Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 28, 2004

Communing with God

Genesis 18:1-15 The Lord appears to Abraham

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the oak trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them, and bowed low to the ground.

He said, "If I have found favor in your eyes, my Lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way--for this is why you have come to your servant."

"Very well," they answered, "do as you say."

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. "Quick," he said, "get three seahs of fine flour and knead it, and bake some bread."

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk, and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

"Where is your wife Sarah?" they asked him.

"There, in the tent," he said.

Then he said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son."

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?"

Then the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son."

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, "I did not laugh."

But he said, "Yes, you did laugh."

Mark 1:35-39 Jesus prays in a solitary place

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is looking for you!"

Jesus replied, "Let us go somewhere else--to the nearby villages--so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come." So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

Arcana Coelestia #2165.5 The meaning of bread

"Bread" is the Lord; so it dwells within the heavenly things of love that belong to the Lord. The Lord is heavenly reality itself because he is love itself, meaning he is mercy itself. So "bread" also means everything heavenly. In other words, "bread" means all the love and kindness in us, since these come from the Lord. If we have no love and kindness in us, we do not have the Lord in us, and we are not blessed with the kind of goodness and happiness that is symbolized by "bread" in the inner meaning.

Arcana Coelestia #2187 The meaning of eating

"Eating" means communicating, and also being joined together. This is clear from the Bible. The command in Leviticus 6:16, 17 that Aaron, his sons the Levites, and the people were to eat the consecrated elements of the sacrifices in a holy place meant nothing but communication, joining together, and making it our own. These consecrated things symbolize heavenly and spiritual food. So the commandment refers to making that kind of food our own by eating it.

He said, "If I have found favor in your eyes, my Lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way--for this is why you have come to your servant." (Genesis 18:3-5)

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. As is our tradition, we will celebrate the Holy Supper as part of our commemoration of the events of Holy Week--especially the Last Supper, which the Lord ate with his disciples just before he was crucified. However, as it turns out in the course of our series on the inner life of Jesus, our reading from Genesis gives us a perfect opportunity to get a jump on things and talk about "communing with God" this week. This will also leave the field open next week to speak of the events surrounding Palm Sunday.

If you had a sense of déjà vu as you listened to our reading for Genesis, it is for a good reason: In chapter seventeen of Genesis, God had already come to Abram (then renamed Abraham) and predicted that his wife Sarai (renamed Sarah) would have a son in her old age. The first time around, it was Abraham who laughed, rather than Sarah, to think that he would have a son at the age of a hundred, and his wife at the age of ninety. And it was from this laughter that Isaac got his name: in Hebrew, "Isaac" means "laughter."

Now in chapter eighteen, God appears to Abraham again to deliver the same message, but this time with Sarah listening in.

Some Biblical scholars might say that, similar to the two different Creation stories in Genesis chapters one and two, God appeared to Abraham only once, but two different versions of the event were passed down through oral history--and when it came time to write it down, the ancient scribes preserved both versions in the narrative. Others would say that the narrative describes events as they happened, and that if two stories of God appearing to Abraham are told, it is because God delivered the message twice.

I am quite content to leave that debate to the Biblical scholars. Whatever may have happened in southern Palestine four thousand years ago, the stories in the Bible are given, not to us not to tell us about ancient family history, but to tell us about the Lord, and about our own spiritual growth and journey. And as we look with a spiritual eye at these two stories, we find that they are not merely repetitious, but that each has its own distinct story to tell--and one builds upon the other.

The key is in what happens surrounding God's message about the birth of Isaac. In chapter seventeen, that message is placed in the matrix of God establishing the covenant of circumcision with Abraham, his household, and his descendants. In chapter eighteen, however, the message is delivered in the context of a meal: Abraham receives the Lord in the guise of three visitors, and serves his honored guests a meal. It is during this meal that the Lord, through (as Swedenborg says) three angels filled with the Lord's presence, delivers the message of the miraculous birth of Isaac, while Sarah, the elderly mother-to-be, listens, laughing, in the door of the tent behind them.

In short, the first prediction of Isaac's birth is accompanied by circumcision, and the second by a sacred meal. This may ring vague bells for some of you. Let me make those bells ring louder and more distinctly.

Circumcision, as I mentioned two weeks ago, it was considered a ritual of purification. In fact, it came to represent all the rituals of purification commanded to the Israelites in the Old Testament. In the New Testament is frequently used that way, especially by the Apostle Paul. As Christians, we no longer are required by our religion to practice circumcision. However, the Lord gave us a ritual that we do practice to represent all the rituals of purification commanded in the Old Testament. That ritual is the Sacrament of Baptism. The water of baptism is symbolic of God's truth, which, when we accept it into our lives, cleanses us from the dirt and grime of all our false selfish and materialistic ways of thinking. So in a Christian context, the first announcement of Isaac's birth can be thought of as related to the Sacrament of Baptism: our initiation into a spiritual life.

Now the bells should be ringing loud and clear about the second announcement. As the three visitors sat down to the meal that Abraham and Sarah served them, they shared with Abraham and his household the same thing that we share with the Lord each time we celebrate the Holy Supper. Having been ritually cleansed through the covenant of circumcision, Abraham's family was now ready to commune with God around the table of divine love and wisdom, represented in its various aspects by the bread and butter, milk and meat that Abraham set before his guests.

It was the same for the Lord Jesus as he moved toward full union with the Divine Being from whom he had come. Jesus, too, had to first go through a process of cleansing, represented by circumcision in the Old Testament, and baptism in the new, before he could experience the sacred meal of inner union with his own divine soul.

You see, though Jesus was born sinless and remained sinless, he was not born spotless from an immaculately conceived mother, as held in traditional Catholic doctrine. To the contrary, Jesus was born with all the evil tendencies from his mother that we inherit from our parents. And like us, he had to fight against those evil tendencies and overcome them in order to achieve union with his divine Father.

Evil is like filthy waste clogging the arteries through which God's love and wisdom would flow to us. As long as our hearts and minds are filled with selfish, materialistic thoughts and feelings, there is no room for God to squeeze through and fill our lives with heavenly and spiritual thoughts and feelings. We must first clear away the blockages within our own mind and heart. And as we do, the Lord will flow into us more and more strongly.

Jesus faced the same obstacles to the Divine presence in him. He, too, had to fight against and overcome all the evil tendencies that he inherited from his human mother, and that pressed in on him both from the human society around him and from the spiritual realm that influenced him--as it influences us--from within. It was only by going through this spiritual "ritual of purification" that the promise of Isaac's birth--of new spiritual birth and growth--could be delivered and brought to fruition in the Lord's life. And so, in the Bible story, the covenant of circumcision had to come before the sacred sharing of food of holy communion with God.

And Jesus yearned intensely for that communion with the Divine! In our brief New Testament reading, we find Jesus rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, to pray in a solitary place. He sought out a place where he could be alone with God--away, for a time, from the press of human needs that constantly swirled around him. Even as he went about an active life of preaching, teaching, and healing the people, he longed for an inner connection and union with his own divine soul. And he regularly took solitary time for himself in order to seek out and experience that soul-renewing communion.

In Genesis 18, Abraham's eagerness to welcome, honor, and serve his divine guests tells the whole story of the Lord's deep desire for communion with God.

We read that Abraham was "near the oak trees of Mamre" when the Lord appeared to him. Being among trees, spiritually, is being among our lofty thoughts--the principles of good living that we have developed through long experience and growth. So the Lord, too, was in a deeply reflective mood when he sought out this communion with God.

Abraham was also "sitting at the entrance to his tent"--representing a sense of sacredness, as expressed by the Jewish Tabernacle: a tent built for the worship of God. And so Jesus, too, was feeling a sense of the sacred presence of the Divine.

And finally, we are told that this took place "in the heat of the day." Heat, or warmth, represents love. So Jesus was not in a coldly intellectual state of contemplation. Rather, he felt the warm burning of love in his heart.

This love prompted him not only to desire union with his own inner divine soul, but also to seek communion with the sea of human beings around him. Notice that in our reading from the Gospel of Mark, as soon as Simon Peter and his companions roused him from his prayer, Jesus immediately expressed a desire to go to the nearby villages where he had not been yet, and to preach there as well. He then "traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons."

This is a crucial point both in the Lord's life and in our own spiritual life. While we may approach and even touch God with our minds as we sit in prayer and contemplation of the divine nature, we are never truly united with God until our heart is filled with love both for God and for our fellow human beings. We never feel true communion with God until God's love has found a place in our heart--and from that love, we go out into the world to love and serve the people around us. The scholar, the philosopher, the theologian, even the sage, does not commune with God through lofty thoughts. There is no intellectual pathway to union with God. Rather, you and I and all the philosophers, theologians, and sages the world has ever known have the same access to the Lord. And that access comes when we open up our hearts to God's love, and feel the same mercy and compassion for our neighbors here on earth that the Lord feels for each one of us.

Yes, just as Abraham saw the three visitors "in the heat of the day," Jesus became aware of the Divine presence with him when his heart was filled with love. And notice that there is no mention of those visitors traveling to where Abraham was. It simply says Abraham "looked up and saw three men standing nearby." This is the same thing that happens to us when we spiritually "look up"--when we lift our thoughts above the cares and concerns of this world, and direct our minds toward heaven, and toward God. When we finally look up, we notice that the Lord is standing right there with us.

Perhaps those three men had been standing there for months or years, just waiting for Abraham to "look up." Perhaps the Lord is standing right next to each one of us, right now, just waiting for us to lift up our minds, to open our spiritual eyes and notice his presence. Perhaps, once we feel that deep yearning in our heart for communion with the Lord, we will find that he has been there all along, just waiting for us to notice, to welcome him in, and to share a spiritual meal with him.

The Lord Jesus desired this communion with God more deeply than any of us ever has or will. Our minds tend to be scattered and divided. We are concerned about so many things here on earth. Just getting along each day, and making sure we have a roof over our heads and food on our tables can sometimes feel like an all-consuming task. And so we fritter away much of our life chasing after material things that will be gone and forgotten almost as soon as we acquire them.

Jesus saw more deeply than we do the fleeting and temporary nature of everything here on earth. He saw more clearly than we the deeper and more substantial spiritual realities that will not wither, fade, and disappear, but will last to eternity. And he knew that the deepest and most substantial reality is God himself: the Infinite Divine Love and Wisdom from which everything else in the universe comes. He intensely desired to know that Love and Wisdom; to be that Love and Wisdom.

Each one of us can know that Love and Wisdom as well. Each one of us can find that communion with God that is the only true rest and peace of our soul. Each one of us can open our hearts and minds, and share in the sacred meal of God's love and wisdom. Amen.

Music: Wonderful
© Bruce De Boer

Used with Permission