Glory to God in the Highest

Sermon: Glory to God in the Highest

I preached this sermon on December 11, 2011, at the Church of the New Jerusalem in Dawson Creek, BC.  The readings are Jeremiah 23:1-8, Luke 2:1-20, and Arcana Coelestia 468.

“And I will bring together the remnant of My flock out of all lands whither I have driven them, and will return them to their homes; and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” (Jeremiah 23:3)

The remnant will return, and be made fruitful.  The word “remnant” means those who remain.  It’s a promise at the heart of the Old Testament.  Every time the people is captured by an enemy and carried away from their homeland, the Lord promises that he will preserve those few who remain faithful.  He will take that remnant and return them to their land, and will rebuild His people from that small remnant.  Even before the time of Israel, we see the same thing play out in the story of Noah.  The entire world had become evil, and so the Lord sent a flood to destroy the world – but he preserved a few, those who had not completely shut off their interiors against Him.  A remnant was saved, and from them, the earth was repopulated.

The Writings for the New Church explain that in a deeper sense, these stories about remnants being protected and restored represents the way that even in the darkest times of a church, the Lord preserves a few who have not completely destroyed their faith and love in Him.  When the Lord raises up a New Church, it is raised up with that remnant of the old church, along with a people from outside of the church, who had not been able to twist the Lord’s Word because they had never heard it before.

It had been prophesied that when the Messiah came, He would save a remnant of His people, and establish them as the hope for the world.  At the time of the Lord’s birth, the people was in spiritual captivity.  Fewer and fewer people were able to tell right from wrong.  The religious leaders had placed their own traditions above the basic commandments of love and mercy and justice.  The world was becoming darker and darker, because the Lord’s Word was less and less able to reach people.  Meanwhile, the forces of hell were multiplying in the spiritual world, infesting even the lowest levels of heaven, where simple spirits were not able to distinguish between those who were truly good and those who were only pretending in order to get what they wanted.  Unless the Lord had come, to fight the forces of hell and to show Himself as a Divine Human, the human race would have been completely destroyed.

The world was dark.  But there was a remnant, a few who remained, who had not destroyed the goodness and truth in themselves.  These were mostly not the learned class, the priests and the rabbis, since these had perverted the teachings of the Lord.  Most of this remnant were simple people who were not experts in the Word, but who had some amount of natural goodness and natural understanding of truth.  But even though they had not destroyed everything good in themselves, they were still surrounded by that same darkness.  They did not have much knowledge, and not much goodness – only enough, enough that they were open to the Lord.

And so when Jesus was born, there were shepherds in the same country.  Shepherds in the Word usually represent people who teach and lead, and we still use this description – the word “pastor” actually just means “shepherd.”  But the teachers and leaders of Israel, the scribes and Pharisees and rabbis and priests, were mostly corrupt.  In our lesson from Jeremiah, the Lord made a promise that when He came, He would bring up good shepherds.  And these literal shepherds who the angels appeared to really did become the first preachers of the gospel, the good news that the Lord had come.

But at first, they were simple shepherds.  And in addition to representing teachers, shepherds represent an affection for truth within a person, since it is an affection for truth that inspires us to be taught and led.   The shepherds represent the kind of person or the attitude of being humble enough to acknowledge that they need truth.  They seem to have been part of that remnant.

But they were living in darkness – they were out watching their flock by night.  And this is not necessarily as peaceful a scene as it can sound: they’re literally described as “guarding a guard” over their sheep.  They were taking shifts to stay awake throughout the night to watch for whatever unknown predators might come to attack their sheep.  We can imagine that it was already a tense situation, to be sitting in darkness, not knowing what could come out of the darkness – a bear, or a wolf, or a lion.

But they were guarding their sheep.  They are a picture of true innocence – a trust and willingness to follow the Lord.  And we need to fight in defense of that innocence.  This is what these shepherds are pictured as doing – the light has gone, darkness has come on them – but they are still going to guard and protect whatever innocence they have left in themselves and the world.

We can imagine whatever shepherds were awake sitting up, peering out into the darkness, trying to stay awake, trying to catch a glimpse of any wild animals that might come and attack their sheep.  And while they’re straining to catch even the glimpse of a movement in the darkness – suddenly an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.  And they feared a great fear.

Imagine that – being along in the darkness, and suddenly surrounded by an incredibly bright light, the glory of the Lord.  That glory is heavenly light; it is Divine truth.  And the first time a person really sees the truth, it can be overwhelming.  Swedenborg describes a time when person in the spiritual world heard something from the internal sense of the word – and his eyes filled with tears, and he was not even able to keep reading because he was so profoundly moved.  This is a picture of the kind of awe a person can experience as they realize for the first time in their lives: I am seeing the Lord here.  That is the glory of the Lord – the Lord’s Divine Truth.  And it can be almost frightening, because it is so intense, so brilliant, and so much bigger than our own idea of the truth.

But the angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.”  And he said, “Behold, I bring unto you good tidings of a great joy that will be to all the people.”  Great joy that would be to all the people.  This was the “good news,” or the gospel: that there would be great joy to all the people.  Literally, all the people here could be taken to mean all the people of Israel; but a people in the internal sense represents those who are willing to receive the truth of the Lord, and so this is a promise of great joy to all those who receive the Lord’s truth.  This is the Lord’s ultimate purpose in everything: we can talk about goodness and truth, we can talk about sin and evil, but the purpose of dealing with all those things is so that the Lord can join us to himself, and bless us to eternity in heaven – to give us great joy.

And where does that great joy come from?  The angels said to the shepherds, “For unto you is born this day a Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord.”  When the angels said that this was “Christ, the Lord,” they were telling the shepherds two things: first, that the Christ, or the Messiah, had come.  This was the fulfillment of prophecies throughout the Old Testament: that an “anointed” one would come, who would save the people Israel, and bless the world.  The word “Christ” means anointed, as in the act of pouring oil over the head of a king.  And as a king, the Lord would rule with His Divine Truth.  This is the side of the Lord that ensures that justice is done, that there is fairness and rightness in the world.  But He was not just Christ – He was Christ the Lord.  “The Lord” was the word that Jews in those days used for “Jehovah” mentioned in the Old Testament, the name of God.  And as “the Lord,” this newborn baby was an embodiment of Divine Love – the Lord’s mercy, His compassion.  In this baby, as is written in Psalm 85, “mercy and truth have met together; justice and peace have kissed.”

And the angel told the shepherds that this would be a sign: they would find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  Those swaddling clothes represent those first, most basic truths – the truths of innocence, of trusting the Lord and following Him.  These would be the first truths those shepherds were able to grasp.  He would be lying in a manger, a feeding trough for horses.  A horse represents a person’s understanding – and so the Lord’s lying in a manger represents instruction from the Lord’s words.  Visiting the Lord in the manger represented the way that He would instruct those who wanted to be instructed with truths from His own Word.

But most importantly was that this was a newborn infant, a human being.  The people of the most ancient church were able to have a direct perception of the Lord, but since that time, people had had a cloudy image of who He was.  By coming as a human being – and throughout the process of His life, making that Human Divine – the Lord could enlighten even people who were not able to think about the most natural level.  He could save even them.

So these shepherds, who represent people who want to be good but don’t know how, were given hope of a Saviour.  But still, the remnant was only with a few – and maybe these shepherds still felt alone.  But suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, glorifying and praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”  Just as in the story of Elisha and his servant, when they saw that the Lord’s army vastly outnumbered the enemy army, the shepherds saw that they were not alone at all – that all the army of heaven was rejoicing at this birth.  And this was not an army that sought out war; instead, they declared, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”

So the shepherds had heard this good news – but they wanted to see it for themselves.  So the journeyed to where the Lord was, and saw the baby lying in a manger, just as the angel had said.  That manger, as a feeding trough, represents the Lord’s Word, through which the Lord feeds our mind just as the food in a manger feeds a horse.  And they made it known abroad – they went throughout the land to spread the good news – and they returned, “glorifying and praising God.”

So we see that these natural shepherds – who because they are simple, unlearned people, are humble enough to accept the Lord – we see them acting as spiritual shepherds, declaring the Lord’s glory, declaring the good news of the great joy that would be to all the people.  In the same way, the Lord later called simple fishermen to be His disciples, saying that they would become “fishers of men” – that is, that they would teach truth.  The shepherds didn’t have a deep, complex understanding of the Lord’s glorification, or the different levels of the Lord’s Divinity and His Humanity – but they knew enough: that He would redeem the world, that He would make it possible for people to be saved, and that He was the Lord.  They had that innocent desire to follow Him as the good shepherd.

And here we come to our place in the story.  At His birth, the Lord came to establish a new church that would worship Him as the one human God.  But along the way, that church lost its focus.  Kings and emperors began to use it as a justification for their own power.  They split God into three, and they lost the focus on love to the Lord and to the neighbour as the two primary things of worship.  And so, the Lord came again, but this time not in person.  He came in a revelation of Himself within the internal sense of the Word.  And in that, He helps us to see not only His body, but the deeper levels of His mind.  And He again has showed us what He showed those shepherds: that He is both human and Divine, and that because of this, He can be present with us.  And He comes to us as the glory in the clouds, the internal sense within the literal sense of the Word.  He comes when we seek for Him in His Word – when we see everything in His Word as an expression of His love and His wisdom, and as instruction for how to bring those into life.

He defeated the power of hell, and can now keep it in check to eternity.  But to receive that, we have to have the attitude of those shepherds.  If we think we know everything, the Lord cannot come in.  If we think that we can save ourselves, the Lord cannot come in.  The world was dark at the Lord’s second coming, and we still see a lot of darkness in the world.  Like the shepherds, we can fight in this darkness to protect the sheep, to protect what is good and innocent in this world.  And if we continue to come to the Lord with humility, we can see the Divine Human – we can see the Lord in the pages of His Word just as the shepherds saw the infant Jesus in the manger.  And we can behold the glory of the Lord.  It doesn’t happen often, but from time to time we can catch a glimpse of that intense truth – truth that all has to do with love.  That glory is the internal sense of the Word, seen within the cloud of the literal sense.

And we do not need to be great scholars to see that glory.  Sometimes we can get lost in the intricacies of trying to understand exactly how the Lord glorified His humanity, trying to explain logically why it’s important that He is Human and Divine.  It is useful to try to understand these things – but it is much more important to simply come and see.  It can never be fully explained even to the comprehension of the highest angels what a difference it makes to worship Jesus as God.  But if you innocently trust His Word and just do it, to try as much as you can to worship Him as God, you can experience a difference that is difficult to describe – as long as you are at the same time trying to glorify Him in your life by living in charity toward the neighbour.  Simple shepherds saw more clearly than the greatest scholars why the Lord’s presence as an infant would bring great joy to the world.  And like the shepherds, when we see the Lord, we can glorify Him.  This is not just about singing His praises, but also about living by what He teaches – being a living expression of His love.  The Lord said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”  When we live in obedience to the Lord’s Word, we glorify our Heavenly Father, and we contribute to true peace and true love in this world.  As the angels said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Amen.

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THE WORD MADE FLESH

THE WORD MADE FLESH
A Sermon by Rev Brian W. Keith
Preached in Glenview, Illinois
November 1, 1996

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” (John 1:14).

Night a time of quiet when the bustle of the day dies down; a time of weariness when we make ready for a restful sleep; also a time of darkness and cold; our vision is limited and we seek the warmth of fires and homes.

Nighttime plays a prominent role in the birth of the Lord. It was at night in a dream that the angel appeared to Joseph giving him reasons to marry Mary. Later at night he warned him of the danger of Herod, and eventually informed him that it was time to return to the land of Israel. It was in the night that the Lord was born and the shepherds found their way to the manger. And it was in the night that the wise men saw the star in the east, and then had the star lead them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem where it stood over the house where the young Child lay.

The nighttime scenes surrounding the birth and early years of the Lord’s life depict the shroud that had descended upon the world. Their God, Jehovah, had not been seen nor heard from in hundreds of years. They were lost and rudderless without Him. Other than maintaining the ancient rituals, they had little sense of who He was and how they were to live. Hearts were growing colder from the confusion and distortion of everything good.

Even with the few descendants of the ancient churches, some of whose knowledge resided with the wise men, there were but scant glimmers of light. Perhaps those wise men alone among the ancients saw the star. Certainly its light was not overpowering. So even with the ancients there was but little understanding of who the Lord is. What minimal truth remained was heavily shaded because all they had ever seen of the Lord was a representative not the Divine in its glory (see SS 99).

But our images and memories of the birth of the Lord are not focused upon the darkened states. Rather we remember the multitude of heavenly hosts shining upon the shepherds, the star guiding the wise men, and the light of day in which Simeon lifted up the infant Lord, blessed God, and Anna proclaimed His glory to all. For the Lord’s coming is a coming with light and with life. “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.”

One of the wonders of Christmas is the fact that the Lord is born with light in the midst of confused and dark states of life. When we see little but gloom and hopelessness, He comes to us. He holds us in His hands, nourishing an inner sense of hope that we might endure and overcome. Then His full presence with us is in the light of the morning, enabling us to recognize who He is and how we might walk in His ways. This is why the morning with its light and warmth corresponds to the Lord’s coming (see AC 22, 4240e; SS 99).

For the Lord came as the light of the world. This is His glory. We can see it shining upon us in the truth His advent brought. For until the Lord took on a physical form as a tender infant, all the earlier concepts of Him were vague at best (see SS 99). All of the true ideas that had existed with the ancients about marriage, life continuing past the veil of this world, and how His providence guides us were only misty images of what they might be. For all truth had been filtered through the heavens. Dependent upon the finite grasp of the angels, the glory of the Lord had shone dimmer and dimmer into this world, until at last the vision of Him was nearly lost. By His birth the Lord acquired a natural degree of life. As He put it on and gradually made it Divine, the warmth of His love and the light of His wisdom became immediately present with all.

This is the light of the new day the Lord’s coming heralded for mankind a light shining in the darkness, leading to the brilliance of day. We can sense this when we reflect upon our awakening states not those mornings which come after too little sleep, or when we are rudely awakened by alarms and the bustle of hurriedly preparing to rush off to work. But we feel it in the quiet mornings when we awake refreshed and revived when we listen to the singing of the birds and know the dazzling sunlight portends the warming of the earth. The light has a special quality then. With clarity we see beauty in even the simplest things around us. And we can sense the closeness of heaven, the closeness of the Lord’s advent as our spirits are lifted up to the new day (see AC 7844:2).

As the Word made flesh, the glory of the Lord can bring us a peacefulness unlike any other. Not a peace like the quiet of evening when we are preparing to rest. Rather it is a peace of contentment and confidence. As the Heavenly Doctrines note, this peace is “the very Divine truth in heaven from the Lord which universally affects all who are there and makes heaven to be heaven; for peace has in it confidence in the Lord, that He directs all things and provides all things, and that He leads to a good end. When a person is in this state, he is in peace, for he then fears nothing, and no worry about things to come disturbs him” (AC 8455). The glory of the Lord’s Word shines upon us when we have such assurance that He is in charge, carefully guiding every one of our steps.

This is the state of the angels. Their unpleasant memories of this earth have been set aside. They have no desire to leap into the future. Rather they fully enjoy the present, sensing all the goodness that the Lord is giving them now. For they trust in Him, knowing that He is leading and caring for them no matter what happens.

We may taste some of this angelic peace as we celebrate the Lord’s advent or awaken in the morning. But we enter into it more and more as we set aside the things of this world: worry about the future, too great a focus on natural toys and conveniences, our selfish drives and desires. To the extent that we can enjoy earthly delights without making them all-important, that we can serve others without always thinking about what we will get out of it, so far peace can enter our lives. It is then that we become convinced that the Lord’s light is the true light and most of the problems and troubles we experience can fall away. It is then that we can glimpse the Lord and experience His peace, His advent into our lives.

In one sense there is nothing startlingly new or different about this idea. Indeed, it is so simple, so fundamental, that it hardly needs to be said. So we are affected by the Word made flesh as the Divine flows into some of the simple truths we already know. This is one of the reasons the Lord was born on earth that the Divine goodness might be joined with our common sense and simple ideas of Him that we have (see AC 2554).

The Lord’s birth itself did not reveal any radical new information that had not been available before. In fact there would be no real instruction until thirty years later when the Lord began His public ministry. But His birth signaled a beginning of salvation for all because His presence, His love for us all, was proclaimed by His coming down among us, filling us with His good.

For us now, the Christmas story reveals His glory, the brilliance of His Divine Human in which we may know Him and love Him. The Divine as it is in Itself is far beyond our comprehension and affection, even as it was for the ancients. So the Lord was born that we might see His nature and have it shed light on our lives, giving us the confidence and trust that He is always with us, always leading us in paths of peace.

The Lord then becomes flesh and dwells among us when even our limited, simple ideas of truth can be filled with His presence, showing us something of His love. For the Lord’s coming into our life is not simply to make us feel good. Yes, the Lord would have us experience states of happiness and joy regularly, and eventually in heaven constantly. While He may be born in our states of darkness, His full advent is to us in light the truth of His Word which can fill our minds. Every time we recognize a concept as Divine, as coming from Him and leading our minds back to His love and mercy, His advent has occurred. Then the Word is made flesh, living, for us. We are touched by it, we are enlightened by it, and we are strengthened by it (see AC 8792).

This is our sight of the Lord, His birth among us. It brings us light, and it will bring us warmth. We can embrace this light, this new vision of the Divine, and use it to recognize and follow His teachings (see TCR 774). Then the truth of peace will be ours.

So let this Christmas day affect us with the joys of morning. As its light brings a new brightness to our day, as its warmth stirs a renewed heat in our lives, let us feel the Lord’s closeness to us. His birth on earth was the taking on of a natural form of life that we might know Him, see Him, and love Him. As we put off an excessive focus on the things of this world and upon our concerns, He can come closer to us, bringing us the peace of dawn a peace that has within it complete confidence in His truth, in His guidance, a complete confidence that a heaven shall be made from this human race.

This was the reason for His coming to touch our hearts and enlighten our minds, that He might become the Word made flesh for us eternally. Let us behold His glory, full of grace and truth. Amen.

Lessons: Luke 2:1-7; John 1:1-18; AC 8455

Arcana Coelestia 8455

“There was a deposit of dew round about the camp.” That this signifies the truth of peace adjoining itself is evident from the signification of “dew” as being the truth of peace (n. 3579). “Dew” signifies the truth of peace because in the morning it comes down from heaven and appears upon the herbage like fine rain, and has also stored up in it something of sweetness or delight more than rain has, whereby the grass and the crops of the field are gladdened; and “morning” denotes a state of peace (n. 2780). What peace is see nos. 2780, 3696, 4681, 5662, namely, that it is like dawn on the earth, which gladdens minds with universal delight; and the truth of peace is like the light of the dawn. This truth, which is called “the truth of peace,” is the very Divine truth in heaven from the Lord, which universally affects all who are there and makes heaven to be heaven; for peace has in it confidence in the Lord, that He directs all things and provides all things, and that He leads to a good end. When a man is in this faith, he is in peace, for he then fears nothing, and no solicitude about things to come disquiets him. A man comes into this state in proportion as he comes into love to the Lord.

All evil, especially self-confidence, takes away a state of peace. It is believed that an evil person is at peace when he is in gladness and tranquillity because all things succeed with him. But this is not peace; it is the delight and tranquillity of cupidities, which counterfeit a state of peace. But in the other life this delight, being opposite to the delight of peace, is turned into what is undelightful, for this lies hidden within it. In the other life the exteriors are successively unfolded even to the inmosts, and peace is the inmost in all delight, even in what is undelightful with the man who is in good. So far therefore as he puts off what is external, so far a state of peace is revealed, and so far he is affected with satisfaction, blessedness, and happiness, the origin of which is from the Lord Himself.

Concerning the state of peace which prevails in heaven it can be said that it is such as cannot be described by any words, neither, so long as he is in the world, can it come into the thought and perception of man by means of any idea derived from the world. It is then above all sense. Tranquillity of mind, content, and gladness from success are relatively nothing; for these affect only his externals; whereas peace affects the inmost things of all the first substances, and the beginnings of substances in the man, and therefrom distributes and pours itself forth into the substantiates and derivatives, and affects them with pleasantness, and affects the origins of ideas, consequently the man’s ends of life, with satisfaction and happiness; and thus makes the mind of the man a heaven.