THE NEW CHURCH IN THE WILDERNESS
A Sermon by Rev Kurt Horigan AsplundhPreached in Bryn AthynJune 30, 1996
“But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent” (Rev. 12:14).
The account of the woman who fled to the wilderness to be safe from the dragon is well known and loved in the New Church. We have heard it repeated many times, have dramatized its action in pageants, and have pictured it in many forms of art.
It is a dramatic story of spiritual combat, with elements of suspense, heroic combat, Divine rescue and uncertainty. There is the woman’s beauty in sharp contrast to the dragon’s repulsiveness; the victory of Michael and his angels; the wings of the great eagle by which the woman could soar to safety. In the end there is a question. The woman was safe. The male child was safe. But the dragon was still at war a living threat to the rest of the woman’s offspring, to those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ. The final outcome is in doubt. Can the dragon yet prevail?
Clearly, this is an epic of the forces of evil against good and good against evil. Nor is it merely theoretical or poetic. In a large sense, the words tell the true story of a new spiritual beginning in heaven and on earth. They also can be applied more intimately, as an account of our personal struggle to receive the church.
New Church people are well aware of the main significations involved: that the woman clothed with the sun signifies the New Church; the male child to whom she gave birth, the doctrine of that church; the dragon, also called that “old serpent,” meaning those who think from evils of life and from falsities and thus in oppo- sition to the New Church, whereas Michael and his angels signify those who think and act from spiritual truths from the Lord.
In a broad sense, the account of the woman and the dragon pictures the birth of the New Church and its doctrine in a hostile world and the need for the Lord to protect and preserve it “until from a few it increases among many” (AR 531). As such, this is not a new story.
Through the ages the Lord has established a series of true churches, each succeeding the former church as that former church declined and lost spiritual power. In each case the birth of a new church has been met with opposition and persecution. We can see evidence of this in history. Take, for example, the Jewish Church. These “chosen people” of the Lord were viciously attacked and perse- cuted by the nations. Many of the Jews, in turn, opposed the teachings of Christ when He came with new doctrine for a new religion; and the establishment of Christianity is stained with the blood of martyrs.
Opposition in the world, cruel and hateful as it was, was minor in comparison with the struggles for power and supremacy that raged in the spiritual world at the same time. What was not seen and therefore not recorded in history was the spiritual warfare accompanying the establishment of every new church by the Lord. Each new church could be introduced only after a vast and conclusive spiritual judgment upon the former church. The intensity and power of these judgments is only now revealed to the world.
While there has been little overt persecution of the New Church in this world since its beginning two hundred years ago, the spiritual struggles at its inception have been fierce and far-reaching. Indeed, the book of Revelation with its descriptions of destruction and desolation is a prophecy of the spiritual judgment precipitated by the Second Coming of the Lord and the establishment of the New Church in place of the former Christian churches. The wars and judgments here described took place in the spiritual world, not on this earth. They were spiritual combats which have had little visible effect on our world, although they have been essential for the preservation of our world. “The state of the world hereafter will be altogether similar to what it has been heretofore,” the Heavenly Doctrine states, “for the great change which has taken place in the spiritual world does not induce any change in the natural world as to the external form . . . . But,” we are told, “henceforth the man of the church will be in a more free state of thinking on matters of faith . . . because spiritual freedom has been restored to him” (LJ 73). Spiritual freedom, an absolute necessity for true belief, has been restored.
Let us look, then, at some of the events of the 12th chapter of the book of Revelation from which our text today is drawn. What was the spiritual warfare going on here? Does it have any effect on us today? What is especially meant by the great red dragon? by Michael and his angels? And is this dragon still at large and a force to be reckoned with in our own lives?
The great red dragon is an old serpent. There is really noth- ing new at all in forms of opposition to worship and the life of religion. The great dragon that was cast out of heaven is “that serpent of old called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world” (Rev. 12: 9). What serpent of old had the power of deception? The serpent in Eden who beguiled Eve. But it was not a snake that beguiled Eve to partake of forbidden fruit. It was the Achilles’ heel of our humanity, God-given but abused, that caused the Fall, and causes every falling away of man from love and obedience to his God.
A dragon, like a serpent, slithers with its belly to the ground. As such it pictures the sensuous, that is, the part of the mind which thinks from sensuous appearances. Many ideas are generated by the sensations we take in, and we know how we can be deceived by the senses. That is why we have been given higher degrees of the mind through which we can look upon and weigh the information of the senses.
The supreme sensation is the appearance of self-life, that is, the appearance that life is in us, is ours to live in any way we wish. To confirm ourselves in that appearance, rejecting the truth that all life is from God, is the beginning of evil. It is the beginning of evil because it is the decision to live for self instead of for the neighbor. This was the beginning of evil with that celestial church portrayed by Adam and Eve. It is the beginning of evil with every church that falls. It is the beginning of personal evil.
We are taught in the Heavenly Doctrine: “The reason why the
serpent’ means all evil in general, and specifically the love of self, is that all evil has had its rise from that sensuous part of the mind” (AC 251). “In ancient times those were called serpents’ who had more confidence in sensuous things than in revealed ones. But it is still worse at the present day . . . ,” the doctrine declares (AC 196).
“More confidence in sensuous things than in revealed ones”! And worse today than ever! Here is the source of opposition to the church. Self-confidence confronts faith in the Lord. Self-guidance departs from Divine leading, “for such is the nature of the love of self that it is unwilling to submit to the Lord’s leading, and prefers to be self-guided, and being self-guided to consult the things of sense and of memory-knowledge as to what is to be believed” (AC 205).
In a religious context the dragon stands for false doctrines in the Christian world which have arisen from sensuous thought about spiritual things. Specifically, these are named as the doctrine of faith alone and also rejection of the Divinity of the Lord’s Human. In a personal context, the dragon stands for any self-derived idea that appeals to our love of self.
In contrast and in opposition to the dragon is the army of Michael and his angels. Michael is not, as some believe, an archangel, the charismatic leader of an angelic army. Rather “Michael” stands for a ministry in heaven that knows and stands up for the truth. This ministry is carried out by all those who confirm from the Word the two essentials of the New Church: that the Lord’s Human is Divine, and that people must live in charity according to the commandments (see AR 548, AE 735). We are told that the false reasonings which the dragonists produce “fall to nothing before the spiritual truths rationally understood, which the Michaels, of whom the New Church consists, bring forward” (AR 564).
” . . . spiritual truths rationally understood.” Here is the strength of the New Church and the foil to the dragon. The battle is joined between those called “serpents,” who put more confidence in sensuous things than in revealed ones, and the “Michaels,” who put their confidence in spiritual truths rationally understood. In the New Church it is permitted now to enter with understanding into the mysteries of faith (see TCR 508). The Word has been opened by the Lord Himself, exposing the fallacies of sensual thought and restoring spiritual freedom. ” . . . true order is for man to be wise from the Lord,” we are told, “that is, from His Word, and then all things follow, and he is enlightened even in matters of reason and of memory-knowledge (in rationalibus et scientificis) . . . . Thus his starting-point must be the Lord and not himself; for the former is life but the latter is death” (AC 129).
Not only has the battle been joined between the Michaels and the dragonists, but the Lord has further provided for the New Church. This is signified by what is said concerning the woman. ” . . . the woman was given two wings of a great eagle that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent” (Rev. 12:14). The Lord gives spiritual wings to the church. This signifies the spiritual intelligence and circumspection that the Lord gives. ” . . . it is granted to the people of the New Church . . . to behold the Divine truths that are in the Word, not sensually, that is according to appearances, but spiritually, that is, according to their essences . . . . From this they have enlightenment” (AR 759).
The eagle is known for its power of flight and for its keen- ness of vision. A soaring eagle can spy its prey from an incredible height. Wings carry the eagle far above the earth, giving it new vision and perspective. We read in the Heavenly Doctrine, “The spiritual also are comparatively like eagles flying on high, while those who are merely natural are comparatively like serpents who creep on the ground, and see the eagles above them” (AE 759).
The wings of an eagle, enabling flight, signify the elevation of the mind to an enlightened understanding of truth. Such understanding and the opening of the spiritual mind is what the Lord has given, and will give, to those who will be of the New Church, we are told (see AE 759e).
By contrast the dragon also had wings. The dragon is a kind of flying serpent. Yet its flight mocks the grace of the eagle, holding up its heavy body with difficulty and soon falling back to earth. The fact that dragons have wings indicates that sensually-minded people also may elevate their understanding to see spiritual knowledges; yet, having no affection for them, they soon sink back into sensual thought. The fact is, “to know the things that are of the Word and of the doctrine of the church does not make a person spiritual, but a life according to those things that the Lord has commanded in the Word . . . ” (AE 714:3).
The war in heaven that was waged between Michael and his angels and the dragon and his angels symbolizes the perpetual warfare between spiritual thought and sensual thought. It began in Eden with the serpent. So the Lord God said to the serpent there, “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” (Gen. 3:15). This is the first recorded prophecy of the combat of the Lord with the hells. By His incarnation, the Lord came to oppose the powers of hell with the power of His Divine Human. “In Him was life,” John wrote, “and the life was the light of men.” The Lord elevated the minds of those who believed in Him to new heights of spiritual understanding. But many did not believe His Word. So John added: ” . . . the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4,5). So, too, the Lord said, ” . . . this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil . . . . But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God” (John 3:19,21).
Now the Lord has come again, bringing a sevenfold increase of spiritual light. The woman, the New Church, has been established and is nourished in the wilderness for a “time and times, and half a time.” The dragon has been cast down to the earth. Does this mean we are safe now from the age-old conflict between the serpent of sensual thought and the sanity of spiritual wisdom? It does not. The dragon continues to make war. In fact, the confidence in sensuous things over revealed ones is said to be worse today than in ancient times (see AC 196). Our mind is the battleground.
There is a spiritual freedom now to choose between hell and heaven. There are truths revealed for the New Church never before expressed in terms that could be rationally understood. The Lord has given us every possible advantage, but the decision still is ours to make: Will it be faith in spiritual truths from the Word rationally understood, or confidence in sensual things?
If we ask, “What is the future of the New Church?” the Lord has assured us that it will endure forever as the crown of all the churches that have ever existed on the earth (see Inv. 39). But its growth will depend on our reception of it. “It is of the Lord’s Divine Providence that the church should at first be among a few,” we are told, “and that it should successively increase among many, because the falsities of the former church must first be removed; for before this, truths cannot be received . . . . It is certain that the New Church, which is the New Jerusalem, will exist . . . and it is also certain that the falsities of the former church are first to be removed . . . ” (AR 547).
The church will grow and find increase first in the hearts of those who, from a spiritual affection of truth, search the Word for wisdom and for the power to combat sensual thought. The church will grow only as we seek its Divine doctrine from the spiritual sense of the Word and then live according to it.
For this reason, the New Church is called the “church militant” (AC 59, 1692, et al), a fighting church. One definition of militant is “ready and willing to fight.” This is what those who would be of the New Church must be: ready and willing to fight. We must fight the dragon of sensual thought and self-love that is in our lives and in the world. And with the Lord’s help, the battle can be won! The promise is given: “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city” (Rev. 22:14). Amen.
Lessons: Gen. 3:1-5,14,15; Rev. 12:1-17; TCR 619
True Christian Religon 619
. . . without truths there is no knowledge of the Lord; also . . . without truths there is no faith, and thus no charity; consequently . . . without truths there is no theology, and where this is not, there is no church. Such is the condition today of that body of people who call themselves Christians, and who say they are in the light of the Gospel and yet are in the veriest darkness; for with them, truths lie hidden beneath falsities, like gold, silver, and precious stones buried among the bones in the valley of Hinnom. That it is so I was enabled to see clearly from the spheres in the spiritual world that flow forth from the Christendom of today and propagate themselves.
One sphere is that respecting the Lord; this breathes and pours itself forth from the southern quarter, where the learned clergy and erudite laity reside. Wherever this sphere goes it insinuates itself into the ideas, and with many takes away faith in the Divinity of the Lord’s Human, with many weakens it, with many makes it seem foolish; and this because it brings in with it the faith in three Gods, and thus produces confusion.
Another sphere that takes away faith is like a black cloud in winter, which brings on darkness, turns rain into snow, strips bare the trees, freezes the waters, and takes away all pasture from the sheep. This sphere in conjunction with the former insinuates a kind of lethargy respecting one God, regeneration, and the means of salvation.
A third sphere relates to the conjunction of faith and charity; this is so strong as to be irresistible, but at the present day it is abominable; it is like a pestilence that infects everyone on whom it breathes, and tears asunder every tie between those two means of salvation, established as such from the creation of the world and restored anew by the Lord. This sphere invades even the men in the natural world, and extinguishes the marriage torches between truths and goods. I have felt this sphere, and at such times, when I thought of the conjunction of faith and charity, it interposed itself between them and violently endeavored to separate them.
The angels complain of these spheres, and pray to the Lord for their dissipation, but they received the answer that they cannot be dissipated so long as the dragon is on the earth, because it is from the draconic spirits; for it is said of the dragon that he was cast down unto the earth, and then follows: “Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and woe to those that inhabit the earth!” (Rev. 12:12)
These three spheres are like tempest-driven atmospheres coming forth from the breathing-holes of the dragons, which, being spiritual, invade the mind and control it. The spheres of spiritual truth there are as yet few, only in the new heaven, and also with those beneath heaven, who are separated from the draconic spirits. This is why those truths are so little recognized by men in the world today, just as ships in the eastern ocean are invisible to captains and shipmasters who are sailing in the western ocean.