Archive for November, 2012
The Universal Reign of the Son of Man
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 25, 2012
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 Revelation 1:4-18 Psalm 93
In today’s Bible readings we have two visions of the Son of Man. However, there are some significant differences in the image of the Son of Man from each story. In our reading from Daniel, the Son of man is given authority, glory, and sovereign power by the Ancient of Days. The Ancient of Days possesses grand imagery such as a flaming throne, a river of fire flowing forth from him and brilliant white clothing and hair as white as wool. In our reading from Revelation, the Son of Man Himself possesses these awesome characteristics. The Son of Man Himself has hair white as wool, eyes blazing like fire, feet glowing like bronze in a furnace and a voice like rushing water. In our reading from Daniel, the Ancient of Days passes on His power to the Son of Man. In Revelation, the Son of man is already in full possession of His Divinity.
Our reading from Daniel is a typical enthronement ritual from the Ancient Near East. The enthronement rituals were a sacred way of passing authority from a king to his son. I say it was a sacred way of passing down power, because more than earthly rule was involved in the powers of the king. In the Ancient Near East, the king was the intermediary between the gods and humans. The power of fertility for the crops flowed through the king out to the land he ruled over. There were rituals that the king had to perform to ensure this flow of power from the gods down to the land. Some of these rituals were performing the correct sacrifices in a correct manner, and there were also sacred drama whereby the crops were renewed after winter. The fertility of the land depended on the power of the king. If the king was healthy and strong, the kingdom would be fertile and there would be victory over the kingdom’s enemies, bringing peace.
When the king became weak from age, the power needed to be passed down to his son. This had to be done in an orderly way lest confusion and rival claims for power disrupt the sacred balance between the gods and the king. So priests would oversee the ritual whereby the king would pass down his power to his son, giving his son all his former power.
We have a document preserved from ancient Mesopotamia that shows the mythic enthronement ritual of the god Marduk. Just as in the passage in Daniel, a throne is put before Marduk and all power and authority is given to him:
They erected for him a princely throne.
Facing his fathers, he sat down, presiding. . . .
From this day unchangeable shall be thy pronouncement. . . .
Thy utterance shall be true, thy command shall be unimpeachable. . . .
O Marduk, thou art indeed our avenger.
We have granted thee kingship over the entire universe. . . .
They conferred on him scepter, throne, and vestment; . . . (Enuma elis)
Note the similarity to the words in Daniel:
I looked and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory, and sovereign power; all peoples, nations, and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14).
Our reading from Daniel is an enthronement ritual in which the power of the Ancient of Days is given to the Son of Man. This ritual is typical of the enthronement rituals of the Ancient Near East.
However, in our reading from Revelation, the characteristics of both the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man are all absorbed into the vision of the risen Christ. In Daniel, it was the Ancient of Days who had hair white as wool . In Revelation, it is the risen Christ who has hair white as wool. In Daniel, the throne of the Ancient of Days was flaming with fire. In Revelation, the risen Christ has eyes that are like blazing fire. So In Revelation, the risen Christ has the qualities that were assigned to the Ancient of Days in Daniel. But the risen Christ also has the qualities of the Son of Man. It is the risen Christ who is the universal God. He tells John,
I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! (Revelation 1:17-18).
So what we take from the book of Revelation is that the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man are united in the risen Christ. Or, in other words, Father and Son are one in the risen Lord Jesus.
The world view of these two passages are different, too. In the passage from Daniel, we think about the aging process, and passing control of the world over to the next generation. Adults retire and the governance of the world is given to their children. As we age, we notice that persons in power get younger and younger. I heard someone say that you know you’re aging when your doctor is younger than you are. I recall, too, one evening when Carol and I were at Blues on Whyte, listening to a live band. A rather drunk young man came up to us and said, “You two look like a happy old couple and I want to be like you when I get old.” Passing the reins over to the young is captured poetically by Wallace Stevens in SUNDAY MORNING. Speaking somberly about death, Stevens writes, “She causes boys to pile new plums and pears/On disregarded plate.”
These days, though, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of handing over the reins of power to the next generation. It feels more as if they are seizing the reins and taking power out from under the older generation. I am referring to all the new technology that young people master even as they are growing up, while we older folks sometimes have great difficulty learning how to work this new technology. My mother, who could be called two generations removed from today’s young adults, doesn’t even own a computer. And I have a friend my own age that doesn’t have a cell phone. This new technology is developing so fast that we older folks are becoming alienated from the world, rather than passing on our wisdom and power to the next generation. Always trying to keep pace with the trends of society, I would note that the latest James Bond movie deals with some of these themes.
Yet I still think that the aged have something to offer the young. Our elders have lived long lives and seen much and experienced much. There is a wisdom about life that can only come from having lived and experienced life over the years. There is a perspective on life that only the elders have. And that wisdom is of great value to the young who will listen, and, indeed, ask.
While the reading from Daniel suggests something about the generations, we have a different perspective from our reading from Revelation. In Revelation we have Jesus saying to John that He is the All in All. We all stand in relation to Him. In Revelation there is no handing power down from Father to Son. The power dynamic is only the risen Lord Jesus and the whole human race. This dynamic is brought out in another passage further along in Revelation. Here, the whole of humanity worships the lamb–yet another image for the risen Lord,
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:11-13)
This reading puts us all on a level playing field–so to speak. It says we are all children of God. It says we are all one in our worship of the Lord. Paul says it well in Galatians,
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28).
Further, these readings lift us up into a timeless world. There is no generational divide. There is the timeless Christ and the human race. This vision is one of life after life in the eternal realm.
I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever.
If only this troubled world could see things this way, no matter what name they use for God. We are all one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
Dear Lord, we give you thanks for your care and love for the whole human race. You never cease to lift us upward toward you and your kingdom. You have come to us in a way we can understand–not as a ruling king, not as a powerful despot, but as a simple, humble ordinary human being. And yet you do rule all the created universe. All the circling stars and galaxies and all the sub-atomic particles obey your divine will. Though all of creation is yours, so are each one of us, your created children. You care for us as a mother hen cares for her chicks, and you guard us under your protective wing. We give you great thanks for caring for us with your divine and infinite love.
A Day of Wrath or Blessing?
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 18, 2012
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 Matthew 25:31-45 Psalm 90
Our Bible readings this Sunday are both written in a style called “apocalyptic.” Apocalyptic writing talks about a great day when the whole earth will be renewed. Apocalyptic writing talks about the final days of the earth, or the end of times. This style of writing is scattered through the Old Testament and the New Testament. Some even interpret Jesus’ central message and coming as an apocalyptic event. Apocalypticism is also present to a great degree in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In the prophet Zephaniah, we have one of the scarier versions of the Great Day of Yahweh. (The Day of Yahweh is an apocalyptic event.) It is a day of wrath filled with horrible events.
The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
the mighty man cries aloud there.
A day of wrath is that day,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness . . .
In the fire of his jealous wrath,
all the earth will be consumed (Zephaniah 1:14-16, 18).
This is a day of judgement on two types of people: those who think God is entirely absent and those who try to follow God’s commands of righteousness. In a phrase that sounds like so many today, Zephaniah speaks of those who say, “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill” (1:12). What this means is that these people at least think God is absent from human affairs, most likely that there is no God. “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.” Then there are those people who are humble, “who do his commands.” They are admonished to “seek righteousness, seek humility.” These, perhaps, “may be hidden on the day of the wrath of the Lord” (2:3).
We find a similar twofold breakdown of humanity in our reading from Matthew. There we heard the famous passage about the sheep and the goats. This, too, is an apocalyptic passage. It describes a time when the whole world, called all the nations, will be judged. It is a time when,
The Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at his left (Matthew 25:31-23).
In this final judgement, people are judged by their deeds on earth. They are judged according to how they treated their fellow humans.
This brings up a challenging remark that I heard from a Rabbi who is a friend of mine. We were talking about the two great commands, love God and love the neighbor. We both agreed that they were central to our religions–to my Christianity and to her Judaism. But then my friend said something challenging. She said that love to the neighbor ranked first in importance, and love to the Lord ranked second. She did go on to qualify her comment, and to say that other rabbis might not see things this way. She said further, that love to God meant doing the Jewish rituals such as keeping kosher.
I found her interpretation surprising because it seemed to me that God mattered most. But to her, how we relate to each other is what the law all comes down to. How does her position relate to our New Testament reading this morning? Well, it would appear to me as if Jesus’ parable is right in keeping with what she said. Jesus tells the sheep, who will go to eternal blessedness, that they gave God food when He was hungry, drink when He was thirsty, they welcomed Him when He was a stranger, they clothed Him when He was naked, they visited Him when He was sick, and when He was in prison they came to Him (25:35-36). So Jesus is saying that all these deeds of good-will were done to Him. The righteous ask Jesus when it was that they did all these things. Jesus replies, “whatsoever you did to the least of these my brethren, you did to me” (25:40). So Jesus is saying that what we do to our neighbor we are doing to God.
So my friend’s remark seems to be supported by this parable of Jesus. This parable has radical implications. It suggests that there is no real distinction between love to God and love to the neighbor. In fact, Jesus says that love to the neighbor is “like” love to God (Matthew 22:39). This parable suggests that doing good to the neighbor is love to God; it is doing good to God. It suggests a radical answer to the question, “How do I love God?” The answer appears to be, “Do good to the neighbor.” It also suggests that the measure of our love to God is how we treat our neighbor.
My friend reminded me of another truth about the neighbor. She reminded me that humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. This means that dwelling in every person is God’s image. While we would never worship humans, it can be said that we ought to treat our fellows with a holy respect. We are called to honor the image of God that is in every human being. Only if the image and likeness of God dwell in humans can it be true that doing good to people is doing good to God. And that is what Jesus seems to be saying.
This accords with Swedenborg’s theology. Swedenborg teaches that God is The Divine Human, from whom everyone receives their humanity. It is Swedenborg’s claim that the angels think of God in a Human form:
Because the angels perceive, not an invisible Divine, which they call a Divine without form, but a visible Divine in human form, it is common for them to say that the Lord alone is The Person, that they are persons from Him, and that everyone is, so far as a person receives Him (HH 80).
Furthermore, Swedenborg says that the entire heavens are in the form of a Great Human, which form it has from the Divine Human of the Lord. This means that there is a descent, to use a spatial metaphor, from the Divine Human of the Lord, through the Great Human of heaven, into each of our souls, making us human.
And yet, there is something of a paradox here. The Humanity of the Lord is infinite, our humanity is and will always be finite. For this reason we cannot say that God is our deepest soul. We can say that the Divine proceeding from God is in the deepest part of our soul. We can say that it is God’s life, love, and wisdom that give us life, love and wisdom. But we can not say that we are ultimately somehow one with God. We can say that we are one with God like the way that a husband is one with his wife, while remaining two beings. We are indeed in a love relationship with God analogous to that of husband and wife. So in Jeremiah, God says, “I was their husband” (31:32). And so in Hosea God says, “In that day you will call me, ‘my husband,’” and again,
I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord (2:16, 19-20).
And even if all the goodness we have in us is from God, it is not God. Even if we merge our consciousness with God so that we feel only God in us, we will not know the infinity which God is. There will always be a difference between God, who is infinite and we who are finite.
And yet I come back to the words of Matthew, “whatever you did to the least of these, my brethren, you did to me.” These words are extremely difficult to translate. And I will leave you with a question, of sorts, today. I think the writer was trying to emphatically say how important, indeed how godly, it is to be good to our neighbor. And at the same time, the writer wants to retain a distinction between God’s Humanity and our humanity. The passage turns on two Greek words, “eph oson.” My guide to the New Testament translates these two words as, “in so far as.” This translation would read, “In so far as you have done it to the least of these my brethren you have done it to me.” I would read this to mean to the extent you have done it to my brothers you have done it to me. Translators wrestle with how to render this passage. The NIV wants to avoid language that says you are doing anything to Jesus. They say you are doing good for Jesus. But they render the Greek strongly, “whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers of mine you did for me.” The RSV hedges by translating the Greek words weakly, “as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” So doing good to the brethren is not doing good to God, it is as one were doing good to God. Then there is the KJV, which reads, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” I’m not sure how to take the “inasmuch as.” So, then, are we doing good to God, or for God, or as to God? However we take the relationship between God and man, it still comes down to the fact that treating our brothers and sisters well, as if we were doing good to God, is what Jesus is telling us to do. This will make the last days a blessing.
Lord, we await the day of your coming. We await it with a feeling of awe, perhaps with some trepidation, and with joyful anticipation. We await that time when you will wipe away every tear from every eye, and when you will come to us surrounded with your holy angels. We know that you come to each of us individually. And we know that our eternal well-being will be measured by our actions, feelings, and thoughts on earth. You have said that when we do good to the least of your brothers and sisters, we do it to you. For your image dwells in each human being that is created in your image and likeness. Help us to remember that our neighbor is an image of you, and that when we do good to our neighbor we do it for and to you.
Lord, we ask for your peace to descend upon this troubled world. Where there is conflict and war, let there be understanding and peace. Inspire our leaders, and the leaders of other nations to govern their people with compassion, with wisdom, and with your Holy Love. Where there is famine and thirst, may good hearted aid come and satisfy the needs of those who want. Where there are natural disasters, may help come from good neighbors and from compassionate governments. Where there is hardship and unemployment, lend your patience and hope.
Remembering Conflict and Reflecting on Peace
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
November 11, 2012
Joshua 1:1-9 Revelation 21:3-4, 22-27; 22:1-5 Psalm 44
This Sunday is Remembrance Day. It is a day when we reflect on the courage of those who served in the military, and who sacrificed their lives for us. It is also a day to reflect on war and the meaning of armed conflict. And finally, it is a day to reflect on our hopes for world peace, in a world filled with conflict, mistrust, and hostility.
I have selected two Bible passages that reflect two ways of seeing conflict. The first reading was from Joshua. In this passage, God tells Joshua to have courage. God also tells Joshua that He will give him the land promised to the forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to Moses. This land will be from the wilderness in the southwest to the great river Euphrates, in modern day Iraq. Joshua is told to have courage and to conquer. Deuteronomy tells us that the Israelites will take over, “large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:10-11). What God is telling Moses in this Deuteronomy passage is that the Israelites will conquer the Promised Land and take possession of cities, houses, vineyards, and olive groves built by the inhabitants of Palestine. These spoils will be the result of armed conflict.
Then, at the very end of the Christian Bible we find that beautiful passage about peace from the book of Revelation. John foresees a time when,
God Himself will wipe away every tear . . . and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more” (21:3-4).
And in the Holy City New Jerusalem, we find the tree of life the leaves of which are for “the healing of the nations” (22:2).
The passage from Joshua and the passage from Revelation bring out two sides of this morning’s issue. That is, armed conflict and peace. There seems to be Biblical support for both of these issues.
On Remembrance Day we think about the tragedy of war. We think about those who gave their lives for the free world. Specifically, we think of World War I and John McCrae’s poem IN FLANDERS FIELDS and the Battle of Ypres. From our place in history, WWI is seen as a just war. We feel that the ambitions of Germany needed to be stopped. We see those who gave their lives in the War as heroes, and we honor them on Remembrance Day. We may even be inclined to think that God sided with the Allies, and crushed the imperialist ambitions of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
I am no expert on world history, but I have learned something about World War I in school, and by study on my own. One of the terms that comes up often as a precursor to WWI is the term “The Great Powder Keg.” What this term refers to is the huge and perhaps excessive armament that the nations of Europe were amassing. It is called The Great Powder Keg because it was as if this armament were just waiting for a spark to ignite it into war. When one considers the vastness of WWI, versus the apparent cause by an insignificant Yugoslavian assassin, one realizes that WWI may have been inevitable. In this case, I think that all the great nations of the world played a part in it.
I think that World War II is a more clear case of just war. The atrocities of Hitler were unimaginable then and remain so now. This monster needed to be stopped.
But we are still left with the grim fact that death and destruction are the results of even just wars. The men and women of our armed services have paid the ultimate sacrifice for the survival of freedom and what I hope are humane values.
Today, we see conflict in another form than that of the great world wars. We see conflict in the form of terror and suicide bombings. The victims of terrorist bombing are not armed combatants, but unarmed civilians. On Remembrance Day, we need to remember those innocent civilians who have died not in war, but as the result of terrorist attacks.
Unfortunately, in the case of modern day terror, religion has been added into the mix. The terror we see seems to come from fanatic Muslims. And Westerners who know little of the Muslim faith are inclined to think that these extremists represent the whole religion. These extremists think that they are doing the will of Allah. But there are many, many Muslims of good will who are quick to point out that these fanatics do not speak for the religion in general. I suggest that this church body take a little time to study the Muslim faith, go to City Hall, where a presentation about the Muslim religion is on display, talk with your Muslim neighbors, and learn about this wonderful world religion. We need to keep a level head when it comes to terrorism and whom or what we blame as causes for it. And as Swedenborgians, we need remain respectful of all those who faithfully practice the religion they know, even as we ask for respect and the privilege to practice our faith.
But it seems that we are left with both of the issues of today’s talk. There are the Hitlers in the world, or they can arise. When one power seeks to assert itself and annex or conquer its neighbors, I can see no other recourse but armed conflict. But before armed conflict erupts, I think that every possible diplomatic avenue must be exhausted. Armed conflict is a last resort. This is when we honor the memory and the calling of our armed service men and women. Even as they are called to prevent unjust hostilities today, in years past servicemen and women have given their lives to promote the ultimate goal of world harmony.
The first step in world harmony is understanding. Through understanding can come the healing that John speaks of. I think of that beautiful image of the tree of life, whose leaves are for “the healing of the nations.” If the nations of the world are to find healing, it must come through understanding. It must come from respect. It must come from the realization that other countries want to exist the same way that we want to exist. Other countries want to rule themselves just as we want to rule ourselves. Other nations want their culture preserved even as we want our culture preserved.
I hold up Canada as an example of what the world could look like. And I hold up Edmonton in particular as an example of what the world could look like. In city hall we have rotating displays from different faith traditions that are called “Celebrating our Faiths.” Right there in the centre of the life of Edmonton we find a celebration of diversity and religion. Look around you as you go about the city. We see all different faiths represented, we find peoples of all different countries represented, we see the gifts of differing cultures throughout the city, such as China Town, or Little Italy, and the different restaurants offering ethnic food. Edmonton is richer for its diversity.
It can be done. Through acceptance and understanding the prophesy in John can become a lived reality. “God Himself will wipe away every tear . . . and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more” (21:3-4). The tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations will become a global reality when it grows first from the soil of our own hearts.