Bridgewater, Massachusetts, May 2, 2003
Sermons on Audio

Genesis 18:16-33 Abraham pleads for Sodom

When the men got up to leave, they looked down towards Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. Then the Lord said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him."

Then the Lord said, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know."

The men turned away and went towards Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham approached him and said: "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

The Lord said, "If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake."

Then Abraham spoke up again: "Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?"

"If I find forty-five there," he said, "I will not destroy it."

Once again he spoke to him, "What if only forty are found there?"

He said, "For the sake of forty, I will not do it."

Then he said, "May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?"

He answered, "I will not do it if I find thirty there."

Abraham said, "Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?"

He said, "For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it."

Then he said, "May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?"

He answered, "For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it."

When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

Mark 1:40-45 Jesus heals a man with leprosy

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean."

Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.

Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: "See that you don't tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them." Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly, but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

Arcana Coelestia #2140 The Lord's grief over humanity

Genesis 18:16-33 deals with the Lord's grief and anguish over humanity because it was steeped so much in self-love, and therefore in the desire to dominate others from what is evil and false. In that state the Lord intervened for the human race, and secured salvation for those with whom goodness and truth would be present. Who these are is symbolized by the numbers of the righteous that are recounted.

Then Abraham approached him and said: "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? (Genesis 18:23)

In the previous sermon in our series on the inner life of the Lord, we followed the story of Abraham having a meal with three visitors, and those three visitors predicting Isaac's birth. That was the second prediction of the birth, and it was made in person by three angels filled with the Lord's presence. The first half of Genesis 18 relates to the Lord's deep sense of connection with the Divine within. In looking at it, we talked about communion: about communing with God. Eating a meal with God is sharing God's love, and feeling a sense of closeness to God in our hearts.

This relates both to our human feelings of closeness to the Lord and to a period in Jesus' life when he was feeling close to the Divine within. In our church, we believe that "The Father" is another name for the divine nature within Jesus, or the soul of the Lord from which Jesus came. So the story in the first half of Genesis 18 is about a sense of closeness to the Lord. It speaks of our feeling that God is right there present with us, and that everything is okay because of God's presence.

As we head into the second half of Genesis 18, we get a rude awakening from that wonderful reverie with God. Right after the deep connection with God comes the story of Sodom, which continues on through chapter 19.

Jesus had been communing with God; had been feeling a sense of closeness in prayer. We can think of the many times Jesus went by himself to pray, away from the crowds, so that he could be alone with his Father--alone with his own inner soul. He had those times of wonderful connection, just as we at times feel very close to the Lord.

But when he came back, he found that humanity was just as messed up and evil as it had been when he left. We read the story in the New Testament of his healing the man with leprosy. This was the state of the human race. Humanity as a whole was in a state of spiritual leprosy: a state of spiritual disease. It was a disease of thinking of ourselves first, and others afterwards.

Everywhere the Lord looked, he saw this in people. And his heart went out to them. He saw them as sheep without a shepherd; as people who were going toward pain and destruction. And as with the man who had leprosy, he had mercy on them. Having experienced a deep connection with God, he wanted so much to heal, to give spiritual wholeness, to give peace and happiness and joy to the people of this world--to all the people he saw around him, who were chasing so many false things.

In our lives, also, after we have an experience of close connection with God comes the realization that in our real life, we are so far away from that connection. So many of the things we do and experience every day are very far away from what we get when we have our times of closeness to the Lord--those times when we go within ourselves and realize that God is with us, and that life has a higher meaning. From these we go out into our everyday relationships, to our struggles with our brothers and sisters and parents and children, and to our problems at work. And it feels like such a let-down from what we experienced when we were by ourselves, communing with God, or when we were at church sharing with others in spiritual community.

This is how our life goes. We have a wonderful sense of connection, then right after that, a rude awakening. And this is what happens in Genesis 18.

Today I would like to look at how the Lord deals with the fact that we humans are so far away from what he created us for; how he deals with the fact that so much of this world is chasing after money, after power, after all the things that in the end don't matter at all--that so many people are not following the way of the heart, the way of truth. How does the Lord deal with this?

In the traditional Christian view that was especially strong in Swedenborg's day, the attitude was that humanity had fallen, and therefore God was angry with humanity. God was wrathful and wanted to punish humanity. And he would punish humanity if something didn't intervene to make it so that this didn't have to happen. In traditional Christian theology, the whole purpose of Jesus' coming was for him to be crucified and take that divine punishment upon himself--to deflect it from us so that we wouldn't have to be subject to the divine wrath and anger.

I'm happy to say that in many parts of the Christian Church this old theology is losing its hold. And as far as I'm concerned, the faster it goes, the better! But it was the reigning theology in Swedenborg's day. We can be thankful that there has been so much change and so much waking up in the Christian Church. Yet there remain some parts of the Christian Church that still struggle under that old wrathful theology--the idea that God is angry with the human race and would punish us and send us to eternal hell out of anger.

In Swedenborg's day, it was very radical to say that this is not God's character at all. It was very radical to say that the statements in the Bible about God's anger and wrath were an adaptation to our human perspective--since we think of things that way--but that in truth, there is no wrath and no anger in the Lord. The Lord is pure love and pure compassion, and is never angry, never wishes to punish us. This was the message Swedenborg brought.

Yet it wasn't the first time this message had been delivered. If we look at our current chapter in Genesis, way back near the beginning of the Bible, we see this mercy of God in the face of human evil jumping off the page! The story of Abraham pleading for Sodom is so touching when we think about what was happening. Here was a city full of people who were bent upon selfishness and evil. And Abraham was standing between them and God saying, "You don't really have to destroy them, do you?"

In the spiritual meaning, Abraham represents Jesus' own mercy and compassion for the human race. He represents the human side of Jesus hoping that there does not have to be destruction. So he pleads for the city; he pleads for the people. He says: Maybe there is some good left. Maybe this destruction won't have to happen.

As for the destruction itself, we'll deal with that next time. That is a whole different story. Today we will deal with the pleading for Sodom, and what it says about God's attitude not only toward humanity as a whole, but also toward each one of us.

In order to do that, we will play what my father likes to call "the Swedenborgian numbers game." There is a whole series of numbers here, and Swedenborg tells us that every single one of them has a special meaning. You'll be happy to know that I am not about to go into all the details of why each number symbolizes what it does. If you really want to know, it is all laid out for you in Swedenborg's Arcana Coelestia where he explains this chapter. I am not going to give you all that background. What I am going to give you is the human progression based on what these numbers mean for us.

What does it mean, "fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, ten"? It sounds like just a string of numbers. But every one of them has a meaning.

Fifty: If we look at the first number, this is when everything is just fine. "Fifty," Swedenborg says, represents people who have goodness in their hearts and truth in their minds. It is people who are "married" within themselves: who love God and the neighbor and have also learned the truth of how to go about serving them. Obviously, God is not going to destroy us if we have love in our hearts, truth in our minds, and we live by these. This is a person who has reached a spiritual plateau: who is living a good life, feeling God within, and expressing it outwardly. And that last one is very important. It is not just a matter of feeling it inside, but of showing it in our lives toward others through service and kindness. This is the person represented by "fifty." And we can all aspire to that "fifty" state.

Forty-five: But some of us are perfectionists who never quite reach perfection. That's why forty-five is in there. Forty-five is the number for all you perfectionists out there who think you have to be perfect, or God is not going to accept you. "Forty-five" says that's not true. Notice how Abraham doesn't say, "What if there are forty-five," but "What if five are missing?" In other words, what if there is just a little bit missing? We know that we could be better, and that we are not quite there. Is God going to condemn us for falling short? The Lord says no, "if I find forty-five there, I will not destroy it." The Bible does say, "Be perfect" (Matthew 5:48), and that is our aspiration. But if we are not quite there yet, God says: I recognize that you are trying, and doing your best. Even if you don't make it to perfection, you will find your way into my kingdom. So forty-five is for you perfectionists out there.

Forty: On the other hand, forty is for those of you who have gone through difficult struggles. In the Bible, "forty" represents a state of trial and temptation. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the desert. Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days. "Forty" is those who have struggled in life, and have managed, with the Lord's help, to overcome, and move forward in their lives. If we have struggled; if we have worked against the evil within ourselves and against the evil around us, and we are continuing to move forward with the Lord, then the Lord will save us. We will find our way into the heavenly kingdom.

Thirty: What about those who have struggled and struggled, and just can't seem to get out the other end? Sometimes life feels like a continual struggle--and we do not feel like we are winning. That is what thirty is for. "Thirty" is when we are still engaged in the struggle. Even if we go out kicking and screaming; even if we go through life and we are still fighting to the bitter end, the Lord says: As long as you are working at it; as long as you are sincerely trying to overcome the wrong within yourself; as long as you are fighting the good fight, that is acceptable to me. Even if you haven't won yet. Even if you are still engaged in the struggle.

Twenty and Ten: When we get down to twenty and ten, there's not an awful lot to work with. And these are the numbers where the Lord's great mercy comes out so strongly.

Twenty says that even if we haven't really struggled; even if we have coasted along in life, and have not done the hard work of spiritual regeneration--even then, if we have some level of goodness in our heart, if we have some desire to do what is good and right, the Lord will accept us. As long as we are generally headed toward the good, even if we haven't fought very hard, the Lord will accept us. It is like those "eleventh hour laborers" (Matthew 20:1-16) who only did an hour's worth of work, and yet they got the same reward as those who had worked all day. If we are among those have struggled hard and done all the spiritual work, we may be tempted to say, "That's not fair! I fought hard for this! I should get more than they do!" But the Lord's mercy is such that he wants to bless all of us if he possibly can. If he can possibly give us happiness, if he can find anything in us that can bring us into heaven, he wants to bless us. He wants to give us as much happiness as he possibly can, even if there is not much left to work with.

Ten: That is what ten is. "Ten" is when there is just a tiny bit of goodness left in us. Ten is when we haven't totally destroyed ourselves. We may be pretty rough around the edges. We may not have lived in a spiritual way at all. Yet within us there is a sense of goodness. There is something left of what people call a "heart of gold"--even if it is deeply buried under our outward life. If there is even a small remnant left of goodness, if we haven't destroyed everything about ourselves that is good, the Lord wants to reach out to that place of goodness inside us. And the Lord will reach out, and give us salvation.

These are the numbers all the way from fifty--those who have done the work, engaged in the struggle, and are fully in tune with the Lord--down to those who have just a tiny remnant of goodness left in them. And the Lord is reaching out to all of them; to all of us.

This was the feeling Jesus had toward the people around him. In the Gospels we see him interacting with the people, many of whom had ulterior motives. The fellow who had leprosy just wanted to feel better! And Jesus healed him. Then he warned him not tell anyone about it. But the first thing the man did was to go out and tell everyone all about it! Because of this, Jesus was got mobbed, so he had to withdraw from the towns to unpopulated places.

Jesus saw all the people out there, and he knew that they didn't understand things very well; that they didn't know where to go; and that they were often engaged in doing evil things. Yet we see him continually reaching out, through gentle words or harsh ones, trying to get through to the place in people that is open to the truth of God.

This should also say something to us about how we are to deal with the people around us. The people that we are angry with. The people that our patience wears thin with. The family members that we are struggling with. The co-workers that we have a hard time getting along with. This attitude of the Lord toward human evil should make an impression on us.

What are we here for? Are we here to get our own way? Are we here to feel good? To have happiness for ourselves? If that is our purpose, then we are going to find ourselves in conflict with everyone around us. We are going to find ourselves struggling and fighting--and in the end, not winning.

The Lord tells us that there is a different way. When we see the evil in the world, we are to look for whatever good we can draw out, and to do our best to work with that. This can be very hard if there is someone who is so exasperating, and makes us so angry. But in this chapter, the Lord tells us to look for the one little bit of good we can find in that person, and focus on it. We are to do our best to bring that out instead of focusing on the evil in the other person.

That is the beautiful thing about this story. It always focuses on the question, "What if there is some good that we can find? What if there is something good in the other person that we work with?" This is what the Lord commands us to do. This is the way the Lord treats us; and it is also the way he asks us to treat our neighbors.

Think of this story: the fifty, the forty-five, the forty, the thirty, the twenty, even the ten. If we can just find that "ten" in someone else; if we can find that "ten" within ourselves to reach out from, then the Lord will be with us, and he will bless us with life. Amen.

Sermons on Audio

Painting: Jesus Healing the Blind at Jericho
by Nicolas Poussin 1594-1665

Music: Sweet Love
Bruce DeBoer - Used with Permission

Graphics Background by Judy