Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 27, 2003

Genesis 3:1-7 The woman and the serpent

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"

The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden; but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'"

"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Revelation 12 The woman and the dragon

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down--that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short."

When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent's reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring--those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

Apocalypse Revealed #533The woman clothed with the sun

"A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet" symbolizes the Lord's new church in heaven, . . . and the Lord's new church about to be on earth, which is the New Jerusalem.

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. (Revelation 12:1-3)

Women and reptiles go a long way back in the Bible story. In fact, they first square off against each other in Genesis chapter 3, very close to the beginning of the Bible. In that encounter, the woman loses. She is taken in by the serpent, eats the forbidden fruit along with her husband, and as a result, they both experience shame for the first time--not to mention bringing various curses down upon themselves and getting thrown out of the Garden of Eden, where they had lived innocently and happily up to that time.

And now in Revelation chapter 12, very close to the end of the Bible, they square off against each other again. The lowly serpent of Genesis has grown monstrously large, becoming an enormous, many-headed red dragon. We know it is the same character, since in verse 9 of our chapter, the dragon is identified as "that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray." However, the woman has also grown much more powerful. The Eve of Genesis is a simple woman, created out of a bone taken from Adam's chest. The woman of Revelation 12 is a glorious being, clothed with the sun, standing upon the moon, and with a crown of twelve stars adorning her head. And this time the woman holds her own against the mammoth reptile--with a little help from her friends.

In the Bible, women--especially women of stature, and most especially women of cosmic status--regularly represent the Lord's church. This does not mean the institution of the church so much as it means the whole community of people who believe in the Lord and in the Lord's Word, and live according to that belief. In many places throughout the Bible, especially in the Prophets and the book of Revelation, the Lord's church is presented as a woman who is the bride and wife of the Lord God.

For example, several chapters later in Revelation, an angel says to John, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb" (the Lamb being a reference to Christ). And then the angel shows him "the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (Revelation 21:9, 10). A few verses earlier, John had already mentioned seeing "the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband" (Revelation 21:2). This is the same holy city that has twelve gates to receive the redeemed from all the nations of the earth. It is an obvious symbol of the human community of faith, also referred to as the "body of Christ" and simply as the church, which is the bride and wife of the Lord.

The woman clothed with the sun has the same representation as the holy city New Jerusalem that is the bride and wife of Christ. She represents the body of believers that is part of the new era of genuine Christianity that we believe has now begun both in heaven and on this earth. The name of our church, "The New Jerusalem Church," is a reference to this new Christianity. Not that we believe we are the new church that the Lord is forming in our day, but that we believe in it, and aspire to be a part of it.

This is a grand and glorious vision for our church! And it is a vision that can inspire us as we struggle along, dealing with prosaic issues of building and grounds maintenance, budgets, and the question of our church's programs, growth, and outreach. It can inspire us as we deal with the inevitable frustrations, friction, conflicts, and disappointments that accompany every human institution and every human community--including the church. As we face our own internal issues here in the Bridgewater New Jerusalem Church, and also the issues now facing the wider bodies of our Association and our denomination, this vision of the woman clothed with the sun can give us inspiration on how to be a church that is a part of the wider body of Lord's new church on earth and in heaven.

The first thing we notice about the woman is her dazzling attire. She is wearing the sun itself as her clothing. She is a being of intense light and intense warmth. The sun, we know both from Swedenborg and from ancient tradition, is the primary symbol in nature of the Lord God, the creator and ruler of the universe. Our little cosmos--or solar system--centers on and revolves around the sun, which is not only the focal point, but also the binding force that holds together all the planets, moons, comets, asteroids, and other bodies that inhabit our solar system. Its heat and light are the source and engine of all life on earth. Without the sun, this earth would be a cold, dark, dead rock--if it existed at all.

The sun's heat--its primary life-giving attribute--not only represents, but corresponds in a living way to the intense love of God, which is the central essence, the very being of God. It is God's love that both creates and sustains us as living, spiritual beings. And sun's light, which comes to us blended with its warmth, is the Lord's eternal truth, enlightening our minds and guiding us in everything we do.

So the first attribute we notice about the woman, spiritually speaking, is that she is fully wrapped in the Lord's love and truth, a being of light and love. This means that our church, also, is to be wholly wrapped up in the Lord's love and truth. In Biblical terms, we are commanded to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5), and to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). If our lives, both individually and collectively, are not centered on the Lord's love and on loving and serving our neighbors here on earth, then we are not a part of this woman who represents the new Christianity that the Lord is forming on this earth.

The woman is also supported by the moon, which is under her feet--the foundation, as it were, on which she is standing. The moon shines by reflected light from the sun, and is a visible, guiding light when the sun itself is not in our sky. It represents our faith in the Lord, which carries us through our darker times when we do not feel the Lord in such a living way as in our times of spiritual daylight. Even when our lives are centered around the Lord, we do not always feel the Lord's love burning in our hearts. Yet if we have developed a strong and true faith, it can carry us through our times of darkness.

And the stars that crown the woman's head--all those tiny, beautiful points of light that stud the night sky and guide us in our times of darkness--are the eternal, spiritual truths, the principles of spiritual living, that we discover and learn, and that guide us when our hearts are not so warm, and our mind not so enlightened as in our emotional daytimes.

This is the vision provided in Revelation 12 of the new Christian Church as it is meant to be: centered on God's love and wisdom, sustained by faith, and guided by all the beautiful eternal spiritual truths that the Lord gives to all whose minds are clear. This is the vision of powerful spiritual life to which we can aspire as a church.

The woman is pregnant, and about to bring forth a male child. Spiritually, children represent new births within us--births of new feelings of love for the Lord and for one another, and of new understandings of the truth. These, especially, are the spiritual fruit that we bear when we are spiritually married to the Lord, and living a life of faith and kindness.

The child that the woman is about to bear is a male child; so he represents a new spiritual understanding. Specifically, since he is the child of the woman who represents the new Christian church, he symbolizes that church's newborn understanding of spiritual truth. In other words, the male child is the teachings, or in traditional terms the doctrine, of the new church that the Lord is forming both in the spiritual world and in the material world.

In our church, we believe that the primary visible form of that new doctrine is found in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, whom the Lord commissioned to deliver to the world a renewed and deepened understanding of the Christian faith, of the spiritual world, and of the life we are to lead as Christians. The teachings of our church are, in a special sense, the male child that has now been born into the world, and that will, in due time, "rule all the nations with an iron scepter."

One day, I am convinced, the teachings given to the world through the pen of Emanuel Swedenborg will be the reigning theology and faith of the entire world. This I believe, not just because Swedenborg said so, but because the spiritual philosophy presented in Swedenborg's writings represents the best and the highest of all spiritual truth found throughout all the ages of humanity's searching for enlightenment and for God. Things are not true because Swedenborg says so; rather, Swedenborg says things because the Lord showed him the truth, and he expressed that truth to us in the clearest form possible for a human mind of the time and place in which those truths were published.

However, though Swedenborg's writings are an especially potent manifestation of the male child born to the woman, they are not the only way that this child appears in our world and in our lives. Every time we as individuals or as a church community bring forth new truth, new understanding, new enlightenment that we had not grasped before, and offer it to the world around us, we are bringing forth the male child. Every time we as a church offer to the people of our community the spiritual wisdom that we have been given by the Lord, we are the woman clothed with the sun, giving birth to a child whose destiny is to reign in the hearts and minds not only of the people of our community, but of all people of faith throughout the earth.

Please understand, this does not mean everyone on earth will become Swedenborgians! But it does mean that the core principles of our church will be the reigning principles of all genuine religions throughout the earth. Those principles are a belief in one God, who is pure love and pure wisdom; a belief in the inspired Word of God, containing depths of truth that go beyond all human understanding; and a dedication to living a life of love and service to our fellow human beings according to the teachings of our religion. These principles will, I believe, reign in the human community on earth as we are ready to receive them.

Unfortunately, this does not happen without powerful resistance. The woman is crying out in pain as her child is about to be delivered. And who wouldn't cry out when there is a huge, seven-headed dragon standing by to devour the child as soon as it is born?

The dragon, that ancient serpent called the devil and Satan, represents everything that resists the birth of the new Christian church within us, and in our world. For Eve, it was especially the desire to base her life on the evidence of her physical senses rather than on the spiritual inspiration that came from God. She disobeyed God's words in order to eat a fruit that looked pleasing to her eyes. And ever since, when we humans have followed the lead of our senses rather than listening to the voice of God from within, we have come to know pain, shame, conflict, and spiritual death.

In our day, there is enormously more material knowledge that can lead us away from God and toward materialism and selfishness if we let it rule us instead of serving us. The simple serpent of Eve's far simpler day has grown into an huge, threatening dragon. It is very difficult to maintain our faith and our love for God in the face of the powerful, many-headed voice of materialism and materialistic science and philosophy that pervades our world. That dragon of faith in the material world and in human ingenuity and technology is doing its best to destroy all faith in the Lord and in spirit. And it has made great inroads.

But the destiny of our new Christian faith is not to be swallowed up by materialism and greed. The moment the child is born, it is caught up to heaven--to our deeper, spiritual minds--out of the reach of the devouring dragon. And the woman herself finds a place in the desert, where she is protected from the dragon.

Our church, too, has found itself in a desert of small numbers and struggling congregations. Often we have felt the need to hide our precious, beautiful new beliefs away from the crowd of religious fundamentalists, traditional Christians, and secular skeptics that would chew it up and destroy it before it has a chance to grow to a powerful adulthood in our minds and hearts. For so many decades, we have faced the question, "Why are we so small, when our teachings are so incredibly powerful and beautiful?"

We have been, and in many ways still are, facing a dragon of resistance to the truths of the new Christianity that have now been born into the world. But we can take heart from our story. The beliefs we hold so precious will not be destroyed from this earth, even if they must remain hidden for a while. Our church will not perish--even if it must spend some time in the desert. This, too, shall pass. And when the battles are fought and the old ways of the world are overcome, the woman and her child will re-emerge as the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven.

What Jesus said to his little band of disciples two thousand years ago, he also says to our little band of believers today: "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). Amen.

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Artwork: Night by Edward Robert Hughes 1851-1914

Music: Velvet and Diamonds (the star filled sky)
2003 Bruce De Boer
Used with Permission

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