We Have Seen His Star in the East


A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him. (Mt. 2:2)

In the Psalms, David says, He bowed the heavens also, and came down With darkness under His feet (PSA 18:9), and Matthew opens his gospel with a descending series of names which, in the internal sense, explain the steps that the Lord took as He descended through the heavens into the world and took on a Human form. In Luke there is an ascending series of names that describes the many different steps by which He ascended into His heavenly kingdom by putting off all those things that were merely human, and glorified Himself. Today, we are going to look at the part the Most Ancient, the Ancient, and the Jewish Churches played in helping the Lord prepare Himself and the world for His coming.

The first church which the Lord established among men on earth is called “The Most Ancient Church.” It was also called “Adam” because when the Word speaks of Adam and his life, it is speaking in the internal sense about the Most Ancient Church.

We know very little about the natural history of the Most Ancient Church, for it existed among the very earliest men, at a time long before any written records. Swedenborg tells of visiting their societies in heaven, and from those descriptions we can get an idea of the kind of life they had in the world. However, it is extremely important to remember that he did not go back in time, but only visited their societies as they exists now in the spiritual world. Although they would be the same in essentials, there may be some changes caused by the passage of thousands of years in heaven.

The people of the Most Ancient Church were very simple. They lived in family groups, in tents rather than in fixed dwellings, and they kept flocks and herds. They did not eat meat but used the animals to provide fibers for weaving, milk, cheese and butter. But perhaps the most important characteristic of this church is that they were in open communication with heaven. They were innocent, and good, and they were so spiritual that their spiritual eyes were opened while they yet lived on the earth. This was possible because their will and their understanding were united, just as is the case with the angels.

As long as they loved only good, this was not a problem. Every thought that came into their mind was good, and so they did not have to think about the consequences before they followed their desires. But eventually, through the natural tendency of created things to wear out and break down, there were some who had thoughts and desires that were “less good,” and these were followed as well.

As soon as this breakdown began, as soon as the people of the Most Ancient Church began to become aware of sensual delights, the Lord foresaw that this would eventually lead to the destruction of mankind by evil unless He came into the world to restore order. Thus the first prophecy of His coming is contained in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”

As He foresaw, the lesser goods spread like a disease among the Most Ancients, and they were defenseless. Because their will and understanding were united, they could not lift their understanding above their will, they could not see the consequences of an evil desire and choose to refrain from it. Once evil desires were introduced into their lives, they rushed helplessly after them. They drowned in the flood of their own evil desires. In the Word, this is recorded as the story of the Flood.

Since evil had been created by men and was now loose in the world, the Lord made an important change in the human mind, separating the will and the understanding. By allowing the will and the understanding to act independently of one another, it was possible for a person to love something evil, yet refrain from doing it because he knew it was wrong, or because he was afraid of punishment, or any other reason. The point was that mankind was not longer a slave to their evil desires, but could, through truth, rise above them, and rationally decide to do something that was difficult, or painful, for the sake of a greater good. These are the kind of men that made up the church “Noah,” or the Ancient church.

There is evidence that this church was spread throughout the whole world because we find that every ancient culture that existed at the dawn of history has certain similarities that tie it to the Ancient Church. This was the age when writing was begun, and the legends and stories that had been handed down from generation to generation were finally written down.

In this church, in its integrity, the Lord was seen in everything in the natural world. They would look up at a beautiful mountain peak, and they would notice that they were looking up, and because they look up to the Lord, because He is above all creation, for them the mountain became a symbol of love to the Lord. The looked at a tree, and saw how it stood with it roots firmly in the earth, but how its crown lived in heaven, and they saw in it a symbol of man himself. Everywhere they looked, they saw evidence of the Lord and His great love for mankind, and they wrote stories and created works of art to remind each other of His glory and His presence among them.

But in time the Ancient Church also began to decline from its integrity and purity. They became more and more natural, and began to forget the spiritual origin of their works of art. They began to worship the things themselves as gods. This decay of the Ancient Church is the cause of the widespread and common belief in many gods and the worshipping of idols that were characteristic of the ancient world. If you look at the basic similarity between the Greek, Roman, and Norse Gods and legends, you can see indications of a common origin.

Let us not be distracted by the downfall of that church from the important use that it performed for the Lord and for mankind itself. The people of the Ancient Church invented writing as a means of recording their legends and the symbolism they developed. The first ten and a half chapters of Genesis, the stories of Creation, the Flood, and the tower of Babel, are characteristic of the writing style of the Ancient Church. Because symbolism was such an integral part of their life and philosophy, their writings are also full of subtle, inner meanings. These meanings were especially led and directed by the Lord so that they would contain within them an internal sense that would inmostly speak of nothing but the Lord and His glorification.

He also led the Ancient writers to collect and record many prophecies of the Lord’s birth into the world. Although they did not, and could not, understand what those prophecies meant at the time, they did serve to give warning of the Lord’s coming, they did serve to keep people in some degree of order as they did not know when the Messiah should arrive and when they would be required to explain their actions to Him.

As time went on, the Ancient Church went through several judgments and stages until it became entirely natural. This church was first known as the “Hebrew” church after Eber; then it was later known as the “Israelitish” church, or “the Children of Israel” after Jacob, whose name was changed to “Israel” by Jehovah; and it was finally known as the “Jewish” church because after the ten Northern tribes were taken captive and lost, only those who were descended from Judah remained. For convenience, we generally refer to all three eras as the “Jewish” church.

One thing that particularly characterized the Jewish Church was their love of tradition and ritual. The covenant that was established between the Jewish Church and Jehovah was based on this love. They were required to go through some particular ceremonies and rituals which corresponded to heavenly things, in return for which they would be given preeminence over the other nations of the earth. Thus they were able to carefully follow the elaborate ritual of sacrifice which contained within it all manner of spiritual wisdom, but never discovered anything of the spiritual power within it.

Their love and reverence for preserving and protecting served a great use, for through their care, the texts of the Old Testament have survived thousands of years of hand copying and recopying and have yet come down to us essentially unchanged. Before the invention of the printing press, each copy of the Old Testament, or any book for that matter, had to be copied by hand. One can easily image that even with the most diligent care that errors would be sure to creep in over time. The Jewish redactors took their job very seriously. After each page was copied, they proofread it. Then they counted the number of characters. The same process was used for each chapter, book, and scroll. If the character count was off, the copy was destroyed as being inaccurate. Did the system work? Up until about 1940 the oldest (and theoretically most accurate) texts we had were dated from about the 7th Century AD Then with the discovery of the “Dead Sea Scrolls” we had the opportunity of comparing our texts with texts written in about the 4th century BC It is a tribute to the dedication of the Jewish scholars (and to the leading of Divine Providence) that while there are changes in the written language, as can be expected over a period of a thousand years, there are no essential changes in the texts. The redactors had made continuous copies with such accuracy that over a period of a thousand years, there were no textual changes apparent in a comparison of the original with the later copies.

While the Jewish scholars were preserving the texts themselves, they lost the knowledge of the purpose and meaning of the texts. Fortunately, there were still remnants of the Ancient Church remaining. In particular, we are told that there were in Syria scholars and others who still knew the science of correspondences, and through them were able to understand the prophecies of the Old Testament with far more accuracy than others. We are told that Balaam, the prophet called to curse the children of Israel by Balak, was such a one. He was a wizard, called by Balak because of his reputation. Balak said of Balaam “he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6). Balaam may have lived in Syria, but we know that he worshipped Jehovah, as the children of Israel were just learning to. He was permitted to come to Balak because the Lord was going to use him to teach the Canaanites a lesson about the power of Jehovah, and at the same time to bless the children of Israel at the beginning of their conquest of the land, and to prophesy once more of His coming into the world.

The Wise Men too were from Syria, for, as it says in Matthew, they were in the East when they saw the star (Matthew 2:2). We know that they too had the knowledges of the Ancient Church because they knew the secrets of the science of correspondences, and were able to predict with great accuracy the time and place of the Lord’s birth.

It is interesting to note that the Wise Men may have known a great deal about the Lord’s birth on earth, but they, like the disciples who were to follow Him later, also misunderstood the nature of the Lord’s mission on earth. As they made their journey, following the star which stood over Bethlehem, it appeared to them that it was over Jerusalem because of the angle of their approach. They jumped to the conclusion that since the Messiah was to be the king of the Jews, that He would be born in the palace in Jerusalem and so they proceeded to the palace to inquire of Herod instead of continuing to follow the star to Bethlehem. This was important because it served to draw attention to the fact that the Lord was not born in a palace, but in a humble stable, it was just one more attempt on the Lord’s part to clear up the confusion that surrounded His birth.

None of the prophecies, or any of the Lord’s own teachings said anything about Him becoming an earthly king – ever. Many of the prophecies were understood in that way because the Jews themselves wanted an earthly king and had no interest in a heavenly king. Knowing this, the Lord repeatedly taught the spiritual nature of His kingdom, and turned away from the things of the world, symbolized by His humble birth in a stable.

The Wise Men told Herod, “We have seen His star in the East” (text). In the natural sense, it tells us that the Wise Men were in the East, that is, in Syria, when they first saw the star which they then followed to Jerusalem and eventually to the house where Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus were. Interiorly, the sentence “we have seen His star in the East” speaks of our own discovery and acceptance of the Lord. The “East” everywhere in the Word stands for love to the Lord, and stars stand for the truths of faith, so to “see His star in the East” means to see the truths of faith in or from a state of love to the Lord.

Like Balaam and the Wise Men, we have the science of correspondences. Like the Jews, we have the prophecies. We have everything we need to find the Lord, if we will only look for him. Millions of people looked at the night sky, but only the Wise Men saw and followed the star, because they were looking not only with their eyes, but with their hearts as well. They longed for the coming of the king and the order that He would bring. Millions of people read the Word. But not everyone finds the Lord within its lessons, because they have not opened their hearts to Him, they do not wish to change their lives. In order to see the star, in order to understand the truths of faith from the Lord, we have to look from the East, from the love to the Lord. We need to turn away from the loves of self and the world, and towards the Lord and His will. Only once we have quieted the loves of self and the world will we be able to allow the Lord to lead our lives. But when we do, our lives will be changed forever, for we will be able to see the star, and follow its guiding light until we reach the Lord’s spiritual kingdom. And behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was (Matt. 2:9). AMEN.

Lessons: NUM. 24:5-7, 17-19; MAT. 2:1-9; AC 3762:5

Hear now from the Word of the Lord as it is written.…

1st Lesson: MAT 2:1-9

(Mat 2:1-9) Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, {2} saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” {3} When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. {4} And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. {5} So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: {6} ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.'” {7} Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. {8} And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” {9} When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. Amen.

2nd Lesson: AC 3762:5

[5] The wise men from the east who came to Jesus when He was born belonged to those people called the sons of the east. This becomes clear from the fact of their awareness that the Lord was to be born, and that they knew of His Coming from the star which appeared to them in the east. These matters are described in Matthew as follows, When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, behold wise men from the east came into Jerusalem, saying, Where is He born King of the Jews? for we have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him. Matt. 2:1, 2.

The fact that such a prophecy existed from of old among the sons of the east, who were from Syria, is clear from Balaam’s prophecy concerning the Lord’s Coming, in Moses, I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near. A star will arise out of Jacob and a sceptre will rise up out of Israel. Num. 24:17.

The fact that Balaam was from the land of the sons of the east, that is, from Syria, is evident from the following in Moses, Balaam uttered his declaration and said, From Syria has Balak, the king of Moab, brought me, from the mountains of the east. Num. 23:7.

The wise men who came to Jesus when He was born are called the magi (or magicians), but this expression was used for wise men at that time, as is clear from many places [in the Old Testament] … and in various places in the Prophets. Amen.

Here end the lessons. Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it. Amen.

He Bowed the Heavens

A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper

“He bowed the heavens also, and came down with darkness under His feet. And He rode upon a cherub, and flew; He flew upon the wings of the wind.” (Psalm 18:9)

Scripture is full of references to the time and manner of the Lord’s birth, as we should expect since it is the single most important event in the history of man. Some of the references are the direct and familiar passages which describe the events surrounding the birth of the infant Jesus; others are purely theological, as John’s statement that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1,13).

The passages we are going to examine today are so difficult to understand in their letter that most people pass right over them when they are reading the Word, and yet these passages too tell the story of the Lord’s birth on earth. We are referring to the genealogies in Matthew and Luke.

The genealogy in Matthew is a descending series. It begins with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and continues through Judah to David the King. The line continues through the kings of Judah such as Solomon, Rehoboam, and Ahaz until the time of the Babylonian captivity. From there it continues through a list of mostly unfamiliar names until we come to Joseph.

In these few verses, the word “begot” has been used thirty nine times to describe the relationships between the various people mentioned in every case until we get to Joseph. With Joseph we get the very careful and very different phrase, “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus.” (Matthew 1:16) It stands out like a searchlight in the night. Jesus was not the son of Joseph, but his adopted son. However, it establishes that Jesus Christ was of the royal lineage, a son of Abraham and David.

Some historians have questioned the accuracy of the Matthew genealogy, because it is too neat in the way it fits exactly fourteen generations between Abraham and David, between David and the Babylonian captivity, and between the captivity and Jesus. However, we need to remember that “begot” does not necessarily imply a single generation step. It could include the relationship of grandfather and great-grandfather as well. This allows individuals whose names have no internal sense in the series to be left out of this genealogy, yet it is still an historically correct listing, and it serves the use of carrying the internal sense.

The genealogy in Luke is a little different, for it begins with Jesus as an adult just beginning His public ministry, and tracks his ancestors through Mary to king David, Abraham, Noah, and Adam to God, thus also establishing His royal lineage through His natural mother as well as through His foster father.

However, the genealogy in Luke presents some problems: for one, it presents itself as being another genealogy of Joseph, for it says, “…being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli….” (Luke 3:23), yet the list of names between Joseph and King David is completely different from that given in Matthew.

Since it was important to establish the link between Jesus and the royal throne of David on both sides of His “family;” because of the tradition of substituting a man for a woman in the laws of inheritance as given in the book of Numbers; because we know that Luke knew Mary personally and his gospel gives us the most detailed description of her character and life and because of certain other linguistic and historical information not contained in the scripture itself, we take the position that in fact, the genealogy given in Luke is a description of the lineage through Mary, the mother.

The reason these genealogies are in the Word is because they contain, in their internal sense, a description of all the different states that the Lord had to acquire in order to come into the world as Jesus Christ in the first place, and then all the different states that He had to go through in order to glorify His Human. These passages reveal how the Lord “Bowed the heavens” and came down to earth, and then how He glorified His human and returned to heaven.

Everything in the Word has some inner meaning, describes some spiritual quality. We do not have the time to go through the whole list in any meaningful way in a sermon, although it would make an interesting subject for personal study or a series of classes. Instead, we can look at the general meaning of a descending series that leads to the Lord’s birth into the world, followed by an ascending series that leads from the beginning of His public ministry to God.

The Heavenly Doctrines explain the general principle in these words:

The progression of the creation of the universe was from its First (which is the Lord encircled by the sun) to outmosts which are lands, and from these through uses to its First, that is, the Lord; also that the ends of the whole creation were uses. (DLW 314)

The Lord created the whole of the natural and spiritual worlds through the principle of creation from firsts to lasts, and then returning to the firsts. We can see this in the scientific description of creation; that at first there was nothing but pure energy (which religion tells us is the creative power of the Divine) which began to turn into very simplest forms of matter. These simple forms of matter became more and more organized until there were atoms, then molecules, then more complex mineral structures. Eventually these became complex enough to support life, and there were living plants, then simple animals, and eventually, after an unimaginably long time, human beings.

We see the principle that the creative force went first into the simplest things of creation, the so-called “lasts” or “ultimates” and then, because of its Divine origin, it reorganized itself to more and more complex forms capable of receiving higher and higher degrees of life, until these ultimates, these simple atoms, are able to form a body which can be the home for an eternal soul. Life flows from God in heaven, into the simplest, most primitive things of nature, and is able to return to heaven as a human soul. A descending series, followed by an ascending series — just like the genealogies.

This concept of creation helps us to understand the tremendous power hidden in the atomic structure of even the most simple atoms. The Divine itself has clothed Its creative energy into the forces we call atomic energy; the firsts flow into the lasts: God’s power in the simplest things of nature. We read again from the Divine Love and Wisdom.

In lands there is a conatus to produce uses in forms, that is, forms of uses. …Such a conatus and quality are said to be in lands, but it is meant that they are present in the substances and matters of which lands consist.… That there is such a conatus and such quality in the substances and matters of lands is plain from the fact that seeds of all kinds … are impregnated. Then through conjunction with matters from a natural origin they are able to produce forms of uses, and thereafter to deliver them as from a womb, that they may come forth into light, and thus sprout up and grow. (DLW 310:1)

This concept also shows us why it is that life constantly tends towards more complexity and variety. Even the humble plant has within it the Divine creative force, which, having been brought down to the plane of nature in this world, yet continually strives to return to God, to the first, to the cause.

We hear about people who have gone through terrible personal tragedies, and yet they recover quickly from them, and even seem cheerful, for they say that they learned an important lesson. We often speak of how things are valuable if they cause us to grow as a person. Some people are even trying to grow spiritually. The key thought here is the common tendency among people to want to keep learning, experience more things, gathering new insights, throughout their lives in this world, and, as the doctrines tell us, throughout all eternity!

We see the vine continually sending out new growth, spreading over an ever larger area. We see the tree adding a new ring of girth and new height every year. Everywhere we look in the plant kingdom, we see that life is constant physical growth. There is a similar drive for growth in the animal kingdom, but there the drive is more directed to the perpetuation of the species. If man rises above his merely natural inclinations, he feels a drive for mental and spiritual growth. Life descends from God into the simplest forms of nature, and then strives to return to Him, powering our ascent as spiritual beings.

We are in the image and likeness of God. The same descending and ascending series that applies to our humanity, applies to His.

The Lord does everything from firsts, that is, from Himself, into ultimates, that is, the things of the natural world. In the things of the natural world, and also in the things of the sense of the letter of the Word, He is in His fullness, holiness, and power. Therefore, it pleased the Lord to take upon Himself the Human form, and to become the Word, or Divine Truth, and thus be able to bring all things in heaven and earth into order. (See AE 1087:4)

So the answer to the question, “How could the Divine Itself come into the world as a little infant, how could He become a man in the world?” is that He did it in exactly the same order, and according the same principles by which He created everything else in the world: “He bowed the heavens, and came down” (text).

The genealogy in Matthew describes how He clothed His majesty and power with layer after layer of protective clothing, which correspond to the names of the individuals listed in the genealogy. By this process, His Divinity was eventually so hidden that He could enter this world as a tiny baby, and be indistinguishable from any other infant.

But that was only half the miracle. Once in the world, having made the journey from firsts to lasts, He, like every other thing in the created universe, began to seek to return to the source, He began to learn and to explore and to grow. He, more so than any human, had an insatiable curiosity and desire to acquire knowledges about the world. He read the scriptures and perceived the nature of His own life and mission from His understanding of the internal sense.

He, like every human in the world, faced temptations from His maternal heredity, and as He conquered in those temptations He prepared Himself for His ministry in the world.

Once He was ready to begin His public ministry, He was following the steps laid out for Him in the Luke genealogy, progressing from one state of life to another, each in its proper time and order, until finally He had conquered every level of evil and restored order to the whole of the spiritual realm and had taken His proper place as the King of Heaven. He had completed His journey from firsts to lasts and back to firsts.

Understanding this concept of creation and incarnation, we can see new meaning in His words from the book of Revelation that He is the “first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 1:8). We can now see that by this He means that as He is the Divine Creator He is the origin of all things, and that since all things are from Him as the creator, He is also present in His power in the simplest things of nature. And because He is present in every level of life, all living things strive to grow, and reproduce, and, in the case of men, to become spiritual.

Jesus Christ was the first, because He was as to His soul, the Creator. He was the Last, because He descended into the world and took on a human form from the ultimates, or lasts, of nature. And He ascended back to heaven, making the human Divine through combats of temptation where He shunned evils as sins. He did this to save us. He did this to show us the way; that we too must find our way to eternal life through obedience to the commandments, and through shunning evils as sins against God.

The Lord came into the world that Christmas Day so many years ago to show us the way out of the purely natural life, to lead us to heaven by His example, and to inspire us to grow spiritually. All these things are contained in the simple phrase from the book of Revelation, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last. “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.” (Rev. 22:13-14)