UPDATE: Sermon audio available here.
I preached this sermon on November 28, 2010 at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.
A LITTLE CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM
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.  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).
 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