SERMON, by Pete Toot
Today we will be exploring the realm of creation we are most familiar with – the natural universe – the universe we see around us, that we live in day to day, that is fairly stable and doesn’t change much or quickly because of things we do. This theme anticipates two things that are coming up, the Feast of St. Francis – celebrated officially on October 3rd – next Friday, and the Ohio Association meetings coming up next weekend, where the title is “Caring for Creation”. Our worship theme introduces us to ideas common to both those, and especially leads into our Blessing of the Animals, which later in the service today. So we’ll get things moving here and start our explorations momentarily.
Revelation is tricky. God probably doesn’t think it’s tricky, but since the ways of the Lord are usually pretty obscure to us, human beings certainly do not come to an agreement about what is and what is not revelation, or whether it exists at all. But we can simplify this discussion considerably. First we will limit the topic to a Christian perspective – that we have a God who has a message for human beings and it involves Scripture, in our case the Bible. I don’t think there is a church that disagrees with the idea that God had a great deal to do with what is in the Bible, though there is a lot of difference in what parts of the Bible serve this purpose, and how they got that way, and what we are supposed to do with them.
Some 300 years after the life of Jesus on earth, the established church made the serious decisions about what writings are part of what is called the canon. The canon is the bible we see today. That left a lot of things out that even today theologians wonder if they didn’t take out too much or too little. There are several different recognized bible versions in existence today that include or exclude some books. But we won’t go very far in that direction. In a revelation discussion there are a few key words that stand out as important. I will give you three: Revelation, Inspiration, and Illumination. All three have religious meanings. This will get all on the same page – I hope. There is no quiz.
Revelation: Revelation is the word of God as it is delivered by communication to persons. It comes in two flavors, General Revelation, which we will get into in some depth later on, and Direct Revelation. Direct Revelation is by words, visions, dreams, or face-to-face meetings and there are no middle-men, no messengers involved – just God and human beings. Examples of Direct Revelation are God instructing Adam in the Garden of Eden, and God giving Moses the Ten Commandments. The God-side of the conversation – the words, visions, dreams, etc., are infallible (the absolute Truth by definition), but you may not always be able to count on their reception to be accurate. Or, it is admitted, God is not the only one out there communicating like that, so be careful what you hear, it could be angels or evil spirits, too. There are several accounts of angels delivering messages, like to women informing them of their upcoming motherhood; and there is the account of the devil speaking to Jesus in the wilderness, just to name a couple of many. Nevertheless, this kind of thing is Direct Revelation if God is doing the communicating, and it’s the Truth, regardless of whether or not we can figure it out.
Inspiration: Inspiration, in particular Divine Inspiration, is what the Holy Spirit does so that the receiver can recommunicate the Truth to other people without losing it. It is this that makes the Bible able to speak God’s words to those of us who didn’t get the message first-hand. How this works is through what we call Divine Providence, whereby He can arrange for a person or persons to grow up with the attitude, skills, and inclination to receive the communication accurately and pass it along without adding in opinion, distortions, or other influences not intended by God. These communicators are groomed by God to deliver the message in certain ways to obtain particular ends. We call these people Prophets and Seers. However, in Scripture, while the message they write down is indeed the Truth, it may not be in the style or context that is meant for everyone else to understand, and though they are God’s words, we may still not get the message if it is targeted to a different reader, or if we aren’t inclined to listen.
Lastly there is Illumination, literally shedding light on something. In church-speak Illumination is what happens in the readers of Scripture that allows them to understand and believe passages that they need to hear. When that happens, it may seem like God is speaking to them, but technically it is not a new revelation, it an old one now open to them. I don’t know how universal this thinking is, but using this definition, we do not risk getting a swelled head thinking God has picked us out as special and is giving us original stuff. But that may be a doctrinal viewpoint to help keep pride in check.
Those are the definitions. Revelation is communication to man. Inspiration is preparation of the receivers to prevent truth from being corrupted; and illumination is opening the final reader to an understanding related to the immediate need.
Before I talk about General Revelation, a word about how our denomination understands Revelation. To be clear, Swedenborgians do not all agree – no great surprise there. One thing Swedenborg would say is that only certain books of the Bible are divinely inspired, those that have an inner meaning that is understandable only to the reader searching for it. (I included notes on the back of the Readings insert where he addresses this.) Swedenborg saw himself as chosen to be a receiver of Direct Revelation, but not as a perfect communicator of it. And he would claim much of what he wrote is not Direct Revelation from the Lord, but what he was told by angels and spirits and what he was permitted to observe during the period where his senses were open to the spiritual realm. Also, he would say that we as receivers of Scripture can, and should, be looking for the inner meaning to aid us in our spiritual growth and understanding, and he offers as much help as he can, where he felt he could. Nevertheless, he tells us that we are not to accept his teachings because he says they contain truths, but because we have found his lessons to make sense in our lives. Meanwhile, revelation via Scripture is very valuable to us as we strive to build a good relationship with God, and the parts that speak to us can be illuminated when appropriate, to the extent we are open to receiving them, and that interchange is between us and God. Intermediaries like Bible study guides, Bible school, and spiritual advisors can be very helpful, too, but are not a requirement. It is also important that we can go to Scripture to look for God because it is easy. It is available in English, familiar to us. It speaks our language, whatever our language is. That’s its disadvantage too – it’s a limitation to try to squeeze immense meanings into words than cannot hold them all.
But fortunately, God is not limited to reaching people by any particular vehicle of revelation. Regardless of what devout Christians may sometimes perceive, God doesn’t choose certain people he wants to bring into heaven, so She will use all possible ways to give the invitation to all people, all the time, whether they want to listen or not.
So, on to General Revelation. General Revelation is revelation available to everyone, sometimes called Natural Revelation. It the communication of knowledge about God and spiritual things that can be discovered through observing creation, and the workings of the universe and our world. So, when I titled this message “Listen to the World! – Revelation 1.0” I was restating that idea –that we should look to the creation itself for knowledge about God and spiritual things, and as this knowledge is embedded in creation from the very beginning, before Scripture was ever seen by man, it is indeed Version 1.0. God does not have to lead us to find the Bible or the Quran or the other sacred texts – tough work we are – we are stubborn and resistant creatures. And I’m not advocating avoiding Scripture by any stretch of the imagination. But nature is right there before us – it is difficult to avoid it, and at least some of the messages there are obvious to one who looks for them.
[reference to today’s reading from Job 12: 1-12] In the reading from Job 12, Job says much the same thing. Even though he “called God and [God] answered, [and Job] is innocent and blameless”, he is a joke to his friends. Have you seen or experienced this kind of behavior yourself? He goes on rather sarcastically to describe people’s response to God, then says “ask the beasts … the birds … the fish”. “Talk to earth”, for they all know that the Lord’s hand made them. What will the earth say? The earth cannot help but bear the signature of God in every part. [reference to 1 Corinthians 15:35-39 & 42-46] In the reading from 1 Corinthians we hear more about the correspondence between the natural and the spiritual. Paul uses the term “resurrection of the dead” as he describes how the transition between the two realms are experienced by us, “the physical body comes first, not the spiritual one – the spiritual body comes later.” He speaks of the natural and spiritual being sequential, but as he talks about the seed, he says essentially that it has the potential to be raised to a form much more wonderful. That’s us he is talking about. He speaks of humans, animals, birds, and fish each having their own kind of flesh, their own place in the natural world, and each illustrating spiritual principles that are embedded in all creation, here and beyond – the idea that all living things grow and mature from simple things, barely alive, to creatures that all fit into one orderly creation. Many places in Scripture the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom are used as lessons on growth. But only man, who has the greatest potential of all, is stubborn, resistant, and inherently selfish. Aren’t all creatures selfish? Indeed, they are in physical sense, but it is their nature to survive, to be prey or predator, to procreate, to provide and protect their successors. They can also be generous, and as we see in our domestic animals and pets, friendly, useful, and companionable. They are also innocent. They were never made to be able to reject goodness, though they also are not able to see what is good beyond the physical. They are not made to accept Christ as Savior or even understand such a thing. That is both our challenge and our blessing.
[reference to Arcana Coelstia, n.6323] Swedenborg also writes of this in the reading we used today. Not in the plainest language for us 21st century people, but clear enough when you get familiar with his vocabulary and style. He starts right out saying let’s look at things in the natural world, (which we can see), that illustrate the spiritual world (which we do not see, or rarely see). He talks about the animals, birds, and insects, who, just like us, who are filled with love and to varying extents can choose paths in their lives consistent with that love. They fit into the grand design of the world. Man has the potential to do that too, but also the ability to turn away from it. We make those kinds of choices. We can learn or not, we can behave well or not. We can discern the truth of ideas or not. We can express love or not. We are indeed, as Swedenborg says, “born into a contrary order.”
One outcome of this is that revelation is of no concern to animals. Yes, they can be taught new things, yes, they can be trained to behave well, but they do not need revelation for that, to achieve their potential, to become what they are created to become. That’s good news for the other creatures – but what about us? What can we do? In particular what can we be taught by observing nature, or by observing society, or by exchanging deep ideas with other people? I’ll stick to observing nature, and we can exchange deep ideas later as we like. Here are some thoughts on the matter, following Swedenborg’s invitation to see where some natural things illustrate spiritual things.
The universe is an orderly place. It obeys the laws of nature. Not that we know them all, but the evidence is that chaos does not reign, one set of rules applies to the whole shebang, and always has. That lines up with the theological idea that God is Order itself. I am guessing here, but I suspect a God of Whimsy would not lead to such a neat result. Perhaps a committee of gods would? I have imagined that those would be pretty small gods, maybe we could call them yes-gods – gods created in our image perhaps, and if they are anything like us at all, there still has to be a blueprint or committee charter to lead to total order. I find the idea of multiple gods to not be in the evidence offered by an examination of creation. So I see here two possible messages that I think are comforting –first, there is One organizing principle for all of creation – we call this God, One God and that one organizing principle is indeed very organized. Perhaps even strict. Have you ever tried to disobey a law of nature? Like gravity? It would also be awkward. We do not need to choose between multiple gods to try to build a relationship with or an allegiance to. We do that in effect by putting other things before God without any need to label them as gods. The second message is that any approach to make changes in our lives, is a stable process – it has unchanging rules like the rest of the universe, whether we grasp them or not. So those two ideas are big messages that are consistent with how we understand Scripture, and for that matter consistent with many sacred texts. They may enough, but wait there’s more. Stick with me – this is good stuff, and not too long.
What else? How about the idea that all living things start out small, dumb, and simple and then they grow up? Can we then be confident that we are also meant to grow up? Well, we do grow up physically. We also grow in knowledge, hopefully in responsibility, possibly in social skills, in making decisions on what is important to us. So, I see a lesson here that as creatures with conscience, we can grow in the direction of increasing understanding and goodness. That is again consistent with Scripture – the idea that we are created for heaven and can get there as long as we pay attention to our moral compass, and we do the work.
What else? We look at the world and see that everything is connected to everything else. Not just are there rules for each thing, there are rules to make sure each thing affects everything it touches, and as one thing touches the next, everything gets connected. Our thoroughly inter-connected environment is therefore very interactive. There is sunlight for all. Plants compete for the sunlight to grow. Grazers and gleaners compete with one another to feed on the edible plants. Nesters and burrowers compete for space to live in trees, bushes, and fields. Predators compete among themselves for prey. Tiny livings things prepare the soil for plants. Animals take in oxygen and breathe out carbon-dioxide. Plants take in carbon-dioxide and breathe out oxygen. Get the picture? It is a huge system. Herds cooperate to protect themselves from predators. Packs of predators cooperate to capture enough food for their kind to survive. These ways of life all fit together like puzzle pieces, each actor fulfilling the uses they are adapted to fulfill to make it all work together. Are we connected? We are, like it or not, though not always well-connected. But we are human beings and not created to do that from birth, but only by choosing how we fit in.
What else? We’ll do one more. Plants get their growing power from the sun. Herbivores get their nourishment from the plants. Carnivores get their food from the herbivores, and each other. Man relies on the sun to tell time, to tell when to plant and harvest, and all living things rely on the sun to stay warm. If there were no sun in the center of our solar system, there would be no physical life. The analog is that we can understand the sun to be a correspondence of God – not God, but a representation of God – there would be no spiritual life (I would say any life) without God in our center. The light and heat of the sun delivered to the earth are like the wisdom and love that enlightens our minds and warms our hearts. The sun is also a great constant reminder that God is with us all the time. Wisdom at one level – the fact of cosmic rules – is the same every morning. Love at one level – the material presence of creation – is there every morning. We take it for granted.
Actually, there are many many more passages written in nature. These are just a few. I summary… One God, however one understands God; an orderly arrangement of all things natural and spiritual; growth as a universal life pattern, natural and spiritual; the interconnectedness of all things over space and time, above and below the firmament so to speak; and then reality of the power for life flowing from one center to everywhere around us and within us. Maybe we can see that the revelation messages are not all that different. They should be consistent, shouldn’t they? It may be easier for some to look into nature than to look into Scripture. For others it may be the other way around. Here’s the rub – we are contrary creatures – if we seek answers, we may find them. A risk for sure, we would not want to be jokes to our friends like Job was. I say, let’s look anyway.
This exploration is just that, a look around, a wakeup call to see how the visible and invisible are intimately connected. Scripture and nature can both guide us to the same place, what is this place??? It is the present point in space-time we each occupy – the here & now. The past behind us, done and gone – the future before us, the next frontier, opportunity just waiting for us. It is the present state of our love and understanding. It’s where we are on our path in Life 1.0 – the life in the physical body – the one that comes first. The one that we occupy just for a short time before we graduate to eternity. Some churches noting that we don’t know when our graduation will be would ask “Are you ready”. Being one of the denominations that teaches improvement is an eternal process, we ask it differently: “Are you making progress or are you stuck?” Today’s message has been an exploration of revelation, maybe a clue how to look for it, but not a recipe for dealing with it. I think that ultimately the recipe is personal and resides in what revelation has to say to us.
A last word on the animals, the closest animals, the animals who we commune with as pets, or as creatures in our neighborhoods – our yards and ponds and birdfeeders. Think about why we love them. Even if sometimes they can be dangerous, one thing is sure – they are never out to save our souls or convert us. They do not disagree with our ideas. They may want to have something their way, however. They can accept us as we are, and we can find peace and comfort in their nearness. They can interact with us in many ways. Some understand us pretty well, can detect our moods, can help us out, can be partners in family life or for life support or for specialists as career partners. They too fit into the patterns we have talked about today.
In many ways they model good behavior. You may have heard the adage, perhaps it is a t-shirt or coffee mug slogan, “be the person your pet thinks you are”. Why does that make sense? Because they are not human beings that can conceive of a behavior that honors one person and puts down another, or that can see infirmities as defects, or that can make spiritual judgments about others. They do not recognize those as possible places we can go and sometimes do. It is nice they don’t judge us, and after all, those judgments we should make ourselves, about ourselves if we want to grow up to be who we are created to become. Amen.