Embracing Divine Transformation

Rev. Kit Billings


John 5:2-11

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many ill, blind, lame, and paralyzed people. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The ill man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am making my way someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Now that day was a Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’ ” (1)

Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven §4850

‘The days were multiplied’ means a change of state. This is clear from the meaning of ‘the days being multiplied’ as undergoing a change of state, for ‘day’ or a time in the internal sense means state, and ‘being multiplied’ when used in reference to days or times means undergoing a change. The fact that a change of state is the meaning is also evident from the details that follow.

The expression ‘to be multiplied’ is used because it implies a change of state so far as truths are concerned; for ‘to be multiplied’ is used in reference to truths. Since the terms state and change of state are being used time and again, and yet few know what a state or a change of state is, a statement needs to be made about what these are. Neither time and the passage of time nor space and the extension of space can be associated with the interior aspects of the human being – that is to say, with his affections and his thoughts formed by these – because his affections and thoughts are not located in time and place, though to the senses in the world they do seem to be thus located. Rather, they are located in the interior things which correspond to time and place. The things which correspond to them cannot be called anything else than states, for no other term exists to describe the things that correspond to time and place.

A change of state in interior things is said to take place when the affections and resulting thoughts in a person’s mind or disposition (“mens seu animus”) undergo change, as when sadness turns to joy, or joy back to sadness, when ungodliness turns to godliness or devotion, and so on. These changes are called changes of state and are attributable to affections and, insofar as thoughts are governed by these, to thoughts also. But the changes of state which thoughts held within affections undergo are like those of individual parts within their general wholes, compared with which they are variations. (2)

There are words within our English language that cause two kinds of powerful emotional reactions to them for me.  An example of this would be the greatest and most famous dinosaur ever to walk the Earth.  It lived from 84-66 million years ago and its name is Tyrannosaurus Rex!  Its name means the “tyrant lizard king” and it was just that.  It was a huge carnivorous or meat-eating dinosaur, which weighed eight tons.  Its eyesight was powerful and sharp, seeing in binocular vision, and its sense of smell was exceptionally keen.  Its huge head and mouth was lined with many long twelve-inch teeth, with six inches coming out of its gums!  Its teeth could rip apart any other dinosaur on Earth and they were strong enough to crush and devour any bone it could get inside its mouth.  So, when I hear the word Tyrannosaurus Rex, on the one hand I feel immense awe and fascination, but, when I imagine myself actually facing this magnificent and extinct beast eye-to-eye, my awe and wonder turn into alarming dread and terror.  So, on the one hand I am amazed by one of nature’s greatest carnivores to ever walk the Earth.  But, I also associate it with panic and numbing anxiety.

What words or terms hold such double meaning for you?

Another word for me that possesses double meaning is the word, “change.”  For example, it means so very much to me in a positive sense that all of us change a lot throughout our lives.  I find it miraculous that every one of us starts out as a very tiny, one-celled fertilized egg, which then goes through millions of differentiating cell divisions that over nine months of time in gestation become each one of our major organs—our beating heart, brain, lungs, digestive system, our amazing eyes and ears, our legs, arms and our hands! 

Think about it: profoundly complex DNA deep inside of every cell that divides tells each cell what it is becoming and what purpose or use it will serve.  I also love it that we all are born to grow and change and develop as God’s greatest created-spiritual beings.  At birth we inherit a lot of selfish impulses that reside in our natural minds.  But with a lot of learning in God’s Word, with a lot of love and encouragement and with a huge amount of God-given and God-implanted spiritual “remains” of love, mercy and kindness (along with core impressions of truth as well), the Lord empowers us to change and grow into very wise and loving human beings—who after death become angel-persons, eternal citizens of Heaven.  From conception to angelhood involves an enormous amount of change!  I also love how no matter how much trauma and painful suffering we go through in childhood, God creates us so very beautifully and wisely that we can gradually heal and learn how to love and connect and relate with others in trusting and positive ways.  These amazing things happen because God made us to change and grow over time.

Our Gospel reading this morning in John 5 illustrates the way that God supports and empowers us to change.  A lame and crippled man suffering for thirty-eight years as an invalid had been faithfully hanging out at a special pool of healing near the Great Temple in Jerusalem.  The name of this large pool was called Bethesda, which means “House of Mercy.”  Beneath the pool was a subterranean stream which every now and again bubbled up and disturbed the waters.  The belief was that the disturbance was caused by an angel, and that the first person to get into the pool after the troubling of the water would be healed from any illness from which he was suffering. 

To us in modern times this is mere superstition, but it was the kind of belief which was common all over the world in antiquity and which still exists in certain places today.  People believed in all kinds of spirits and demons. The air was thick with them.  Furthermore, ancient peoples were especially impressed with the holiness of water and especially of rivers and springs.  The Mediterranean Near East had its scarcity of water.  Because of this, water was as precious as gold.  They knew that it could give and sustain life.  In the West we may know water only as something that comes out of a tap; but in the ancient world, as in many places still today, water was the most valuable and potentially the most dangerous of all things.

Sadly, due to his being so crippled, this older man was never able to get into the healing pool first.  My guess is that as Jesus walked around Jerusalem one day, during one of the three Great Feasts of the year, someone probably pointed out to Him a most pitiable case—because his disability made it impossible for him to get into the “troubled waters” first.  But God-in-Jesus-Christ was always the friend of the friendless, and the helper of those who had no earthly help.  Notice the first thing Jesus did with this man, asking him, “Do you want to be cured?”  This was an important question because after thirty-eight years of invalidism it is possible that this man’s hope and longing for healing might have died out.  He also might have gotten so used to having other people take care of him that his will to work and shoulder his own well-being could have shriveled up and dried out.

The Lord demonstrates in this encounter that just as it is with us, with you and I today, He first had to determine whether this man had the very necessary intense desire for healing and for change.  The Lord today approaches you and I in this same way, when it comes to our in-depth need for spiritual change and transformation. 

The Lord looks at us with the question, “Do you really want to be changed?”  For you see, if in your inmost heart you prefer to stay as you are, stubbornly avoiding the challenges of changes of state of being, then there can be no change for us.  Christ then goes even further and bids this lame man to “get up, pick up your mat, and walk!”  It is as if He said to him: “Man, bend your will to it and you and I will do this thing together!”  The truth often is that in a very real sense it is true that miracles happen when our will and God’s power cooperate to make them possible.

On the “other side of the coin,” however, there are other kinds of change that I loathe and detest.  For example, I do not like the change in our culture away from longer attention spans to shorter attention spans.  And, I do not appreciate the change in my waist line that has changed from a size 32 to an easily changing size of 34 creeping into a 36 inch waist span.  Our world now is facing a massive change in its climate, and this scares me greatly.  And, we who are so deeply in love with organized religion continue to face ongoing changes in our younger generations who often do not value church attendance as a top priority in life.  Some changes are hard and difficult to face, such as the ongoing changes of our physical bodies caused from aging.

However, it is also true that deep within the core of our New Church beliefs is the teaching that ongoing spiritual change throughout our lives is inevitable when we serve the Lord as our Master and Friend.  Just as the seasons of nature transition from spring to summer and from autumn to winter, our lives also are marked by seasons of change, which mold us into amazing vessels of God’s Divine plan. 

Our theological teachings help us to see that there is a Divine order of change, reminding us that transformation is not only a natural phenomenon, but it is also a reflection of the spiritual journey we undertake in our relationship with our Creator.  Change is not something to fear or resist; rather, it is an invitation to embrace the beauty of God’s design for our lives.  Change is woven into the fabric of creation, and because of this we are not made to be a static being.  We are made to be dynamic souls on a journey of growth and refinement.  So, just as clay is molded by the skilled hands of a potter, we too are shaped and changed by the Divine Hands of our Creator.

All we have to do is remember the glorious example of the caterpillar’s journey to becoming a beautifully winged butterfly—a process that embodies the essence of spiritual transformation.  The caterpillar must undergo a period of darkness, isolation, chaos and struggle within the cocoon before emerging as a radiant butterfly.  Similarly, we also must navigate through life’s challenges, uncertainties and trials of many kinds. 

As Swedenborgians, we believe that God’s Providence guides us invisibly and imperceptively even in the very midst of our own chaotic change.  For you see, our Creator’s wisdom orchestrates every least detail of our lives, even when we cannot fathom the reasons behind the shifts we experience.  Our moments of transformation are not meant to break us in half, but rather they are calling us to be broken open—revealing the deeper beauty and strengths that lie interiorly within!

In short, my friends, we are called by God to have faith in His processes of change, trusting that God’s plan for us is always greater than our own understanding.  Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us that, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens.” (3) Consider the story of Abraham, who was called by God to leave his homeland, and through trust and faith to journey into the unknown.  Abraham’s willingness to embrace change paved the way for the fulfillment of God’s promise, and he became the father of nations.  Likewise, our openness to change positions us to receive the blessings and opportunities that God Himself has prepared for us.  Just a ship adjusts its sails to catch the wind, may we choose to adjust our hearts and attitudes to align with God’s purposes.  Doing so allows changes within and around us to propel us closer to the radiant Light of the Lord’s Divinely-Human Presence, which essentially never changes. 

The psalmist echoed God’s eternal Oneness, His infinite goodness who said, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” (3)  May He be this eternal centeredness and Ground of Being for you today and always! 

(1) Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

(2) Swedenborg, Emanuel. Secrets of Heaven. Translated by John Elliott. London: Swedenborg Society, 1990.

(3) Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version

(4) Ibid.

Rev. Kit Billings, his wife Penny, and their daughter Julia moved to LaPorte, Indiana in 2012, where he is Pastor of the LaPorte New Church, a historic Swedenborgian sacred space. Kit enjoys ministering with people of all ages, and supporting others in their journey of growth with the Lord.

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