SEEING OUR GOD
A Sermon by Rev. Kurt Horigan AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn September 17, 1995
“Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him … I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,’ says the Lord, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty'” (Rev. 1:7, 8).
This text is from the first chapter of the book of Revelation, John’s prophecy of the coming of the Lord. It is also symbolized by the high altar in the cathedral sanctuary. The open Word of the Lord rests atop this altar. Symbolic clouds are below it, through which stream rays of light as though from the open Word. The Lord called Himself “the Alpha and the Omega,” letters which are at the beginning and end of the Greek alphabet, to express the concept of His Divine power in all things from first to last. He is the source of the light which goes forth to all the world.
“He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him.” This is the promise of the Lord’s Second Coming. The faith of the New Church is that this long-expected advent has taken place and it is our mission to announce it. It seems fitting, then, that the altar for our worship symbolize the Lord’s Second Coming. Our religion and our life both are based on the belief that the Lord has come again with spiritual light to enlighten our minds.
Since we know that the Lord has made His promised second coming, our purpose now is to explain the manner of it and how we may be deeply affected by a new vision of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
In earlier ages, God revealed Himself through the prophets by speaking with a living voice. Going further back, beyond recorded history, in Most Ancient times He appeared as a loving Heavenly Father before the opened spiritual sight of an innocent race of people. In those ancient times people had a spiritual awareness which is lost today. They had direct knowledge of the presence and power of their God. Over time, however, this spiritual insight was lost. God had to reveal Himself in a new way. Therefore, He “bowed the heavens and came down,” taking on a body from Mary. He taught, He healed, He raised from the dead. His disciples and others saw that He was God incarnate. Even Thomas, the doubting disciple, confessed Him at last, saying: “My Lord and my God!” Through centuries of the Christian era, many who never saw the Lord in the flesh have believed Him to be their God through His teachings and the power of His Spirit.
When on earth, the Lord foretold His return. The disciples had asked, “When will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming?” He said, ” … the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and … they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30). John also confirmed these words. After his visions on the isle of Patmos, He wrote of the Lord: “Behold, He is coming with clouds … ” (Rev. 1:7).
Many Christians have longed for this day and waited for this sign but in vain. The Lord was speaking in parables when He said He would come in the clouds. He did not literally mean that He would return to earth in person, or that we would see Him descending in clouds from the sky.
It has been revealed to the New Church that the Lord’s second coming is to the understanding of the human mind, and the means of His coming is through the written Word. By the “clouds” mentioned in these prophecies we are to understand the teachings of Scripture in their natural or literal sense. The ideas of the Word serve, like clouds, to catch the light of truth, but shield a tender understanding from direct exposure to truth’s innermost power. Just as a cloud can be a welcome relief from the unremitting blaze of the noon sun, so an idea that is adapted to our state and simply expressed means more to us than the naked truth that lies at its source. We can see how this is especially so with children. They are not ready for abstractions but respond to simple stories that convey a deeper message. So it is with the human mind at all ages. We grow gradually in our ability to grasp the meaning that lies hidden in the events of life.
“In order that the Lord might be continuously present with me,” Swedenborg wrote, “He has unfolded to me the spiritual sense of His Word, wherein is Divine truth in its very light, and it is in this light that He is continually present. For His presence in the Word is by means of the spiritual sense and in no other way; through the light of this sense He passes into the obscurity of the literal sense, which is like what takes place when the light of the sun in daytime is passing through an interposing cloud” (TCR 780).
The literal sense of the Word, its surface meaning, is what is symbolized by the “clouds” mentioned in Scripture. A careful reading will confirm this. Some of the most significant events of Scriptural history occur in clouds. The Ten Commandments were given in the midst of clouds on Mount Sinai. Afterwards it was a pillar of cloud that led Israel through the wilderness. When the Lord was transfigured before Peter, James, and John on the mount, they were overshadowed by a “bright cloud” (Matt 17:5). These moments of intense revelation were partially obscured by the clouds, tempered to protect Israel and the disciples. So Scriptural teachings are couched in parables and dark sayings. The Lord’s disciples once asked: “Why do you speak … in parables?” He answered: ” … that seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand” (Mark 4:12).
It may seem curious that the Lord would teach in such a way that many could not understand his inner meaning. Wouldn’t He want to speak plainly? He gave the Word in a form that could either hide or reveal His glory. If we are not ready to see a truth, we may reject it or profane it. Therefore, the Lord has given Divine revelation in the form of a written natural or literal sense within which is its spiritual sense.
“Hitherto no one has known what is meant by the clouds of the heavens,'” Swedenborg records in the Writings. “But it has been disclosed to me that nothing else is meant than the literal sense of the Word … ” (AC pref. to chapter 18). “One may wonder that a cloud’ signifies the Word … The reason is that in the spiritual world the Divine truth flowing down from the higher heavens into the lower appears like a cloud … ” (AE 906). This was a phenomenon that Swedenborg often observed. From this living appearance in the spiritual world the passages of Scripture about clouds take on new meaning. When clouds are mentioned, they mean revelation in its outermost form, within which is the spirit of truth, called “the glory.” So Isaiah the prophet wrote: “Jehovah creates upon every habitation of Zion a cloud by day, for upon all the glory shall be a covering” (Isaiah 4:5). The Writings here say that the “literal sense of the Word is a covering, lest its spiritual sense should be injured” (AR 24). “The Divine truth in outmosts … is also represented by the cloud’ in which Jehovah descended upon Mount Sinai, and promulgated the law,” we are told.
Let us turn now to the Lord’s promise of His second coming. He said He would come “in the clouds” with power and great glory. What is meant, as we have seen, is that the Lord has opened the spiritual sense of the Word so He may be seen and known more interiorly.
Think about it: How does God make Himself known to us? Many who heard the Lord’s teaching that He would “come again” understood that He would come into the world again, “not yet knowing,” the Writings point out, “that the Lord has come whenever the church has been vastated, not indeed in person, as when He assumed the human by birth and made it Divine, but by means of appearings either manifest, as when He appeared to Abraham in Mamre, to Moses in the bush, to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai … or not so manifest, as by inspirations through which the Word was given, and afterwards through the Word … ” (AC 4060:5). The Lord has communicated in different ways.
Now He manifests Himself only through the Word. “Elsewhere than in the Word the Lord does not reveal Himself,” we are told, “nor does He reveal Himself there except through the internal sense” (AE 36; 594:3). He is present there, “because all things in the Word are from Him and concerning Him” (AC 4060:5). The Word “is the Lord Himself in heaven and in the church” (AE 594:3).
The Word, then, is our most precious possession. It is God with us. Yet, even as many in Israel failed to see the Divinity of Jesus, thinking of Him only as “the carpenter’s son,” many fail to see God in His Word. They think of the Word as merely a record of historical events or of personal spiritual experiences. They see only the “clouds” of the literal sense, dense clouds which hide the light of truth within, when yet there is a hidden “glory” to be seen by those whose minds are open to receive it. As said before, the Lord does not reveal Himself except in the Word “nor does He reveal Himself there except through the internal sense” (AE 36; 594:3).
It is the revealing of the Lord through the internal or spiritual sense of the Word that constitutes His second coming. By “revealing Himself” here is not meant revelation “such as was made [with a loud voice] to the Israelitish people from Mount Sinai,” we are told, but such as is made “inwardly in man.” This kind of revelation is an enlightening of the internal sight, which is of the understanding. Such enlightening takes place only when the Word is being read by someone who is in the affection of truth from the love of what is good. In such a state, the mind of a person “sees” in the light of heaven as clearly as the human eye sees in the light of this world. “When the understanding is enlightened by that Divine light,” we are told, “it then perceives that to be true which is true, it acknowledges it inwardly in itself, and as it were sees it. Such,” we are told, “is the revelation of those who are in the affection of truth from good when they are reading the Word” (AC 8780:2).
When we think of revelation in this way, we can have a clearer understanding of what is meant by the Lord’s promise to come in the “clouds” with “power and glory.” We can see a deeper sense in the text which says: “Behold, He comes with clouds, and every eye shall see Him” (Rev. 1:7).
The fact is that the Lord has made His promised second coming. He has manifested Himself again by a revelation of the spiritual sense of the Word which is within the natural or literal sense of the Word. The clouds in which He has come are the clouds of the Divine truth in outermost form. But by opening the spiritual sense He has revealed His hidden presence in that Word. This is the teaching: “The Second Coming of the Lord is not a coming in person, but in the Word” (TCR 776 heading). “The Lord is now to appear in the Word,” we are told. “He is not to appear in Person, because since He ascended into heaven He is in His glorified Human, and in this He cannot appear to any man unless the eyes of his spirit are first opened” (TCR 777). In order to effect His second coming, the Lord called a man providentially prepared for this office, Emanuel Swedenborg, filled him with His spirit, opened his spiritual eyes, and caused him to write and publish the doctrine for the New Church. Concerning his part in this, Swedenborg makes the following remarkable assertion: ” … the Lord manifested Himself before me, His servant, and sent me to this office … From the first day of that call I have not received anything whatever pertaining to the doctrines of the church from any angel, but from the Lord alone while I have read the Word” (TCR 779).
Swedenborg continues: “In order that the Lord might be continuously present with me He has unfolded to me the spiritual sense of His Word … for His presence in the Word is by means of the spiritual sense and in no other way” (TCR 779, emphasis added).
The little work entitled An Invitation to the Whole Christian World to This Church says about the spiritual sense of the Word: “This sense is the very sanctuary of the Word … Not a single iota in this sense can be opened except by the Lord alone.” This revelation, the teaching concludes, “surpasses all revelations that have hitherto been made since the creation of the world” (Inv. 44). This, indeed is “the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30).
What a gift has been given by the Lord in the Heavenly Doctrine now revealed for the New Church! It is the key to open the spiritual sense of the Word. The gift bears a responsibility equal to its value. We are called to seek the Lord in His Word, to make the light of spiritual truth our light, and especially to follow that light and proclaim it to others.
What does this mean to each one of us? It means that we can approach the Lord Himself in His Word in a new way. He is there in the “clouds,” but now made visible through the opening of the spiritual sense. He will speak to us inwardly as we approach Him in His Word. He gives light to those “clouds” from heaven. This illuminates the mind from within as we read the Word seeking truth for a good use. “Those who are in enlightenment when reading the Word see it from within,” we are told, “for their internal is open … But yet everyone is deceived who believes himself to be in enlightenment unless he loves to know truth for the sake of truth and for the sake of the good of life, thus unless he loves Divine truth for the sake of life, because to live according to Divine truths from the Word is to love the Lord, and all enlightenment comes from the Lord when He is loved” (AC 10551:2). We must do our part. “The Lord’s presence is unceasing with every person,” we are told, “but His coming is only to those who receive Him, who are such as believe on Him and keep His commandments” (TCR 774).
Let us conclude with a beautiful promise about the Lord’s coming in our lives. This is from the True Christian Religion 766: “The Lord is present with everyone, urging and pressing to be received,” we are told, “and His first coming, which is called the dawn, is when the person receives Him, which he does when he acknowledges Him as his God, Creator, Redeemer, and Savior. From this time the person’s understanding begins to be enlightened in spiritual things, and to advance into a more and more interior wisdom; and as he receives this wisdom from the Lord, he advances through morning into day, and this day lasts with him into old age, even to death; and after death he passes into heaven to the Lord Himself; and there, although he died an old man, he is restored to the morning of his life, and the rudiments of the wisdom implanted in him in the natural world grow to eternity” (TCR 766). Amen.
Lessons: Exodus 24:4-18; Mark 9:2-10; AE 594a
Apocalypse Explained 594a
A “cloud” [signifies] Divine truth in outmost form, consequently the Word in the sense of the letter. This signification of “cloud” is evident from appearances in the spiritual world; also from the Word wherever “clouds” are mentioned. From appearances in the spiritual world, as follows: the universal angelic heaven consists solely of the Divine truth that proceeds from the Lord; the reception of this constitutes angels. In the highest heaven this truth appears like a pure aura which is called ether; in the next lower heaven as less pure, almost like the atmosphere that is called air; in the lowest heaven it appears like something thinly aqueous over which is a vapor like a cloud; such is the appearance of Divine truth according to degrees in its descent. There is a like appearance when angels of the higher heavens speak about Divine truths; what they say is then presented to the view of those who are in the lowest heaven under the appearance of a cloud that floats hither and thither; the more intelligent of them know from its movement and brightness and form what the angels of the higher heavens are speaking about with each other. This makes evident why a “cloud” signifies Divine truth in outmost form. As most things in the Word were taken from the appearances in the spiritual world, and thence have a like significance as they have there, so is it with “clouds.”
He who does not know that a “cloud” in the spiritual sense of the Word means the Word in the letter cannot know what arcanum is involved in this: that in the consummation of the age they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and glory (Matt. 24:30; Mark 13:26; 14:61, 62; Luke 21:27). And in the Apocalypse: “Behold, Jesus Christ cometh with the clouds and every eye shall see Him” (Rev. 1:7).
The person who is ignorant that “the clouds of heaven” signify the truths of the Word in the sense of the letter cannot know otherwise than that in the consummation of the age, that is, in the end of the church, the Lord is to come in the clouds of heaven and manifest Himself to the world; but it is well known that since the Word was given, the Lord manifests Himself through that only, for the Word, which is Divine truth, is the Lord Himself in heaven and in the church. From this it can now be seen that the manifestation here predicted signifies His manifestation in the Word; and His manifestation in the Word was effected through His opening and revealing the internal or spiritual sense of the Word, for in that sense is the Divine truth itself, such as it is in heaven, and the Divine truth in heaven is the Lord Himself there. This makes clear that “the Lord’s coming in the clouds of heaven with glory” signifies the revelation of Him in the sense of the letter of the Word from its spiritual sense.