By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, December 30, 2001


Isaiah 65:17-25 A new heaven and a new earth

"Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.

"Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For like the days of a tree will the days of my people be; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain nor bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.

"The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; but dust will be the serpent's food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain," says the Lord.


Revelation 21:1-5 A new heaven and a new earth

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the tabernacle of God is with humankind, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away"

The one who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new!"


The Last Judgment #73
The state of the world from now on

The state of the world from now on will be just as it has been before. This is because the immense change that has taken place in the spiritual world does not force any change on the outward form of the material world. So there will be civic affairs just as before; peace treaties, alliances, and wars just as before; and all the other events, great and small, that take place in human communities. . . .

However, the state of the church will not be the same from now on. Yes, it will look much the same outwardly; but inwardly it will be different.

Outwardly, the churches will be divided the way they have been. They will still go on teaching their doctrines, and there will be similar religious practices among non-Christians. But from now on, people in the church will have more freedom of thought in matters of faith--that is, in the spiritual issues that have to do with heaven--because spiritual freedom has been restored to us.


Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. (Isaiah 65:17, 18)

It is a beautiful promise that we are given, both in the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament and in the prophet John in the New Testament. In Isaiah, the Lord tells us of the future creation of a new heaven and a new earth. This new society will be so peaceful and secure that all the former things--weeping, crying, infant mortality, early death, theft and military conquest--all these things will not even be remembered anymore! Even the animal kingdom will be transformed, with the (former) carnivores and the herbivores eating peacefully together. "They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain," says the Lord.

The apostle John, who is the prophet of the New Testament, sees this beautiful vision fulfilled, describing it in the end of his strange and powerful spiritual vision, which we know as the book of Revelation. "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. . . . And the one who was seated on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new!'"

Emanuel Swedenborg--unlike the hundreds of religious figures who predicted that the great Last Judgment was about to come, followed by the new kingdom of God--said that in his day, the mid-1700s, the Last Judgment had already happened! We missed it here on earth, he said, because it was not a physical event observable by material eyes, but a spiritual event that only spiritual eyes could see. John's vision took place in the spiritual world, and so, Swedenborg said, did the events that they predicted. And it was because his spiritual eyes were opened by the Lord that he could see them, while the rest of the world went on its way all unaware of the momentous changes taking place in the higher realms of reality.

Still, we have grown accustomed to thinking of ourselves as living in a new age. Scientific knowledge has mushroomed in the last two hundred years, and technology along with it, so that things never even conceived of in Swedenborg's day are now so routine we don't even think about them. We take it for granted that if we need to get to a place that is fifty or sixty miles away, we can hop in the car and be there in an hour or so. For Swedenborg, such a trip meant many hours astride a horse, or bumping along in a horse-drawn carriage. We flip a switch, and the light goes on. This would have been considered magic in Swedenborg's day! And we pick up the phone, or sit down at the computer keyboard, and instantly we are communicating with someone on the other side of the country, or on the other side of the world. Such things were simply impossible in the eighteenth century.

And yet, have things really changed all that much? Yes, we do have far greater knowledge, and our technology is light years beyond anything Swedenborg knew. But have people really changed? Has human society really changed? There were people at the turn of the last century who believed that war was a thing of the past, and that the new era of science and of new spiritual understanding was even then ushering in the peaceable kingdom so beautifully described by Isaiah. World War I was called "the war to end all wars"; but its aftermath led inexorably to the even more terrible World War II.

The United States itself--which we like to think of as the most enlightened nation yet to grace this earth--has engaged in one war or another nearly every decade of its existence. Even now, our country is engaged in a "war against terrorism" that has already killed at least as many innocent civilians in Afghanistan as the number of people who died in the horrible attacks of September 11.

I used to say that slavery had been all but eliminated from our world. However, in a recent online debate I found out, to my chagrin, that although few if any countries still have laws on the books condoning slavery, the practice itself is still going strong throughout the world. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in conditions of slavery not only in the third world, but in the developed nations. This includes the United States, where many legal and illegal immigrants and others have been reduced to unpaid servitude in American homes and clandestine manufacturing operations.

Meanwhile, and all the scourges of human greed and lust for power continue to operate in our society, apparently as strong as ever. The crime rate in our cities continues at a high level, with thefts and murders taking place every day. Corruption in business and in government is daily news in the media. And as for the freedom that Americans are so proud of, and that we see as one of the distinguishing characteristics of our nation, it is frightening to see how overwhelming is the support among the American people to give up those freedoms one by one, in exchange for the security against outside threats that our government is promising us in return. And so we find ourselves in the ironic position of giving up our personal rights and freedoms in the cause of a war that is supposed to be defending freedom and democracy against the forces of terrorism and despotism.

Have things really changed all that much? Or are we just doing the same things all over again, but in a more high-tech way?

Though Emanuel Swedenborg is sometimes called a prophet, he actually made very few predictions about the future. In fact, in The Last Judgment #74, just after the section we heard earlier, he says, "I have had various conversations with angels about the state of the church from now on. They have said that they do not know what is going to happen--only the Lord knows that."

However, in The Last Judgment #73--the second-to-last numbered section in the book--Swedenborg does make this "prediction":

The state of the world from now on will be just as it has been before. This is because the immense change that has taken place in the spiritual world does not force any change on the outward form of the material world. So there will be civic affairs just as before; peace treaties, alliances, and wars just as before; and all the other events, great and small, that take place in human communities.

Sound familiar? Yes, Swedenborg confidently predicted that after the Last Judgment took place, things would be pretty much the same in our world as they had been before. No cataclysms with sun, moon, and stars falling to earth and burning it to a crisp. No great battles in the sky with hosts of angels routing hordes of devils, and hurling them to earth to inflict terrible plagues upon the unfortunate inhabitants of this realm. No locusts looking like horses prepared for battle, with the tails of scorpions, tormenting people for five months.

All of these things--and the many other cataclysms described in the prophetic books of the Bible--were never going to take place in this world, Swedenborg says, but describe spiritual events in symbolic language. And, says Swedenborg, they have already taken place. The great battles and disasters described in Daniel, Isaiah, Matthew, and Revelation were accomplished over two hundred years ago, in the spiritual world. And except for those precious few people who read about it in Swedenborg's writings, no one here on earth even knew the difference.

And yet, this is exactly what Swedenborg predicted would happen. We wouldn't even know the difference. Things would go on just as they had before, with wars and rumors of war, civic affairs both good and bad, human communities functioning as they have always functioned, people living their lives day to day and year to year as they always have.

For those of us who long for a new world, this can be a painful and stubborn fact. Things just don't seem to change very much, or very fast. We have a wonderful vision of that loving, peaceful kingdom that will envelop our earth when the enlightenment of the new spiritual age does its work. And then we read the newspaper or watch the news on TV. Things sound pretty much the same, don't they?

But there is a difference. It is not a difference in outward affairs--as much as technology has changed the face of our society. It is a change in the inner quality of our existence. Continuing from Swedenborg once again:

However, the state of the church will not be the same from now on. Yes, it will look much the same outwardly; but inwardly it will be different.

Outwardly, the churches will be divided the way they have been. They will still go on teaching their doctrines, and there will be similar religious practices among non-Christians. But from now on, people in the church will have more freedom of thought in matters of faith--that is, in the spiritual issues that have to do with heaven--because spiritual freedom has been restored to us.

Spiritual freedom has been restored to us. That is the critical change that has taken place for us since the Last Judgment. Up to Swedenborg's day, the church still held sway over human minds. Few and courageous were those who dared to defy the church and disagree with its teachings on any subject--including science. And those who did defy the church often did not live to tell the tale, or were forced with threats of torture and death to recant the views they had so painstakingly coaxed out of the world of nature. The church governed people's minds through fear and by force of arms. And the spiritual atmosphere, choked as it was with evil spirits, supported the church in that despotism of the mind and the body.

All of this ended with the Last Judgment. The Lord decisively cleared away all the choking influences of spiritual evil that had been restricting the flow of light and warmth from heaven and from the Lord. And though that great confrontation in the spiritual world barely registered a ripple here on earth, the state of the church and of human minds was forever altered. Spiritual freedom was restored. The church could no longer dictate to the learned world or to the masses what they were to believe, and enforce it by brute force. The scholarly world was cut loose from the strictures of religion, and scientific discovery blossomed.

Even more important, people were freed from the inner compulsion they felt to believe in the teachings of the church or spend eternity in hell. Many simply left the church, no longer able to accept its teachings or its validity. Those who stayed felt more and more that it was their choice whether to believe or not--both in general and when it came to particular teachings of the church. Mentally and spiritually, we entered a whole new world.

This is the "new heaven" that Isaiah, John, and Swedenborg speak of. It is the new heaven of freedom, rationality, and choice that we all inhabit in our hearts, minds, and spirits. We no longer have to blindly accept what the church teaches us. We can now decide for ourselves what we will believe--and how we will carry those beliefs into action.

And this is where the new earth comes in. The Lord has already accomplished the great spiritual battles that were necessary to prepare the way for the New Jerusalem to come down onto our earth from heaven. The path is clear. We have the knowledge, the understanding, the insight we need, if we will open our minds to it. What is left is the hardest part for us: putting all that knowledge and spiritual insight into practice.

The Lord did the large-scale spiritual work for us. Now it is our turn to accept the gift of new spiritual freedom that the Lord has given us, and use it to change our world. The Lord will not do it for us. We must roll up our sleeves, get out in our community and our world, and do the work of transforming our society from the inside out, from bottom to top. Clearing the way spiritually was the Lord's job. Making it happen here on earth is our job. Amen.



Artwork: Peace on Earth Nancy Glasier
 and is used with permission.
Christ-Centered Art Gallery


Music: The Prism (Colors of Love)
2001 Bruce DeBoer
Used with permission


 

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