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“If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.

“Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” Matthew 24:23-28

“’ For as the lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be,’ [Matthew 24:27] means that internal worship of the Lord will be like lightning which is instantly dispersed. For 'lightning' means that which is a manifestation of heavenly light and thus that which has reference to love and faith since these are the components of heavenly light. 'East' in the highest sense means the Lord, in the internal sense good that flows from love, charity, and faith received from the Lord. 'West' in the internal sense however means that which has gone down or ceased to be, and so means the non-acknowledgement of the Lord or of good that flows from love, charity, and faith. Accordingly 'the lightning which comes from the east and is seen as far as the west' means dispersal. The Lord's coming does not consist, as the letter has it, in His appearing once again in the world, but in His presence within everyone. He is present there as often as the gospel is preached and that which is holy is contemplated.” (Arcana Coelestia n.3900)

Jesus Christ speaks very strongly in the 24th chapter of Matthew. This is the only place in Matthew that Jesus comes across so stridently. He sounds like a fear monger! The judgment and His return would be frightening to all and the end of life for millions swept up in the cataclysm. Most modern commentators say that the destruction of the temple in 66 and 70 AD are the fulfillment of some of Jesus’ prophecy. But the rest, and the worst is yet to come.

The New Church teaches that the events of Matthew 24 and all of the Book of Revelation will not happen literally. But we must still confront the question of why Jesus would speak so vehemently. He makes an extended call to action based on avoiding destruction. He calls attention to the “abomination,” that is, the defiling, of the center of the church, the temple. He predicts that, as has happened in the past, there will be a destruction of the kingdom. And He indicates that this will happen in the lifetimes of the listeners. Why would Jesus use such scare tactics? Is it not generally accepted that fear mongering is not only a poor tactic, but a violent assault when used against the powerless or innocent?

And there are more questions that can bring us to doubt that Jesus meant to scare us. For instance, the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written by men who did not actually see or hear Jesus. The Gospel of Mark appears to be the first written. It also includes predictions of coming apocalypse. And John, the last to be written, puts equally impressive words into the mouth of Jesus. These men could have written their Gospels before the predictions might have come true. But Matthew and Luke were certainly new to many people in 70 AD when the temple had been destroyed. How could these men report Jesus’ words if it was obvious that they were not literally true?

So we come to the passage giving the spiritual meaning of a phrase from Jesus’ speech in Matthew 24, and I call your attention to the last two sentences. But, at the same time as we learn the spiritual meaning of this passage, I invite you to hold in your thought the literal image in all its destructive ruination. Imagine a lightning storm that encompasses your world from one horizon to the other. The brightness of the light might damage your eyesight. The loudness of the thunder might damage your hearing. It might likely make many fall on their knees or even their faces in sheer terror.

And then it is gone. You rise again, open your eyes, and get off the ground. You assess the effects. You discover that the adrenaline rush to the heart has killed many; and the stimulant will linger in your body for hours. In the coming days you will regain your voice and begin to share stories about what you saw, what it means, and what you now plan to do. After some time the stories are collected and catalogued. More and more people dismiss any continuing need for harping on it. “Get over it,” is said more and more. Fewer and fewer people remember the feeling. It may take weeks, months or years depending on the spread of the effects, but the power of the emotions is forgotten.

We were camping many years ago and the wood for our campfire was wet (the air was still humid from the recent rain). So a friend poured some of “white gas” for his stove on the wood and I used “strike anywhere” matches to light it. I thought his fuel was like kerosene, when in fact it was more volatile than gasoline! With a loud “woosh” the gas ignited. However, all the flame stayed close to the ground because the fumes were held down by the colder, wetter air. The real scare was that in a flash the fire followed the fumes across a few feet of ground and then up the side of our canvas tent! I should say the side of our borrowed canvas tent! It was one of two times my children ever heard me swear! And then, as quick as it came, the fire was gone. No damage was done (and the wood didn’t light, either!). In this case, I can still generate the feeling of panic and horror I felt. I will never use that fuel to light a fire again!

But what about the deep and powerful feelings of holiness that worship can generate that don’t last beyond the last note of the postlude? Can we remember those feelings on Monday morning as we prepare for work? Or do other feelings eclipse them; perhaps negative ones that will run our relationships with spouse, children and coworkers. Has the lightening from the east disappeared into the west?

Worship on Sunday, the Word tells us, is supposed to excite holy feelings in our spirits. And it is genuine, authentic worship of the Lord Jesus Christ that will create in us a space, a vessel, for a reception of love and wisdom from the Lord that will stay with us. The feeling will pass, as all feelings must (remember the false heaven of continuing, nonstop worship?). But the space filled by love and wisdom will carry us through the coming trials and tribulations as we face the false ideas (“I need to be right”), and the evil loves (“I’ve got to put her down or I’ll lose), that, if unchecked, will lead to our spiritual destruction.

So Jesus is not out to scare us into action. However, He does want us to pay attention to what is actually happening in our spirit. He wants us to know the signs, both of His presence, and of danger, so that we may help create His kingdom on earth, and enter into His kingdom after death.

Precursor May 2008