Sunday Worship Service, January 25, 2009

The Book of Revelation

BIBLE READING: Rev. 6: 1-8

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6:1-8 )
Reading from Swedenborg

Horses are often mentioned in the prophetic parts of the Bible. But until now, no one has known that horses represent our understanding, and riders represent people who are intelligent, that is, God’s kind of intelligence. This representation of horses comes from the spiritual world. In that world horses are often seen, with people on them, and everyone there knows that they represent intellectual and doctrinal things. (The White Horse #2, 3)
Sermon

The Book Of Revelation

After forty years of study and research, no less a figure than the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham threw up his hands in complete despair of trying to figure out the meaning and message of the Book of Revelation. Perhaps we can see why. We’ve got dragons and mysteriously sealed books, one of which the author of Revelation, the disciple John, is asked to eat!

We’ve got a beast from the sea, a woman and her child, seven bowls, a scarlet woman and a scarlet beast, a white horse, as well as three other horses, one black, one red, and one pale in color, and the ugly many-headed monster with horns. It’s almost like somebody’s LSD trip!

Actually, that’s not far from the truth. But instead of LSD, the author, John the beloved disciple, says he was “in the spirit,” meaning he was having what we would call a spiritual experience, or something along the lines of a near-death experience. Swedenborg’s way of saying this is that John’s spiritual sight was opened–something that can, and eventually will, happen to all of us.

But the content of what John saw went far beyond his own personal condition or issues. As he put it, he was seeing “the things which are, and the things which will be hereafter.” Quite a different scope than what most of us experience with drugs, or even our own personal spiritual experiences.

The vision that John saw was like a mighty symbolic moving picture enacted before his eyes. The Book of Revelation is a record of that vision.

As I say, it is clearly more than a drug-induced hallucination, especially when seen through the eyes of correspondences–which are the outer form of things that are initially created from the spiritual energy of God and therefore have an internal life to them.

Swedenborg remarks that the substances of the spiritual world are not inert; not anywhere near as lifeless as the material substances we have here on earth. Instead, they are immediately responsive to spiritual forces, so that everything there at once takes on an outward form corresponding to what is the most alive of all: the affections and thoughts of the angels, spirits, or people of darkness there.

In other words, unlike LSD, true visions with their correspondences are not imaginary. They depict spiritual reality, especially if we come to understand the meaning behind the correspondences. And here’s where Swedenborg shines, because he spells it all out, symbol by symbol, or correspondence by correspondence, until a coherent picture begins to come into view————-a picture of spiritual meaning and purpose.

But before we get to an overview of that coherent picture, we might well ask: why all the symbolism? Why didn’t God just say it straight and direct, in plain old literal language———–the very same language we come to after the symbols are revealed? The answer is the same as for the rest of the Bible. As stated by Anita Dole in her Bible Study Notes:

The New Church is the church of the opened Word. It believes that the inspired portions of the Scriptures are divine truth spoken by the Lord, but necessarily, in order to reach humankind, clothed with corresponding forms of angelic and earthly thought and expression———–just as light, coming to earth from the sun, is modified by the atmosphere and broken up and reflected in various ways by the natural forms which receive and transmit it. The literal meaning of Scripture, then, is the outmost expression of divine truth. Being given through the minds of men in both good and evil states, it therefore shows the truth as it appears both to the good and to the evil. The literal meaning of Scripture is written for all sorts and conditions of human beings in all times, but there is enough genuine truth in the surface meaning to invite any sincere person to go deeper.

If people don’t wish to go deeper, what they did comprehend will not have spiritually harmed them because they won’t be turning away from all that much to begin with. What’s really bad is to see God with your whole being and then turn away! That’s damming! The critical, important idea here is that the sincerity required to dig deeper is the very thing that protects us from treating the deeper meaning in a flip or frivolous manner once we find it. It’s a pretty neat system!

So the next obvious question is: what’s so all-powered sensitive in Revelation that God needed to build in this protective mechanism of using confusing symbols and images?

We’re going to get into some really big perspectives now. Sir Isaac Newton studied an apple falling, and from that determined the laws of gravitation. Those were little thoughts. Hundreds of years later, Albert Einstein came along and tried to take that little law and put it all together with all the other little laws of nature———-relativity, the speed of light, and so on———–and tried to see how all the little laws of nature fit together to make a coherent whole. He came up with E=MC2. A very big thought.

The Book of Revelation is one of those big thoughts———a really big thought that, you might say, we have to be spiritually ready to encounter. We’ll need a degree of spiritual maturity and sincerity if we’re to seriously relate to it with our heart, soul, and mind.

That’s what eating that book was all about. We may, at first, find these big thoughts very sweet and wonderful. But if we’re not ready to digest the full meaning and implications of them, we’re probably going to get a stomach ache! So what is it that can be so difficult to digest———–that can give us stomach cramps?

In correspondential language, Revelation is about the advent of a new kind of Christian church that God is bringing into being. The dramatic story in this book is about that church’s beginnings with a beautiful vision of the Lord, which is then followed by the many trials, tribulations, and conflicts that it will undergo in becoming established here on earth———–or within any one individual, since each individual is a church in miniature.

Mind you, we are not talking about another man-made Christian denomination. We are talking about something intrinsically alive——-a real, live, spiritual church that can really touch you, that can really affect you in your feelings and inner life.

  • One that can be as real as your leg.
  • As real as your own personal pain.
  • As real as your deepest loves;
  • that can make your insides quiver and shake,
  • that can make you cry from its beauty,
  • and also rejoice.
  • We are talking about a church that is of your very life——
  • that asks you to grow,
  • that asks you to love holiness and mercy,
  • that asks you to become not only loving, but also wise in how you live your life.

This, as Revelation says, is a church without a temple in it, because we become the temple. It is a church

  • not defined by rituals and rites,
  • but by wisdom and love that shines in your eyes,
  • touches your relationships——especially your close and intimate ones——
  • and makes you a child of God that you love being and becoming.

It is a church that deeply understands transformation into angelhood because that’s been our potential from the very beginning. And within this perspective, we grasp the vision, align ourselves to it, and work like hell–because hell is half of our many loves.But, there are resistances to this kind of church in the world, and in each one of us as well. Let’s take one or two from Revelation.

The opening of those mysterious seals: Swedenborg claims that since the middle of the 18th century, the human race has come into a new level of spiritual freedom, granted by the Lord. It involves a much deeper desire to make sense out of things–especially spiritual things.

A large part of this new freedom in spiritual things is the opening of the Scriptures, again granted by the Lord, to a new, internal, more spiritual level of understanding of the Word–a level that is not only more comprehensible in general, but is also more personally relevant to each one of us.

However, being a realist, the Lord knew this would not be welcomed by all! The four horsemen and their riders are the different ways that we can receive this opening of the Scriptures———-especially certain truths about our souls that this reveals.

Some people welcome all the truth they can learn, and use it to discover and grow, and to help them live a deeper, more feeling and spiritual kind of life. This kind of reception is symbolized by the white horse.

Some people like to learn the truth only in order to condemn other people, without applying it to themselves at all. This is our understanding of the Word when we do not wish to be good, and it is pictured by the red horse.

Some are not interested in learning anything at a deeper, spiritual level, but like to pick out verses in the Bible and haggle over their natural, literal meaning, as if that was all there was to the Bible. This attitude is represented by the black horse.

  • Some reject anything sacred because they have no intention of doing anything except get all they can for themselves in this world–the self-serving person. This is the pale horse.Some people welcome all the truth they can learn, and use it to discover and grow, and to help them live a deeper, more feeling and spiritual kind of life. This kind of reception is symbolized by the white horse.
  • Some people like to learn the truth only in order to condemn other people, without applying it to themselves at all. This is our understanding of the Word when we do not wish to be good, and it is pictured by the red horse.
  • Some are not interested in learning anything at a deeper, spiritual level, but like to pick out verses in the Bible and haggle over their natural, literal meaning, as if that was all there was to the Bible. This attitude is represented by the black horse.
  • Some reject anything sacred because they have no intention of doing anything except get all they can for themselves in this world–the self-serving person. This is the pale horse.

We also have the woman and her child, and the great red dragon. The woman clothed with the sun is a symbol of this new church the Lord is trying to bring into being.

The sun corresponds to the glory of love to the Lord in which this new church appears in heaven.

The moon under her feet pictures the intelligence and faith which would be in the people of this new church on earth.

The child which the woman brought forth stands for the new level of spiritual understanding of the people in this new kind of internal, more spiritual church.

And the great red dragon which threatened her symbolizes the resistance to this new level of deeper, more spiritual understanding, which comes primarily from worldly and selfish reasoning——-especially materialism when that becomes a top priority in the way people live.
What is the name of this new church begun by God, first in the spiritual world, and then here on earth? The short name is the New Church. The long name, taken from the Book of Revelation, is the Church of the New Jerusalem.

There are many details of this spectacular story that I have left out. We don’t have time to unearth them all today. But they are all there.

The Book of Revelation does make sense when the symbols are decoded. Indeed, for Swedenborgians the Book of Revelation has been called the charter of the New Church. It is the story of God’s faithful, wonderful help, and how, having helped the human race all along its tumultuous, difficult path of growth and development, God decided it was time to raise the bar of spiritual development and potential one more time, and invite us into a much greater theater of abundant living.

The question is, can we handle it? Can we handle being challenged and shaken? Can we handle the growth and intimacy, the love and wisdom, the wonder and beauty, that so powerfully confront our lowered expectations of both God and ourselves?

Our resistance to this new internal and external church is not only about resistance to new ideas or thoughts, or even to a certain kind of new doctrine.

It’s about resistance to our own personal darker forces. That’s the first stumbling block to the New Church. If we were already whole and holy as individuals, the vision of the New Church would not only be easily understood, but joyously received and embraced.

The conflicts and dragons, the harlots and pale riders are within us; they are right alongside the Holy City, New Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from God.

Is your stomach, like mine, beginning to cramp a little now? This is not cheap grace. We are being asked to consciously conspire against some of the things we love quite dearly, in order to get to the things we love most deeply.

It’s like community building. We consciously put ourselves in this vice called “guidelines” because we want the deeper value of holy connection to each other. Community building is part of the New Church. But it’s work. And sometimes we resist. Indeed, most people shrink from anything that promises to make drastic changes in their ways of thought and life.

I once asked a very righteous and good man, a Swedenborgian minister, what he expected in his initial experiences in the spiritual world when he crossed over.

Immediately,and with great understatement he said, “I expect it to be a little painful at times”————-as he would encounter some of his own demons.

The New Church is about taking the blinders off; not only taking the blinders off intellectually, but ultimately also in a very deep and feeling way as well. Here’s where the resistance really kicks in!

What this means is that ultimately we cannot do it alone. At some point, the Lord must consciously be part of the process——-especially at the deeper and more difficult levels of resistance.

The Scriptures open with the Garden of Eden and close with the holy city New Jerusalem. The Garden of Eden pictures not only the primitive state of the human race, but the infant state of the individual.

And the holy city New Jerusalem pictures the ultimate goal of humanity, and of each one of us. All the Scriptures in between the two describe the journey from what Swedenborg calls the “innocence of ignorance” to the “innocence of wisdom.”

The Book of Revelation, in its decoded form, describes in detail what this means, and what it will entail if we are to pursue and attain it.

But always remember that

  • no matter how many heads the beast may have,
  • no matter how awful the scarlet woman might be,
  • there is nothing we can’t do with the Lord’s help.
  • The choice is always ours, even when it feels like it isn’t.
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