A Sermon by Rev. Dr. Jim Lawrence
They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a molding of gold upon it all around. You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side. You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, by which to carry the ark. The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. You shall put into the ark the covenant that I shall give you.
Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other; of one piece with the mercy seat you shall make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings. They shall face one to another; the faces of the cherubim shall be turned toward the mercy seat. You shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.*
‘“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”’**
Swedenborg, Paraphrase from Apocalypse Explained, §902
“Spiritual life is acquired solely by a life according to the commandments in the Word. These commandments are given in summary in the Ten Commandments. These commandments are to be done, for when a person does do them their efforts are good and their lives spiritual….When a person does these commandments because they are of God and for no other reason, such as civil or social advantages, they elevate into true spiritual love. Those who act from motives of gain in the world run significant danger of becoming lost in lower order self-loves.
I have had proof that this is true from angels of the third or highest heaven, who are in the greatest wisdom and happiness. When asked how they had become such angels, they said it was because during their life in the world they had regarded frauds and devious business gains as theft; indecent thoughts as adultery, hatreds and revenges as murder, self-serving distortions and equivocations as lying, and so forth. When asked whether they had done good works, they said they had loved loyalty, sincerity and justice, loved the neighbor foremost, loved the truth above all equivocations, and all with the knowledge that such a life was flowing from the Divine One and was a power given through them for living from that source of true life. Thus, it was made clear how spiritual life, which is the life of the highest angels, was acquired through living in right relationship to the Divine source.”
According to annual Gallup polls, two big reasons why people say they don’t believe in God is that they see no plain evidence of something that suggests a God and that they’ve never had any personal experience that felt like an encounter with “God.” Fair enough.
Maybe it would be a useful experiment to think of engaging the question of “Is God real?” as a treasure hunt, exploring a clue that leads to another clue and so on. The Bible’s got some terrific treasure hunt instructions. Let’s explore one of the best of them with our reading from the Exodus where we catch a clue that contains many clues: “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites” [Exodus 25:22 NRSV].
Throughout the Old Testament narrative no physical object in the Bible equals the mystical power of the Ark of the Covenant. It is the Ark that goes in front of the wandering Israelites in the desert every day as they seek a place of the next encampment. It is the Ark that parts the river Jordan when the Israelites finally enter Canaan. It is the Ark that devastates Israel’s longstanding enemy, the Philistines, and it is the Ark that instantly vaporizes Uzzah, who, unauthorized and unprepared, once instinctively tried to steady it when the oxen stumbled.
In the symbolic theology of the scripture, the Ark of the Covenant is unparalleled for its spiritual potency. Reposed as the inmost of the inmost in the tabernacle, the sacred tent of meeting that served as the worship center for the thousands of nomadic Hebrews, the Ark was the spiritual and even psychological organizing center for the community. When Solomon a half-millennium later built his now legendary temple, the Ark starred as the central feature.
All the power of YHWH’s presence on earth came to be associated with the Ark of the Covenant, the specially made chest containing the very tablets Moses brought down from Sinai. The Ark was the holy of holies! Some of us will surely remember the Steven Spielberg blockbuster adventure film “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that spawned more than twenty film and TV spin-offs about the adventures of Indiana Jones, a University of Chicago archaeologist and occult expert. The supernatural power of the Ark of the Covenant is the basis of the original film as Indiana Jones is approached in 1936 at his university office by U.S. Army Intelligence agents informing him of Nazi German activities in a gigantic excavation site in Egypt and of an intercepted cable indicating that the long-lost chest bearing the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai have been discovered. The premise of this now-classic film is that both the Nazis and the Allied forces believed that the Ark possessed the power to obliterate any enemy. See the film to discover how that turns out, but engage our biblical clues for how this same truth about the power of the Ark to destroy your inner enemies can turn out for you.
Why does the Ark possess such incalculable power? For the ancient Israelites, the Ark of the Covenant was the place to meet YHWH—“I will meet you there”—just as Moses fleetingly saw “physically” YHWH on Sinai when receiving the Ten Commandments.
Swedenborg provides clues given via the spiritual symbolism of the correspondences:
- The Ark contains the tablets with the “laws” scribed by YHWH.
- Angels, representing the higher consciousness of God, provide a spiritual passageway to God. With their great wings outspread, they protect a sphere for our receiving of spiritual thoughts, and with their faces turned to each other, they speak of love to the neighbor and to God.
- The covering (mercy seat) is made of pure solid gold, whose correspondence is supreme love. It is only out of divine love that the creation exists and exists to foster beings who can love, so the instructions for how to grow into an ever-effective way of relating to God and to others are covered in gold.
- The ark itself (the chest) made of acacia, the toughest wood in Asia Minor. It corresponds to the toughness of mental resolve needed to live with this Word, the hard work of our doing and disciplines, which we might think of as our hands.
The clues pointing to where God can be found seem to have something to do with the idea that when we strive with conscious effort to reform our living around spiritual ethics and ways to be in right relationship to God and to others and when we “show up” with sincere consciousness to live like that, God meets us right there.
Having at least one spiritual practice that involves something like prayerful engagement with our living is key to, as they say in Hollywood, taking a meeting—in this case, taking a meeting with God. A crucial vocabulary term for this meeting in Swedenborg is conscience. Conscious conscience is a focused awareness on “how’s it going?” Swedenborg writes in Secrets of Heaven that “Conscience is a kind of general—and therefore obscure—dictate that presents things that flow in from the Lord by way of the heavens. We become conscious of these things in our rational faculty, where they are enveloped, so to speak, in a cloud—the product of appearances and illusions concerning what is good and true in our faith.” [SH 1919] ***
In Swedenborg’s famed four rules of life, a cornerstone rule involves keeping our conscience clear. In a spiritual practice around this, in a prayerful (thus conscious) state we ask ourself the question, “Is anything troubling my conscience?” That consciousness shift of asking the conscience question is the magic button transporting us into position between the angels hovering over the ark wherein lie the laws of living into divine life. Our conscience is in a sense a kind of third eye. It is a space in what Swedenborg calls our higher rational faculty. The is where we have a window or doorway opening in our higher capacities to the presence of the inflowing divine. This is the same sacred space in Swedenborg that is called the higher self in other traditions. This is the state of conscious conscience that is between the angels as we hover over the laws of divine right living. And so we ask in our opened conscience whether there is something to which we need to attend. All matters of conscience are connected to the divine laws inside the ark.
I have a fairly regular spiritual practice that I do around Swedenborg’s rules of life, and I did it as I was writing this part of this talk for an example to share. What came when I asked the conscience question is an email involving an issue in my family of origin that is too sensitive to describe in print, but what came was my need to take an action that had been on my conscience for a couple of weeks due to a communication that had occurred that might be something of a breakthrough. So I did take an action out of that, and in reflecting on how this whole matter might relate to the Ten Commandments I saw three immediately. What’s most important to report is the powerful and tingling feeling of the presence of God in his experience—an almost neurological inner wave, a sense of the holy, a sense of the source. I met God there.
Whatever happened to the real Ark of the Covenant that Solomon had built to specification 2,500 years ago? Maybe it was sold for parts soon after the temple ransacking. Maybe it’s lying somewhere still in some unexcavated ruin. But we do know, don’t we, where the real Ark is. The clues have led us to it. It exists in its entirety within us whenever and wherever we desire to meet God: when with sincerity of heart and honest questing with our mind we try to live aright vis a vis our fellow persons, we are instantaneously there between the two cherubim above the mercy seat. We meet the Divine One right then and there when we yearn and then strive to live with ethical love. God told us: I will meet you there.
Rev. Dr. Jim Lawrence has been an ordained minister in the Swedenborgian Church of North America for several decades, and has served in a variety of ministries. He currently serves as dean of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, where he is a core doctoral faculty member, as well as assistant professor of Christian Spirituality and Historical Studies at Pacific School of Religion.
*New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
**Holy Bible, New International Version, Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
***Swedenborg, Emanuel. Secrets of Heaven, Vol III. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2022.