A New Church Day Sermon by Rev. Ian Arnold
June 20th 2010
Ezekiel Chapter 1, verse 28: “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. So when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of One speaking.”
A time of uncertainty and transition
Please note, friends, that for all its complexity, and overawed and humbled by it, as he was, Ezekiel was in no doubt that this was a vision given to him of the Lord. He knew it to be from the Lord and of the Lord.
What is fascinating; and something it is important to hold on to; is that it was given to him at a time of uncertainty and transition.
This was a most uncertain time for the people of ancient Israel.
Unbelievably, their land had been over-run, and Jerusalem destroyed, by the invading and mighty Babylonians. And its leading people, including Ezekiel, had been taken away captive, into exile.
The old order; the old certainties and securities; the old mind-sets; and the way people had been seeing God; had all been reduced to rubble. Many, if not most, will have been asking if in fact God existed after all; and if he existed, whether He really cared. Hadn’t they been His special people? And wasn’t He supposed to have looked after them?
Touching base again
So – and by means of this vision – God touched base with them again.
He re-affirmed His existence; He re-assured them of His continuing involvement and of His ongoing connectedness with them; He re-asserted His care over them, even in the bewildering, new, set of circumstances in which they now found themselves.
There is a parallel here with, how it is with us; with the Age in which we are living: a parallel which, when we think about it, we can hardly miss.
The old order; the old certainties; the old securities and the old mindsets of a former Age; and the way people had been seeing God; either have passed or are in the process of passing away.
We, too, live in what can seem to be uncertain and unpredictable times. Organized religion, such as it has been, is in retreat. Secularism and excessive individualism are – as we all know – very much now to the fore.
Where is God in all this? Where has He been?
Reconnecting and touching base
God re-connected – as it will have seemed – with the people of ancient Israel by means of this vision experienced by His prophet, Ezekiel. The vision re-energized Ezekiel, in the first instance, and through him, the people. Their sense of God was renewed, and for all that it involved uncomfortable challenges, it was balanced by uplifting promises and new insights about God and about His involvement in their lives and affairs.
The Lord re-connecting and touching base with us
Both with regard to the human race as a whole and with respect to our very own, personally, unfolding, spiritual states and ages, the Lord from time to time re-connects with us: re-awakening our awareness of Him; of His involvement with us; re-affirming and opening up to us even more His purposes for us and His care over us. But with us, He does this not by means of visions as such but through, and by means of, His Word.
And, in the internal sense, this is what this vision holds up to us.
It is all about the Word.
It is about the Word renewed – in the sense of being made to come alive again.
It is about the Word, as we have it in our Bibles; the fact that confidence in it came to be so badly shaken and even remains so with many people and in many places. The fact, too, that it has been so misunderstood and argued over, wrongly interpreted and called upon, as it has been, to justify the unjustifiable.
Dr. Alan Crown, one time Professor of Hebrew and of Old Testament Studies at Sydney University, in his book, “Biblical Studies Today” wrote of modern day attitudes in these terms:
“There have always been groups of persons to whom the Bible has been a classic in the sense that it was of central relevance of their thinking, beliefs and ways of life. For these people theology remains the queen of sciences, never to be dethroned and to which all mist pay homage. In no way has the Bible ever come to be superseded. No form of critical study, scientific analysis, or historical insights could affect their understanding g that here is the plain Word of God miraculously revealed and preserved through the ages…
…On the other hand there have been those people, perhaps the majority in the Western World, who are dogmatically certain that the Bible is a collection of old wives’ tales, unworthy of serious study and certainly irrelevant to our contemporary situation. Many of the Bibles in circulation are treated like so many other ‘heirlooms’, as curious relics of days gone by, to be seen and never to be used.” (Page 2)
Just on Two thousand, six hundred years ago, the Lord touched base with the ancient Israelites to restore their faith in Him and in the reality and meaningfulness of the Word.
In our day the Lord has “touched base” – for want of a better way of putting it – with the human race, re-invigorating the Word and for the purpose of restoring our faith and confidence in it, and to awaken anew our enthusiasm and love for it.
The vision of the Word
As challenging as Ezekiel found it to get his mind around what he saw; to adequately describe it; so it is challenging, if not impossible, for us to take in and to truly get a handle on the vastness and depth of the Word: its multiple levels of meaning; its unending richness; and the insights and understanding it brings us about ourselves and, most importantly, about the Lord, Who He is, how He operates, His ceaseless monitoring of the minutest details of our lives and of His plan and purpose which is at the very heart of creation and of our very own creation
Having said that, these – though – are some of the memorable features of the vision so usefully seen in relation to the Word which -as we now know – the vision is all about.
In verse 4 there is mention of a mighty whirlwind.
Secondly, fire is mentioned more than once. The whirlwind has fire in and around it and in verse 12, “fire was going back and forth among the living creatures.”
Thirdly, and with regard to the four living creatures, we read they had wings, hands under the wings, and overall the likeness of a man, each facing different directions.
And then there were the wheels, powerfully and purposefully driven: wheels within wheels.
A whirlwind – fire – four living creatures – and wheels within wheels.
Remember: this is all about the Word. It is highlighting features of the Word.
The whirlwind holds up to us how powerful and dynamic the Word is. It has the power to stir up things, to break down old defences and self-justifications. It brings home to us the power that the Word has to dismiss unreasonableness, negativity and thinking and influences impacting on us from hell.
The fire speaks of the Lord’s love burning at the heart of the Word. Remember? “Fire was going back and forth among the four creatures.” The Word is the Lord’s love clothed in admonitions, challenges, promises and encouragement; speaking to us through parable, example and ancient stories. It is Divine Love speaking to us.
The four living creatures are all about the Word being alive. And the fact that they had the appearance of being human brings home to us what the Word is all about – true humanness and each of us becoming a truly human being.
They had wings – remember – highlighting how the Word can both lift us up and also protect us.
And the wheels speak of the capacity the Word has; at all its different levels; meanings within meanings; wheels within wheels; to shift us and to move us to better places, spiritually.
The Second Coming
We honour each year, at this time, and as close to June 19th as possible, the renewing of the power of the Word in our midst; its dynamism; the expression of the Lord’s love, which it is; its ability to lift our minds and thinking on to a higher level; the protection it brings us when doubts, fears and self-centredness start to make inroads with us; its capacity to move us to new places; and, just so very significantly this new vision, appreciation and understanding of the Lord now possible for us. The Lord comes again to us in His restored, renewed, now opened Word, brought back to life and relevance, as it has been. This, indeed, is the Lord in His Second coming, the vehicle of which is of course the Writings or Heavenly Doctrines.
There is nothing so powerful or so potentially life changing as the Word is. No saying of the wisest person or book written by the most renowned author. Nothing!
But we must be careful of mere hearsay in this regard, or the acknowledgement of our lips only, that this is so. I can say it; you can read about it; and we can both convince ourselves that we believe it. But…!
The thing is, we can only truly know its power; its capacity to lead us into true humanness; its protection against falsities and fears; its ability to move and shift us into heavenly states, and to keep us there, as we engage with it; wrestle with its challenges; and work the truths it enshrines into our lives.
Our transformation, or regeneration, is the Lord’s total focus and goal, working with us – as He does – through His Word. Remember: Ezekiel saw Him on high, dazzling with the colours of the rainbow, directing operations.
And the Lord gives us His promise and a foretaste of the regenerate or transformed person we can become in the description of the holy city, New Jerusalem.
This is what the holy city, New Jerusalem, is. It is the now opened, restored and re-invigorated Word being worked into our lives; into thoughts, feelings, attitudes and reactions; into troubles that beset us and in response to doubts all too eager to ambush us.
There are, with respect to the new Jerusalem, its sure foundations, being the basic truths the Lord urges and presses on us, nothing complicated, all straightforward. For instance, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Such are the truths that make up the strong base on which all else is built. We know, too, of its golden streets, its transparent walls, the wonderful balance of everything it embodies – heart, mind and everyday life; will, understanding and action; length, breadth and height; each the equal of the other. And the Light of the Lord suffusing it all. “The city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminates it…” Revelation 21:22
The New Church is all about the Word – the Word restored, renewed, brought back into focus, opened up and shown to be full of the Lord’s Love and Wisdom and powerful beyond our being able to adequately take in. We are not in the business, as any kind of priority, of becoming a mega Church, a spiritual Disco setting out to attract thousands or a pressure group for social, economic and political reform.
This is so inspiring what we are shown in the Writings, or the Heavenly Doctrines, about it, that if we are sincere and earnest looking to the Lord, seeking help and guidance, we can hear the Lord speaking with us in His Word and He will shine light on it and bring it to life for us in powerful, inspiring, ways.
Let’s not scorn the fact that there are those in the scientific community who ridicule it because they can’t make sense of it and won’t buy into simplistic insistence on its literal accuracy or the fundamentalists who make nonsense of it insisting on that literal accuracy. Instead, this is the challenge for the New Church, and of the Swedenborgian community world wide, to go and point the way to this new understanding and appreciation of the Second Advent Word.
And this is promised, that as you and I embrace its power and energy, and take to heart its directives and its reassurances; as we rise to its challenges and as it becomes truly alive in us; so the holy city, new Jerusalem further descends and become more of a reality in our lives; in our midst and in the world more generally, than ever.
“This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. So when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of One speaking.”