This Week's Sermon

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The Heavens Were Opened

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, February 18, 2001
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Ezekiel 1:1-3, 26-28 The heavens are opened

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. On the fifth of the month--it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin--the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the Lord was upon him. . . .

[And I saw] what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell face down, and I heard the voice of one speaking.

Revelation 19:11-16 The rider on the white horse

I saw heaven opened, and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: "King of kings and Lord of lords."

Heaven and Hell # 445 Death and resurrection

When someone's body can no longer perform its functions in the natural world in response to the thoughts and affections of its spirit (which it derives from the spiritual world), then we say that the individual has died. This happens when the lungs' breathing and the heart's systolic motion have ceased. The person, though, has not died at all. We are only separated from the physical nature that was useful to us in the world. The essential person is actually still alive. I say that the essential person is still alive because we are not people because of our bodies but because of our spirits. After all, it is the spirit within us that thinks, and thought and affection together make us the people we are.

We can see, then, that when we die we simply move from one world into another. This is why in the inner meaning of the Bible, "death" means resurrection and a continuation of life.


In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1:1)

Every time someone close to us dies, along with our grief from missing our loved one, there comes a wish to know how he or she is faring in the life beyond. The recent death in our church family has caused many of us to turn our thoughts to the afterlife. And one of the special blessings of the Swedenborgian Church is that though we do not know exactly what any particular person is going through after he or she dies, we do have wonderful, detailed descriptions of the afterlife thanks to the spiritual journeys of Emanuel Swedenborg.

In the preface to his book Heaven and Hell, which he published nearly two hundred fifty years ago in 1758, Swedenborg wrote:

Church people these days know practically nothing about heaven and hell or their life after death, even though there are descriptions of everything available to them in the Bible. In fact, many who have been born in the church deny all this. In their hearts they are asking who has ever come back to tell us about it.

To prevent this negative attitude--especially prevalent among people who have acquired a great deal of worldly wisdom--from infecting and corrupting people of simple heart and simple faith, it has been granted me to be with angels and to talk with them person to person. I have also been enabled to see what is in heaven and in hell, a process that has been going on for thirteen years. Now I am being allowed to describe what I have heard and seen, in the hopes of shedding light where there is ignorance, and of dispelling skepticism.

Heaven and Hell has always been Swedenborg's most popular book. That's not surprising, since it contains the most detailed description of the afterlife in existence.

Of course, some people will not accept what Swedenborg wrote, either because their religious beliefs do not allow for someone to have had the experiences Swedenborg said he did, or because they simply don't believe in an afterlife at all. Swedenborg himself knew that there would be skeptics. In Heavenly Secrets (Arcana Coelestia), the first work he published after his spiritual eyes were opened, he wrote:

Now I am able to tell about what I have heard and seen while I have been with spirits and angels during the last few years. I realize that many people will say it is not possible to talk with spirits and angels while still living in the physical body. Some will say I am hallucinating and some will say I am writing these things just to get a following. Others will make other objections. But none of this discourages me, because I have seen, I have heard, and I have felt. (Arcana Coelestia #67, 68)

Of course, here in the Swedenborgian Church I am largely preaching to the choir when it comes to believing that Swedenborg's spiritual world experiences were genuine, and that heaven and hell really are the way he describes them.

Still, Swedenborgians have sometimes felt that it is just a little bit strange to believe this, so we are sometimes reluctant to share our beliefs about the afterlife with others. I'd like to spend a few minutes giving some reasons to think that even though Swedenborg's experiences in the other life were far more extensive than any other known figure in history, they actually fit in well with spiritual experiences that have been described for thousands of years, and with many experiences that thousands of ordinary people have even today.

Our Bible readings this morning are just two from dozens--even hundreds--of places in the Bible where a Bible writer describes an experience in the spiritual world. The book of Ezekiel begins by recounting how "the heavens were opened" to the prophet, and he "saw visions of God." We had time to read only a brief part of Ezekiel's spiritual experience, in which he describes a sapphire throne with the Lord sitting on it. The language he uses shows that he is struggling to describe something that goes entirely beyond words.

The Apostle John also had his spiritual eyes opened. The entire Book of Revelation is his description of what he experienced in the spiritual world. Toward the beginning of the book, just before receiving a vision of the risen and glorified Christ, John says, "On the Lord's day I was in the spirit" (Revelation 1:10). (Swedenborg uses the same phrase to describe the state he was in when he experienced the spiritual world.) And in our reading from Revelation 19, John uses a phrase similar to Ezekiel's: "I saw heaven opened."

These are just two Biblical writers who described things they experienced with their spiritual senses. If I were to quote even the major occurrences of this throughout the Bible, it would take up more time than we have for our whole service, let alone this sermon! The point is, if we look to the Bible, we find that the Lord often opened people's spiritual eyes and ears to experience things in the other world.

Some skeptics will say, "But that was thousands of years ago. How do we know it wasn't all just made up?" Of course, nothing will convince those who do not wish to believe. But for those whose minds are open to the possibility of an afterlife, there is no shortage of supporting voices. Today, through the collected stories of people who have nearly died, we have a huge body of literature describing what thousands of ordinary people experienced in the spiritual world during their brief bouts with death. And though there are many variations in their experiences, there is also a remarkable agreement about what the spiritual world is like. And it turns out to be very much like what Swedenborg described two and a half centuries ago.

We could go on to survey the spiritual literature of all the ages and cultures of humankind, and if we did, we would find that far from being an oddity, nearly every age has had its religious seers and mystics who have brought back to earth enlightenment from the world on the other side of death. Swedenborg's descriptions may be the most detailed of all, but they are one in a long line of testimonies throughout human history, all of which attest to the reality and presence of the spiritual world.

With so vast a body of "spiritual evidence," available, where can we begin the task of describing the afterlife? There is one fundamental characteristic of the spiritual world that great mystics and ordinary near death experiencers alike agree upon: God is the central reality there. Swedenborg begins the book Heaven and Hell with three chapters that describe the Lord as the God of heaven, whose presence and nature fills and gives life to everything there. In fact, even hell, Swedenborg says, is ruled by God, and not by some great figure called the Devil or Satan--which Swedenborg says is a personification of all human evil together. God is all-powerful, and rules the entire universe, spiritual and physical, heaven and hell.

For those who believe in a God of love--as we Swedenborgians do--this is a very comforting thought. We know that the place we are going after we die is run by a divine being who loves us with an infinite and eternal love, and who wants us to have the greatest happiness that we can possibly experience. There is no need to fear death, because when we die, we are in the hands of the Lord our God, who is love itself and wisdom itself.

As Swedenborg and others describe it, the love and wisdom of God fill all of heaven, and give it an indescribable brilliance and a spring-like warmth that is both emotionally healing and mentally invigorating. The very light of heaven is truth. When we see with our spiritual eyes, we simultaneously receive understanding in our minds from what we see. And the very warmth of heaven is love. When we feel the warmth of heaven's sun--which is the Lord--shining on us, we feel and experience the Lord's love within us. This presence of the warmth of God's love and the light of God's truth gives life to everything in heaven, and flows down to the lower levels of the spiritual world as well.

However, to those of us who have not experienced it, this all may seem a bit other-worldly and theoretical. So let's talk about what it is like to die, and how we live in heaven. Swedenborg devotes a whole book to this, and we can only scratch the surface for now. If you would like to look into it further, I recommend the book Awaken from Death, (J. Appleseed Press, 1993), which gives a brief version of Swedenborg's own descriptions from Heaven and Hell. And, of course, there is always Heaven and Hell itself.

When we die, Swedenborg says, we are met by heavenly angels who ensure that our passing from one world to the next is peaceful and comforting. They answer all our questions and take care of all our needs, until we are ready to begin exploring this new world for ourselves. And even then, there are always angels to help us as we find our heavenly home.

For a longer or shorter period, depending on our personality, we go through a stage in which any outward "masks" we have been wearing that aren't our true self fall away, and we become entirely an expression of the things we love the most. If we have chosen to love ourselves or material things above all else, we will move by our own choice toward hell, where selfish and materialistic people live. But if we have chosen to love the Lord and other people most of all, then we will soon be on our way to becoming angels.

When our outward life has become entirely an expression of who we are deep inside, we will see paths leading us toward the heaven where we will spend eternity. And when we arrive there, we will feel that we have at last arrived at our true home. Of course, besides the presence of the Lord in our hearts, minds and lives, what makes heaven be heaven is living in community with others who love the same kinds of things that we love. We spend eternity with those who share our values, our interests, our pleasures, our pastimes. And since everyone in heaven loves other people and wants to make them happy, heaven is a place where we are always serving one another's needs, and adding to one another's joy.

Our "work" in heaven is to serve others in the way we love the most. There are many different occupations in heaven, and no one is idle. Some are teachers. Some are preachers. Some raise babies, children, and young people who have died and gone to heaven. Some attend people who have just died, guiding them as they find their way into the spiritual world. There are even what we would call "prison guards": angels who attend to people in the various hells and keep them under control. And there are angels who form the "governments" of heaven, making sure everyone knows an understands the divine law that is the true government there. No one in heaven is forced to do their work; they do it because they love to. And since all their needs are taken care of, there is no need to worry about making ends meet.

Angels also have plenty of free time to enjoy music, sports, the beauties of their spiritual environment, reading, writing, conversation, and all the other forms of recreation, sharing, and personal growth that we enjoy here on earth. Speaking of personal growth, just because we are angels, it does not mean we stop growing. There are always new things to learn and greater levels of love to experience. Our spiritual growth never ends--though it is not as much of a struggle in heaven as it is here on earth!

If you want more on heaven and hell, you'll just have to read the book! For now, I will leave you with this thought: heaven is a continuation of all the best parts of our life in this world. The only thing we leave behind is our physical body. Everything that truly makes us who we are--what we love, what we know, and how we live--stays with us. We can know what heaven is like if we think of our loved ones who have died, imagining them as they were at their very best moments: when they were showing love and understanding that came from deep within, and giving help, comfort, and joy to those around them.

Heaven is where everyone shows that kind of love and understanding to everyone else. And we don't have to wait until we die to experience it. We can create a heaven of love and understanding right here on this earth. Amen



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