My name is Solomon Keal. I am a minister for the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which is a Swedenborgian Christian denomination. These are some of my thoughts about the Lord, the symbolic meanings in the Bible, life after death, faith, charity, usefulness, loving the Lord and one's neighbor, the 2nd Coming, Swedenborg's Writings, and other theological stuff.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Readings: Psalm 15, Matthew 5:43-48, AC 612.2, AE 799.7, AR 586.3
(If you would like to look up the references that appear throughout this sermon, copy and paste them into Small Canon Search.)
“Who may worship in Your sanctuary, Lord? Who may enter Your presence on Your holy hill? Those who lead blameless lives.” (Psalm 15:1,2, New Living Translation)
Sometimes it can feel like the Lord is asking for perfection in our lives. The opening words of this psalm might really speak to how we might sometimes feel inadequate, or like the life of heaven is unattainable. “Who could possibly live in the Lord’s tabernacle, or on His holy hill? Who is that good? How can I possibly live a blameless, or perfect life?”
But the truth is, “it is not as hard to follow the path to heaven as many people believe” (HH 359). But it does require learning some steps. It’s like walking up a long flight of stairs. If we focus on the fact that we have to get all the way up to the top, we can feel discouraged. But if we focus on one step at a time, it’s very manageable. This psalm goes into some of the steps involved in ‘walking blameless’ on the road to heaven. As it says in the Gospels: “With [us] it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:27)
The Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg tell us that the main point of this psalm is essentially that “those who love the neighbor and God, will be of the Lord's church” (PP 265). This makes sense, because that’s what Jesus told us in the Gospels:
“ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22:37-40)
On the surface it’s pretty straightforward, but it can sometimes feel impossible. “Love the Lord with all of my heart, soul and mind? Is most of it OK? Do I have to love my neighbor the same amount that I love myself, or is ‘almost as much as myself‘ OK?” Taken as a whole it can feel like an impossible flight of stairs. This psalm attempts to break it down into small steps. Let’s examine those steps.
The psalm opens with describing that goal; the top of the long flight of stairs; that state of heaven. It describes it as living in the Lord’s ‘tabernacle,’ and living on His ‘holy hill.’ The Writings tell us that living in a ‘tent’ or ‘tabernacle’ represents living in the holiness of love (AC 414), or in the good of love (AC 10545:6). Love is holy because the Lord is Love Itself. When we live in love towards Him and our neighbor, we are living in His holiness. This is why the tabernacle in the Word represents the church and heaven because the church and heaven are essentially a life of love (AR 585:2) This is why in the book of Revelation, when John saw the Holy City New Jerusalem coming out of heaven, he heard a voice saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev 21:3).
This state of heaven is also described in the beginning of this psalm by living on the Lord’s ‘holy hill.’ Technically this is referring to Jerusalem, or Mount Zion, both of which were on mountains or hills. But the Writings tell us that in general a ‘mountain’ represents the good of love (AE 405:26), so once again this is describing the true state of the church or heaven as being a life of love. So how do we go about living this life of love? Let’s delve into the verses:
To get an overview: Verse 2 of this psalm contains a nice little progression of three things that we should do to live this life of love. Verse 3 contains a nice little progression of three things that we should not do to live this life of love. Verse 4 describes three ways that this can be tricky and confusing. Verse 5 begins by describing two ways that the hells can trap us, and then verse 5 ends with an incentive for working on living this life of love. Now let’s examine each verse:
Verse 2. “He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart.” This verse describes the trinity of end, cause and effect. Or we could think of it as 1. the source of love, 2. the intentions of love, and 3. the actions of love. The source of love is the Lord. This is why the beginning of verse two says “He who walks uprightly or blamelessly.” Different translations use different words to try to express this idea: Blameless, flawless, uprightly, perfect, in integrity. All of them capture this idea of something that feels unattainable. And yet this is the first thing we are commanded to do to live this life of love! This idea appears in other places in the Word: In Genesis: “walk before Me and be blameless” (Gen 17:1), in Deuteronomy: “You shall be blameless before the LORD your God” (Deut 18:13), and even in the Gospels: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48). How can the Lord expect this of us? How can I be perfect? The point is He doesn’t, and we can’t. The reason for statements like these is that we need to be reminded to be humble. We need to recognize that the life of love (which is blameless and perfect) is not our life; it’s the Lord’s life. The Lord is the only one who is blameless, flawless, and perfect. But He wants to give that life to us. And so if we turn to Him, and ask for His help, we can receive that perfect life. This is why it says in Samuel: “God is my strength and power, And He makes my way perfect” (2 Sam 22:33), and in Matthew “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matt 19:21).
The 2nd part of verse 2 says “He who... works righteousness.” This is about the intentions of love. Some translations say “He who... works justice.” The Writings say that ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’ has to do with goodness (AE 799:7; AC 9263:9). If you look at the places in the Word where the word ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’ comes up, you will find them associated with concepts like love, generosity (Deut 10:18), goodness (Psalm 33:5), lovingkindness (Psalms 36:10, 119:149), mercy, and compassion (Zechariah 7:9). If we think about someone who seeks justice in a healthy way, it is someone who seeks fairness for other people.
Now this concept can be twisted by us. We can engage in self-righteousness, and seek revengeful justice. But the Lord warns us that this isn’t true righteousness. In the Word this kind of righteousness is associated with being stiff-necked (Deut 9:6), seeking dishonest gain (1 Sam 8:3), being stubborn-hearted (Isaiah 46:12), and being a hypocrite (Matt 23:23).
So for us to truly work righteousness or justice in our life, we need to try to to have attitudes that are loving, generous, and compassionate.
The 3rd part of verse 2 says “He who... speaks the truth in his heart.” The Writings say that this could also be described as ‘judgment’ (AC 2235:4). The previous phrase was talking about goodness or justice, and this one talks about truth or judgment. Truth is the outer expression of goodness. The previous part described our intentions and attitudes, and this describes what we say and do. Notice that it doesn’t just say “He who speaks the truth,” but “He who speaks the truth in his heart.” Speaking the truth by itself can actually be hurtful. For example: “You know, you are really bad at saying ‘thank you’ when you receive gifts!” It may be true, but it’s not tactful and not a nice thing to say. We need to not only speak the truth, but speak it from the heart; from those attitudes of compassion, generosity, and kindness. When we do this, we are exercising good judgment.
So we’ve examined how verse 2 is describing three things that we should do: Humbly recognize that only the Lord is perfect, try to have good attitudes towards people, and exercise good judgment in what we say. Verse 3 describes a progression of three things that we should not do, so that we can live a good life. “He who does not backbite with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor does he take up a reproach against his friend.”
In the first part, the word used for ‘backbite’ literally means ‘to spy-out.’ So this part of verse 3 is telling us that we should not ‘spy with our tongue.’ Essentially this is a poetic way of saying ‘don’t gossip.’ But it could be useful to think of it as ‘spying with the tongue.’ It could help us to remember how it might feel to that person who we are gossiping about.
The second part simply says not to do evil to our neighbor. This is a pretty broad suggestion. It could be useful to think of this as a reminder to obey the 10 commandments. If we want to ‘do no evil to our neighbor’ it means that literally we should not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet. However on a deeper level, all of these describe various ways that we can hurt people.
The third part of this verse says that we should not ‘take up a reproach against our friend.‘ This isn’t the way we would say it these days. Today we might say, ‘we should not be critical of our friends.‘ This brings to mind teachings of Jesus such as “Judge not, that you be not judged.... And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Matt 7:1-3). And also “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (John 8:7).
If you look at the places in the Word where the word ‘reproach’ comes up, you will find it associated with concepts like scorn and derision (Psalm 44:13), shaking one’s head at someone (Psalm 109:25), showing contempt (Psalm 119:22), insulting (Isaiah 51:7), shaming or disgracing (Isaiah 54:4), taunting and cursing (Jeremiah 24:9), humiliating (Jeremiah 31:19), mocking (Ezekiel 22:4), and making arrogant threats (Zephaniah 2:8-10). We may have enough restraint to not do these things to someone’s face, but we really have to be careful that we don’t do these things behind people’s backs too.
So now we’ve examined how verse three is describing three things that we should not do if we want to live a life of love in the church and in heaven. Namely that we should not gossip, we should not hurt people with things like being deceitful, and we should not be critical of other people. These bad behaviors could come up in many places in our life. With our children or our parents, with our spouse, with our boss or coworkers, when speaking of political figures, when speaking of our teachers, our siblings, and even our friends. We are not truly a member of the church when we are engaged in doing these things.
Verse Four. This next verse is tricky. It begins by saying, “In whose eyes a vile person is despised.” This seems to go against everything that was just said in verse three! “I thought I was supposed to love my enemy, and not show contempt for people! And now this verse is saying I should despise evil people?” It really should be taken in context with the next part which says, “but he honors those who fear the Lord.” So we should despise evil people but honor good people? What does this mean? I like the way the New Century Version Bible translates this part: “They do not respect hateful people, but honor those who honor the Lord.” The idea here is getting at what the ‘neighbor’ really is. The ‘neighbor’ really is goodness (TCR 418). When we love or honor someone, if it is a genuine love and a genuine honoring, then we are honoring the goodness in them, which means we are honoring the Lord in them. And along the same lines, we should not love or honor the evil in another person. This is what it means to ‘despise a vile person.’ For example, we might have a friend who likes to tell dirty jokes. For the sake of the friendship we might be tempted to laugh at those jokes. But if we are trying to live in integrity, then we should not laugh at the those jokes. In our eyes, those jokes should be despised.
Verse four ends with, ‘he who swears to his own hurt and does not change,” or “he who promises to afflict himself and alters not.” The Writings say that this self-affliction means “the mastering and subjugation of the evils and falsities that rise up from the external [part of a person] into the rational [part of a person]” (AC 1947:6). So in other words, if we promise to people that we will work on our faults and problems (which is a painful process), but then we don’t, then we are not living the life of love that makes us a true member of the church. On the flip side, that number from Secrets of Heaven goes on to say that we should also not make a big deal about how painful spiritual growth is solely for the sake of gaining recognition and a sense of merit. As Jesus said in Matthew: “when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Matt 6:16).
Verse Five. Then verse five contains two references to money: two references to doing something for the sake of reward: “He who does not put out his money at usury, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.” The Writings say that the first part is describing doing something good for the sake of reward, represented by lending money for the sake of earning interest on it (AC 9210:5). A true life of love doesn’t seek reward. Anytime we are thinking of reward, our actions are somewhat tainted with selfishness. This doesn’t mean that we won’t have mixed motives, and engage in mediate goods in which we find pleasure in reward for a good deed. These things can point us in the right direction. But the point here is that doing good for the sake of reward is not the end goal. The end goal is to do good without thought of reward.
And then the second part, “nor does he take a bribe against the innocent,” is describing doing something evil for the sake of reward. These ‘bribes’ come from evil spirits in hell. They want us to think that we will earn happiness and satisfaction if we hurt someone who we dislike. They might have convinced us to publicly point out an area where we are right and a friend is wrong. The bribe is that this will make us feel better. The bribe is also a lie. It may give us a short term buzz, but it won’t last, and it will be replaced by bad feelings. In Deuteronomy it says that taking a bribe like this “blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous” (Deut 16:19).
The psalm ends by saying, “he who does these things shall never be moved.” When we follow these steps and try to do these things in our life, then we start to become filled with the Lord’s strength. We gain protection against the onslaught of the hells. The hells are constantly bombarding us with negative thoughts and feelings; trying to knock us off our feet. But by living in the Lord’s life we begin to take on His strength, and so there is the promise that we will never be moved.
Taken as a whole, all of these things might feel like too much to remember, let alone apply to our life. There are a lot of steps that lead up to the the Lord’s holy hill. But what this psalm is pointing out, is that if we keep walking up those steps, we will eventually get there. The Lord isn’t asking us to be perfect from ourselves. But He is offering us a chance to live in His perfect life. He’s laid a stairway in front of us. If we take it one step at a time, we can get there. These steps are the steps of repentance. This is a life-long staircase. So today, just choose one thing that you want to work on. That’s one step closer to the Lord.