By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, June 2, 2002

Genesis 2:10-14
The river watering Eden

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

Revelation 22:1-7
The river of life flowing from God

Then the angel showed me the pure river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever.

The angel said to me, "These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place."

"Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed are those who keep the words of the prophecy in this book."

Apocalypse Revealed #932
The symbolism of the river of life

"And he showed me a pure river of water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb." This symbolizes Revelation now opened and explained in its spiritual meaning, where the Lord reveals abundant divine truth for those who will be in his new church, which is the New Jerusalem. "The pure river of water of life, as clear as crystal" symbolizes the divine truth of the Bible in abundance, translucent from its spiritual sense, which is in the light of heaven.

Then the angel showed me the pure river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1, 2)

Here we are at the end of another church year. It doesn't seem so long ago that we were at the very beginning of the Bible, studying the creation story in Genesis. And now we are at the very end of the Bible, in the last chapter of the last book: Revelation. This book has been mysterious and perplexing throughout the nearly two thousand years since it was first written. There have been many attempts to explain its symbolism. And the mere fact that its language is so obviously symbolic has helped to keep alive the idea that there are deeper meanings in the Bible through a very literalistic period of our spiritual history.

Today, the reigning view throughout most of Christendom is that the primary meaning in the Bible is the plain meaning of the words--what we Swedenborgians call the "literal sense." Many people on the conservative end of the Christian spectrum even go so far as to flatly deny that there is any deeper, spiritual meaning in the Word of God. They insist that the Bible is literally true as it stands, and must be read and believed in literally. Yet even they have a hard time maintaining this hard-line literalist stance in the face of many of the symbolic images used in the book of Revelation--as I have discovered in various conversations with evangelical Christians.

What they probably do not realize is that this literalistic view of Scripture is a relatively late arrival on the Christian scene. Throughout most of the history of Christianity, up to the time of the Protestant Reformation, it was simply assumed that there were deeper, spiritual meanings in the Bible. The question was not whether such meanings existed, but how to get at them. And the arguments were over various different interpretations put forward by various Christian teachers.

The problem was that no one came up with a consistent and convincing method of interpretation to arrive at the spiritual meaning of the Bible. Also, the idea of allegorical meanings different from the literal meaning became increasingly abused by some theologians to justify certain Catholic doctrines and practices that the Protestant reformers came to see as contrary to genuine Christian faith and life.

Unfortunately, in seeking to purify the church from these wrongs, the Reformation theologians threw the baby out with the bathwater, altogether rejecting the idea of spiritual meanings in the Bible. The current literalism that exists in a large segment of the Christian Church is the result of this over-reaction to the misuse of symbolic interpretation of the Scriptures. And though the literalists claim that theirs is the only true way to read the Bible, it developed as a serious alternative to spiritual interpretations only in the last five hundred years of Christianity's two thousand year history.

In other words, Biblical literalism has no historical claim to being the original and true way of interpreting the Bible. Just the opposite. In reviving the belief that the Bible has a spiritual meaning, Emanuel Swedenborg was simply returning the Bible to its original high status as a book that reaches up to God through many levels of meaning.

What Swedenborg added that had been missing throughout all the centuries of Christianity was a consistent, reasonable, and universal means of interpreting the Bible to arrive at its deeper meanings. Swedenborg's interpretations of Scripture--and of the world of nature as well--rest on a system of symbolism that he called "correspondences."

Rather than being arbitrary and based on guesswork, as previous methods of Bible interpretation had been, Swedenborg taught that these correspondences were based on a living relationship between the physical and the spiritual worlds, and between the spiritual world and God. The universe, he said, is an expression of the nature of God, and every single thing in it expresses some particular attribute or aspect of God. So when we look out at the world of nature, we are looking at a physical manifestation of the Creator. Correspondences are the key that unlock the relationship between the physical world and the spiritual world, and enable us to see what each thing in the physical world says about its Creator.

If this is true of the world of nature that God has created, how much more must it be true of the Word of God! Every Christian recognizes that the Bible is where God tells us who he is and what he is like. Swedenborg simply brings this belief to its logical conclusion, stating that every chapter, every verse, every word of Scripture, in its spiritual meaning, reveals something specific about the nature of God. We no longer have to grope in the dark to understand why the Bible contains all those wars, strange rituals of animal sacrifice, mysterious prophecies, and many seemingly irrelevant stories. All yield to us deeper meanings that are spiritual, personal, and practical at the same time.

This very knowledge of the deeper meanings of Scripture is, Swedenborg says, "the pure river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God."

We are living in the times described by the book of Revelation. The battles that take place in that book are not literal battles, but spiritual ones. The entire vision was seen by John not in the material world, but in the spiritual world. And the battles of truth versus falsity, good versus evil are going on all around us in the world today. Materialism is battling against spiritual values--which, in turn, are defending God and spirit against the onslaught of materialism and secularism, seeking to lift humanity up to a higher level.

Good and evil are also battling it out within the very walls of the Christian Church. Our news media gives us continual revelations of evil and destructive practices in various branches of the Christian Church. Evils that had in some cases been going on for centuries, the knowledge of which was suppressed or denied by the church, are now coming out into the light of day. And the battles to overcome those evils are taking place in the courtroom as well as in the organization of the church.

Yet in the midst of all the conflict and turmoil of our times, something beautiful and clear is flowing. Whether we realize it or not, the river of life is already flowing from the throne of God into our world. In fact, the river of clear, spiritual understanding and truth that is flowing more and more strongly into our world is the underlying source of our society's ability to penetrate more and more deeply into the true nature of humanity and all its institutions, exposing ancient evils so that they can be faced and overcome.

We can fight against and overcome the evils of humanity only when we see them. And though the evening news may seem depressing with its continual litany of conflict, war, greed, and oppression, the very knowledge of those wrongs in our society begins to put the tools in our hands that we can use to overcome them.

The same is true in our individual lives. We often hear it said that "people are so materialistic these days," and "this is the Me generation." Some have argued that this is the most selfish and materialistic culture that has ever lived. And yet, haven't these twin evils been in the human heart since the dawn of recorded history? Our history is the history of human conquest and oppression, of greed and lust for power. And all this history is simply the aggregate of millions of individuals who have lived for themselves rather than for their neighbor. Though the outward forms of politeness have held through some parts of our history, when push came to shove, people went for their own power and gain, and their governments expressed that through making war with those who stood in the way.

This is not the most selfish generation. But perhaps it is the first generation in which the external restraints on our behavior have been relaxed enough so that what was really in the human heart all along is finally showing its ugly head. Human technology has advanced our ability to control nature and generate wealth to an extent that has never existed in the history of human civilization. It used to be that only the minuscule part of the population that happened to be the ruling class could aspire to great wealth and luxury. Now anyone can aspire to that. There are more "self-made millionaires" alive today--many of whom came out of very humble circumstances--than there have ever been before. And in our culture, even ordinary middle-class people can aspire to greater income and physical luxuries.

It is not the human heart that has changed in our culture. Rather, it is the ability of the human heart to go after its desires. And now we are seeing more clearly what has been in the human heart all along. Complaining about the selfishness and materialism of our culture is beside the point. Of course humans are selfish and materialistic; they have been throughout all recorded history. What is new is that we are now clearly realizing that. And further, we are gradually coming to the conclusion that it is not good to be selfish and materialistic--that there are higher values that we humans could and should strive for.

Those higher values are the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing out from the throne of God and of the Lamb. The crystal clear water of divine truth is flowing out into our world in a way that has never existed before. As it does so, it is showing the true nature of human society and the human heart. It is showing what has existed spiritually all along, but our eyes were too dim to see it.

This is not something to be lamented, but something to be celebrated! At last the scales are falling from our eyes, and we are seeing our true situation! At last we can see clearly, and make a thoughtful, intentional choice about which way we wish our culture, and our individual lives, to go. At last we can decide our future, rather than simply following the inexorable course of human history. The clear water of divine truth puts the power in our hands to make our future different that it otherwise would be. It gives us the insight and the strength to face the evils in our society and in ourselves, and to overcome them with the greater power of God's divine truth.

For us as Christians, the most concentrated form of that divine truth is found in the Word of God. And for us as Swedenborgians, that fountainhead of divine truth, which has been stopped up so long by human materialism and corruption, has now been broken open through the revealing of the deeper, spiritual meaning of the Bible. Swedenborg's writings are not a new edition of God's word. Rather, they are a message sent from God through the mind of Swedenborg to open up what has been in the Bible all along, but was hidden from our eyes because we were too focused on material things to look for it. As Helen Keller said in her book My Religion, (now re-edited and in print as Light in my Darkness) Swedenborg "did not make a new Bible, but he made the Bible all new!"

The effects of Swedenborg's writings have suffused themselves throughout our culture, raising the level of spiritual thinking everywhere through many brilliant and influential people who read Swedenborg and had their minds shaped by it, and, in turn, reshaped our society. We in this church have the great privilege of having direct access to the source of that new enlightenment. We have available to us the key that unlocks the floodgates that have been blocking the flow of the divine river of life for so many centuries.

But this is much more than a privilege, with the exclusivism that word implies. It is a responsibility. Once the truth has flowed into our minds, it becomes our task and our mission to put that truth to work in our lives. Truth means nothing if it is mere intellectual knowledge. It has meaning only when it changes our lives. It has meaning only when we become better, kinder, more loving and thoughtful people from knowing it.

Planted by the river of life is the tree of life, bearing its fruit every month. We who are planted by that river must also continually bear fruits of love and kindness. Amen.



Memory of Trees by Enya