaching out with his hand represents trying to approach the Word from our own power, what is our own, from our proprium – which is closely related to a sense of ownership.

We usually talk about a sense of ownership as a positive thing when it comes to religion.  And it’s true that we have to have a sense that our religion is our own rather than someone else’s.  But we belong to the Lord – the Lord does not belong to us.  We have discovered the Writings, and they have touched us, and they speak to us – but they do not belong to us, any more than the ark belonged to Uzzah.  And we cannot “steady” them – we cannot try to “fix” what they say – without doing ourselves serious harm.  The end of the book of Revelation forbids anyone to add or take away anything from the words of that book – it is specifically talking about the book of Revelation, but the truth applies to the entire Word.

We cannot change the Word to make it more palatable.  But this does not mean that Uzzah does not have his place.  We need to have an understanding of truth to carry the ark, to lead us in following the Lord.  And sometimes this understanding of truth does involve resolving seeming contradictions in the Word.  Some people have accused the Writings of doing precisely what is forbidden in the story of Uzzah and at the end of Revelation, of denying the hard truths in the literal sense of the Word.  For example, the Writings say that the Lord is never angry – despite clear statements to the contrary in the Old Testament.  Are the Writings just trying to “steady the ark,” to make an unpleasant truth more palatable?  Now, the Writings are a new revelation, so their interpretation of the Old and New Testaments is not really the same as a person doing it on his own.  They are not a human hand but a Divine hand touching the ark.

But the Writings indicate that even without a new revelation, the Christian church could have known that God was never angry.  How would coming to this conclusion be different from reaching out to touch the ark?  The big difference is that the conclusion that God is never angry is itself drawn from the Word, rather than from a person’s own intelligence, or from a desire to “fit in” with the cultural mores.  A person needs to use their understanding and enlightenment to see the governing truths in the Word, and to see other statements as appearances of truth.  So, for example, the truth is clearly expressed in the Old and New Testament that the Lord loves the world; that the Lord does not desire the death of anyone; and in short, that God is love.  A person can use reason to say, “Anger as I know it contains hatred within it; and so when it says God is angry, it must mean a different kind of anger from human anger – a kind of anger that is completely free from a desire to hurt anyone.”   This kind of thinking is permitted, because it is from the Word, and not from one’s own power.

But it’s easier, when we come across a difficult teaching in the Word, to start from the assumption that it’s wrong, and try to make it fit what we already believe – rather than allowing it to change what we believe.  When we start to do that – to guide ourselves from our own intelligence, rather than from the Word – we seriously harm something inside of ourselves.  Uzzah represents our understanding of truth.  And as soon as we believe that we are able to know truth of ourselves without the Word, we die.  When Adam and Eve were in the garden of Eden, the Lord forbade them to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – and told them that if they ate of it, they would die.  Why would He forbid them from eating of a tree of knowledge?  Isn’t knowledge good?  The reason is that tree did not really represent knowledge – it represented the attitude that a person has knowledge and wisdom from himself, that he can figure things out on his own, without needing the Word. And it’s this kind of attitude that leads to death.  And it’s this kind of attitude that leads us to try to “steady the ark” – to say to ourselves, however subtly, “Well, the Word doesn’t really know what it’s talking about here – it’s not going to work to do it that way, so I’ll do it my own way.”  If we follow that path, we put ourselves above the Word.

It’s easy to do.  And that’s scary.  How do we know when we’re “correcting the Word” from our own intelligence versus re-examining it from the Lord?  There’s not an easy solution.  It involves a lot of prayer, a lot of self-examination and reflection, and above all honesty with oneself.

David was frightened by the power of the ark after it killed Uzzah, and he stopped its journey.  When we are reminded what is at stake in religion – that it is eternal life or an eternity in hell – religion can be so frightening that we stop in our tracks.  It seems too big for us.  It can make us afraid to even go to the Word – it’s too painful, or it would be too painful, to honestly look at all the ways we ignore what it says.  It is no wonder that David no longer wanted the ark to come to him.

But while the ark is with Obed-Edom, it does not curse him.  It blesses him!  And this encourages David.  In the same way, we can call to mind that the Word is NOT there to condemn us.  The Lord said He did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world from its sins.  And so we can continue on our spiritual journey.  It takes a lot of courage – when we believe all the things the Word says about heaven and hell, about the possibility of backsliding – it can be scary.  But when we remember that it is there to give us life, and give it to us more abundantly, we can set out again.  We can rededicate ourselves to our mission, and continue to try bring the Word into our lives.  David went before the ark dancing and shouting.  The Word can give us greater joy than anything else in the world.  We may still carry fear, but our fear is transformed into a holy fear – not a fear that we will be condemned, but a fear of doing any harm to the things that are of the Lord.  We can follow the ark, and let it lead us, and trust that it will bring us further and further into heaven – that is, further and further into charity toward our neighbour and love toward the Lord. “So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of Jehovah with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet.”


Lessons: 2 Samuel 6:1-15; Revelation 22:12-19; Arcana Coelestia 8944

AC 8944. It is believed in the world that a person is able to know from the light of nature, thus without revelation, many things that belong to religion; as that there is a God, that He is to be worshipped, and also that He is to be loved, likewise that a person will live after death, and many other things that depend upon these; and yet these things being such as are from self-intelligence. But I have been instructed by much experience that of himself, and without revelation, a person knows nothing whatever about Divine things, and about the things that belong to heavenly and spiritual life. For a person is born into the evils of the love of self and of the world, which are of such a nature that they shut out the influx from the heavens, and open influx from the hells; thus such as make a person blind, and incline him to deny that there is a Divine, that there is a heaven and a hell, and that there is a life after death. This is very manifest from the learned in the world, who by means of knowledges have carried the light of their nature above the light of others; for it is known that these deny the Divine, and acknowledge nature in place of the Divine, more than others; and also that when they speak from the heart, and not from doctrine, they deny the life after death, likewise heaven and hell, consequently all things of faith, which they call bonds for the common people. From this it is plain what is the quality of the light of nature without revelation. It has also been shown that many who have written upon natural theology, and from the light of their nature have skillfully confirmed those things which belonged to the doctrine of their church, in the other life at heart deny these same things more than others do; and also deny the Word itself, which they attempt utterly to destroy; for in the other life hearts speak. It has also been shown that the same can receive nothing of influx out of heaven, but only from the hells. Hence it was plain what is the quality of the light of nature without revelation; consequently what is the quality of that which comes from a person’s own intelligence.

Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister

Dwelling with the Lord

Sermon: Dwelling with the Lord

I delivered this sermon on August 15, 2010, at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.


A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn

15 August 2010

Olivet New Church, Toronto

Sometimes the Word is hard to read.  In the books of Moses, we find histories that might seem irrelevant to our modern times.  In the prophets, we see predictions of events that never seem to have come to pass.  In Revelation, we are confronted with cryptic imagery that defies comprehension.   In these cases, finding meaning in the Word takes work.  But there are other places in the Word that are different.  There are places in the Word where we see plain truth, plain and simple statements of who the Lord is and how He can draw us into heaven.  The psalm we read earlier – and that you can read in your handout – is one of these places.  In simple terms, the psalm lays out a path to the Lord’s tabernacle, to the mountain of Jehovah, to a life of heaven.  Let me read the psalm again, and notice how much simple, literal truth we find here.

1. O Jehovah, who will sojourn in Your tabernacle? Who will dwell on the mountain of Your holiness?

2. He who walks in wholeness, and does righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart.

3. Who does not slander with his tongue, and does not do evil to his companion, and does not bear reproach for his neighbor.

4. The rejected is despised in his eyes, and those who fear Jehovah he honors. He swears to afflict himself and does not change.

5. His silver he does not give at interest, and he takes no gift against the innocent. He who does these things will not be moved to eternity.

Who will live with the Lord?  Those who do good things to their neighbor and who do not do evil things to their neighbor.  It’s simple.  It’s powerful.  It’s true.

But there’s more to this psalm than first meets the eye.  This psalm, in fact, lays out a path for us.  It is a path that can take us to heaven; and not only heaven as a place that we will go after we die, but heaven as a state in our lives.  This psalm lays out the path to true peace in our lives.

The psalm begins by describing our intended destination: the tabernacle of Jehovah, and the mountain of His holiness.  The psalmist asks, “Who will sojourn in Your tabernacle?”  Picture the Children of Israel in the wilderness journeying from place to place, setting up their tents, and in the middle of them all is Jehovah’s tent, the tabernacle.  We are asking how to live in that tabernacle, to walk with the Lord.  The tabernacle represents the Lord’s goodness and love; and we are asking how to walk with the Lord, how to bring his love into the actions of our lives.  “Who will sojourn in Your tabernacle?”  But we are not only looking to sojourn in the tabernacle; the psalmist asks, “Who will dwell on the mountain of Your holiness?”  Now picture Mount Zion, the seat of Jerusalem, the site of Jehovah’s temple.  Picture this rock, this foundation of worship for all the land of Israel.  This rock, this foundation, is the Lord’s truth, His wisdom; and with this question, we’re asking to dwell in wisdom from the Lord; to have our minds and thoughts ordered by the Lord from love.  And so with our destination firmly in mind, we set out on our journey in answer to these questions.

In verse two, the psalmist begins to describe the person who can reach this destination.  If we think of the psalm as a story, this hypothetical person is our hero.  Also in this verse, the general roadmap is laid out for our responsibilities.  What do we have to do to dwell with the Lord?  We have to walk in wholeness.  This word is also translated as “perfection” or “integrity.”  What does this mean?  We have to walk in a harmony of good and truth.  We have to live by what we know; we have to learn how to express our love.  Goodness needs truth, and truth needs goodness.  We have to do righteousness – that is, act out love for other people – and we have to speak truth in our hearts – that is, to learn what is true and live by it so that we can better express that love.  So far, this is still a pretty general picture.  We know where we want to go, and we have a general idea of how to get there.  But how do we live in love?  How do we put truth into our lives?

Now we come to verse three.  We have a destination in mind, we have a roadmap; the rest of the psalm gives us the details of walking in the path.  So what do we do to set out on our journey to the Lord’s kingdom?  Three things: we must not “slander with our tongues,” we must not “do evil to our companions,” and we must not “bear a reproach for our neighbor.”  The first thing we have to avoid is slander.  Think about this literally.  The Writings for our church tell us that there are many literal truths in the Old and New Testaments.  This is one of them.  This is a powerful tool, and next time you are thinking about talking about someone behind his back, think of this passage.  But this extends to beyond just literally badmouthing someone.  What are the states of mind that lead to this?  If we’re talking badly about someone, chances are we have some idea of them as being bad, or evil, or stupid.  We construct an image of them in our head, and we want to spread it.  We think we know who they are at heart.  And we think that it is somehow okay to talk about this person, that this person isn’t in the image of God.  And this is a falsity.  We often think about falsity in abstract terms, as theological misconceptions.  And this is a part of falsity.  But the more pernicious falsities are the falsities that disguise themselves as truths.  Slandering with our tongues is the same thing as bearing false witness; because even if the facts of our slander are true, we present them in such a way that we hope to distort the image of our victim.  And so this description of the heaven-bound person as not slandering means that he rejects falsity anywhere it shows up in his life.

The next statement in this verse is, “He does not do evil to his companion.”  Again, this is a plain, literal truth.  The word “evil” can also mean “harm” in Hebrew; so, in another translation, this could be rendered, “He does not hurt his companion.”  Think about all the ways that you can hurt someone.  You can subtly try to hurt them with your words.  You can steal something from them.  You can murder them.  The range of hurting is enormous, but the point is this: any desire to hurt is a desire to do evil.  So this statement means that we have to avoid doing evil.  We now have two counter-examples to the good man of verse two: instead of loving what is good, and loving what is true because it helps him be good, the bad person loves falsity and loves to do evil, to hurt the people around him.  These two negative qualities are summed up in the final line of the third verse: “he does not bear a reproach against his neighbor.”  A reproach is similar to slander; but in this case, it is said that he does not “bear it”, that is, lift it up or carry it.  A person who is carrying or lifting up a reproach isn’t simply harboring false ideas; he is living them.  And he is now carrying it for his neighbor.  A “neighbor” in the Word means love and goodness, whereas a “companion” mean truth.  So now this person is not only attacking truth, he is attacking also goodness and love, both in himself and others.  These are the things we must reject if we are to dwell in the tabernacle and on the mountain.

It is good to reject these evil things against the neighbor; but there is more to the psalm.  So far it has been about loving our neighbor.  But the two Great Commandments teach us that we are to love our neighbor and to love God.  So this verse tells us the final component for living a heavenly life: we have to reject these things not just for the sake of rejecting them, but because they are sins against the Lord.  Verse four begins “The rejected is despised in his eyes.”  This is often translated as “a vile person” or “a reprobate”; but in Hebrew, the word simply means something or someone that has been rejected.  The implication is that he despises the things that God has rejected.  And so in our own lives, we need to reject evil not just because it is harmful to society, not just because it makes us unhappy, but because it is a sin against the Lord.  What does this mean?  It means that it hurts the Lord when we sin.  Why is this?  Because the Lord is Love itself.  He is the most loving person you can imagine, only infinitely more loving.  And He wants nothing more than to make people happy.  When you break one of His commandments, you do two things: first, you make it so He cannot act through you to make another person happy.  In fact, you’ve twisted His life, which he gives you, to make it hurt someone else, which is the last thing He wants.  And second, in doing so, you’ve made it harder for Him to bring you into eternal happiness, which is what He wants.  This is why it is so important that we reject evil as a sin against God; because unless we acknowledge that sinning is never okay, we will allow ourselves to be turned away from His love, and this is contrary to everything He desires.  This is why we must despise the things that He rejects.

But this message is not all negative.  Not only does our hero despise what Jehovah rejects; he also honors those who fear Jehovah.  Again, start from the literal sense.  What does it mean to honor someone who fears the Lord?  We know from the Writings for our church that fearing the Lord in the truest sense is fearing to harm Him, to sin against Him.  We are to honor those who act from love to the Lord, who serve their neighbor in humility.  But what is it that we are really honoring?  We are honoring that person’s love, that person’s kindness, that person gentleness.  And all of these things are from the Lord.  To honor one who fears the Lord in fact means to honor the Lord Himself, since He is the source of all things good and true.  In this verse, we see the marriage of love to the Lord and love to the neighbor: we love the goodness in our neighbor, and that is the Lord’s.

We might expect the psalm to end here.  Our hero has done good, has loved truth, has shunned evil and falsity, and has turned to the Lord.  But instead of a conclusion, we have the puzzling next line: “He swears to afflict himself, and does not change.”  What could this mean?  It is even more puzzling in the Hebrew: it literally means “he swears to afflict” or “he swears to do evil, and does not change.”  Many translators take it to mean that he swears to do something and does not change even if it hurts him.  Other translators, however, take it to mean he swears to afflict himself, and this is how the Writings translate it.  However it is translated, it is clear that there is some kind of affliction going on here.  The Writings say that to afflict oneself does not mean that we should “plunge ourselves into poverty and wretchedness” (AC 1947).  It means that we have to fight against the evils and falsities that rise up in us.  And this is what is described here: a battle.  When a person tries to shun evils because they are sins and to love Lord and to love other people, this attempt is attacked by hell.  We need to be aware of this and ready for it.  Anytime you see an evil that you’ve been committing and resolve to stop because it is a sin, your resolve will be tested.  Evil spirits have a way of latching onto us, and they don’t like it when we try to get rid of them.  We need to pray to the Lord and fight against them.  It will feel like we’re fighting with our own power.  That is right and good; but we should know that in reality all the power we have, and all the fighting, really comes from the Lord.  The Lord will help us to conquer in these temptations; he will give us strength so that we “do not change”, that is, do not give in to these temptations.

And so we reach the final verse.  We are almost there.  And yet there is one thing that remains.  Our hero must do one more thing: he must not give silver at interest, and he must not take a gift, or a bribe, against the innocent.  Today, there is no law against giving our money out at interest; and in fact, interest is a vital part of our economy.  What’s important here is the idea and motivation, not the act of collecting interest.  We give out money at interest because we hope to get something back for it.  In the natural world, there is nothing wrong with this; but we cannot do this in our spiritual lives.  Our hero has conquered in temptation.  He has done good and loved the Lord.  But it means nothing if he asks for a reward for it.  If we’re doing good and teaching other people truth so that they will honor us, then the Lord cannot be connected with us.  The good is not really good.  We cannot take credit for the good we do, because it is from the Lord.  If we take credit for our good, all the progress we have made collapses.  We put ourselves above others and look down on them.  We stop serving our neighbor and believe that our neighbor should serve us.  And we “take a gift against the innocent” – that is, we allow our desire for honor, for praise, for repayment to destroy the innocence in us.  True innocence is acknowledging that all good is from the Lord; that He works through us, and that the ability to love others is a reward in itself.  After we’ve made spiritual progress, we need to thank the Lord, not demand a reward from Him or from other people.

Now the Lord does not expect us to overcome our desire for reward in a moment.  He works with it, and uses it as an intermediate good.  But we still must have the goal and intention of acting apart from that desire.

And so our hero has done all these things.  He has looked for the good and the true.  He has rejected evil and falsity.  He has rejected these as sins against the Lord, and He has turned to the Lord with love.  He has conquered in temptations, and he has humbly acknowledged that he does not deserve payment for it, and so he continues in love towards others and the Lord.  In the final line, he has reached the tabernacle of the Lord and His holy mountain.  He lives in love and in wisdom, and if he continues in these things, “he will not be moved” – he will be kept in these things to eternity.  I will read the psalm one more time.  Picture the things described in the literal sense.  Remember how they are raised up to mean something more.  Keep it with you as you leave the church today, and bring it to mind when you are tempted to slander, when you feel a desire for reward, when you are in doubt about the hope for eternal life.

1. O Jehovah, who will sojourn in Your tabernacle? Who will dwell on the mountain of Your holiness?

2. He who walks in wholeness, and does righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart.

3. Who does not slander with his tongue, and does not do evil to his companion, and does not bear reproach for his neighbor.

4. The rejected is despised in his eyes, and those who fear Jehovah he honors. He swears to afflict himself and does not change.

5. His silver he does not give at interest, and he takes no gift against the innocent. He who does these things will not be moved to eternity.


Lessons: Psalm 15; Mark 10:17-22; SS 55

SS 55. The doctrine of genuine truth can also be drawn in full from the sense of the letter of the Word, because in this sense the Word is like a man clothed whose face and hands are bare. All things that concern man’s life, and consequently his salvation, are bare; but the rest are clothed. In many places also where they are clothed they shine through their clothing, like a face through a thin veil of silk. The truths of the Word also appear and shine through their clothing more and more clearly in proportion as they are multiplied by a love for them, and are ranged in order by this love.

Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister

The Desolate Land Yields Fruit

Sermon: The Desolate Land Yields Fruit

This sermon was preached in Dawson Creek, BC, and Grande Prairie, Alberta, on Sunday September 26.


A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn

“Thus says the Lord Jehovih to the mountains, and to the hills, to the rivers, and to the valleys, to the desolate wastes, and to the cities that are forsaken, which became a prey and derision to the residue of the heathen that are round about.” Ezekiel 36:4

Imagine Ezekiel calling out to a desolate land.  The kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah have both been taken away into captivity, and the land of Canaan has been overrun by Israel’s enemies.  “Thus says the Lord Jehovih …. to the desolate wastes, and the cities that are forsaken.”  The prophet is told to say these words not to the people of Israel, and not even to the people inhabiting the land: he is told to speak these words to the land itself.

A desolate land, overrun by enemies, the cities destroyed, no life in the hills or the mountains.  We all know this land, because there are times when we see this desolate land in ourselves.  We look inward, and see nothing but bare mountains, deserts, “desolate wastes.”  We feel alone – that we are distant from the people we love, even that our love for others has left us.  And in those times, we can hear the voice of the Lord calling out to us from a distance.  We can hear a small voice saying, “But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to my people Israel.”

This is the message of the sermon: the Lord promises the desolate land that it will bear fruit, and that its people will return.

We can see that there is hope in desolation.  But why is the land made desolate in the first place?  What’s the use of this desolation?   The book Arcana Coelestia says, “The Divine Providence differs from all other leading and guidance in the fact that Providence continually regards what is eternal, and continually leads unto salvation, and this through various states, sometimes glad, sometimes sorrowful, which the man cannot possibly comprehend; but still they are all profitable to his eternal life” (n. 8560).

Every state that we go through, whether happy or sad, is leading to a good end.  Does this mean the Lord wants us to feel desolate, like an empty land?  No – it is hellish spirits who lead people into temptation and desolation.  But the Lord allows these things for the sake of a good end.  Think of the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt.  They acted from evil.  When the children of Israel were carried away into captivity and the land was made desolate, the conquerors were evil.  But when Joseph is reunited with his brothers, he does not avenge himself on them.  He says, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.”  The evil spirits who desolate us are trying to destroy us; but the Lord uses these desolate times as an opportunity to prepare us for renewal.

The book Arcana Coelestia specifically addresses this prophecy by Ezekiel.  In number 5376, it says, “The subject treated of here is the desolation that comes before regeneration, the desolation being signified by the ‘desolate wastes,’ and the ‘cities that are forsaken, which became a prey and derision.’”  There is a desolation that comes before regeneration – a death that comes before rebirth.  We see this cycle in the natural world – in the autumn, leaves begin to fall, and in the winter the land can be desolate – but every spring, new life arises out of the decay and death.  The miracle of the redeemed land is a miracle that happens constantly around us, in plain sight.  “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

But in the winter time, spring is nothing but a fantasy, the far off voice of a prophet in exile.  In desolate times, renewal seems impossible.  What is the use of winter?  What is the use of desolation?  We can see from experience one of the uses: without winter, how much less would we appreciate the miracle of spring?  Without times of emptiness, how would we appreciate fullness?  We go through states of day and night – days when we feel the Lord’s presence, and nights when the Lord seems distant.  Even in heaven these cycles take place, as described in the book Arcana Coelestia:

The heavenly state is such that spirits and angels pass through morning, midday, and evening, also twilight and morning again, and so on. …All in heaven undergo and pass through these alternating states; without them they cannot be led to ever greater perfection. For those alternating states establish contrasts for them, and from those contrasts they gain more perfect perception, for from those contrasts they know what does not constitute happiness since they know from them what is not good and what is not true. (AC n. 5962)

Angels can see what is good and true from comparing it to a lack of what is good and true.

Other passages in the Writings say that the cycles in the lives of angels are relatively mild, that their darkness is not very dark.  But the desolation in Ezekiel goes beyond this.  It is utter desolation; this is conquest by foreign armies, cities destroyed, hills and mountains barren.  The desolation that comes before regeneration is far from mild – it is utter and complete.

This is a particular kind of desolation.  As mentioned before, this is the desolation that immediately comes before regeneration.  Right before a person begins his path of rebirth, he comes into a state of darkness and desolation.  The creation story begins in darkness and chaos, and after each day, it is said that “the evening and the morning” were the first, or second, or third day.  First there is darkness, first there is evening, first there is desolation, before there is light, before there is morning, before there is re-birth.

This specific desolation that comes before regeneration is pictured in many other places in the Word.  In a story from the book of Genesis, Abraham casts out Sarah’s maidservant Hagar because Hagar’s son Ishmael has been mocking Sarah’s son Isaac.  Hagar wanders in the wilderness with her son Ishmael, and they run out of water.  They are near death, and in despair, Hagar puts her son Ishmael under a bush so she does not have to see him die, then lifts up her voice and weeps.  It is a picture of desolation and despair.  But just at that point, when all hope seems lost, an angel of the Lord speaks to Hagar and tells her not to fear, that there is water nearby – just as the voice of Ezekiel called to the land that it should not despair, that it would return to life.  The passage we read from the Writings earlier describes the inner meaning of Hagar’s despair and hope: that it is despair because of a lack of truth, followed by hope at a promise that truth will be restored

Why is truth taken away or brought into doubt, though?  Why was Hagar almost allowed to die?  Why is the land made desolate?  The general reason we already mentioned – so that from experiencing anxiety and grief, we can perceive the opposite, the blessings that the Lord gives us.  But in a more specific sense, why does “desolation come before regeneration”?  Why are we brought into a state of ignorance after we’ve learned truth but before we start to make them part of our lives? We read in our reading this morning that the primary reason for this particular desolation is that what is “persuasive” with a person can be broken, so that he or she can see what is true.

What is this “persuasiveness”?  It is a tendency to believe that we already know everything we need to know, a reluctance to change our minds or be challenged, the desire to always stick to the way we’ve always seen things.  Further in the passage from Arcana Coelestia about Hagar, we are given the example of someone who feels like that they have power and intelligence from themselves, not from the Lord.  They can be intellectually convinced that the Lord is really in charge, but they don’t believe it in their hearts until they are able to experience their own helplessness for themselves.  In their hearts, they still are persuaded that they do not need the Lord’s help.  The passage says,

But when anxiety and grief are induced upon them by the fact of their own helplessness, and this even to despair, their persuasive is broken, and their state is changed; and then they can be led into the belief that they can do nothing of themselves, but that all power, prudence, intelligence, and wisdom are from the Lord. … (AC 2694)

Why is the land allowed to become desolate?  So that we can experience the truth of the Lord’s saving power, to break us out of our own comfortable self-assurance that we can take care of everything.  We might “know” a lot of teachings from the Word but not really understand or believe them on a deep level.  When we come into states of desolation, we realize that we don’t actually understand those truths.  We feel like they’re being taken from us.  We experience a devastating feeling that we don’t know anything at all, that despite our years of being taught we haven’t really learned anything.

Have you ever experienced this?  You realize that you don’t understand something you’ve always known is true?  Maybe it’s the truth that all good and truth come from the Lord; maybe it’s the truth that the Lord Jesus Christ is God; maybe it’s the meaning of one of the Ten Commandments, for example, what it really means to “not covet”.  We can know the words that express a truth but realize we don’t understand actually understand the truth itself at all.  We can despair over the realization that a truth has apparently been taken from us.  But then it can come back, and when it comes back, it’s a deep truth – a truth that you feel, that you live, that you may no longer even be able to express in words.

When we first learn what is true, it enters our head, and doesn’t get much further.  We might take pride in our knowledge, we might love that others think well of us.  But in time we find this kind of truth leaves us desolate.  The land comes under attack from enemies, and we do not know how to defend ourselves, because the true things we know are only intellectual, and they’re tied up with pride and selfishness.  In our path of regeneration, we will all experience this if we have not already: a feeling that we are lost, that the things we once knew and took comfort in, the love we felt for others, even the most basic spiritual truths – that there is God, that He loves us – even these feel like they have been taken from us.  The land is made desolate.

We cannot force an end to these states.  The passages we read tell us that we will go through them, if not in this world, then in the next world.  There is not a simple solution, an easy way to avoid those long nights of doubt and despair.  But we can take some comfort in knowing that this is still part of the Lord’s plan, that he is allowing us to go through this for the sake of salvation.  It is OK for us to be experiencing this.  The Lord is allowing it to happen so that afterwards we can come into a much deeper understanding, a much fuller sense of His presence.  In those states of darkness, we can try to hear the Lord’s voice, try to obey Him even though we have lost sight of Him.  Like Hagar, we can cry out to Him.  We can call to mind the truth that all states lead to a good end.  But still, we may come almost to the point of total despair.  But eventually a voice will call to us.  The prophet Ezekiel sings out to the land –

But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to My people of Israel; for they are at hand to come.  For, behold, I [am] for you, and I will turn unto you, and you shall be tilled and sown: And I will multiply men upon you, all the house of Israel, [even] all of it: and the cities shall be inhabited, and the wastes shall be builded: And I will multiply upon you man and beast; and they shall increase and bring fruit: and I will settle you after your old estates, and will do better [unto you] than at your beginnings: and you shall know that I [am] Jehovah.


Lessons: Ezekiel 36:1-15: Mark 4:35-41; AC 2694

AC 2694. 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; 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 brought about 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

Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister

The Good Soldier

Sermon: The Good Soldier

This talk was given for Remembrance Day on Thursday, November 11, 2010, at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.


Remembrance Day Address by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

At 11:00 this morning, we will pause and join the rest of the country in 2 minutes of silence.  In those 2 minutes we honour and remember those brave men and women who offered their lives in service to their country.  We honour the courage they showed in their willingness to lay down their lives for their friends.

Remembrance Day is held on the 11th of November, the anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the first World War.  In that war, over a hundred thousand Canadians crossed the Atlantic to fight on foreign soil, to defend their allies’ homelands.  In battles like Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, they proved themselves to be valiant and courageous soldiers, winning victory at the cost of many lives.

On Remembrance Day, we remember those who fought in that war – and those who fought in the wars that followed.  Since that war, Candians have fought and died in the Second World War, the Korean War, the Afghan War, and on peacekeeping missions around the world.  Today, over 2,000 Canadians are stationed on active duty in Afghanistan, and there are thousands more in the Canadian forces who, by joining the military, have declared that they are willing to sacrifice their lives in defence of their homeland.

Today we honour these men and women for the love they have shown to their country.  A passage from the Writings for the New Church says that it is good and right that we should honour those who are willing to lay down their lives in defence of their homeland, out of love for their country.  That passage says, “A person’s country should be loved, not as one loves himself, but more than himself.  This is a law inscribed on the human heart; from which has come the well-known principle, which every true man endorses, that if the country is threatened with ruin from an enemy or any other source, it is noble to die for it, and glorious for a soldier to shed his blood for it. This is said because so great should be one’s love for it. It should be known that those who love their country and render good service to it from good will, after death love the Lord’s kingdom, for then that is their country; and those who love the Lord’s kingdom love the Lord Himself, because the Lord is the all in all things of His kingdom” (TCR 414).

This morning we read another passage, from the book Doctrine of Charity.  That passage talked about charity in the commander of an army.  That book goes on to describe charity in a military officer, and charity in a common soldier.  All of these people, it is said, act from charity when they willingly go to war for the sake of defense.  Those who are in charity fight not from a desire to attack others or for their own glory, but from a desire to protect their country, to protect what is good and innocent.  And just as good soldiers do not invade or attack – except if that is part of their defense – so the angels never attack evil spirits, but defend us against their attacks.  When evil spirits attack us with thoughts and feelings of evil, the angels are there to offer us hope, to offer us love and wisdom for our protection.  They do this from the Lord, and the Lord does the same – He always acts from a desire to defend and protect, never a desire to attack or to harm.

This love from the Lord – the desire to protect others – is the love that inspires a good solder.  The book Conjugial Love tells us that there are two universal spheres, or atmospheres, that flow out from the Lord throughout heaven and throughout the entire universe.  These two spheres are a love of procreation, and a love of protecting that which has been procreated – that is, a love of protecting the things that have been born into the world.  The love of protecting one’s country comes from this love of protecting the things that the Lord has created, and especially protecting His children from attackers.  It is a love that the Lord has within Himself, and He is the source of that love.

When the Lord was in the world, he fought from that love – a love of saving the human race from their enemies.  The Lord was a good solider, a warrior.  In the book of Revelation, He is described as having a sword coming out of His mouth; and in the prophets He is described as a great warrior and liberator for the land of Israel.  The battles he fought in this world were not against enemy soldiers, but against the power of hell itself.  And in all those battles he fought from a love for other people, not for himself.  The book Arcana Coelestia says, “In all His combats of temptations the Lord never fought from the love of self, or for Himself, but for all in the universe, consequently, not that He might become the greatest in heaven, for this is contrary to the Divine Love, and scarcely even that He might be the least; but only that all others might become something, and be saved” (AC 1812).  He laid down His life, not for his own sake, but for the sake of all people, including us today.  The Lord said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  He was talking there especially about His own life – he was about to lay it down for his friends, that is, for all the people who are willing to accept His love.

These words – that the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends – refer especially to His own sacrifice – but they also hold true for ANYONE who is willing to lay down their lives for their friends.  That love that he fought from – a love for the human race – is a love that a good soldier shares.  It is a love that inspires him to deeds of great sacrifice.  It is a love that carries him through long nights and terrible warfare.  And it is the Lord’s love, although he feels it as his own.  When a soldier feels that passionate love to stand up for what is right, to defend the people he loves, he is feeling the Lord’s presence within his heart.

That love inspires soldiers to fight for their country – but it’s a love that is in each one of us, too, whether or not we ever fight in a war.  The Lord encourages each one of us to be a warrior.  There are times in our lives when we need to sacrifice our own comfort for the sake of something greater – times when we have to sacrifice our own desires, our own self-satisfaction, to protect something important.  It could mean speaking out against something wrong, even if we know it will cost us our jobs.  It could mean standing strong for the truth, even if we know it will lose us friends.  And sometimes to does literally mean going to war in defense of our own country, putting our own lives on the line for the sake of others.

The good soldier does not go to war because he loves war, but because he desires peace.  War itself is never the Lord’s will.  In war, hellish things happen.  But the Lord permits war for the sake of avoiding even greater evil; he permits it so that people are able to see the real and disastrous effects of holding hatred for others, or cherishing an inordinate lust for power.  The goal of every good soldier is peace – true peace, heavenly peace.  This is not the apparent peace that comes when one country dominates another, or the false peace in a nation where the ruler treats his people as slaves.  True, heavenly peace comes from following the Lord in freedom.  That is what the men and the women who have fought and died for this country have truly fought for – the freedoms that we all enjoy, the most important of which is this: the freedom to follow God as we see fit.  When we follow the Lord from our own free will, there are battles we must face – but this is the path that leads to true peace.  Today we honour and thank those who have served to defend our freedom.  And we thank the Lord for inspiring them and us with His love, a love of eternally defending what is true and good.

The Lord said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”


LESSONS: John 15:9-15; Rev. 19:11-21; Charity 164

Charity 164. Charity in the Commander of an army. By the commander of an army is meant its highest officer, whether he be king or archduke, or one constituted commander who holds authority from them. If he looks to the Lord and shuns evils as sins, and if he acts sincerely, justly, and faithfully in the affairs of his generalship and command, he does goods of use, which are goods of charity. And as he perpetually meditates upon them, applies himself to and executes them, he becomes charity. If he is king or archduke, he does not love war, but peace; even in war he continually loves peace. He does not go to war except for the protection of his country, and thus is not an aggressor, but a defender. But afterwards, when war is begun, if so be that aggression is defense, he becomes also an aggressor. In battle, if he has not been born otherwise, he is brave and valiant; after battle he is mild and merciful. In battle he would fain be a lion; but after battle, a lamb. In his inner self he does not exult in the overthrow of his enemy, and in the honor of victory; but in the deliverance of his country and his people from the invasion of an enemy, and the destruction and ruin they would inflict. He acts prudently; cares faithfully for his army, as the father of a family for his children and servants; and loves them, everyone, according as he does his duty sincerely and valiantly; and many such things. Cunning, with him, is not cunning, but prudence.

Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister

Preparing the Way of the Lord

Sermon: Preparing the Way of the Lord

I preached this sermon in Dawson Creek, BC on November 21, 2010.


A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, To give knowledge of salvation to His people in the remission of their sins.” (Luke 1:76-77)

When John the Baptist was born, his father Zacharias prophesied that the child would “go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways.”  In every gospel, John is said to fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.”  Three months before the Lord was born into the world, John was born to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth; and before the Lord began his ministry, John went before Him to prepare His way.  The children of Israel had to be prepared before they could accept the Lord – and in the same way, we have to prepare ourselves for the Lord to be born into our hearts, as He was born into the world at His first advent.

The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that John would go before the Lord in the “spirit and power of Elijah.”  Elijah was the greatest prophet of Israel, and like all the prophets, he represented the Lord’s Word – he told the people what the Lord’s will was.  John, too, was a prophet, and so he also represented the Word.  Like Elijah, John clothed himself in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.  The people of Israel would have recognized this clothing as the sign of a prophet: Elijah had worn similar clothing, and the book of Zechariah speaks of false prophets who wore garments of hair to deceive people into thinking they were true prophets.  In all of these cases, the garment of hair represents the power of the literal sense of the Word.  Thus, John represented the Word, and especially the literal sense of the Word.

But why did John have to come as a representative of the Word, when the Lord, who was the Word itself made flesh, was about to come?  One of the primary reasons that John had to come before the Lord was that if he had not come, the children of Israel would not have been able to withstand the presence of the Lord Himself among them.  In the prophecy we read from Malachi this morning, the Lord said that one would come “to turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”  The angel Gabriel revealed to Zacharias that John was the one who would fulfill this prophecy.  And if John had not come, the children of Israel would literally have been cursed – diseases would have broken out – when the Lord came to them.

The book True Christian Religion says,

John made ready the way [of the Lord] by baptism, and by announcing the coming of the Lord.  Without such preparation all on earth would have been smitten with a curse and would have perished. (TCR 698)

The passage we read from True Christian Religion this morning explains how John’s preparation kept the people from being cursed – it associated them with angels from heaven who could protect them from the evil spirits who would kill them.  Whenever the Lord draws close to a person, the evil spirits are stirred up in reaction – and so when the Lord came into the world, the evil spirits who were present with people at that time were stirred up.  Their power at that time was so great that if the people had not been first prepared, the evil spirits could literally have killed them.  But when a person is baptized, the symbolic act actually brings a person into connection with certain angels – and John’s baptism brought people into connection with angels who could protect them against the forces of hell.

But it was not just John’s baptism that served to prepare the way of the Lord.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias in the temple, he told him that his son would “turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  John would teach the people to turn away from evil.  And so besides baptism, the primary way that John prepared people was by preaching repentance.  The waters of baptisms represented a washing away of sin; but our evil habits and desires are not actually washed away by the water of baptism.  The deeper way that we prepare for the Lord is shunning evils as sins.

A passage in the book True Christian Religion says, “Repentance is the first thing of the church in a person.” (TCR 510)  What is repentance?  Repentance is more than simply feeling bad about the things we have done wrong.  Another passage in True Christian Religion says, “The question therefore is, How ought a person to repent? And the reply is, Actually; that is to say, he must examine himself, recognize and acknowledge his sins, pray to the Lord, and begin a new life.” (TCR 530)  Repentance means not only feeling sorry, but also making a commitment to change our lives.

So John’s primary teaching was a teaching of repentance, and the first step we take in our spiritual lives is to flee from evils as sins, or in other words, to shun them.  There was a very specific purpose behind John’s teaching of repentance.  Several times the gospels tell us that John was preaching repentance for the remission of sins.  Often this is translated as, “the forgiveness of sins”; but the word used actually means a “taking away” of sin.  When we fight against our inclinations toward hurting other people, toward selfishness, we gradually create new habits of serving others, of kindness.  Our desire to do harmful things lessens.  That’s what it means to have our sins “remitted” or “taken away.”

Now, the word “repentance” can sound very weighty.  The idea of battling against evils can sound intimidating.  But what we are talking about is a very down to earth, everyday thing.  John was not asking impossible things of the people.  When the tax collectors asked him what they should do, he simply told them not to collect more than they were due.  When the soldiers asked him what they should do, he told them that they should not intimidate anyone or accuse them falsely, and that they should be content with their wages.  Repenting of evils means looking for the everyday things that we might do that are contrary to the Lord’s commandments – tearing people down behind their backs, for example.  We can get into habits of hurting other people in little ways – sometimes just in the way we talk to someone who has done something that frustrates us.  Repentance means noticing that we do those things, praying to the Lord to help us stop, and making a conscious effort to break those habits.  When those evil habits are broken, that is the remission of sins.

And in the remission of sins, we get a glimpse of heaven.  We’re able to feel love and peace in ways that we were not able to before.  In our reading from Luke this morning, we read Zacharias’s prophecy – and in this prophecy, Zacharias declared that John would “give knowledge of salvation to [the Lord’s] people in the remission of their sins.”  In being freed from their sins, the people that John baptized would taste the Lord’s salvation – they would know salvation, not just in the sense of knowing about it, but in the sense of experiencing it.  In the same way, when the Lord puts our sins off to the sides, we experience a taste of salvation.  That is the effect of repentance.

But a question arises: if John was baptizing for the remission of sins, why did the Lord need to come after him?  Why did those who were baptized by John need to be baptized again into the name of the Lord Jesus Christ?  The passage we read from True Christian Religion this morning answers this question.  That passage said, “The baptism of John represented the cleansing of the external man; while the baptism of Christians at the present day represents the cleansing of the internal man, which is regeneration.”  The same passage goes on to say that those who were baptized by John became internal people when they received the faith of Christ.  This is important for us to keep in mind – John, who represents the Word, prepares the way for the Lord – but the end in view, the purpose of it all, is that the Lord may be born into our lives with His love and His wisdom.

When we first start to repent of the sins we see in ourselves, it is often for worldly, external reasons.  We don’t want people to think badly of us; we want to get along with people; we’re afraid that we’ll get in trouble if we do not.  This is good, and it is important for our development.  The book Heaven and Hell says, “For everyone from his childhood is initiated into a moral and civil life, and learns what it is by living in the world. Moreover, everyone, whether evil or good, lives that life; for who does not wish to be called honest, and who does not wish to be called just” (HH 530). Living a life in accordance with the laws of morality – rejecting the evils of stealing, murder, theft, dishonesty – begins as an external thing.  But this external life prepares us to receive spiritual life.  The passage in Heaven and Hell continues:

The spiritual person ought to live in a similar manner, and can do so as easily as the natural person, with this difference only, that the spiritual person believes in the Divine, and acts honestly and justly, not solely because to so act is in accord with civil and moral laws, but also because it is in accord with Divine laws.

The difference between an external repentance and an internal one is that one comes from external things – from fear, from desire for reputation – but the other comes from a desire to follow the Lord, to live in accordance with Divine laws.

As we saw before, John represented the literal sense of the Word.  The repentance of John was a repentance in following the literal sense of the Word.  This kind of repentance is a step beyond repenting simply for worldly reasons – but even this kind of repentance is relatively external when we first begin to do it.  We follow the literal commandments of the Word because we are afraid of going to hell, or because we want to earn heaven as a reward.  John asked the people who came to be baptized, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  It was in some ways baptism for a repentance that came from fear, which is an external thing.

This is not to say that simply obeying the literal sense of the Word is a bad thing.  Not at all.  In fact, it is absolutely necessary – John had to precede the Lord.  But we should always keep in mind the purpose of repentance – we’re repenting so that the Lord can be born into our lives.

When we follow the literal sense of the Word partially for external reasons, it is like we are undergoing the baptism of John.  But when we do this, a wonderful thing happens.  When we are striving to put away evil and to do good, we are able to recognize the Lord when He comes into our lives.  The gospel of John says, “He who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”  Those who do the truth are able to embrace the Lord when they see Him.  When Mary came to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the babe leaped in Elizabeth’s womb.  John’s leaping in the womb represents the joy that comes when a person who is living by the truth feels goodness and love flowing into them and recognizes that this is from the Lord.  Something in John leaped for joy at the presence of the Lord in Mary’s womb.  When we are living by the basic external truths of the Word, which John represents, and suddenly we feel the Lord in our lives or in His word in a much deeper way, there is a feeling of joy.  We realize that the external actions are there to contain something internal.

And what is that internal thing that they contain?  The passage we read from True Christian Religion said that those who repented according to John’s words were not able to become internal until they received faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  In the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, God shows us who He is.  If we do not know the Lord, we feel as if our will to repent comes from ourselves.  We take credit for resisting the evils in our lives, and we can look down on other people.

But when we acknowledge the Lord, the case is entirely different.  We begin to recognize that none of the power we have to resist evil comes from ourselves – we can’t do it on our own.  When we know the Lord, we know that He is an infinitely loving, Human God who wants nothing more than to conjoin people to Himself in heaven to give them happiness.  We know that he gives us the opportunity to be vessels for that love for the human race.  We know that he gives us the will to resist evils not so that we can feel superior, but because evils are impediments to His love acting in us and through us.

True Christian Religion says, “A person should shun evils as sins, and fight against them as if of himself. If anyone shuns evils for any other reason than because they are sins, he is not shunning them, but merely ensuring that they are not visible to the eyes of the world.”  To shun evils as sins means to shun them because they destroy our ability to act from the Lord.  And as we shun evil loves, good loves replace them.  That’s why Zacharias prophesied that John would give knowledge of salvation in or by the remission of sins.  In the remission or taking away of sins by external resistance, we make a way for the Lord to flow in.  John’s preaching of repentance opened people up to loving the Lord when they saw Him.  Just as John told people that the Lord was the Christ, our efforts towards shunning evil allow us to see that the Lord Jesus Christ is God.  When we see the Lord, we rejoice – because in Him we see God Himself, the source of all our love, as a real person, a Divine Human God.  With His aid, we are able to come into true love for our neighbor – out of darkness and into light.  “The people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, Upon them a light has shined.”


Lessons: Malachi 4; Luke 1:68-80; TCR 689-690

TCR 689. The way was prepared [for Jehovah the Lord to descend into the world and accomplish redemption] by the baptism of John, because by means of that baptism … people were introduced into the future church of the Lord, and in heaven were inserted among those who were there looking for and longing for the Messiah; and they were thus guarded by angels, that devils from hell might not break forth and destroy them. … From all this it is clear that unless a way had been made ready for Jehovah when He was descending into the world, by means of baptism, the effect of which in heaven was to close up the hells and guard the Jews against total destruction [they would all have been struck by a curse and perished].

TCR 690. As to the baptism of John; it represented this cleansing of the external man; while the baptism of Christians at the present day represents the cleansing of the internal man, which is regeneration. It is therefore written that John baptized with water, but that the Lord baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and therefore John’s baptism is called the baptism of repentance. The Jews who were baptized were merely external men, and without faith in Christ the external man cannot become internal. Those who were baptized with the baptism of John, became internal men when they received the faith in Christ, and were then baptized in the name of Jesus.

A Little Child Shall Lead Them

Sermon: A Little Child Shall Lead Them

UPDATE: Sermon audio available here.

I preached this sermon on November 28, 2010 at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.


A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn

The season leading up to Christmas can be a busy time – students, parents, and teachers trying to fit in all the Christmas activities on the calendar, everyone trying to find time to get some shopping done, to clean the house, to prepare for guests or to prepare to travel, decorations to put up… the list goes on.  And yet, despite all this busy-ness, Christmas is also a time of peace.  It can be a time of great joy – a time when family and friends can get together and celebrate the Lord’s coming.  There are carols that touch our hearts.  There’s the joy we get when we see the wonder on a child’s face as they open a new gift.  There’s the innocent reverence that young and old share as they listen to the story of the Lord’s birth.

Innocence and peace.  These two things are at the heart of the Christmas story and the Christmas spirit – and they’re at the heart of heaven.

Innocence and peace.  The book Heaven and Hell, revealed to Emanuel Swedenborg by the Lord, says, “There are two inmost things of heaven, namely, innocence and peace.  These are said to be the inmost things because they proceed directly from the Lord.”  The passage we read earlier from Heaven and Hell says that true peace is impossible without innocence, that innocence is what brings about peace.

This brings us to the prophecy that we read this morning, from the prophet Isaiah.  It is a prophecy of the Lord’s coming, and the change in the world that would take place.  It describes a state of innocence – and because of the innocence, protection and peace:

And the wolf shall sojourn with the lamb; and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf, and the young lion, and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.  And the cow and the bear shall pasture; together shall their young ones lie down; and the lion shall eat straw like the cattle. And the nursing child shall play upon the hole of the adder; and upon the den of the basilisk shall the weaned child thrust his hand. (Isaiah 11:6-8)

Notice all the references to children and young animals in this passage: the lamb, the kid, the calf; a little child, a nursing child, a weaned child.  All of these are pictures of innocence, because children embody a kind of innocence.  Now, the innocence of children is not true innocence – but it is an image of it, and the innocence you feel as a child actually becomes the external plane for true innocence in later years.

While that innocence of children is not yet genuine innocence, Heaven and Hell says, “One may learn from it what innocence is.  For it shines forth from the faces of children and from some of their movements and from their earliest speech, and affects those about them” (HH 277).  That indescribable feeling that young babies inspire in us gives us a taste of innocence.

The best way to understand innocence is to see how it shows up in children.  That passage from Heaven and Hell goes on to point out that because little children are unable to think from themselves, they cannot have evil intentions.  We read also,

They do not attribute anything to themselves, regarding all as received from their parents. They are content with the few insignificant things presented to them, and delight in them. They have no anxiety about food and clothing, and none about the future. They do not look to the world and covet many things from it. They love their parents and nurses and their child companions with whom they play in innocence. They suffer themselves to be led, they give heed and obey. (HH 272)

We know, of course, that this seems to paint too rosy a picture of childhood – but there is truth in the description.  We DO see states where children are playing together, or listening to their parents and caretakers with cheerful obedience, and those things inspire us with feelings of warmth and love.  And even when they are misbehaving, young children do so from innocence, not from hatred or evil intention, and so we love them even then.

Heaven and Hell goes on to describe the innocence of the angels in heaven, which is no longer an innocence of ignorance, but an innocence of wisdom.  Just as little children do not attribute anything to themselves and attribute all to their parents, angels attribute nothing to themselves and everything to the Lord.  Just as little children take delight in whatever little things are given to them as gifts, the angels live contented with whatever they have, “because they know that they receive just as much as is good for them” (Heaven and Hell n. 278) They love nothing more than being led by the Lord.  This is the innocence of wisdom – a willingness to be led by the Lord.

Innocence brings about peace, because genuine innocence protects a person from harm.  To some extent, we see this protection in the innocence of little children.  A little child can hear a horrendous story, with violence and death, and have it go right over their head.  The Lord protects them.  In the same way, the innocence of wisdom protects a person from evil.  This is what our prophecy for today is foretelling.  The lamb, the kid, and the calf are all pictures of innocence.  Specifically, they’re pictures of the different levels of innocence as they exist in the heavens – the calf a picture of innocence in the lowest or natural heaven, the kid a picture of innocence in the middle heaven, and the lamb a picture of the innocence of the angels of the highest heaven, where they are the most innocent of all.

And all of these creatures are said to be able to lie down or dwell with savage beasts.  Those savage beasts represent the falsities and evils that want to destroy innocence and charity.  Even the creature presented as the most sinister in the Word, the serpent, cannot do harm: “And the nursing child shall play upon the hole of the adder; and upon the den of the basilisk shall the weaned child thrust his hand.”  These deadly snakes represent the poison of deceit and lying.  Innocence shows itself in the guileless honesty of a young child.  The serpent, our oldest enemy, hates honesty and lives in lies.  It tells us that openness and honesty is weakness.  It tells us that we’ve lost our innocence, and we won’t get it back.  It tells us that innocence is for a different kind of person, not for people like us.  It tells us that the innocence we felt as children was simply blindness, ignorance of the way the world really works. It tells us we have give up on childhood ideals – the possibility of true love and goodness – and learn that real pleasure comes from gratifying our senses.  We’re naturally inclined to listen to the voice of the snake – its words are described in the Writings as sweet-tasting poison.

But those who are in innocence can’t be hurt by the ferocious animals or by the poisonous snakes.  If we innocently trust the Lord, we see the lies for what they are.

But of course this is easier said than done.  The image of the prophecy – of the lamb and the wolf lying together – is one of gentleness, but before it there is an image of war.  The coming Messiah is described as a powerful voice, standing up strong in defense of the meek, judging the poor with justice.  The prophecy in Isaiah says, “With justice shall He judge the poor, and with equity shall He plead for the meek of the earth; and He shall smite the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the wind of His lips shall He put the wicked to death.”  It’s an image of the Lord as a strong and mighty defender of the meek and the poor, His words destroying the wicked – although the truth is that the Lord destroys no one, and the evil destroy themselves.

We need to take that same stand, as a parent defending a child, in defense of the innocence within ourselves and others.  We need to take the same kind of stand against the evils and falsities we see in ourselves that want to destroy innocence.  The rod of the Lord’s mouth is the truth from the letter of His Word.  You shall not murder.  You shall not steal.  You shall love your neighbour as yourself.  To the evil in ourselves, these commandments are harsh and painful – they’re words of destruction.   In our lower selves we don’t want to hear them.  We have to fight against that lower self, to stand up in defense of innocence, to stand up in defense of following the Lord with childlike hearts.  When we take that strong stand against our own evil desires, it is really the Lord taking that stand within us, defending our innocence.  “With justice shall He judge the poor, and with equity shall He plead for the meek of the earth”

It is this battle against hell that prepares the way for innocence.  We often think of the Lord as a shepherd, and this prophecy describes Him in a similar way.  The prophet says, “A little child shall lead them” – and that little child is the Lord.  We think of the story of David as a shepherd, a young boy leading his flock.  That image is one of innocence – but at the same time, it’s an image of strength and power.  David had slain bears and other wild beasts who had come to attack his sheep.  The rod that would come out of the Messiah’s mouth meant that His words would defend His flock.  We know the words of the 23rd Psalm – “Your rod and your staff they comfort me.”  The rod and staff are a comfort to the innocence within is us, but they are terrible to the parts of us that want to dominate over others or to have everything for ourselves.

This image of the Messiah, then, shows us the Messiah as a shepherd boy – powerful to defend, but meek and mild with His sheep – a child.  Most of us are familiar with the words of another prophecy, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:6).  The coming Messiah would come as a child.  And the reason for this is that He is the source of innocence – He is innocence itself.  Our prophecy from Isaiah says that this prophecy would be brought about because people would know the Lord.  It says, “They shall not do evil, nor destroy, in all the mountain of My holiness; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea.”  This state of innocence can only come about when people have the source of innocence in their hearts.

How is the Lord innocence itself?  When the Lord was in the world, He embodied that willingness to be led.  Now, He was God Himself in His soul, and so it seems strange to say that He followed Himself.  But at His birth the lower levels of His mind were not yet Divine – and so He still had to choose to follow the Divine that was within Himself.  That Divine within Himself, which He called the Father, was infinite Divine love – and the Lord is true innocence because He always chose, and always chooses, to be led by Divine love.  He was willing to be vulnerable and humble.  He was willing to be born as a helpless infant and be laid in a manger, to grow up as a young child.  We never lose the states of innocence we go through – if we become innocent in old age, that innocence has the innocence of childhood as its foundation – we experience those childhood states again, but now infilled with wisdom.  And so the Lord’s Humanity, which is now Divine, contains not only His states as an adult, in His ministry, but also the states of His infancy.  When we are trying to picture who the Lord is, those images of Him as an infant are as much of Him as any other.  And they may be the best way to experience the innocence of the Lord, so that we may know Him, in fulfillment of the prophecy.

And we do have a chance to fulfill this prophecy.  People in the Jewish religion are still awaiting the Messiah’s first coming – and anticipating that he will usher in this new state of peace on earth.  Christians believe that the Lord will make His second coming when this state has been fulfilled, or they believe that this state will be fulfilled AFTER His second coming.

In the New Church, we believe that the Lord did begin to fulfill this prophecy at His first coming.  He said that of those who would believe in Him, “they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them” (Mark 16:17-18).  In the early days of the Christian church, when they lived in harmony and brotherhood, the Lord’s followers begin to establish this world of innocence.  And wherever people in any time have dwelt in charity and innocence, looking to the Lord, this prophecy has come closer to fulfillment.  It is a prophecy of the Lord’s kingdom, and the Lord’s kingdom exists on earth as well as in heaven.

But this prophecy has yet to be completely fulfilled.  The book True Christian Religion, the last book published by Swedenborg, says, “It is well known that such things [as are described in this prophecy] have not yet taken place in the churches” (TCR 789)  According to that book, this is a prophecy that will be fulfilled by the New Church.  Why?  Because those who are truly in the New Church – not the organization, but who are aligned with the New Christian Heaven – will have knowledge of the Lord.

We have the opportunity to know the Lord in a way that no one else has before in history.  Not just in our minds, but in our hearts.  This is because we know that Jesus Christ is the one and only God, that He is a visible God in whom is the invisible.  Christians believe that Jesus Christ is God – but most believe that He is one person in a three-person Trinity.  When they pray, they often look past Jesus to “God the Father,” praying to God the Father but closing with the words, “in Jesus’ name.”

But in the writings for New Chuch, God has revealed that He is one in Person and in Essence.  And so that baby born in Bethlehem, in His soul, is wholly and completely God.  That little child who grew up to fulfill all the prophecies of the Messiah, put off everything that came from Mary, and became fully Divine and fully Human.  There is no angry, vengeful Father who seeks appeasement – the innocent Good Shepherd is the one and only God.

This prophecy from Isaiah tells us that it will be God Himself who comes.  The prophecy begins, “And there shall come out a Rod from the trunk of Jesse; and a Shoot from his roots shall become fruitful.”  The Messiah would come from the line of Jesse, the father of King David – and through His adopted father Joseph, Jesus did come from the line of Jesse.  But the Messiah would not only be a branch from Jesse – He would be the root itself, the source, as well.  In the final verse of our reading, we read, “And it shall be in that day, that the Root of Jesse shall stand for a standard to the peoples; to Him shall the nations inquire; and His rest shall be glory.”  Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58).  And in the book of Revelation, He declares, “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star” (Revelation 22:16).

We have the opportunity to make this prophecy a reality.  Are we doing that?  Are we doing everything we can to bring about innocence in our interactions with others?  Are we allowing the Lord to write His law on hearts?  What are we doing to bring about the Lord’s coming?

The Lord makes His coming whenever people turn to Him as the source of innocence and life.  He came as an innocent child – and He makes His second coming when we come to know Him more deeply in the internal sense of the Word – a knowledge not just in our minds, but in our hearts.  “And it shall be in that day, that the Root of Jesse shall stand for a standard to the peoples; to Him shall the nations inquire; and His rest shall be glory.”


Lessons: Isaiah 11:1-10; Mark 10:13-16; HH 288.

HH 288. [2] But peace in the heavens differs in quality and quantity in agreement with the innocence of those who are there; since innocence and peace walk hand in hand; for every good of heaven, as said above, is from innocence, and every delight of that good is from peace. Evidently, then, the same that has been said in the foregoing chapter about the state of innocence in the heavens may be said here of the state of peace there, since innocence and peace are conjoined like good and its delight; for good is felt in its delight, and delight is known from its good. This being so, it is evident that angels of the inmost or third heaven are in the third or inmost degree of peace, because they are in the third or inmost degree of innocence; and that angels of the lower heavens are in a less degree of peace, because they are in a less degree of innocence (see above n. 280).

[3] That innocence and peace go together like good and its delight can be seen in little children, who are in peace because they are in innocence, and because they are in peace are in their whole nature full of play. Yet the peace of little children is external peace; while internal peace, like internal innocence, is possible only in wisdom, and for this reason only in the conjunction of good and truth, since wisdom is from that conjunction. Heavenly or angelic peace is also possible in men who are in wisdom from the conjunction of good and truth, and who in consequence have a sense of content in God; nevertheless, while they live in the world this peace lies hidden in their interiors, but it is revealed when they leave the body and enter heaven, for their interiors are then opened.

Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister

Feeding the 5,000

Sermon: Feeding the 5,000

This is the audio from the sermon I gave yesterday, Sunday, January 30, 2011, at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.  The lessons are Exodus 16:1-5,13-15, 31; Mark 6:31-44; and Arcana Coelestia 5405.  Although if I had to do it again, I think I’d change the Heavenly Doctrine lesson to Divine Providence 133:

The effect, however, of miracles on the good and on the wicked is different. The good do not desire miracles, but they believe those recorded in the Word; and if they hear anything concerning a miracle they give it their attention only as an argument of no great weight that confirms their faith; for their thoughts are derived from the Word, consequently from the Lord, and not from the miracle. It is otherwise with the wicked. They may indeed he driven and compelled to a faith by miracle’, and even to worship and to piety, but only for a short time. For their evils are shut in, and the lusts of their evils and the delights springing from these lusts continually act upon their external of worship and piety; and in order that their evils may emerge from their confinement and break forth, they reflect upon the miracle and at length call it an amusing artifice or a natural phenomenon, and so return to their evils. Now he who after worship returns to his evils profanes the truth and good of worship; and the lot after death of those who commit profanation is the worst of all. These are they who are meant by the Lord’s words in Matt. xii. 43, 44, 45, whose last state is worse than their first. Moreover, if miracles were to be wrought with those who do not believe from the miracles in the Word, they would be performed continually, and in view of all such persons. From these considerations it may be evident why miracles are not wrought at this day.


Click here to download the MP3.

Those Who Are With Us

Sermon: Those Who Are With Us

I preached this sermon on Sunday, March 13, 2011 at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.


Readings: 2 Kings 6:8-23Mark 9:36-41Arcana Coelestia 5036

“So [Elisha] answered, “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16).

All of us go through times when we feel alone.  Maybe we feel alone when we reflect on the tiny size of the New Church compared to all the other religions in the world.  Maybe you feel alone when you try to express yourself and no one seems to get what you’re saying.  There are times when we feel alone even when we’re surrounded by friends or family.  The truth is, all of us feel alone in some context, in some situation.  No matter how integrated into a group we seem to be, there are times when we feel that we’re on our own.

We can especially feel alone at the times when we most need help – at the times when we are faced with obstacles and challenges.  Most of us know the feeling of having to take on a struggle in our life, with a sense that we’re going into battle by ourselves.  We know something of the feeling that Elisha’s servant must have had as he looked outside his master’s house and saw the entire city of Dothan surrounded by Syrian warriors.

Imagine what that would have been like for Elisha’s servant, who was only a boy or a young man.  We read that he “arose early in the morning and went out.”  Imagine stepping out of your door early in the morning and seeing a hostile army completely surrounding your neighbourhood.  Now, where we live now, that seems almost absurd; but in other places in the world, this is still a real possibility.  Imagine the fear of seeing that enemy army – and imagine how much greater the fear would be if you knew that the army had one goal in mind – to get to the house that you are in and destroy you and the people you are living with.  We can understand why the servant boy cried out to Elisha, “Alas, my master! What shall we do!”

We’ll probably never experience this literally, but all of us have at some at some time feel like we are alone against an impossibly large force.  We may feel it when we think about our tiny church trying to change the entire world.  Or on a personal level, when we struggle to change habits that have the weight of years and decades behind them.  When we see our own evils, we can feel overwhelmed – when we see how deeply ingrained our selfishness really is it can seem to be a great army arrayed against ourselves alone.

The servant boy felt almost completely alone, but he did have his master with him.  Elisha represents the Lord’s Word, and the Lord himself as the Word.  We have the Lord’s word with us; we know that the Lord is present with us always, and never leaves us.  We are never alone.  But sometimes even that intellectual knowledge does not comfort us.  The servant boy knew the immense power that Elisha had wielded, the miracles he had done – but he still feared for his life.  Sometimes when we’re faced with seemingly impossible odds, the Word doesn’t seem like enough, and it’s hard to feel the Lord’s presence.  But even then, we can turn to the Lord in prayer; and we can still follow and serve the Word, just as Elisha’s servant followed him and cried out to him.

The boy was afraid and cried out to Elisha.  But Elisha told the boy, “Do not fear; for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”  Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.  Those who are on our side are more than those who are against us.  Our allies are more numerous and more powerful than the allies of our enemies.  The Word teaches this – but it is not always easy to see.  It was certainly not easy for the servant boy to see – perhaps Elisha did have great power, but how could he possibly say that those who were with them were more than those against them?  Weren’t they only two against an army?

And so Elisha prayed to the Lord, “Jehovah, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.”  And the Lord opened the boy’s eyes, and he saw that the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire.

The Writings for the New Church reveal that this story actually happened as described, and that the servant’s eyes really were opened.  His spiritual eyes were opened, and he was seeing into heaven.  He was actually seeing an angelic army, an army that really was present there.  In the lower heavens, angels appear to ride horses in chariots when they are representing truth.  They are arrayed for battle against the forces of evil and falsity.

There’s a passage from the book Arcana Coelestia that describes the internal sense of this story.  It says that the king of Syria represents falsity, and his army represents falsities of doctrine – but the mountains full of horses and chariots of fire represent the good and true things of doctrine from the Word (AC 4720).  The good and true things of doctrine from the Word might sound abstract, and it certainly sounds different from seeing angels.  But the reality is that one of the best ways to picture good and truth is to picture the angels who embody those different forms of good and truth (see, e.g., AC 4096:52015).  Because the reality is that every good intention we have, and every true thought that enters into our mind, flows in from the Lord through a society of heaven.  The angels themselves acknowledge that none of the good and truth is from them – but it does come to us through them, as well as directly from the Lord.

This is a powerful way to think of the Lord’s army that is on our side.  Think of all the different perspectives that your different friends offer when you go to them for help.  All of them offer something unique, something different – and the more perspectives that we’re offered, the more clearly we start to see.  And now think of the vastness of heaven.  Angels from throughout the universe, from the beginning of human life, all offering a different perspective, a different good, a different truth.  When we read the Word, we are connected to all these different forces.  Many of them act in us even when we are unaware of it – the passage we read earlier says that the angels fight for a person, even though that person is unaware of it.

When we feel alone, we can go to the Lord’s Word and actually bring about the presence of His angels, who convey His love and wisdom to us in a thousand different ways, the way a prism reflects all the colours of light.  Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.  We never face a struggle alone – we have an army on our side.  And this can be especially helpful when we’re feeling despondent about being able to make a difference in the world, or even in one person’s life.  It’s true, on our own we may be able to have little effect.  But we can choose to lend our aid to one side or the other.  We can stand with the Lord’s army, or we can stand with the army of hell.

Those who are with us are more than those who are against us.  When we align ourselves with the Lord’s Word, we have the power of the societies of heaven on our side.  But there is more than this.  When we look around at the church, we may feel small – there are not many members of the organization.  But the Lord’s church exists in a universal form as well as a specific form.  And the Lord’s church exists wherever people are worshipping God and living in charity.  There is a brotherhood and sisterhood of those who are striving for good.  We are not alone in this world.  We see it when there is a natural disaster and hundreds of thousands of people say, “What can I do to help?”  There are hundreds, thousands, millions of people who are taking a stand against cruelty, against injustice, against hatred.  There are millions of people who quietly face their own demons every day: husbands and wives who fight against their tendencies to dominate their spouses; business people who fight to be honest even to their own disadvantage; lawyers and judges and politicians who fight in themselves to put justice ahead of personal gain.  These are our brothers and sisters.  When the disciples came to the Lord complaining that someone else was casting out demons in the Lord’s name, He said to them, “Forbid him not; for there is no one who shall do a mighty work in My name, and can readily speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us.”  All those who do the Lord’s will are on the side of good.

And all those people who are striving to follow the Lord really do stand with us, even if they’re on the other side of the world.  We all right now inhabit the spiritual world as well as the natural world, and when we share the same loves as another person in this world, our spirits are joined together, no matter how many miles there are in between.  It is not only angels and spirits of people who have passed on that lend us aid by allowing the Lord to flow through them – it is the spirits of others still living who are in similar love and wisdom (see AC 1277).  Those who are with us are more than those who are against us.

Those who are with us are more than those who are against us.  But this is true only if we are putting ourselves on the Lord’s side.  There are times when we realize we have lent our aid to the other side.        There are times when we give into the voices telling us to cut someone else down, to control someone else, to steal or lie – and we take the side of hell.  But realizing that we sometimes take this side can give us compassion for those who seem to be in the enemy’s army.  Because this story does not end with the angelic army destroying the Syrian army.

We have all seen people taking the side of the enemy – from the large scale to the small.  We’ve seen husbands yelling at their wives; we’ve seen parents mistreating their children; we’ve seen people cheat and lie and steal – and then rationalize everything they’ve done.  When these people are doing these things, they are taking the side of the enemy.  And in those situations, we can find ourselves thinking of those people as our enemies – and going even further, to wish harm on them.  We may not realize that in doing this, we’re throwing in our lot with the army of falsity and evil.  People are not the enemy – evil and falsity are.

The Syrian army in particular represents people who are in false doctrine.  There are plenty of examples of this – the doctrine that God is angry and punishing, the false doctrine that it doesn’t matter how we live so long as we believe.  And falsities like this do affect the way people live.  A person who believes that God is angry is more likely to act angry himself – the idea of God changes the way we act.  And falsities like hurt the truth in the Lord’s Word.  The Syrian army seeks to destroy Elisha, the representative of Lord’s Word.

At this point we might expect a great battle between the Lord’s army and the Syrian army.  But that is not what happens here.  Elisha prays that the Lord blind the army of the Syrians.  His prayer reflects a spiritual reality.  People who go to the Word and follow the Lord in truth can see evil for what it is, and see goodness for what it is – just as Elisha’s servants eyes were opened.  The light of heaven allows them to see things for what they really are.  But those who are in falsity and evil are blind.  They do not understand what it is to be good, and they are even blind to the evil that they are in.  The Syrian army is blinded not as punishment, but as a result of the falsity that they represent.

With the Syrian army blinded, Elisha had a chance for revenge.  But he did not take it.  Instead, he led the blind army to the city of Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel.  And there, their eyes were opened.  The Syrians found themselves at the mercy of the king of Israel – but they could see again.  The Writings tell us that their journey into Samaria represents instruction from the Word.  They change.  They learn.  Their eyes are opened.

When he saw his enemy at his mercy, the king of Israel asked Elisha whether he should kill them.  But Elisha says no – they were to be given food and water, and even great provisions! They were to be treated as friends.  They returned to Syria, and that troop of Syrians did not again attack the people of Israel.

And here we see the full meaning of Elisha’s words to his servant – that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”  It is not only that the Lord’s army is fighting on their side – but even those who are now against them have the ability to change and join their side.  What mercy the Lord has!  And this is the final piece of hope for us.  Those who seem to be opposed to what is good and true can change.  They may be misguided now – but this does not mean they cannot learn.  And when they do learn, we are strengthened by their addition to the forces of good.  And when we find ourselves, to our own shame, fighting on the side of the Syrians, we can have confidence that we can join the other side.

The king gave a feast for the Syrians who have arrived in Samaria.  This attitude – rejoicing over a conversion from blindness to sight – reflects the Lord’s teaching that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who have no need of repentance.  And there is joy when people come into heaven.  There is joy when people put themselves on the side of the Lord.

Everyone who enters heaven makes heaven stronger.  Everyone who enters the church makes the church stronger.  The angels rejoice when newcomers enter heaven – a passage from Heaven and Hell says,

Moreover, every society of heaven increases in number daily, and as it increases it becomes more perfect. Thus not only the society becomes more perfect, but also heaven in general, because it is made up of societies…. Therefore, the angels desire nothing so much as to have new angel guests come to them. (HH 71)

Every addition to the Lord’s kingdom – to heaven and the church – allows for the Lord to more fully act through heaven into people’s hearts and minds.

We are not alone.  We have an opportunity and a choice.  The Lord has invited us to join His heavenly army, not an army of vengeance or hatred, but an army of love and mercy, an army of truth and justice – the heavenly host.  If we join ourselves to the Lord, He will be present with us, and give us aid through His angels.  We are not alone.  We pray that the Lord open our eyes, so that we may see this truth: no matter how many overwhelming the forces of falsity and evil may seem, “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

Honouring Father and Mother

Sermon: Honouring Father and Mother

I preached this sermon on May 8, 2011, at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.


“Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged upon the land which Jehovah your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)

The Writings for the New Church tell us that there are deeper senses within the literal sense of the Word, although this does not do away with the importance of the literal sense.  Within the literal sense there is a spiritual sense, which is primarily about love toward the neighbour; and even deeper than this is a celestial sense, primarily about love to the Lord.  All of the Ten Commandments contain both of these deeper senses.  But the first three commandments in particular focus on love to the Lord, and the final six – the list of thou-shalt-not’s – particularly focus on love toward the neighbour.  Today, though, we’re focusing on the bridge commandment, the one that most clearly conjoins the two tables of love to the Lord and love to the neighbour.

In the literal sense, this precept commands us to honour our parents.  In this sense, the commandment is especially important for children, since in childhood parents stand in for the Lord, and much of a person’s relationship with God as an adult will be coloured by his childhood relationship with his parents.  Even as adults, though, we ought to follow this commandment in the literal sense.    Although we no longer owe them obedience, we still owe our parents gratitude and love.

It is impossible to list all the things parents do for their children – giving birth, feeding and clothing them, giving them protection and love.  They also introduce them into religion, into following the Lord.  The Writings describe that in the Most Ancient Church, or the golden age represented in the Word by Adam and Eve, people did not live in cities of countries, but in clans and families.  They did not have rulers as we do now, but they honoured the head of their family and showed gratitude to them because of the spiritual gifts their parents gave them, for their love and their wisdom, and especially for introducing them into the worship of the Lord.

Of course, not all parents do introduce their children into the worship of the Lord.  Parents make mistakes, and there are parents who do harm to their children.  Sometimes as we grow older we move away from parents who continue to hurt us, and sometimes this is a healthy thing, just as sometimes the healthiest thing for a marriage is for a couple to separate.  But even in these extreme cases, we have this commandment to honour our parents.  We are not to honour the evil in them – but as with anyone else, there is good in them, and we are commanded to honour whatever good there is, and to focus on that more than on the evil.  All of us – no matter what our relationship with our parents – are asked to find forgiveness for whatever harm they’ve done, and show gratitude for the goodness in them.

In the strictest literal sense, this commandment refers to honouring one’s actual parents, or legal guardians who stand in their place.  But the book True Christian Religion says that in a wider sense – although still on a natural level – this commandment refers to honouring our country and her leaders (TCR 305).

Just as our parents provide us with necessities of life and protection from harm when we are children, our nation provides us with necessities of life and protects us from invasion.  We call our homeland out “motherland” or “fatherland.”  The word “patriotism” comes from the Greek word “pater,” meaning father.

Our country does not just mean our government – it means all the people who make up our nation, and honouring our nation as parent extends beyond honouring our government.  But True Christian Religion says it also does mean showing honour to our leaders almost as parents, and teaching children to do the same.  The idea of honouring our leaders, or even expressing patriotism for our country, can make many of us today feel uneasy.  The twentieth century saw terrible abuses of nationalistic fervour, and the thought of honouring leaders and nations as parents for many people calls to mind frightening images of blind obedience to corrupt causes.

But honouring our country does not mean blind allegiance – it means supporting what is truly good in it, showing gratitude for this, and honouring our leaders’ efforts to promote the country’s welfare.  The book Charity, written as a manuscript by Swedenborg and published after his death, gives the example of the way that a Protestant born in Venice or Rome could love his homeland, even though those were Catholic cities at the time.  We read as follows:

For example: if I had been born in Venice or in Rome, and were a Reformed Christian, am I to love my country, or the country where I was born, because of its spiritual good? I cannot. Nor with respect to its moral and civil good, so far as this depends for existence upon its spiritual good. But so far as it does not depend upon this I can, even if that country hates me. Thus, I must not in hatred regard it as an enemy, nor as an adversary, but must still love it; doing it no injury, but consulting its good, so far as it is good for it, not consulting it in such a way that I confirm it in its falsity and evil. (Charity 86)

The way we honour a country as our father and mother is not by ignoring its evil, but by supporting whatever is good in it while as much as possible discouraging its evil.

So far all the aspects of the commandment we’ve looked at are part of the literal sense.  But it is easy to see how this commandment as an internal sense as well.  Throughout the Word, God is called our Father.  The Lord even said, “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9).  This does not literally mean that we cannot call our fathers “father,” but that we should acknowledge that in a truer, deeper sense, God is our Father.  Honouring our father means loving and revering Him.

It may not seem as obvious at first, though, what it means to honour our motherin the spiritual sense.  But upon a close reading of the Word, a clear picture begins to emerge.  Throughout the prophets, the nation and people of Israel are referred to as “the mother” of the individual Israelites living there at the time.  In Ezekiel, the children of Israel are told, “Your mother was like a vine in your bloodline, planted by the waters, fruitful and full of branches because of many waters” (Ezekiel 19:10), talking about the way that the Lord established them as His people.  In the New Testament, John saw the Holy City New Jerusalem “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”  Through this imagery, it becomes clear that the “bride” of the Lord, and the mother of each person, is the Lord’s people, or His church.  And so honouring our mother in the spiritual sense means revering and loving the church.

But what is this church that we are supposed to love and revere?  In the simplest sense, the church is a group of people who subscribe to the same doctrine.  In the strictest sense, it’s a local congregation.  Before we look deeper and beyond this, it’s important to recognize this simple view of the church.  It’s easy to feel general goodwill toward all the people who follow the Lord, which is the church in a broader sense; but it is sometimes harder to revere and love the actual people in a church congregation, the real people sitting in the pew next to us.  We may have disagreements or conflicts, or a clash of personalities.  But still we are to honour our church community for the good and truth that it contains and teaches.

What makes the church like a mother, according to True Christian Religion, is that just as a mother provides natural food, the church provides spiritual food.  From the church ministers we learn truths from the Word; from church members, we have encouragement and support in living by the Word.

The spiritual sense of this commandment is to love and revere God and the church.  Deeper than this, there is a celestial sense.  In the celestial sense of “honour your father and your mother,” “father” refers specifically to the Lord Jesus Christ, and “mother” refers to what is called the communion of saints, the church scattered throughout the world.

The Lord Jesus Christ is our heavenly Father.  The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…” – and one of the names of the Son who would be born is “everlasting Father” (Isaiah 9:6).  The Lord Himself said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

The Lord is our Father – and He describes the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, as His bride, adorned for her husband.  In this sense, our mother is not only our local church, or even the church throughout the world, but the Lord’s kingdom, which exists within people in this world and throughout heaven, in whoever acknowledges the Lord and has faith in Him and charity toward the neighbour (see True Christian Religion 416).  Although we cannot always feel their influence, the angels and good spirits act as our spiritual mothers.  The Lord flows into the heavens, and through the heavens into our minds.  This marriage of the Lord’s life with the responses of the angels gives birth to all the infinite truth and goods in our minds and hearts.

We can also think of the kingdom of God, though, apart from thinking of individual angels or other people.  The Lord said, “The kingdom of God is within you.”  And even this sense, the kingdom of God, or the church within us, is our mother.  What is the church within an individual?  The Writings tell us that in particular, the church within us that acts as a mother is the truth of the church.  We learn truth, and it becomes as if it were our own.  When we act according to the truth we know, the Lord joins His good to it – that is, the Lord adds love to it.  For example, we know in our ourselves that it is wrong to lie; as if of ourselves we resist the tendency to lie; and we gradually find over time that wedislike lying, that we would rather tell the truth.  The Lord has added His goodness to our truth.  This results in a new birth in us – a new perception of what it mean to follow the Lord, a new love for acting by that truth.

In this sense, our truth is the church, and it’s married to the Lord’s goodness and love. But in actuality, we know, even that truth that seems to be ours is really the Lord’s.  Even the effort to live by that truth is the Lord’s, even though it feels to all appearances as if it is from ourselves.  The Lord’s kingdom is our mother, but in the truest sense, the Lord’s kingdom is the Lord himself with us.  The angels acknowledge that heaven is heaven from the Lord in it, not from anything that belongs to themselves.  It is the same with the Lord’s kingdom on earth, which we call the church: anything good in it, anything that makes it the church, in reality is the Lord’s, although He allows us to experience it as if it belonged to us.

This is why the book Arcana Coelestia says that in the supreme sense, honouring our father means honouring the Lord as to good, and honouring our mother means honouring the Lord as to truth, which is loving the Lord’s kingdom.  We read, “’mother’ signifies truth, and in the supreme sense the Lord as to Divine truth, thus His kingdom, because the Divine truth which proceeds from the Lord makes heaven” (AC 8896).  Honouring the Lord as to truth is honouring His kingdom.  The Lord’s truth within angels is married to the Lord’s love.  This marriage – the marriage of the Lord’s good with the Lord’s truth, taking place within us and with our participation – is what makes heaven with a person.  That is why this commandment contains a promise: that if you follow it, “your days shall be prolonged upon the land which Jehovah your God is giving you.”  In the internal sense, these words mean that goodness will increase in a person in heaven to eternity because the Lord flows in wherever goodness and truth are joined together.

In the supreme sense, “mother” signifies the Lord as to Divine truth.  This does not mean that we are to picture the Lord as a woman, or as our mother, or as some kind of androgynous being.  The Lord came into the world as Jesus Christ, and we worship Him under this form.  It is vital that we worship Him as a human, and this includes even worshipping Him with the form He had in this world, although now glorified.

Still, though, in Himself, the Lord is the source of all good feminine qualities as well as masculine.  All the positive traits that we associate with motherhood come from the Lord.  When He was in the world, the Lord wept over Jerusalem, and said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).  This image of a hen protecting her chicks describes a universal sphere that flows out from the Lord, a sphere of protecting what has been created.  In people, this sphere manifests itself as a love for little children.  This sphere directly affects women in a special way that it does not affect men, although it flows through women and from them does affect men.  The nurturing role of a mother stems from this nurturing sphere in the Lord, and when a good mother looks after her children, she is acting from the Lord’s love.

When we respond in gratitude to a mother’s love, then, we are in fact responding in gratitude to the Lord.  And so when we follow this commandment – to honour our father and our mother – on any level, we may in fact be following it on the deeper levels without being aware of it.  When we honour the good things in our parents, and in our country and leaders, we are really honouring the Lord and His church, since these qualities all come from the marriage of the Lord with his church.  And the more we learn about the internal senses within this commandment – that it means loving and revering God and the church, or specifically the Lord Jesus Christ and His kingdom – the more we learn about these things, the more consciously and fully we can follow the commandment on every level, and the more we can become aware of the blessings it gives.  We come into the fulfillment of that promise – “that your days may be prolonged upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” Amen.

Lessons: Exodus 20:1-17; Mark 3:31-35; True Christian Religion 305-307

True Christian Religion 305. Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may be well with thee upon the earth.

So reads this commandment in Exod. 20:12; Deut. 5:16. In the natural sense, which is that of the letter, “to honour thy father and thy mother” means to honour parents, to be obedient to them, to be devoted to them, and to return thanks to them for the benefits they confer, which are that they provide food and clothing for their children, and so introduce them into the world that they may act in it as civil and moral persons; and introduce them also into heaven by means of the precepts of religion, thus providing both for their temporal prosperity and their eternal happiness. All this parents do from a love which they have from the Lord, in whose stead they act. In a relative sense it means that if parents are dead, guardians should be honoured by their wards. In a broader sense, to honour the king and magistrates, is meant by this commandment, since these provide for all in general the necessities which parents provide in particular. In the broadest sense this commandment means that men should love their country, since it supports and protects them, therefore it is called fatherland from father. But to country, king, and magistrates honour must be rendered by parents and by them be implanted in their children.

306. In the spiritual sense, “to honor father and mother” means to reverence and love God and the church….

307. In the celestial sense, “father” means our Lord Jesus Christ, and “mother” the communion of saints, which means the Lord’s church spread throughout the whole world….

Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister

Naaman’s Leprosy

Sermon: Naaman’s Leprosy

I preached this sermon on August 14, 2011, at the Dawson Creek Church of the New Jerusalem in Dawson Creek, BC.


“My father, if the prophet had spoken unto you of a great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Bathe and be​ ​clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13)

What should we do to be cleaned?  How can we be cured of our spiritual diseases?  The answer is simple: wash, and be cleaned.  Cease to do evil, learn to do good.  But that simple answer is often unsatisfying.  Sometimes we want something much bigger, something immediate and powerful that heals us in an instant.  In those times, we are like Naaman, who we read about this morning.

Naaman was the commander of the army of the king of Syria – “a great man.”  He was a hero of his people – but he suffered from leprosy.  In those times, there was no known cure for leprosy.  It would have disfigured Naaman, and made his skin hard and white.  Besides this, when a person has leprosy they lose sensitivity, and they can easily hurt their bodies because they don’t feel pain.

We don’t know how long Naaman had been a leper, or whether he had tried anything to find a cure, but the story reveals that he was desperate– since he brought with him an incredible sum of money that he was willing to give to Elisha if the prophet was able to cure him.  In fact, the disease may have been life-threatening, since when the king of Israel was asked to find a cure, he cried out, “Am I God, to put to death and make to live?” – implying that Naaman was asking for his very life.

Elisha might have been Naaman’s last hope.  But Naaman would not have even known of Elisha if it were not for a young Israelite girl who had heard of his plight.  She had been captured by the Syrians in one of their frequent raids against Israel, and brought to the house of Naaman – but she did not seem to have borne any ill will against her captors.  On the contrary, she expressed a sincere desire for Naaman to be healed – she said to her mistress, Naaman’s wife, “Oh that my lord were before the prophet that is in Samaria – then would he recover him of his leprosy!”

And so, after the king of Syria had sent a letter to the king of Israel, and Elisha had promised that Naaman could be healed, Naaman came to Israel.  He came with his horse and chariot, and he went to the entrance of the house of Elisha the prophet.  No doubt he expected a great welcome fitting for a man of his greatness.  Imagine his surprise when instead a servant came out with a message: Elisha said to bathe seven times in the Jordan, and his flesh would be returned to him, and he would be clean.  That was it – Elisha did not even come out to see him.

Naaman was furious.  He had travelled over a hundred miles, he had crossed several rivers – including the Jordan, miles before – and the great prophet would not even speak to him in person.  He had expected a great ceremony; he had thought, “He will come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of Jehovah his God, and wave his hand over the place, and recover the leper!”  But this – a message, to simply bathe in the Jordan – was insulting!  The Jordan was not even a very great river – the rivers of Damascus, Naaman’s home city, were much more renowned.  If he had to bathe in a river to be cleaned, couldn’t he as well or better bathe in the great rivers of his home?  So he turned away in a rage to begin the journey back to Syria.

But his servants stopped him.  They said, “If the prophet had spoken unto you of a great thing, would you not have done it?   How much more when he says to you, bathe and be clean?”  That gave Naaman pause.  Imagine the struggle that this might have started in him.  On the one hand, he had been told to do something so simple and childish that it was almost insulting.  On the other hand, though, he still had his leprosy, and he had no one to turn to but Elisha.  And so, he swallowed his pride.  He went to the Jordan river; he dipped in it seven times – and his flesh was healed, and became soft like the skin of a young boy – and he was clean.

Naaman’s attitude in the story is one we may recognize in ourselves.  It is easy to fantasize about doing something great and wonderful in the service of mankind.  It’s more difficult to do the everyday things – to work thanklessly to clean the house, to put food on the table, to be nice to the cashier who messed up our order, to forgive the driver who cut us off.  We would rather do something grand than mundane.

That’s the overall sense of this story – it’s about the importance of having enough humility to do something simple and straightforward rather than large and noticeable.  With that general overview in mind, we can look deeper into the story, and see its particular application in terms of our regeneration, since everything in the Word has to do in the internal sense with the way we are reformed and made ready for heaven.

We begin the story with Naaman, the commander of the army of Syria.  He’s a successful commander, the “saviour of his people” – and yet, he has leprosy, a damaging disease.  Naaman comes from Syria, and it was known even in Old Testament times that there was religious knowledge and wisdom in Syria.  The fortune-teller Balaam came from Syria, and he knew God by His name, Jehovah.  The Writings for the New Church reveal that the Syrians had this knowledge because the ancient church, the true church before the founding of the Jewish religion, had existed with them.  But over time that church had become corrupt.  They falsified the truth that they knew, and the church left them.

Because of all this, Syria represents knowledge of truth from the Lord’s Word – and in a negative sense, a knowledge that has been falsified.  Leprosy, too, represents a falsification of truth, and the profaning of it.  And so Naaman stands for a person, or the part of us, that knows things from the Lord’s Word; but it knows them in a false way, a twisted way.  For example, Naaman might be the voice in us that says, “All power is from the Lord, and I have no power of my own” – which is true –  “so there’s nothing I can do for my spiritual life except wait and hope for God to flow in.”  Or Naaman might be the voice in us that says, “The Bible says sinners go to hell” – which is true – “and I’m a sinner – there’s no way I’ll ever be good enough for heaven, so I might as well give up.”  Or Naaman might be the voice that says, “God will put me where I’m going to be the happiest I can be” – which is true – “so there’s no point in trying to change.” As you can see, all of those have grains of truth in them – but the truth is falsified.

Those falsities in particular – that there is no point in trying to change, in putting effort toward our spiritual life – are falsities that keep us from goodness.  They are falsities that numb us, in the way that leprosy dulls the senses of someone suffering from it.  They’re falsities that make us feel dead, and that there’s nothing we can do to change where we are.  When we’re in a state like Naaman, we’re in a state where life feels dull and meaningless, and where we feel like nothing is ever going to change.  Naaman’s leprosy seemed incurable.

But into the scene comes that young Israelite girl.  As a little child, she represents innocence.  She knows of a cure for Naaman.  And catching sight of innocence – in ourselves or in someone else – can prompt us to believe that there is something more in life, a deeper kind of joy than we have now.  Many of us give up on the ideas of ever being innocent ourselves – we’ve seen too much, we’ve done too much – but a reminder that innocence does exist can prompt us to look for something more, to look for a cure for our spiritual leprosy.

And so Naaman comes to Israel, to Elisha the prophet.  In the same way, when we have that hope that we can be cured, that something in us really can change, we can come to the church – represented by the land of Israel – and to the Word – represented by the prophet Elisha, since as a prophet he spoke the word of the Lord.  We decide to see what the church has to say, what the Word has to say, and whether it can really do anything for us.

Sometimes we do this with an attitude of humility.  But there are other times when we do it with something of that attitude of Naaman.  We want immediate, drastic, visible change in our lives, and we won’t be satisfied with anything less.

We can come with those expectations or desires.  That’s certainly what Naaman came with.  But Elisha did not come out and perform some great, powerful ritual.  Instead he sent a simple message: if you want to be cured, go dip in the Jordan river seven times, and you will be clean.  Nothing dramatic, nothing immediate – just go back and bathe in the Jordan.

It’s clear to anyone reading this that there must be some deeper significance to the Jordan river, and to washing seven times.  As a river, the Jordan represents truth.  Truth quenches our thirst for understanding in the same way that water quenches our natural thirst.  Truth washes away falsity the same way that water washes away dirt and grime from our bodies.  And the river Jordan, because it was at the entrance to the land of Israel, represents the first, basic truths we learn from the Word.  That’s why John the Baptist baptized people in the Jordan: because baptism marks an entrance into the Lord’s church and a first introduction to the basic truths of the church.  These basic truths are the ones that are found right in the literal sense of the Word: that there is a God, that He wants us to love Him and love each other, that we must not murder, or steal, or bear false witness, or commit adultery.

The Jordan represents those basic truths, and washing in the Jordan means living by them.  It especially means repenting from the evils listed in the Ten Commandments and elsewhere in the literal sense of the Word.  That’s why John preached a baptism of “repentance, for the remission of sins.”

But to return to the story of Naaman.  Just as Naaman went to Israel and listened to Elisha, we have gone to the church and listened to the Word.  But our lives were not miraculously changed in an instant.  We did not immediately learn some great answer that solved all our problems.  Instead, we are told to bathe in the river Jordan seven times – that is, to live by the most basic teachings of the Lord’s Word.

It can be disappointing.  How in the world is that going to make any difference?  These are obvious things.  Everyone knows you’re not supposed to lie.  Everyone knows you’re not supposed to commit adultery.  Everyone knows it’s bad to murder.  These are so simple – they’re too simple.

And it really can be hard to believe that these will make any difference, because often we feel like we’re basically doing them anyway.  “Sure, maybe I lie sometimes, but I don’t most of the time, and I don’t see how cutting out those times when I do lie will make that big an impact on my life.”  “Sure, I look at other women and fantasize a bit, but I love my wife, and it doesn’t seem to do any harm.”  “Yes, I’ll occasionally fudge the numbers with my job, but it’s not really hurting anyone, and stopping it wouldn’t make some huge drastic change in my life.  Maybe ideally I’d do it, but that’s not really the issue.  That can’t be the issue – it’s much bigger than those little things I’m doing.”

But the answer to those objections is simple: if those things aren’t that big a deal, than why not stop doing them?  Why not start addressing those simple, everyday ways that you break the commandments.  Maybe they aren’t the biggest issue – but if you’d be willing to do something big and grand and life-changing – why not start with the little things and see what happens?

Naaman’s servants use the same line of reasoning with him.  If you’d be willing to do something great, why not do this small thing?  And so Naaman – perhaps still not entirely believing it will work – bathes in the Jordan seven times.  Throughout the Word, the number seven represents completeness.  Bathing in the Jordan seven times means completely deciding to follow those basic commandments.  It means whole-heartedly shunning evils as sins against the Lord – not just because they’re a bad idea, or might get us in trouble, but because they are blocking the Lord’s love for us, and making our lives hellish.  Again, it’s hard to believe that those everyday things are so important – but unless we shun even these evils because they are sins against God, nothing is really going to change.

And Naaman does notice a change.  His skin becomes like that of a young boy, and he is cleaned.  That image of a young boy again calls to mind that first impulse that made us want to change – a vision of innocence.  And we can find that there is hope that even we can become innocent again, with a new kind of innocence – not an innocence of ignorance, but an innocence of wisdom.

Now the change did not take place after dipping once in the Jordan, or twice, or three times.  You can imagine what Naaman may have been thinking as he went into the Jordan again and again and saw nothing being washed away.  Is this really going to work?  And the same thing can happen if we make a commitment to shunning some everyday evil in our lives – it can seem at first like it really makes no difference at all.  A person who is fighting an addiction to pornography, for example, might force himself to stop, and to shun that as a sin against God – but still at first not notice any difference in the way he relates to his wife or his girlfriend or people of the opposite sex in general.  But if he keeps at it and continues to shun it, after months or even years, if he looks back to where he was before, he will notice that his life has changed.

Now, if a person takes credit for the change, they end up right where they were before.  But Naaman knows that it is not due to his own greatness that he was cleaned.  At the end of the story, he goes back to Elisha and offers him great riches; and when Elisha turns those down, Naaman asks only for some dirt from the land of Israel to take back with him and worship on.  Think of the change that has happened in him: from the arrogant pride when he arrive; to the humility he displays here, valuing the dirt of Israel above his own wealth and reputation.

It’s easy to hear again and again in church about repentance, and to sigh, “Yes, I’ve heard that before!”  It’s pretty mundane.  It’s not that impressive.  And because it’s so familiar, we can think it’s not going to make any difference.  But challenge yourself.  Today, after you’ve gone home from church, look at an everyday, small evil in your life, and resolve to shun it as a sin against the Lord.  Pray to the Lord for help. And you will notice the beginnings of a change.  It willopen you up to new realizations about where you are spiritually, and where the Lord can take you.  And if you keep learning truth from the Lord’s Word, and living by it, you will be made clean.  “Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh shall return to you, and you shall be clean.”


Lessons: Matthew 3:1-17; 2 Kings 5:1-19; Divine Providence 329

DP 329. What is the Decalogue at the present day but like a little closed book or religious primer, opened only in the hands of infants and children? Say to anyone of mature age, Do not do this because it is contrary to the Decalogue, and who pays any attention? But if you say, Do not do this because it is contrary to the Divine laws, he may give this his attention; and yet the commandments of the Decalogue are the Divine laws themselves. An experiment was made with several spirits in the spiritual world, and when the Decalogue or Catechism was mentioned they rejected it with contempt. The reason for this is that the Decalogue in its second table, which is man’s table, teaches that evils are to be shunned; and he who does not shun them, whether from impiety or from the religious belief that works avail nothing, but only faith, hears with some contempt the Decalogue or Catechism being mentioned as though he heard mention made of a book for children, n which is no longer of any use to him.

Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister