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The Word of God

by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts
May 14, 2000

Readings:

Psalm 119:97-112 Oh, how I love your law!

Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your decrees are my meditation.
I understand more than the elders,
for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way,
in order to keep your word.
I do not turn away from your ordinances,
for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.

Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
to observe your righteous ordinances.
I am severely afflicted;
give me life, O Lord, according to your word.
Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord,
and teach me your ordinances.
I hold my life in my hand continually,
but I do not forget your law.
The wicked have laid a snare for me,
but I do not stray from your precepts.
Your decrees are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.
I incline my heart to do your statutes forever, to the end.


Matthew 5:17-20 The fulfillment of the Law

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.


The Heavenly City #252-254 The Bible: literal and spiritual

Since the Bible is a divine revelation, every single part of it is divine. Anything that comes from the divine could be no other way. Everything that comes from the divine goes down through the heavens all the way to people on earth. In heaven it is adapted to the wisdom of the angels there, and on earth it is adapted to the understanding of the people there. So the Bible has an inner, spiritual meaning for angels and an outer, material-level meaning for people on earth. That is why our connection to heaven happens through the Bible.

The Bible's real meaning can be understood only by people who are enlightened. And only people who love and believe in the Lord are enlightened, since their deeper parts are lifted up into heaven's light by the Lord.

We can understand the Bible's literal meaning only if we have a religious philosophy that an enlightened person has obtained from the Bible. The literal meaning is adapted to people's understanding--even the understanding of simple-minded people. So we need a religious philosophy from the Bible to give us light.


Sermon

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew 5:17, 18)

Before I go off in an entirely different direction, I would like to wish all the mothers here a very happy Mother's Day!

Now, I believe that everything is connected to everything else, so I could make a connection between Mother's Day and our topic for today, which is "The Word of God." Let's see. . . . The Church is our spiritual mother, and the Bible is where we learn about the Church. Voila! A connection between Mother's Day and the Word of God!

But really, the reason I am preaching about the Word of God today is that this is the second in a series of three sermons on the basic teachings of our church, as we wrap up our regular church year. Last week we focused on our church's teachings about the Lord, and for our final regular service, on June 4, we will focus on what it means to live a spiritual life and be "saved," from a Swedenborgian perspective. Meanwhile, for the next two Sunday's you'll get something completely different!

The Word of God. What does that phrase conjure up in your mind? To some Christians, it is a book dictated word-for word by God, and meant to be obeyed in a very literal way in order to avoid a very literal hellfire and damnation. To other Christians, it is the record of God's interaction with a particular human culture over many centuries, and even more than that, the place where we are taught about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and therefore the sourcebook of the Christian religion. For many non-Christians, the Bible is simply a book of cultural history, poetry, and human religious belief. And for far too many ex-Christians, it is a book associated with heavy-handed and guilt-inducing teachings coming from a judgmental and arbitrary God whom they can no longer accept.

In the midst of all this welter of opinion about the Bible, one thing is certain: the Bible has been a central influence in the development of Western culture, and the primary source for its dominant religion: Christianity. No matter what our opinion may be about the Bible, we cannot deny the tremendous impact it has had on our society.

However, from a Swedenborgian point of view, the Bible is the Word of God for a far greater reason than its unchallenged position as the fountainhead of the Christian religion and as the greatest historical influence in the formation of Western society. Before we get to that, though, it might be helpful to say a few words about the formation of the Bible itself.

The Bible is a book that took over one thousand five hundred years to write. Its first five books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were originally written down over fourteen centuries before the birth of Christ. Its final book, Revelation, was written nearly a century after the Lord's birth. Its many books were written by at least forty different authors. Their styles include myth, history, law, poetry, story, sermon, prophecy, theology, and mystic vision. The Bible is anything but a simple book. Whole colleges of scholars can and do spend their entire careers studying its complexities and intricacies; and when one question is answered, ten more questions spring up in its place.

Some Christians reduce all this complexity down to a simple slogan: "God said it, I believe it, and that's that." Many of them believe that if we scrutinize the origins of the Bible too closely, we will only raise doubts about its divine origins. And if it helps them in their faith journey to take that simple view of the Bible, I say, "more power to them."

However, for the rest of us, who are willing to consider the idea that the infinite God may bring about his purposes in far more complex ways than our simple minds can possibly imagine, it is helpful to have a deeper view of how the Bible could be written by so many authors from so many different perspectives over so many centuries, yet still be woven into a single, coherent book that is the inspired Word of God.

I believe that, far from casting doubt on its divine origin, the fact that the Bible was written and formed over so many centuries through so many human minds was part of God's plan in molding it into a book that would provide a true link between the Creator and the people whom he created. In fact, if the Bible were written at a single time by a single author, I would have to question how a book that had such a narrow source could possibly express the vast nature of God to the highly varied human individuals and cultures that populate our earth. In writing the Bible through so many human authors over so many centuries, God ensured that it could speak to all human beings in all centuries. No matter where we may happen to be in our lives and on our spiritual journey, we will find something in the Bible that corresponds to what we are going through today, at this very moment.

This thought begins to open up for us what makes the Bible the Word of God from a Swedenborgian perspective. The Bible is not simply a book full of commandments that God proclaims and we must obey. Yes, we do need to obey God's commandments as found in the Bible. But at a much broader and deeper level, the Bible is a two-way means of communication between God and human beings on earth.

Two-way? Certainly God can speak to us through the Bible. But how can we speak with God through the Bible?

Let's look first at how God speaks to us through the Bible. Obviously, in the literal story of the Bible God gives us many teachings and commandments that we are meant to take to heart and follow in our lives. The Ten Commandments. The Sermon on the Mount.

But what about all that ancient Jewish history and all those awful wars? What about those laws for sacrifice and other religious rituals that we no longer follow? What about the Creation story in Genesis, which contradicts so much of what we know from science about the origins of the earth, and the plant and animal life on it? Are these merely ancient human texts, or can we somehow hear God's voice speaking through them with a message intended for us personally, about the issues and struggles we are facing in our lives right now?

Some Christians believe that much of the Old Testament has been superseded by the life and teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. Yet Jesus himself said, in our text:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17, 18)

The Law and the Prophets were the two most sacred of the three divisions of Hebrew Scripture. When Jesus mentioned them, he was referring to the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (which are "the Law"), and Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, and the four "Major Prophets" and twelve "Minor Prophets" (which are "the Prophets") as found in the Old Testament. Elsewhere (in Luke 24:44) he added the Psalms to the books that "must be fulfilled." And if Jesus tells us in the New Testament that these Old Testament books are still sacred and must be fulfilled, then our task is to discover just how they are sacred, and how the Lord fulfills his mission and message to us through them.

This is where we turn to the theological works of Emanuel Swedenborg for help and enlightenment. Although the presence of deeper layers of meaning in Scripture is hinted at in the Bible itself--especially in Jesus' use of parables and his explanations of their deeper meanings to his disciples--what remained unknown throughout many centuries of Christianity was that the entire Bible is a parable with deeper meanings that relate entirely to the nature of God and to our own spiritual life.

Since we could not find the key to this deeper, spiritual meaning for ourselves, it was necessary for God, in the fullness of time, to open the spiritual eyes of a chosen servant and through that person, guide us into the knowledge of the deeper meanings of Scripture. This, we believe, is what the Lord accomplished through Emanuel Swedenborg over two centuries ago. And the light that Swedenborg's writings have thrown on those books that formerly seemed so old and outdated cannot be compared to any other Bible commentaries.

Of course, if you haven't read any of Swedenborg's writings, you'll just have to take my word for it. However, a couple of brief examples may help to illustrate what I mean.

First of all, what about those wars? In the literal meaning, they are very brutal--not pleasant reading at all. And yet, don't we each experience brutal struggles within ourselves at various times during our lives? Don't we struggle at times with our own anger, or depression, or discouragement, or addictive tendencies? When we start reading those Old Testament battles as metaphors for the battles that go on in our own souls over whether we will be ruled by God and the better side of our nature, or by the evil and destructive forces that would tear us down and ruin us, those old battles suddenly come alive with new and personal meaning!

Or what about the Creation story? If, instead of remaining stuck in the idea that the first chapter of the Bible is about the literal creation of the physical universe, we think of it as the story of the creation and formation of our own souls, then once again, the story comes alive with very personal meaning for each one of us today. When we first set out on our spiritual journey, we are spiritually formless and void, waiting and hoping for the Lord to shape us into new people. And each one of us, as we move forward on our spiritual journey, finds that the Lord is continually creating new stages and new chapters in our story. All of these stages lead toward the day when God will fully re-create us as new human beings in his divine image--meaning that we live, not from self-absorbed and materialistic motives, but for the joy of following God's wisdom and expressing God's love. When we reach this stage, we are at the seventh day of rest--rest in the experience of God's presence within us.

If we begin to look at the Bible in this way, with the help of Swedenborg's writings we will discover the Bible as one great parable that tells our spiritual story from beginning to end. All the stages of our life are represented there, from Genesis through Revelation. And on every step we take along the way, we can find help and insight in the spiritual story that unfolds through the histories and prophecies, the poetry and stories of the Word of God.

This brief explanation only scratches the surface of the many and varied ways that God speaks to each one of us personally through the pages of the Bible. But we must move on to the question of how can we speak to God through the Bible.

This we do, not so much in the literal printed pages of the Bible as through the way we write the message of the Bible on the pages of our hearts and lives. When we allow ourselves to be opened up and enlightened by God's personal message to us in the Bible, it is a life-changing experience. That experience causes us to become new people. We look on everyone around us with more understanding, kindness, and compassion. We begin treating them with more respect and more love. And we devote our lives more and more to serving our fellow human beings out of the pure joy of providing for their happiness. And as Jesus tells us in the Gospels, whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we do for him (Matthew 25:40).

This is how we speak to God through reading God's Word. We speak through the living language of our lives. We enter into a beautiful conversation with God as we learn to show God's love to one another, and in this way return God's love back to the Creator from which it comes.

As the Psalmist said, "Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end." Amen.


Music: Eternity
1999 Bruce DeBoer

 

 
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