"After Me, the Deluge"

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 26, 2003


Readings

1 Kings 11:1-13 Solomon's wives and their gods

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh's daughter--Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, "You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods." Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth, and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done.

On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods.

The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord's command. So the Lord said to Solomon, "Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates. Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son. Yet I will not tear the whole kingdom from him, but will give him one tribe for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen."


Matthew 24:1-8 Signs of the end of the age

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. "Do you see all these things?" he asked. "I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?"

Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains."


Arcana Coelestia #842.3 Chaos and order

Before anything is restored to order, it is very common for everything first to be reduced to a state of confusion resembling chaos. In this way, things that are not compatible may be separated from one another. Once they have been separated, the Lord arranges them into order.

Events like this take place in nature also, where every single thing is first reduced to a state of confusion before being put in its proper place. Unless atmospheric conditions included strong winds to disperse contaminants, the air could not possibly be cleared, and toxic substances would accumulate in it.

The same applies to the human body. All things in the bloodstream, both contaminants and normal constituents of the blood, flow together continually and repeatedly into the same heart, where they are mixed together. Without this, the vital fluids would be in danger of clotting, and each constituent could not be precisely organized to perform its proper function.

The same thing applies to our spiritual rebirth.


Sermon

The Lord said to Solomon, "Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates." (1 Kings 11:11)

Have you ever had one of those times when you felt that your whole life had come to an end? A time when everything that mattered was lost, destroyed, crushed, ruined?

I suspect every one of us has experienced a time like this--and many of us more than once in the course of our lifetimes. It is a terrible, sinking feeling. It's like in the old movies where one of the characters is galloping madly along on a horse, and sees the cliff too late to rein the horse in, and both horse and rider go hurtling over the edge of the cliff to their deaths. It is the feeling of having gone off the cliff, and now there is nothing we can do but wait, in those frozen moments that seem like hours, for our own inevitable end.

It is even worse when, as we go over that cliff, we realize that it's our own darn fault that we're there. As we contemplate the abyss rushing up on us, we realize that we got to this point-of-no-return by ignoring all those warnings, by pressing on ahead against the advice and even the pleading of our family and friends, and by silencing our own higher self, which had been trying desperately to get us to take a better path. So as we rush toward our doom, we engage in a sort of deathbed repentance, in which we finally (when it seems too late anyway) castigate ourselves for our obstinacy and our wrongful behavior. We may even promise we'll change our ways if we miraculously manage to survive.

Or, we may still not see the error of our ways, and go out blaming our destruction on everyone else except ourselves. It doesn't matter. Our life as we knew it is over, no matter whose fault we think it is. Whether we got ourselves into this mess, or we are a victim of someone else, or it was just circumstances, or some combination, if we survive the crash at all, everything will be different. Our old life will be gone. We will have to start over. And it certainly looks like even if we do survive, things will be a lot worse than they were before.

In our Old Testament reading for today, King Solomon was looking over just this kind of cliff.

Solomon had had a glorious reign. His father David, who was the most successful military leader in Israel's history, had greatly enlarged the kingdom, expanding it to reach lucrative seaports and control crucial trade routes. Solomon's wealth and splendor was built on the conquests of his father. And as so often happens when we are living off the labor of others, Solomon began to take all that wealth and power for granted. And he began to abuse it, increasingly focusing his life on glory and pleasure rather than on the wise governing of his kingdom. Thus he set himself--or rather, he set up his son Rehoboam--for the inevitable collapse of the kingdom.

There is an old French saying (which I won't attempt to repeat in French): "After me, the deluge." It is said that France's King Louis XV made this remark when taken to task for his extravagance; but it was probably his mistress, the dazzling Madame de Pompadour, who actually said it. Either way, it turned out to be prophetic. Louis XVI, the grandson of Louis XV, reaped the whirlwind sown by his predecessors, and was swept away in the French Revolution--even though he himself was relatively modest, unassuming, and moral.

By that time the die had been cast. The burden of ostentatious and wasteful spending, and continued ruinous wars, had stretched the country's economy and the people's patience to their limit. The monarchy had sown the seeds of its own destruction. And though France's subsequent history was quite turbulent, the country eventually settled down to become a parliamentary democracy, its monarchy a thing of the past. The deluge had swept away the old, and made room for the new.

It would be nice if the story of Solomon's kingdom and nation had a happy ending. Alas, Israel never recovered from the deluge that followed his reign. After Solomon, the northern kingdom was torn from the hands of his son Rehoboam, just as the Lord had predicted to Solomon. The kingdom continued divided until the northern kingdom of Israel was taken captive by the Assyrian Empire, and never heard from again.

In course of time, the southern kingdom of Judah was also taken captive, by the Babylonian Empire. And though a group of Israelites did return after seventy years and rebuild the temple, Israel as a nation was never revived in Biblical times. The Israel of New Testament times was not a sovereign nation, but a province of the Roman Empire, ruled by Roman governors and by local puppet kings. And as predicted in our New Testament reading, even these last vestiges of the nation of Israel came to an end in 70 AD, when, responding to a Jewish rebellion, the Romans sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and banished the Jews from Palestine on pain of death. If there had been any doubt before, it was now clear that Israel was finished.

It would be nice if I could stand here and tell you that whenever we have a major crisis in our lives, it is always leading toward something good. But neither history nor individual experience bears that out. All the crisis does is sweep out the old, so that our lives can never be the same again. What happens next--whether our lives go in a good direction or a bad one from there--depends very much on how we respond, and what we do next.

Yes, the crisis is useful and necessary. Generally we come to one of those cliff-edge experiences when our life has settled into a pattern that is inherently unstable, or even toxic. And that means we will be destroyed if something doesn't break up our pattern. As Swedenborg says in our reading from Arcana Coelestia, "Before anything is restored to order, it is very common for everything first to be reduced to a state of confusion resembling chaos. In this way, things that are not compatible may be separated from one another." And though it may feel like the Lord has struck us a blow due to our thoughtless and evil ways, in fact it is the thoughtlessness and evil itself that has brought about the crisis.

To use the example of another modern nation, when the Soviet Union collapsed a little over a decade ago, our country enjoyed taking credit for its demise. It was because of our steadfast resistance to communism, we said, and our military buildup, which the Soviet Union couldn't match without crippling its economy. But the Soviet economy was already crippled by the contradictions within its own system of government. The Soviet Union did not collapse because of outside pressure, but because the economic and political principles it followed were unsound. In other words, the Soviet Union internally sowed the seeds of its own destruction, and those seeds ripened in, yes, about seventy years.

Though the Lord does not bring about these crises that sweep out the old, they are a part of the Lord's providence in keeping humanity as a whole, and each of us as individuals, moving forward instead of stagnating socially, politically, and--most important of all--spiritually. Evil is inherently self-contradictory and unstable. And to the extent that we participate in it--whether consciously or unconsciously, whether intentionally or not--our lives will carry seeds of instability and contradiction that must eventually end in a crisis, a chaos, that will break up and sweep away our old, unworkable patterns of living.

When that inevitable breakup happens; when we find ourselves sailing over that cliff, it certainly does look like our life is over. And in a sense, it is over. A death is taking place. It is the death of our old self.

Yet our church teaches us that death is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is a normal and necessary part of existence. Our old self must die if we are to be reborn as a new person. Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24). Just as our former life carried the seeds of its own destruction, so the death of our old life carries the seeds of a new and more abundant life.

Will those seeds grow and bear fruit? That, as I said, is up to us. It is quite possible for our old self to die, and for us to continue clinging to it so tenaciously that we die right along with it. Some alcoholics, for example, never give up their drinking even when they have lost family, friends, work, health, and everything else. They go to their grave with a bottle in their hand. Rebirth is not inevitable.

But it is possible. And it is not our work, but the Lord's. This is the crucial matter to understand. We cannot cause our own rebirth, any more than we can cause a seed to grow. We can only let go of our old, destructive feelings, attitudes, and habits, and allow the Lord not only to plant the seeds of the new, but cause them to grow and be fruitful in our lives.

The crisis, the deluge, is precisely about letting go of our own control of our lives, and turning our lives over to God. Only the Lord's way is eternal. Our own way is temporary, and must eventually come to an end. Every time we go through a crisis, and it shakes us loose from controlling one more part of our lives in favor of putting the Lord in charge there, we replace the temporary with the eternal, and allow the Lord to prepare eternal mansions for us in heaven.

"Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains." Amen.

 


Music: Fragments of My Soul
2003 Bruce DeBoer
Used with Permission