The Unexpected Nature of Incarnation

By Rev. David Moffat

.. the Lord is as much present in charity with those outside the Church who are called gentiles. … Indeed He is more present with them, for the reason that there is less cloud in the understanding part of their minds than is normally the case with so-called Christians. Indeed gentiles have no knowledge of the Word and do not know what the Lord is, and as a consequence do not know what the truth of faith is. This being so, they are incapable of opposition to the Lord or to the truth of faith, such cloud being dispersed easily when they are enlightened. … But the cloud existing with Christians does stand in opposition to the Lord and to the truths of faith, and this cloud is so obscure as to be darkness. And when hatred is there instead of charity it is thick darkness. (Arcana Caelestia 1059 [portion])

The Lord is present with every person, urging and pressing him to receive Him. And when a person receives Him, which happens when he acknowledges Him as his God, the Creator, Redeemer and Saviour, this is His first coming. (True Christian Religion 766)

These two passages from the teachings of our church offer what appears to be a contradiction. Swedenborg writes that gentiles seem to be at no disadvantage in their lack of knowledge about the Word, yet in True Christian Religion, he writes that an acknowledgement of the Lord is of the utmost important. How can we resolve this? We must consider what this “acknowledgement of the Lord is”. We can look at it on two levels.

Firstly there is the verbal acknowledgement upon which Christians tend to place so much weight. This involves the recognition of the Lord Jesus Christ as He walked the earth and as it is recorded in the gospels. However, it ought to be recognised that such a proclamation of the lips is meaningless unless it has some impact upon the life of the person making the declaration. The Lord himself taught this countless times (for example in the parable of the two sons [Matthew 21:28-32], and the parable of the sheep and the goats [Matthew 25:31-46]). We see it in other events in the gospels too, such as when the Lord cast out demons who recognised Jesus for who he was, yet remained opposed to Him. Even the Jewish authorities were forced to recognise who Jesus was – it is recorded in John’s gospel, chapter 11 that instead of paying the honour due to Him, they sought to kill him (John 11:45-57) and Lazarus too, the living proof of Jesus’ power (John 12 9-11). A verbal recognition that the Jesus who taught and performed miracles in Palestine is not the acknowledgement which Swedenborg talks about.

The acknowledgement which is so essential is the change in a person’s heart and life. It is obedience to the Lord’s teachings. Without that obedience, verbal recognition is worse than worthless. So we should not look to a person making any proclamation in order to believe that they will find heaven in this world and the next. Those two parables I mentioned before (the two sons and the sheep and the goats), also teach this – what a person does is a more accurate indicator of his inner nature.

Of course, it’s not just being “good” or “nice” which constitutes that acknowledgement. In order to give the Lord the titles, “God, the Creator, Redeemer and Saviour” we have to give them up ourselves. This is the basis of the 12 step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous – that a “higher power” exists, which is the source of our ability to make positive changes in our lives. In Spiritual Recovery, Grant Schnarr quotes the woman who says, “I know there is a God, and it ain’t me!” So many of our problems originate in believing that we hold all the answers, that we don’t need to listen to anyone else, even God. Unfortunately, Christians aren’t immune – we can claim to have all the answers just as much as anyone, because we believe we KNOW everything that is important for our salvation and everyone else’s for that matter. Indeed, we confirm it from the Bible, and give our own thinking Divine authority, which makes it even more difficult to turn our back on. This is why Swedenborg says the condition of Christians can be so much worse than that of gentiles.

Let’s move on to the Lord’s Incarnation. Was it really “unexpected”? Well, if we look at the Old Testament, we find countless prophecies of the Lord’s coming. The people of Jesus time looked forward to the coming of the promised “Messiah” with great anticipation. Swedenborg writes that the Lord will only enter our lives and our world when he is expected – he guards our freedom too carefully to jeopardise it. But what becomes clear throughout the gospels is that the nature of his coming was so unexpected that most missed it completely. So few welcomed him at his birth – at Christmas time we are used to celebrate only the rejoicing of a handful of shepherds and some foreign astrologers. Why didn’t the Lord make his birth more widely known? Look what happened when he did! Herod tried to kill the boy for fear of a potential political rival from the little that he knew, and when Jesus entered public ministry some thirty years later he was ultimately executed for making such outrageous claims.

The Lord, although born in Bethlehem, lived most of his life in Nazareth. Being in Galilee, it was dismissed as an insignificant backwater by many of the Jews, and certainly despised by the religious authorities. The northern part of Palestine had been resettled by diverse peoples many years before, after the Israelites of that region had been exiled under the Assyrian empire, and it was certainly not purely Jewish. It represents a gentile condition. It was certainly not a suitable place for the promised Messiah to make his home! In John’s gospel the authorities challenge Nicodemus’s support of this Nazarene upstart with the words, “Are you also from Galilee? Search and look, for no prophet has arisen out of Galilee.” (John 7:52) The disciple Nathaniel was similarly sceptical before he met Jesus himself (see John 1:46). Outwardly, the reason for Jesus’ residence there was his parents. Inwardly the reason was the spiritual rejection of his authority by the leaders of the Jewish religious institution, and this reflects our own difficulty in truly accepting the Lord into our lives.

Even so, there were those who recognised the Lord instantly. Simeon (and Anna – Luke 2:36-38) represents those who rejoiced to see Him. These are the “remnant” of the people referred to so often in the Old Testament prophets and encountered again in Micah. It is clear from Micah’s writing (4:6-7) that this remnant is not intended as the seed of a re-established nation or political unit, but a people who accept the Lord because they recognise their desperate need of him. They are those who remain true to the Lord out of an otherwise shattered religion. The “remnant” is a spiritual reality, not a natural one.

So, what lessons can we draw from these stories? Firstly, we all exist in varying states of spiritual darkness. There is something of the gentile in all of us, in other words, states of spiritual ignorance. Then there are the religious states. The problem here is that the religious tend to think they know the truth, which can be even worse than being in spiritual ignorance, because such states of “certainty” will actively reject whatever truth appears strange to them. The point is, the standard by which they measure their understanding of truth is not the Lord or the Word, but their own understanding. Sometimes it is thinly disguised as belief in the Word of God, or in the authority of Scripture, but what is really meant is their own interpretation of Scripture. Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.” (John 9:41) “If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:23)

The third state is that represented by the “remnant”, by Simeon and Anna. It is stored up and protected within us by the Lord Himself. It is that within us which is receptive of the Lord. It is what responds to His call, and recognises Him for who He truly is. The question is what we give priority to. It is this that determines our quality and the quality of our actions.

We are challenged to look for the Lord everywhere, not just where and when we expect Him. He is not limited to the outwardly religious. He is not to be found only in our own sense of what is right or good. He is not to be found in doctrine which is separated from a life in obedience to the Lord’s commands. That is why the Lord chose to make his home in a town so divorced from Jewish religious life. We should be prepared to be wrong! If we are not, we are in real danger of missing Him. Being right or outwardly “good” does not equal salvation or happiness. Praise the Lord that this is so – if our eternal happiness depended upon such things, who would be saved?!