Archive for January, 2013
The Process of Regeneration
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 27, 2013
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 Mark 1:21-28 Psalm 111
Two things caught my attention in the Mark Passage we heard this morning. First was Jesus’ identity. The evil spirit announces to the whole congregation that Jesus is the Holy One of God. This name is also in Luke 1:35, where Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to “The Holy One.” Swedenborg cites an abundance of references from the Old Testament to show that that term, Holy One, means Jehovah God. He lists 21 references in the Old Testament that call Jehovah God the Holy One and also our Savior. Once Jesus is identified as God, Jesus casts the evil spirit out of the man and he is healed. Casting out the evil spirit is symbolic of the way Jesus casts out all evil from us. Maybe I should say that this isn’t even a symbolic act: the evil that is in us is from the influence of the hells, and its evil spirits. And in the teachings of this church, casting out evil and opening up one’s heart for good is the process called regeneration, or spiritual rebirth.
Last Sunday I talked about sin and our free will in regard to good and evil. I said that we are in between heaven and hell, and that we receive influences from both. I said that we are free to turn toward the one or toward the other. This Sunday, I would like to develop that idea in greater depth. In doing so, I will also talk about the process Swedenborg calls regeneration, which is the way we become angels.
I said last Sunday that we do not look at sin in the way traditional Christians do. We do not believe that Adam’s original sin is transmitted to every human at conception. But there is an influence from traditional Christianity in Swedenborg. He claims that our emotions tend to favor evil. Swedenborg calls this our fallen will. Or in other places, he calls it hereditary evil. What this means is that we inherit a tendency to evil from our parents. This notion of a corrupted will is in Augustine and from Augustine it was adopted by the Lutheran Church Swedenborg grew up in. Swedenborg does not say we inherit evil or sin, but that we inherit an inclination to it.
But, my friend, hereditary evil is from no other source than parents; not indeed the evil itself which a man actually commits, but the inclination to it. . . . From this it follows that man is not born into evils themselves, but only into an inclination to evils; having, however, a greater or less proclivity for particular ones (TCR 521).
While Swedenborg seems to be saying that hereditary evil is only an inclination to evil, he also seems to say that we all have evil in us that needs to be removed. This idea is implied in his system of repentance, reformation and regeneration. If we don’t have evil in us, why would Swedenborg talk about the need for repentance? For that matter, why would Jesus say we need to be reborn to enter heaven? Perhaps Swedenborg’s psychology works as an accurate description of human personality. In Swedenborg’s psychology, our inner mind is open to heavenly influences while our lower mind and body is subject to hellish delights.
Now because man as to the interiors of his mind has been born spiritual, . . . consequently born for heaven, while yet his natural or external man is . . . hell in miniature, it follows that heaven cannot be implanted in hell unless it be removed (TCR 612).
Swedenborg’s system of salvation is one in which a person fights from his internal mind and drives out evil desires that reside in his lower, external personality. The assumption seems to be that there is evil in our external personality that needs to be removed.
Combat arises between the internal and the external man, and the one that conquers rules over the other. A combat then arises because the internal man has been reformed by means of truths, and from these it sees what is evil and false, and these are still in the external or natural man. Therefore, first dissention springs up between the new will which is above, and the old will which is below; and because this dissention is between these wills, it is also between their delights; for it is well known that the flesh is opposed to the spirit, and the spirit to the flesh, and that the flesh must be subdued before the spirit can act and become a new man (TCR 596).
Swedenborg is right when he says that this process is well-known. I don’t think that there’s anything original and new in this idea of regeneration. It is described well in Paul’s letter to the Galatians,
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh . . . And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:16-17, 24).
What is new in Swedenborg is the detailed description of how this process plays out. This description is done with the precision of a scientist. We can sometimes see these processes working out in our own psyche, but to describe them is an exceedingly difficult task. It is known that devils tempt us to favor depraved emotions and behaviors and that angels inspire us to love good and healthy emotions and behaviors. But how this goes on in our souls isn’t described anywhere in as much detail as we find it in Swedenborg. It is either Swedenborg’s strength, as a seer who guides us on the path of spiritual attainment. Or it is Swedenborg’s weakness, as worldly-minded individuals do not accept the idea of genuine visionary experience. In any event, let’s hear Swedenborg’s description of how the struggle between good and evil takes place in our souls. This reading would probably be rated 18+ by the motion picture industry as it contains graphic spiritual content.
There are evil spirits who . . . in times of temptation call up a person’s falsities and evils . . . But the angels with the person draw out his goods and truths, and thus defend him. This conflict is what is felt and perceived by the person, and causes pain and remorse of conscience. . . . When a person is tempted as to things of the will, . . . there are evil genii . . . who inflame him with their lusts and the filthy loves with which he is imbued, and thus fight through the person’s own lusts–which they do so maliciously and secretly that it could not be believed to be from them. For in a moment they pour themselves into the life of his lusts, and almost instantly invert and change an affection for good and truth into an affection for evil and falsity, so that a person cannot know but it is done of his own self and comes forth of his own will. This temptation is most severe, and is perceived as an inward grief and tormenting fire (AC 751).
Perhaps last Sunday I made it sound like the process of reformation is easier than it actually is. This Swedenborg passage shows that the process of choosing good is severe and difficult. In other places he says that a person can come to despair as to their own spiritual wellbeing. In this passage, we see how crafty evil spirits can be when they seek to destroy us. They twist our good emotions into perversions without our knowing it. They inspire into our own soul their own depravities and make it look like we are the ones who have these depravities. Yet they are counterbalanced by heavenly influences from God and from angels. And through these struggles, we come to know what good feels like, we learn what truth is, and we dedicate our lives to these higher principles.
As I have been suggesting, this is a process. Regeneration, spiritual rebirth, doesn’t happen in an instant. If Swedenborg is right, the evil that resides in our lower selves–our external personality–has been developing as we grow and mature. He seems to be saying that we all have built up a shell that is oriented to the world and composed of worldly and selfish drives. (Swedenborg and Augustine would call these drives lusts.) This shell, this lower self cannot be broken up in an instant. We need to reprogram our attitudes, our goals, and our emotions. We need to become new and different people. This kind of real and genuine personality change can only happen gradually over time. Swedenborg describes this process by means of graphic images and metaphors,
Sins are removed so far as a person is regenerated, because regeneration is restraining the flesh that it may not rule, and subjugating the old man with its lusts . . . Who that yet has sound understanding, cannot conclude from this that such things cannot be done in a moment, but successively, as a person is conceived, carried in the womb, born, and educated . . . ? For the things of the flesh or the old man are inherent in him from birth, and they build the first habitation of his mind, in which lusts abide like wild beasts in their dens, . . . and by turns they steal as it were into the lower rooms of that house, and afterward they make their way up by ladders, and form chambers for themselves; and this is done successively, as an infant grows, reaches childhood, then youth, and then begins to think from his own will. Who does not see that this house which has been thus far built in the mind . . . cannot be destroyed in a moment, and a new house built in place of it? (TCR 611)
Is this picture of gradual destroying and rebuilding for everyone? Would all honest spiritual sojourners agree that their souls need to be refined in the fire of the crucible? Is the lifetime struggle Swedenborg describes for everybody? I leave the answer to that question to the honest soul-searching and introspection of seekers everywhere. For ultimately truth needs to be tested in a person’s life and rational mind. We are free to assent or disagree, according to our conscience and best lights. But of one thing we can be sure, “All may be regenerated, each according to his state” (TCR 580).
Repent and Believe!
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 20, 2013
Jonah 3:1-5, 10 Mark 1:14-20 Psalm 62
Our Bible readings bring up difficult doctrines. The doctrines they bring up are sin and repentance. In our reading from Jonah, the inhabitants of Nineveh are told to repent from their sinful ways. They do repent and the destruction that had been looming over their city is withdrawn. In our reading from Mark, we have the whole of religion summed up in one phrase of Jesus, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). I interpret this to mean that through repentance, we are brought into good will and deeds. And believing in the gospel means to me that we believe in God. So doing good and believing in God are what this line means, and those are the sum of all religion. The Psalmist says essentially the same thing, “Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done” (62:12).
This Sunday I would like to look at two ways of looking at sin and repentance. I hope that these unpleasant topics will not prove to distressful to listen to. Before I talk about them, I should preface my talk by saying that God is a loving God, and everyone who wants to come into heaven will succeed. God wants nothing more than to have a heaven of people who love each other and who love God. In this way, joy flows through every heart to each other from God and back to God.
Sin is only what comes between this cycle of love and joy flowing from and through people to each other, from God and back to God. This is how this church understands the concept of sin. However, traditional Christianity sees sin differently.
Traditional Christianity sees sin as something caused by Adam and transmitted to the whole human race after him. Adam sinned by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eating the forbidden fruit caused Adam to be cast from the Garden of Eden, and death came to the human race. This is called “original sin.” Adam’s original sin is inherited by everyone who is born after him. So, according to traditional Christianity, you and I have Adam’s original sin in us. Traditional Christianity also teaches that Jesus died to take away this original sin. Jesus’ crucifixion was like the animal sacrifices that were performed by the Israelites. His death on the cross was like the sacrifices of atonement that take away the sin of the Israelites. Thus we have the line in the Catholic mass, “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” So, it is said, Jesus took away the sins of humanity through His crucifixion. But Jesus only took away the sins of those people who believe in this sacrifice. So traditional Christianity teaches that Adam’s original sin is taken away from those who believe that Jesus took it away on the cross. This is what being born again means. It means that the individual believes that Jesus took away their sins, and from that point on, their sins past, present, and future are taken away by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Those who have not accepted Jesus as their savior, who do not believe that Jesus died for their sins, will go to the grave with Adam’s original sin inscribed on their soul.
This doctrine is explained most clearly in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In Romans 5, Paul teaches the following,
Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
If the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! (Romans 5:18-19, 15)
We see in this passage this doctrines that condemnation came to all men through Adam, and that grace and salvation come to all men through Jesus Christ.
This church sees the whole sin and salvation thing differently. We even start from a different place. When I was teaching a student of mine kept asking me, “How could I be blamed for something that someone else did so long ago?” My response was that I agreed completely with that question. Like that student, I do not believe that I have to suffer for something that Adam did at the beginning of the human race. In fact, I do not even believe that the story of Adam and Eve is history. But that’s a whole different subject.
This church teaches that we are only responsible for what we do. Just as the Psalmist says, “Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done” (62:12). We are kept in spiritual freedom, and we can freely choose what we will do and what we will not do. This spiritual freedom comes from our spiritual environment. We are situated in between heaven and hell, and we are free to turn ourselves in either direction. Swedenborg writes,
So long as a person lives in the world, he or she is kept in the middle between heaven and hell, and in spiritual equilibrium there, which is free will (TCR 475).
Heaven flows into our heart with good and healthy loves, and hell flows into our heart with distorted passions and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Being in between heaven and hell, we are free to act upon heavenly or hellish loves. For who we are as people is a matter of what we love. If we love doing good things, and if we love each other, we are angels–whether we are on this plane of life or the next. If we love deliberately doing what is bad, and if we try to control and make life miserable for others deliberately, then we are hellish beings–whether we are on this plane or the next. We are what we love.
What we are doing in this world is choosing a community we want to live in in the next life. In the other world, people gather in like-minded communities. More accurately, I should say that people gather together according to what they love. As we make our choices minute by minute, day by day, year by year, we are acquiring spiritual companions who love the same things that we love. Swedenborg teaches that all who are living in this plane, are,
as to their interiors, joined with either angels of heaven or devils of hell. . . . After death every person betakes him or herself to his own, . . . and associates him or herself with those who are in a similar love; for love there joins everyone with his or her like (TCR 477).
Let’s consider what this means for our doctrines of sin and repentance. These ideas of spiritual freedom put sin and repentance in a more process-oriented mode. Whether a person has sin in his or her life is a matter of which spirits a person has chosen to associate with. It’s a fluid process. It’s a question of what kinds of spiritual influences a person is letting flow through their minds or hearts.
Repentance means that a person is allowing heavenly influences to flow through them in place of hellish influences. Repentance is a change of heart, it is a change of character, it is choosing spiritual company where love and joy reign. It means that we are becoming loving and joyful people.
A final question concerns whether repentance is for everyone. From a Biblical perspective, it’s hard to conclude that some of us are just fine without repentance. Mark 1:4 reads, “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus, in the same gospel says the same thing, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). There is no qualifier in these passages. The Lord and John don’t say, “Some of you need to repent for the forgiveness of sins.” It is an unqualified statement, “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Likewise, in John 3:1-9, Jesus says that we need to be reborn. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The first part of this passage seems unconditional, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” I take being born again to mean repenting and living a new life. But maybe there is room for some widening of interpretation in the second part, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Maybe the teaching here is that we need to open our souls to receive inflowing love and truth from God in order to enter the kingdom of God.
However we interpret these passages, is seems that we all need to change somehow. Either to repent, or to make room for water and the Spirit in our souls. I can’t speak for others. I can see areas in myself that need reformation. I see myself as a work in progress. And I have hope that God, who has all power, can and will reform me and bring me into communion with Himself. One thing we can be sure of, God can and will reform everyone who is willing. Swedenborg writes,
All may be regenerated, each according to his state; for the simple and the learned are regenerated differently; as are those engaged in different pursuits, and those who fill different offices . . . those who are principled in natural good from their parents, and those who are in evil; those who from their infancy have entered into the vanities of the world, and those who sooner or later have withdrawn from them . . . and this variety, like that of people’s features and dispositions, is infinite; and yet everyone, according to his state may be regenerated and saved (TCR 580).
It is God’s will that everyone be as happy as they can be. It is God’s will to save everyone from sin. It is God’s will to fill everyone with His Water and Spirit and to give us all joy, peace, and serenity.
Jehovah, or the Lord’s internal, was the very Celestial of Love, that is, Love itself, to which no other attributes are fitting than those of pure Love, thus of pure Mercy toward the whole human race; which is such that it wishes to save all and make them happy for ever, and to bestow on them all that it has; thus out of pure mercy to draw all who are willing to follow, to heaven, that is, to itself, by the strong force of love (AC 1735).
It may not happen overnight. In fact, it probably will take a lifetime. But He who has all power wishes to “save all and make them happy for ever, and to bestow on them all that it has; thus out of pure mercy to draw all who are willing to follow, to heaven, that is, to itself, by the strong force of love.”
Dear Lord, you have called us into repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We pray that you shine a light on our souls and reveal to us aspects of our character that we need to reform. All the love and peace that we know flows into us from you. We ask that you remove all the blockage that would inhibit the flowing in of your divine love and wisdom. We pray that you form us into an image and likeness of you. We pray that you replace worldly and egotistic drives with heavenly and holy loves. We pray that you bring us into eternal union with you, our heavenly Father, and into heavenly joy forever.
Come and See!
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 13, 2013
1 Samuel 3:1-10 John 1:43-51 Psalm 139
In our Old Testament reading and in our New Testament reading, we have human responses to God’s call. In our reading from Samuel, the prophet Samuel is called by God. Samuel’s response is to say the words his master Eli told him, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” This encounter with God happens after Samuel has already been dedicated to God’s service by his mother, Hannah. To show her profound thanks to God for giving her a son, Hannah gave her child to God as a servant under the priest Eli at Shiloh. So Samuel was already serving under the priest Eli, at the tabernacle in Shiloh, when God called him to be a prophet. There is a difference between priests and prophets in the Old Testament. Priests were a hereditary position. So all who were born of the tribe of Levi, for instance, were priests. Likewise, the sons of Aaron were priests, often in conflict with the Levites. And specifically, in this story, Eli’s children were to follow their father in the priestly office at Shiloh. Priests performed the rituals at the temple–they performed the sacrifices and burnt offerings to Yahweh in the temple.
But the role of prophet was different. The role of the prophet was to interpret God’s laws as they applied to the historical situation in which the people of Israel found themselves. So the Bible tells us that God, “revealed himself to Samuel through his word. And Samuel’s word came to all Israel” (1 Samuel 3:21). The role of the prophet arose due to the rise of kingship in ancient Israel. For with the king came the ever-present threat of absolute power. Without someone to check his desires, the king could transgress the Law and appropriate land, wealth, and other goods, destroying the communal structure of Israelite society. But the king, as well as common Israelites, were all subject to God’s laws. They were called together as a people of Yahweh, and Yahweh was at the center of all their political life. And it was the role of the prophet to keep the king–his actions and policies–in line with Yahweh’s laws.
This was the role that Samuel was called to by God. He began as a priest’s understudy, and was called from that post to become a prophet. He was recognized as one of Israel’s greatest prophets, along with Moses and Elijah. In fact, the very first king of Israel was Saul, and it was under Samuel’s tenure that Saul was crowned king. Saul wasn’t recognized as king until Samuel the prophet anointed him. And after Saul came King David, perhaps one of Israel’s greatest kings. David, too, was recognized as king only by Samuel anointing him. These two great kings are in a book named not the book of kings, but the books of Samuel. Samuel is remembered because of his close bond with God’s Word, and his way of bringing God’s Word fearlessly to the Israelites.
We come here on Sundays to worship, which is like Hanna visiting the tabernacle at Shiloh. This is our priestly experience of worship. But there is also a prophetic aspect to spirituality. And the prophetic aspect of spirituality is when we experience God’s call personally, and when we encounter God in His Word and in our hearts and minds.
In our New testament reading, we heard about Jesus calling to Philip and Nathanael. Philip tells Nathanael that Jesus is the One whom the prophets and Moses had foretold. But when Nathanael hears that Jesus is from Nazareth, he is filled with distain. He says, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” In response, Philip utters words that are deeply meaningful for us, and for Nathanael. Philip says, “Come and see.”
God calls each one of us to follow Him, as did Jesus in ancient days past. But unlike Samuel, who heard God’s call audibly, and unlike Philip and Nathanael, who actually saw Jesus and his power and miracles, for most of us, God’s call is much more subtle. For most of us, we don’t actually hear God audibly. And for most of us, we don’t actually see God.
I think that God calls us in two ways. First, God comes to us when we read the Bible, through the stories and laws in it. The Bible is God’s Word, and reading it is like having a prophet interpreting God’s Law to us in our lives. Second, God comes to us personally through what Swedenborg calls “influx.” Influx means literally, “flowing in.” and by influx we understand God coming to us through intuitive ideas, and through conscience, and through a feeling of presence and holy feelings. This is like Philip and Nathanael meeting Jesus personally.
But without a positive attitude, we won’t see God in either of these ways. The Bible, for instance, is a very difficult book to read. There are passages of unparalleled beauty that we can’t find in any other book of Western literature. There are clear and reasonable laws for our mental, emotional, and behavioral well-being. There are teachings that orient us in the world.
But there are also passages of violence and seeming cruelty. There are laws that make sense to us no more, such as all the rituals for correct sacrifice. Without a positive attitude, we will exaggerate these passages and come to the conclusion that the Bible is not spiritual, not a good guide for personal and societal life, and not God’s Holy Word.
And since God is invisible, one can easily ignore or deny God’s call to us. And in denying God, one can shut out the influx one needs to find God and to experience God’s presence.
Today I am all about Nathanael. Nathanael begins with no small degree of skepticism. He begins with prejudice against Jesus. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” “Come and see,” Philip says. And what I credit Nathanael for is that he is open minded enough to come and see. He makes the effort to at least meet Jesus. His open-mindedness is rewarded by Jesus’ display of omniscience. Jesus tells Nathanael about him without having previously met him. Nathanael is overwhelmed by his encounter with Jesus. He exclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God.” It is miracles like that we, too, can experience if we keep an open mind to God, and like Nathanael, come and see.
Swedenborg describes these two ways of approaching the question of belief. He calls them the negative and the affirmative principle. Of them he writes,
There are two principles therefore; one which leads to all folly and insanity, and another which leads to all intelligence and wisdom. The former principle is to deny all things, or to say in one’s heart that he cannot believe them before he is convinced by things he can apprehend, or perceive by the senses: this is the principle that leads to all folly and insanity, and it is to be called the negative principle. The other principle is to affirm the things which are of doctrine from the Word, or to think and believe in one’s self that they are true because the Lord has said them: this is the principle that leads to all intelligence and wisdom, and is to be called the affirmative principle (AC 2568).
If we approach the Bible as God’s Word, and if we try to find what is useful for our spiritual welfare, then passages will shine out in front of our eyes, and we will find teachings for our regeneration. We will see God in His Word. And if we begin with the assumption that there is a God, we will hear His call. At first, perhaps, like a still small voice. But as we invite God more and more into our lives, by reading His Word and by living according to Godly principles, that still, small voice will become as a companion to us, as a friend to us, and we will walk with Jesus in all aspects of our lives.
Samuel, Philip and Nathanael, and all the Apostles left their worldly lives behind to follow God. But this church teaches that such a dramatic act isn’t required of us in order to answer God’s call. There is a Calvinistic doctrine Swedenborg adopted that teaches that each one of us is called into a vocation that suits him or herself best. And by performing one’s vocation according to just principles, one is following God’s call to spirituality. We often hear of ministers being called to ministry. But we don’t usually hear of auto mechanics, or accountants, or construction workers, or politicians, or garbage collectors being called to their vocations. But they are. Where would society be if there were no garbage collectors? How could this church run without expertise in bookkeeping and accounting? How could society function without someone making decisions about laws and justice, as our politicians are supposed to do?
Swedenborg calls this the doctrine of use. And any way we can be useful to the world around us is a response to God’s call. It doesn’t have to be even a vocation. As I remarked last Sunday, anything done for the least of God’s children is done to God Himself. The conclusion to Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” goes,
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
But we won’t be moved to spiritual love without God’s Spirit in our hearts. We need to open the door which God is continually knocking on. We need to open our ears to God’s call. We need to be like Nathanael who was willing to come and see Jesus, even though he had his doubts about someone from the outlands of Nazareth. If we keep an open mind to God, we, too, will see great things. The wonders of earth and heaven will be revealed to us. More and more of God’s infinity will be revealed. And He will lead us in the pathway on high.
Lord, you call to us continually. You knock on the door and bid us open it. You ask that we follow you, as did the Apostles in olden times. We pray that you would open our ears so that we can hear your call. We pray that you would show us the way to follow you. We would open the door and let you into our hearts. We know that you are always with us. Help us to see you, help us to feel you, help us to know you. For the world can blind us at times to the reality of Spirit, and our daily lives obscure the wonders of eternity. We pray this morning, and every morning, and always, for you to make yourself known to us, and to make known to us your will. May we always seek only your will for us and the power to carry that out.
Brooding over the Waters
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
January 6, 2013
Genesis 1:1-5 Mark 1:4-11 Psalm 29
The first chapter of Genesis that we heard this morning puts the human race in perspective. It tells us that God created the heavens and the earth. It tells us that God preceded everything. Before there was anything, there was God. It tells us further that God governs the whole created order. We are in a universe over which God is in control.
Other creation myths in the Ancient Near East narrate the creation of the universe as a cosmic battle between the chaos waters and a hero-god. These stories have the chaos waters existing at the same time as the other gods exist. It is by subduing the chaos waters that creation happens. These myths do not begin with a God who creates everything.
These Babylonian myths, however, do find their way into the Hebrew scriptures. In Psalm 29, which is older than Genesis 1, the raging waters are mentioned. We read that “The voice of the Lord is over the waters;” “The Lord thunders over the mighty waters;” “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood.” Lines like this suggest the influence of Babylonian mythology that has creation begin with the defeat of the chaos waters. And we find an analogous idea in Genesis–God is supreme over the chaos waters. This is only hinted at in the line, “the Spirit of God was brooding over the face of the waters.”
What these readings give us is an image of creation. It is an image in which God is in control of the forces of chaos. It is an image of the world that God made by His own Word. The Bible writers put these stories first to say that all the history of the world to follow is a history that God works in.
Immediately after the creation of the universe, the human race is created. There are actually two creation stories. The first one is Genesis 1:1-2:3. In this story humans are the last thing created, and the human race is the culmination of the whole creation process. We are created in God’s own image–male and female. In the second creation story, humans are created first, and then the Garden of Eden is planted for Adam to live in.
This sequence of events tell us two things. First, that all of creation is made by God, who governs it. And second, that humans are the primary beings created, who are watched over by God.
This, too, differs from other world-views in the Ancient Near East. In myths of other cultures in the ANE, humans are lowly creatures whose only purpose is to serve the gods by performing sacrifices. The gods live above the world of humans, and care little for our wellbeing. In fact, the flood story from the ANE happens because the human race makes too much noise and keeps the gods awake. The flood occurs to get rid of the noisy human race.
But for the Hebrew culture, we are God’s children. We are made in God’s image; we are set in a world created by God; we are watched over by a loving God.
How comforting this is! The world we live in can look very grim. We see the horrors of war and its violence. We see terror. We see genocide. We see random shooting acts of unspeakable tragedy. We see unemployment and privation. When we contemplate all these ungodly events, we can yield to despair. But in all this, we need to remember that this is my Father’s world.
When the Bible writers composed the first creation story–the story that put God above the created order–their world had seen terrible calamities, too. The creation story at the beginning of Genesis had been written after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. The writers of that story had seen the horrors of war with Assyria, and the complete devastation of their king and kingdom. Not only that, but I think the case can be made that the Assyrian kingdom was perhaps the most bloodthirsty and cruel the Ancient Near East had ever seen, maybe the world had ever seen. And yet the Bible writers could still see human history as one in which God governs creation from the beginning of the universe to the giving of the Law to Moses.
In the gospel of Mark, we learn that the same God who created the universe and who governs history actually entered history. Just after Jesus is baptized by John, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus. A voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom i am well pleased.” In this passage, we see the power of God descending on Jesus. It is as if God is saying, “From now on, Jesus represents me.” Or put stronger, “Jesus is my embodiment.” This is what John’s gospel makes clear. It begins with a beautiful hymn:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God; all things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, . . . No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known (1:1-3,14, 18).
In the Christmas season, we think about the birth of Jesus. We then think about the gifts from the Magi. Now we turn our attention to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The gospel of Mark begins not with Jesus’ birth, but with His baptism and the beginning of His ministry. The only stories we have of Jesus infancy are in Luke and Matthew. And those infancy stories are exhausted in the first two chapters of each gospel.
Clearly, the gospel writers are interested in what Jesus does as an adult. They are interested in Jesus’ teachings, His ministry, and His healings. These are all examples of God’s interaction with humanity. For the Bible is all about humanity’s relationship with God. Although there is a lot of history and narrative in the Old Testament, there is also meaning to that history and narrative. The meaning of those stories is how sin or obedience led to prosperity or destruction for the Israelites. So the essence of the Old Testament is examining the consequences of turning from and turning toward God’s laws. Or, in other words, the essence of the Old Testament is a person’s relationship with God.
The same is true of the New testament. Jesus’ advent and healings show God’s love for the human race. They show the eternal covenant God made with us from the very beginning of creation. God came to us to heal and save.
And Jesus’ teachings show us how to live in relationship to God. They are a reminder of the essential teachings of the Old Testament. They are demonstrations and stories about how to live with God in a love relationship, and how to live with each other in Christian love.
They are a reminder, also, that God is governing the universe and watching over us. For when the powers of darkness became too great in the spiritual world and on earth, God Himself came to us. He opened up a connection to heaven and to God through Himself. He was and is the new Way, the Truth, and the Life. And in the person of Jesus, that creator God flowed through heaven, and into the material body of the Only Begotten Jesus Christ. Creator and creation became fully one as God merged with the Divine Humanity of Jesus of Nazareth.
In Jesus, humanity is again made central to the created order. The Divine Humanity of Jesus Christ dignifies the human form. And in doing so, it places humanity at the center of creation, as is the case in the very first book of the Bible. The birth, baptism, and ministry of Jesus show that God is ever watching over us. They show that God is governing creation and history. They show us that we are never alone; that we are never apart from God; that we are always in a caring universe. Wherever we are, in whatever state we find ourselves, God is always with us; God always cares about us; God always is in the process of leading us to greater and greater joy, happiness, and love. I think the Psalmist said it best,
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast (Psalm 139:7-10).
Lord, we give you thanks for this world, which you have created. We give you thanks for our place as your special creation in this world of so much variety. We give you thanks for your constant care for us; we give you thanks for continually watching over us; we give you thanks for your constant effort to bring us into communion with you. We look out at the events in this world, and we sometimes question your governance. We see wars and violence, terror and random shootings. It is hard sometimes for us to trust that you are looking after this world and that things are unfolding under your loving governance. This morning we affirm our faith in your divine providence. Although we may sometimes fail to understand this world, we do thank you for your unfailing divine providence.