A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Each year, as we reflect about the things that have happened in the past year, we begin to wonder about the things that might happen in the year to come. We are interested in what the future may hold for us, even though we know that if we had the sure and certain knowledge of the future it would take away our spiritual freedom. But we would all like to have an indication of the way things are going to be. Our subject for today is what the doctrines of the church teach about dreams, and what, if anything, our dreams might tell us about our future.

The dreams and visions that we read about in scripture are different from our own dreams, for they were given by the Lord for the specific purpose of revealing the Word. The Doctrines tell us that there are four different kinds of visions, and three different kinds of dreams. Visions differ from dreams in that visions are sights of the spiritual world that occur while the person is awake. The simplest kind of visions are those of people who have very active imaginations and see things that aren’t there. Spirits approach and encourage wild imaginings, and the longer they think about it, the stronger the feeling grows, until the person is absolutely convinced that it is so. The Doctrines say that “Such things befall those who indulge much in fancies, and are subject to infirmity of mind, and have thereby become credulous.” (AC 1967)

Each of us has no doubt seen drawings or illustrations that made no sense at all until the artist explained it. Then the visual images of the picture suddenly made sense and the image seemed to snap into place. Optical illusions illustrate how little the eye is involved in seeing–it is the mind that interprets the visual images, and puts them together in such a way as to make meaningful patterns. Since it is the mind that really “sees,” we can then understand that if the mind is confused or misled, all kinds of things will be seen that don’t actually exist in the objective universe. Anyone who has been fooled by an optical illusion can understand that many visions and sightings of strange and wondrous things are not signs from heaven, but signs from a desperately seeking mind, especially when encouraged and supported by attendant spirits.

A more powerful kind of vision is inspired by what are called “enthusiastic” spirits. In these circumstances, no shadows or optical illusions are necessary. The person who sees this kind of vision is easily persuaded about things, and is able to persuade others as well. The Doctrines say that these “enthusiastic” spirits have contracted this nature from persuasions and false principles while they lived in the world. (See AC 1968)

The third kind of vision is called “phantasy.” This is the preferred state of the evil spirits in the life after death. It is similar to daydreaming in that the person chooses to create an imaginary world in which to live and function, completely apart from the influence of any other living being. Such a world is completely imaginary and self-centered. The evil are in such a state because they are not permitted to act out their evils except in their imaginations, so they choose to dwell in dream-worlds of their own creation. “Such phantasies are perpetual with the infernals.” (AC 1969)

None of these visions are like those experienced by the prophets who were involved in the writing of the Word. The prophets had genuine visions, which means they were permitted to see real things in the spiritual world, that is, those things in the spiritual world that can be seen by spirits and angels with the eyes of their spiritual bodies. These are real things that exist in heaven and can be seen by men in the world–but only when their interior sight is opened by the Lord.

Every human being has a spirit within. While we live in the world of nature, that spirit is clothed with things of the natural world, and uses organs of natural material to sense and manipulate that world. While in the natural world, the spiritual organs are within, guiding and enlivening, but they are not used. When the earthly body dies, and the natural covering is lost, the spiritual organs within come into use and open for the first time. The spirit awakes in the spiritual world clothed in a body of spiritual substances appropriate to that world. With it he senses and manipulates the spiritual world. Such is the ordinary case with all men.

Since a spiritual body dwells within the natural body of every human being, it is possible for the Lord to lay the natural aside, for a time, and awaken the spiritual senses, provided there is an important use to be served. Such were the visions of the prophets. When the spiritual sight is opened, then those things which have actual existence with spirits are clearly seen. Not only are representatives seen, but also the spirits themselves, together with an understanding of who and what they are, all confirmed in living speech, just as in the world, except that such communication is free from falsity and mis-understanding. (See AC 1970)

Dreams differ from visions in that visions occur while the person is awake, while dreams take place while the person sleeps. The first kind of dream described by the doctrines is that which is from the Lord through heaven. This is the kind of prophetic dream that is found in so many places in the Word: Joseph, the Butler and Baker in prison, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Joseph being told about Mary and being warned to go to Egypt, and many other examples. (AC 1976)

The second kind of dream is one that is inspired by the angels themselves. This is the kind of communication that they had in the Most Ancient Church, where men on earth and men in the heavens were in constant, open communication. This does not happen to us today because the state of the human race has fallen so low, and is so concerned with the things of the natural world that it cannot any longer lift itself up to the states of even the lowest angels. (AC 1976)

The third kind of dreams are stirred in the mind when a person is sleeping. These are caused by the thoughts and affections of spirits in the world of spirits who are nearby at such times as you own conscious mind quiets down in sleep, allowing your unconscious mind to “tune in” to the spiritual spheres around you. (See AC 1976) Swedenborg conducted experiments to explore the relationship between the things that he saw in his dreams, and the things that were happening in the spiritual world at the same time. Waking after a dream, he, being at that time in open communication with the spiritual world, described his dreams to the spirits who had been with him while he slept. They said that what he described was a perfect representation of the things they had been talking about among themselves while he slept–but they were not the things spoken themselves. In other words, he did not overhear or eavesdrop upon their conversation and thus learn anything from it, but the subject of their conversation inspired the images and feelings of his dream.

The angels further told him that the same conversation could have been turned into other images with unlimited variety. The reason he saw the images he did was because of his own state of mind at the time. In other words, many different dreams might be stimulated by a single angelic conversation, because each person associated with those spirits would have a different memory, a different collection of life experiences, a different response to life at that moment, and so variety is produced much as the white light from the sun is everywhere the same, but produces a profusion of colors when received by the different substances in this world. (See AC 1980)

The whole of the Old Testament is, in regard to the internal sense, a prophecy of the Lord’s life on earth. So, we can say with certainty that the Lord revealed the future to men on earth through their dreams. However, it is also clear that the Lord presented the information to the men in such a way as could be interpreted in a number of different ways. This made it possible for Him to write the Word by means of men on earth, and at the same time protect them from the danger of certain knowledge of the future.

Evil spirits burn with the desire to infest and attack us when we sleep, and because, when the conscious mind relaxes in sleep, the spiritual world is able to draw much closer, we properly feel the danger. Because the conscious mind, and therefore the free will, is asleep and unable to protect itself, when a person sleeps he is especially guarded by the Lord, for “love does not sleep” (AC 1983). Spirits who attempt to disturb or infest a sleeping person are severely punished.

In spite of the Lord’s protection, spirits are able to draw near enough to stir and waken the evil desires and unclean thoughts that are lurking under our conscious mind, and these evils within us are permitted to express themselves from time to time. This is not an infestation from without, but rather a stirring up of some of the things that are within, the things that would dominate our waking lives if not controlled by our own self-discipline and the Lord’s help. Frightening and disturbing dreams occur when our fallen nature and hereditary evils–our love and delight in the things of the natural world are stirred by spheres from hell in our sleep.

Dreams and visions were absolutely essential tools used in writing the Old and New Testaments. These were the means whereby the prophets, men living in the natural world among other men, were temporarily brought into the sphere of heaven where they saw and heard wondrous things. Their record of the wonderful things they saw and heard makes up a large part of the Old Testament.

In much the same way, dreams and visions played an essential part in the work that Swedenborg performed. He, like the prophets of old, was permitted to see things in the spiritual world. Unlike the Old Testament prophets, Swedenborg was prepared and permitted to take an active part in his visions. He was permitted to speak with the angels and spirits, to converse with them, to get to know them, to argue with them, and in every other way carry on as if a native of that world. This spiritual experience, combined with his wide range of earthly learning, made it possible for him to carry a spiritual message to men on earth with a clarity, a breadth, and a depth never before known.

But, does this mean that we should rely on our own dreams and visions as guides for the future? No, for several reasons. First, we must ask ourselves, “Who is the source of the dream?” Is it the Lord? Is it an angel? Is it a spirit recently arrived in the spiritual world? Or is it perhaps an evil spirit from hell? How can we tell for certain? The answer is that while we are yet in this world, we cannot tell for certain, and in fact can be easily deceived.

We also have to ask ourselves, “What is being stirred in us by this dream?” Is it our hereditary evils and lusts, or is it our affections of good and truth? It could be either. How can we make an objective judgment about our states in such a case?

Finally, after we have satisfied ourselves that the dream is from a heavenly source and we wish to pursue it further, and that it is stirring good affections within us, we have to ask ourselves, “What is the interpretation of the dream?” Remember Swedenborg’s experience that one spiritual idea could cause any number of different representations in the dream. With the possibility of such variety, how is it possible to reverse the process and deduce the idea from the representation with any degree of accuracy without the Lord’s direct assistance?

Dreams, like all ideas and thoughts, have their origin in the spiritual world. Pleasant, peaceful dreams have their origin in heaven, while nightmares have their origin in hell. Dreams may even give indications of what our future holds by revealing our response to certain types of situations, but never in such a way as to remove our freedom of choice. We must never fall into the trap of taking our dreams too seriously, but instead look to the dreams and visions of the prophets as they are recorded in the Word, and let these sure and certain words, prepared and interpreted by God Himself, let them be our guide for the future. AMEN.

Lessons: Genesis 37:1-11, Matthew 2:11-23, AC 4682:1

The Word Made Flesh

The Word Made Flesh

A Sermon by James P. Cooper

Toronto, December 9, 2012

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1,14)

Each of the four evangelists treats the story of the Lord’s birth on earth in a very different manner. Matthew, himself a Jew, gives us a genealogy linking Jesus to Abraham, Joseph’s perspective on the miracle, and the visit of the Wise Men. Mark, author of the shortest and most direct gospel, leaves out the story of the Lord’s birth altogether and begins with the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. There is evidence that although Luke was not himself a disciple, he did know Mary very well, and we should not be surprised that his gospel presents the story primarily from her point of view. From Luke we learn about the birth of John, the Annunciation, the Lord’s birth in Bethlehem, the adoration of the shepherds, and His presentation in the temple.

John’s gospel is much more philosophical and theological, and tells the story of the Lord’s incarnation completely in just a few words. It is an intellectual and doctrinal presentation, and does little to stir the affections, and yet it is worth our study and reflection.

The very first thing John writes, the leading idea of his gospel, is that the very first thing that existed, and the thing from which all other things have life, is the Word. He said with profound simplicity, In the beginning was the Word (text). There should be an immediate recognition of the similarity between that phrase and the very first idea in the Word, the leading idea of the whole of scripture, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). John is consciously directing us to identify the “Word” with God the Creator. The Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church support this view, and expand on it; and in doing so, develop our understanding of the Word and its function in our lives.

The Doctrines tell us that many people believe that truth is only something that someone in authority says, or a description of something in the natural world that can be demonstrated to others. Some have even come to believe that truth is “relative,” that what is true for one person is not necessarily true for another, and have therefore come to believe that truth is what is acceptable to other men at a given time and under certain circumstances.

A recent article about religious faith in America today made it very clear that a significant number of Christians believe that when the letter of the Word conflicts with what people wish to believe, then the Word must be changed or it will cease to be “relevant.”

People have struggled with God’s laws since the beginning of time. People have always wanted to interpret them to favor their own activities, and to limit the activities of their enemies, but today we are seeing the acceptance of the idea that people’s opinions are of a higher authority than the Lord’s Word Itself.

This is a very limited and incorrect view. Truth is not objective. If we took a vote, and every single person on the planet voted that, based on their own observations, the earth was flat, it would not make it so. A thing that is true is true whether people believe it to be true or not.

Further, truth is not just ideas, or words, but truth is something that has power. Truth is the system of order that holds things together. The power of truth can do great good, and when misdirected it can do great harm. In the Word, truth is represented by stones, and every way that stones are used in the Word shows something about truth. There are precious gems, there are simple altars, there are great cities, and there are people executed by stoning. We can use truth to build things to honor God, to honor man, or to destroy. It is our choice because truth has real power in our lives!

Truth has power in our lives because it and good are the principles of all things in both the spiritual and natural worlds, and they are the means by which the universe was created and by which it is preserved. These two are the all in all of everything (TCR 224:1).

The Human Race, and everything else in the universe, was made by Divine Truth. This is true because all things in man are from the understanding and the will, the understanding being the receptacle of Divine Truth, and the will that of Divine Good. Consequently the human mind, which, like everything in the created universe, consists of those two principles, is nothing but a form of Divine Truth and Divine Good, spiritually and naturally organized: the human brain is itself such a form. (See TCR 224:2) The Apocalypse Explained puts it this way:

The Lord is called “the Word” because the Word signifies Divine truth; He is also called “the Light” because Divine truth is the light in the heavens; He is also called “the Life,” because everything that lives, lives from that life; from that also angels have intelligence and wisdom, in which their life consists. (AE 196:1)

The Life itself that proceeds from the Lord and fills heaven and the world, is the life of His love, and in heaven this appears as light, and because this light is life it enlightens the minds of angels, and enables them to understand and be wise. From this it is that the Lord calls Himself not only “the Life” but also “the Light.” The light which is life from the Lord in heaven is there called Divine truth, because it shines in the minds of those who are there, and thence shines before their eyes. (AE 186:11)

As all things of the Word both in general and in particular treat of the Lord; and as the Word, being the Divine truth, is the Lord, it is evident why it is said, And the Word was made flesh. (See Lord 2) As the Lord prepared Himself to be born on earth, the Divine Truth itself passed through every degree of heaven, clothing itself with forms to make it suitable and acceptable in the world of men. As it passed through the celestial heaven, the Divine Truth was accommodated to the celestial understanding. As it passed through the Spiritual and Natural heavens, it was accommodated to those levels of understanding, and when the infant Jesus Christ was born into this world, the Divine Good and Truth were clothed and accommodated in such a way as to be received and understood in this world. Therefore, when John talks about the Word becoming flesh, he is referring to the process whereby the Divine Truth Itself as it exists above the heavens accommodated and prepared itself for reception in the natural world. John was not only speaking of the fulfillment of the literal prophecies of the Old Testament – although that too was accomplished. (See TCR 85:2)

The Heavenly Doctrines also give us the reason why He chose to take on the mortal human body in the world, why He wished to be subject to the ills and temptations of this world: He did it this way in order to bring the hells into order. This can be illustrated by thinking about an adult who is looking after a room full of little children. We can imagine the adult in one room while the children play in another. At first, all is peaceful. Then a little squabble breaks out which the adult stops by calling out to the children. Soon another squabble breaks out, and hoping that they will bring themselves into order if given the chance, he asks one of the older children to sort it out, and that too works for a while, but eventually things get so out of hand that he must go into the room himself and bring it back into order. The Lord wanted us to keep ourselves in order so He first sent the Word to teach us the right way to behave, and later sent the prophets to warn us, but evils multiplied upon evils until He had to come Himself in such a form as the hells could attack so that He could bring the whole of the spiritual and natural worlds back into a state of order. (See AC 10182:4)

What is so surprising is that although the Lord’s coming has been predicted and looked for for generations, when He finally did arrive, He was not understood or received by “His own”, the Jewish Church. John puts it this way: And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. (John1:5,10,11)

“Light” is Divine truth, and “darkness” the falsities in which those are who are not in the light, (AE 151:4) and especially the falsities of those within the church. (AC 1839:7) The Lord’s doctrines were the light to show all people in all ages the way to lift themselves up out of their misery and frustration, to bring meaning and eternal delights to life in this world – but when these people were offered the choice of repentance and salvation, they instead elected to remain in the delights of their own chosen evils.

For all the sophistication and knowledge of the modern world available to us today, for all our scientific accomplishments, for all our studies of economics and the lessons of history, many people remain in seeming ignorance of the principles of life which will bring them eternal satisfaction. Some people, knowing these principles, reject them. The Heavenly Doctrines tell us about such people that because the Word is from the Lord, and the Lord is in the Word, it follows that those who reject the truths of the Word are at the same time rejecting the Lord, because the Lord and the Word form a unity that cannot be broken. For the same reasons, those who reject either the Word or the Lord also reject the Church itself, for the Church exists from the Lord by means of the truths of the Word. Finally, those who reject the Church from such principles, shut themselves out of heaven, because the most important function of the Church is to introduce men to heaven by showing them how to a life of mere civil obedience into a life of moral and spiritual value. (See TCR 384)

In the final analysis, John’s philosophical presentation of the manner of the Lord’s birth on earth, the concept that the Word must become Flesh, tells us that the Spiritual knowledges that are given to us from the Word must become “flesh”, that is, they must be applied to our lives in the natural world. The Divine truth which is from the Lord is continually flowing in with man, and forms his understanding, and without this continual influx of the truth Divine that proceeds from the Lord a man can perceive and understand nothing whatever. For the Divine truth that proceeds from the Lord is the light which lights up the mind of man, and makes the internal sight, which is the understanding. But those who receive the Lord’s truths are those who are in the good of life; and those who do not receive truth from the Lord are those who are in evil of life. However, it is important to note that both those who are in the good of life and those who are in the evil of life have the capacity of perceiving, understanding, and receiving truth insofar as they desist from evil.

This is an essential point that must be understood. Every angel in heaven, every man in the world, and every devil in hell has the intellectual capacity to understand and receive the spiritual truths presented in the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church. It is the persistence in evil that clouds man’s understanding. No one can think clearly about spiritual things when he is trying to find a way to make evil allowable in the context of his own life. The Divine Truth, a continuous gift from the Lord, is only received and appropriated to man in the proportion that he shuns evils as sins. (See AC9399:1,3)

Nothing else constitutes spiritual life with man but the knowledges of truth and good from the Word applied to life; and they are applied to life when man holds them as the laws of his life, for he then looks to the Lord in everything, and with such the Lord is present, and gives intelligence and wisdom and affection for them and delight in them. For the Lord is in His truths with man, since every truth proceeds from the Lord, and what proceeds from the Lord that is His, even so that it is He; therefore the Lord says: – The Word was with God, and God was the Word. In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. That was the true light, that lights every man. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (John 1:1,4,9,14). (AE 196:1) AMEN.

First Lesson: JOH 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. {2} He was in the beginning with God. {3} All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. {4} In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. {5} And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. {6} There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. {7} This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. {8} He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. {9} That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. {10} He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. {11} He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. {12} But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: {13} who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. {14} And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. {15} John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.’” {16} And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. {17} For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. {18} No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. Amen.

Second Lesson: AC 4180:5

[5] It being the Divine Human, and not the Divine itself, from which Divine Truth proceeds, it is the Divine Human therefore which is meant here by ‘the Dread of Isaac’. For as has been stated, it is Divine Truth which strikes fear into someone, not Divine Good. That it is the Lord’s Divine Human, and not the Divine itself, from which Divine Truth proceeds is an arcanum that has not been disclosed up to now. The implications of the arcanum are as follows: Before the Lord came into the world the Divine itself flowed into the whole of heaven; and because heaven at that time consisted for the most part of those who were celestial, that is, who were governed by the good of love, that influx of God’s Almighty power furnished the light which shone in the heavens, and with that light wisdom and intelligence. But when the human race departed from the good of love and charity it was no longer possible for that light to be provided by way of heaven, nor consequently for the wisdom and intelligence to come through to the human race. For this reason, so that the human race might be saved, the Lord out of necessity came into the world and made Divine the Human within Himself in order that as to that Divine Human He might become Divine Light, and in so doing might bring light to the whole of heaven and to the whole world. He had been from eternity Light itself, for the Divine itself passing through the heavens was the source of that Light. And it was the Divine itself which took on the Human and made this Human Divine; and once that Human had been made Divine He was then able to bring light not only to the celestial heaven itself but also to the spiritual heaven, and to the human race too, which received and receives Divine Truth within good, that is, within love to Him and within charity towards the neighbor, as is evident in John,

As many as received Him, to them He gave power to be sons of God, to those believing in His name, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:12, 13. Amen.