Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You shall not do any work. (Exodus 20:9, 10)
With a text like that, and all those readings about the Sabbath, you would think that today's sermon would be about what it means to keep the Sabbath in the Swedenborgian church. In a sense, that is what this sermon is about.
However, those of you who have been to church here within the past two weeks know that I have an obligation to keep. I promised a three part Lenten series on Repentance, Reformation, and Regeneration. Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent, and we have reached the third sermon in the series: Regeneration. So we have a little problem. I promised a sermon on Regeneration, but I picked readings about the Sabbath.
To tell you the truth, when I first started thinking about this sermon, I did not intend to use readings about the Sabbath. But when it came time to sit down and write, the passages on the Sabbath seemed to come up unbidden. I have learned to follow such promptings, because usually it turns out that the Lord has something in mind for the service that I may not have been thinking about on my own. As we will see, this very experience of following good promptings from the Lord--which we can occasionally enjoy when we get ourselves out of the way--this experience gets to the essence of both regeneration and the Sabbath.
First, we must talk about this word "regeneration." "Regeneration" is another one of those fancy words that the English language got from Latin. As with many words from Latin, it is not the sort of word we use every day.
"Hi, John! How's it going?"
"I'm feeling great, Ginny! I've been regenerating all day.
Somehow I can't picture overhearing this sort of casual conversation. Words like repentance, reformation, and regeneration simply are not a part of our everyday vocabulary. How about saying "I'm sorry," shaping up, and . . . regenerating? What does "regenerating" mean? As with repentance and reformation, we have other, more common words that we use to say the same thing.
In scientific language, the word for regeneration is "reproduction." When we have children, we are not simply "producing" them. That would imply that we were building something that may have little or nothing to do with who and what we ourselves are as people. No, we are reproducing, because something of ourselves is "produced again" in our children. Parts of both our physical and our spiritual (or psychological) character is expressed in our children--so we are re-producing ourselves in them.
Do the words "produced again" bring to mind another, more common phrase? Yes! "Regeneration" comes from the Latin word regeneration, which is one of several Latin words and phrases that mean, in plain English, being "born again." We do not read about "regeneration" in the Bible. Instead, we read about being born again. However, both are talking about the same process.
Swedenborg gives two slightly different meanings to "regeneration," or being born again. In a general sense, it means the whole process of spiritual birth and growth, from the time we first make a decision to live for the Lord to the time we reach spiritual maturity. But regeneration has a special meaning when it goes with repentance and reformation. In this series of three, regeneration is the final stage of spiritual rebirth and growth. It is a stage when we gain the fruits of our labors. But I am getting ahead of myself, and giving away the punch line!
In the past two weeks, we have explored how we begin the overall process of regeneration by recognizing the problems within ourselves, being truly sorry for them, and resolving to stop acting on them. Then we looked at some of the guideposts along our journey of leaving behind those "evil" or damaging parts of ourselves. Being sorry and shaping up is not as easy as falling of a log. It takes a conscious decision on our part, and it takes a lot of inner work!
This is exactly the work that our reading from Exodus refers to. The third commandment says "six days you shall labor and do all your work." We all know what physical labor is. Even those of us who do not make our living at manual labor have experienced days of very literally working by the sweat of our brows.
In this culture we also have a well-developed idea of what mental work is. Many of the professions that make up our economy do not primarily involve physical labor. We have teachers and librarians, lawyers, political leaders, business managers, counselors, real estate agents, salespeople, and many other professions that involve mostly mental work, even if some of them do have an element of physical labor as well. While some people sweat over a shovel, others sweat over a contract. One is a physical tool; the other is a tool of the mind and of commerce.
As we move our thoughts from physical to mental work, we can also get an idea of what emotional and spiritual work are. We have all experienced emotional work of one kind or another. If something difficult and painful happens in our family or among our friends or co-workers, it takes emotional work to deal with it. This kind of work can be every bit as exhausting as physical labor--even if it is a different type of exhaustion.
Spiritual work is similar to emotional work, and in many cases the two are one and the same. But spiritual work always involves facing and overcoming the difficult and painful parts of our own selves. Our spiritual work is to face the faults, or "evils," in ourselves and overcome them through reliance on the Lord and through following the laws, or spiritual guidelines, that the Lord gives us.
Metaphorically, we spend six days a week in this kind of spiritual work. This is the work of repentance and reformation; it is the work of regretting the hurtful parts of ourselves and reshaping ourselves so that we are closer to the Lord's pattern for us.
Then we come to that wonderful seventh day. We have been working by the sweat of our spiritual brows for what often seems more like six years than like six days, but finally we come to that sacred time of rest from our labors. This is what Swedenborg means by the word "regeneration" when he uses it in the special meaning as the final stage of our spiritual growth.
Of course, we have to remember that just as Monday follows Sunday, each "final stage" of our spiritual growth is a prelude to a new phase of growth. Our spiritual growth is not a straight line, but a cycle--a spiral leading gradually upwards, but bringing us around and around again through times of spiritual work and then spiritual rest.
What does it mean to rest spiritually? And what does this have to do with being regenerated, or born again? In our reading from Arcana Coelestia, Swedenborg makes two statements that we can especially ponder this morning. First, he says that the Sabbath day represents the joining together of the Lord's divine human nature with the human race. In plain language, this means that our spiritual Sabbaths are the times when we are very close to the Lord. They are the times that we have done the work of putting aside the "other gods" of self and material pleasure as the focus of our lives, and have opened ourselves up to the true God and source of our being.
When we are focused on self and material pleasures or possessions, we always have struggles, because these things can never truly satisfy us. How many of us have had the experience of thinking we would be happy if we only had that nicer car or truck, or that faster computer, or that bigger house . . . and then when we finally did get it, after the initial pleasure, we found that we were not much happier than before? It is all too easy to then pin our hopes for happiness on the next better thing. Part of our spiritual work is to see that while these things may bring us pleasure, they do not bring happiness. Happiness comes from within; happiness comes from God.
When we let go of everything but God as the central and most important thing in our lives, then we can have a true Sabbath of rest. Then we are no longer struggling against the reality of the universe--which is that only God's love brings true joy and happiness. When we seek the Lord first, then all these other things can be added to us. Not that we will automatically live in a fancy house and drive an expensive car. But when the Lord is at the center, we are happier with the possessions that we do have. And especially, we are happier in our relationships with our friends and family members, because we are thinking of their happiness as much as our own.
Swedenborg makes another statement to ponder in our reading from Arcana Coelestia. He says that the Sabbath represents the joining together of goodness and truth. In other words, it is when our thoughts and our feelings are together. When we are in a phase of spiritual work, our minds are divided. One part of us wants one thing, and another part wants something else. Our head says one thing and our heart says another. Through our spiritual work, we begin to resolve these differences within ourselves.
At first, we have to force ourselves to do the right thing even when we are longing to do something we know is wrong. But through our struggles to "shape up" our attitudes and desires, an amazing thing happens. Before, we felt pleasure in a habit that caused pain to others and was also self-destructive. But the longer we work against it, the less pleasure it gives us. Finally, we reach a stage of rest. We reach a time when our head and our hearts say the same thing. When we not only know we should not do such and such; we have absolutely no desire to do it. It becomes distasteful to us. We no longer have to struggle against that old bad habit, because we have been re-shaped, or re-born, in the image of God.
This is the meaning of regeneration. It is also the meaning of the Sabbath. Jesus teaches us this in our reading from Matthew, when he reinterprets the Sabbath. The religious authorities of the day had gotten stuck in a literal interpretation of the word "work." But Jesus said, in effect, that it is not work to do what is good and right. It is only work to not do what is bad and wrong.
When we have done that work, then doing good things for others becomes restful and peaceful for us. Then we are born again. We are born to a new self--a self that comes not from our own desires, but from the love and wisdom that constantly pours forth from the Lord, bringing peace and joy with them. We can feel the joy of heaven, which is doing good things for others because that is what we love to do.