by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 10, 2002

2 Kings 4:27-37 Elisha raises a woman's son from death

When the man of God saw the woman coming, he said to Gehazi his servant, "Look, there is the Shunammite woman; run at once to meet her, and say to her, Are you all right? Is your husband all right? Is the child all right?"

She answered, "It is all right."

When she came to the man of God at the mountain, she caught hold of his feet. Gehazi approached to push her away. But the man of God said, "Let her alone, for she is in bitter distress; the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me."

Then she said, "Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, Do not mislead me?"

He said to Gehazi, "Gird up your loins, and take my staff in your hand, and go. If you meet anyone, give no greeting, and if anyone greets you, do not answer; and lay my staff on the face of the child."

Then the mother of the child said, "As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave without you." So he rose up and followed her.

Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the face of the child, but there was no sound or sign of life. He came back to meet him and told him, "The child has not awakened."

When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. So he went in and closed the door on the two of them, and prayed to the Lord. Then he got up on the bed and lay upon the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands; and while he lay bent over him, the flesh of the child became warm. He got down, walked once to and fro in the room, then got up again and bent over him; the child sneezed seven times, and opened his eyes.

Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, "Call the Shunammite woman." So he called her. When she came to him, he said, "Take your son." She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground; then she took her son and left.


Luke 7:11-17 Jesus raises a widow's son from death

Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep."

Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen among us!" and "God has looked favorably on his people!" This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.


Heaven and Hell #445 Death and resurrection

When someone's body can no longer perform its functions in the natural world in response to the thoughts and affections of its spirit (which it derives from the spiritual world), then we say that the individual has died. This happens when the lungs' breathing and the heart's systolic motion have ceased. The person, though, has not died at all. We are only separated from the physical nature that was useful to us in the world. The essential person is actually still alive. I say that the essential person is still alive because we are not people because of our bodies but because of our spirits. After all, it is the spirit within us that thinks, and thought and affection together make us the people we are.

We can see, then, that when we die we simply move from one world into another. This is why in the inner meaning of the Bible, "death" means resurrection and a continuation of life.

"Young man, I say to you, rise!" (Luke 7:14)

With these few, simple words, Jesus raised a widow's son from death back to life. When someone close to us has died, we might wish Jesus could be here today, say these words again, and bring our loved one back to us. And the fact is, there are modern miracles taking place all the time: cases where people who even twenty or thirty years ago would have died from their condition are instead restored to life, sometimes living on for many more years before leaving this earth for good. Even as we mourn the loss of loved ones, it is also good to be thankful for the longer presence of those we might have lost, but who have stayed with us those extra years.

Still, when death does come to someone we love, it can be very painful. And especially when that death has just happened, about all we can do is comfort one another, and share our thoughts and feelings, and the many ways in which the one who died touched our lives.

Only as time passes after the death of someone close to us can we begin to get more perspective. Then we can also begin to explore more deeply the meaning of death, and where our loved one has gone. I know that some here have experienced loss very recently--something I could not have anticipated last week when I saw that today's reading was about Jesus raising a widow's son from death, and chose the topic "A Matter of Death and Life" for today's sermon. Yet recognizing that today's topic may have particular poignancy for some of you, perhaps it may still be helpful to go ahead as planned.

Divine Providence has struck again in another way: we are now in the middle of our four part series of public workshops on "Life, Death, and the Afterlife." This past Wednesday, the Rev. Andy Stinson and I offered an overview of "Heaven and Hell." Today I would like to offer you a similar, but much briefer, overview of heaven, hell, and the in-between "place," or state, called "the world of spirits." For some of you this may be new; for others, it will be review. Either way, it helps to mentally "visit the spiritual world" from time to time.

Of course, there are many different views of heaven and hell, ranging from the literalists' heaven of angels sitting on clouds playing harps and devils burning in hell, to mystical notions of leaving behind our individual consciousness and merging with the Divine from which we came. Emanuel Swedenborg, whose twenty-seven years of experience in the spiritual world is the main source of our church's understanding of heaven and hell, steered a middle course between these two. Both hellfire and angels in the clouds, he said, were symbolic images, not literal descriptions. Yet we do retain our individual consciousness in the spiritual world; and if we have chosen heaven, we do have a very close relationship with the Divine.

Central to our church's concept of death and the afterlife is the idea that death is simply a transition from one world to another. This earth, we believe, is simply a training ground for our real home, which is in the spiritual world. And death is the journey we take from one world to the other when our time here has been completed. Sometimes this may come sooner--even far sooner--than we think it should. Yet we can have faith that whether a person dies young or old, that person is in the care of the angels and of God.

In fact, the moment of death is probably one of the most peaceful times that any of us will have experienced up to that point. We are attended at death by the highest, most loving angels, who give us such a sense of peace and of being fully and unconditionally loved that no matter how traumatic the events leading up to our death, all is forgotten in the blessedness of the moment. And those who attend a dying person often get a glimpse--a sense--of the peacefulness that the dying person is entering into.

However, before long we move away from these angels, and through a series of stages, return to a set of surroundings and a daily routines much like the ones we left behind on earth--so much so that according to Swedenborg, many people do not even realize they have died. After all, in the spiritual world everything around us corresponds to what is inside us; and when we have just died, all of our experience has been here in the material world. So it is not surprising that at first, the new world we inhabit will be much like the old.

Yet now we are in that intermediate state between heaven and hell that Swedenborg calls "the world of spirits." This is where any outward thoughts and actions that do not fully harmonize with our true, inner character are gradually peeled away, until our words and actions are in complete harmony with our true thoughts and feelings. Whereas at first we had lived an outward life similar to our life on earth, including the social masks we had worn, now our outer life is fully expressive of our inner life. Even our face and figure becomes more beautiful or more ugly, depending on whether we have chosen the beauty of loving God and our neighbor, or the ugliness of loving only ourselves and material pleasures and possessions.

Unfortunately, some people do choose to put their own power and pleasure first. Some people don't care who they have to hurt in order to get to the top. Some people even get pleasure from taking advantage of others, and inflicting physical and emotional pain on them. In other words, some people build hell within themselves while they are here on earth.

We are not sent to hell after we die. Rather, if we have chosen selfishness and materialism as our gods, we are already in hell even while we are still living on earth. In the world of spirits, this fact is simply revealed. When our true, inner self is laid open for others--and ourselves--to see clearly, we then choose of our own accord to make our bed in hell. Swedenborg's startling message about hell is that God never sends anyone to hell; rather, we send ourselves there by our own choices. If there is an eternal hell, it is not because God wants there to be one, but because we insist on it!

"Why would anyone ever choose to be in hell?" you might ask. First, it is important to understand that hell is not a place where people are burning up in eternal fire, or being skewered on the Devil's pitchfork. Rather, hell is the kind of human society that results when all the people in it are trying to get pleasure for themselves at everyone else's expense. For those who enjoy things such as dominating others and stealing other people's money, there is at least some pleasure to be had in hell. Sometimes the evil spirits in hell are successful in carrying out their terrible schemes. Then they have pleasures. But soon those they have oppressed, robbed, or otherwise injured will rise up and wreak their revenge on them. Then they experience the torments of hell. This mutual hatred in action is the meaning of hellfire.

In short, God does not punish anyone in hell. Rather, the evil spirits in hell take great pleasure in tormenting one another--and thus the evil punishes itself. Plus, the devils and satans in hell are forced to do regular work, or they get no food and clothing. Of course, they hate to do anything good or useful for anyone, so this work galls them, and adds to the unpleasantness of their lives. Yet they endure it all for the opportunity to indulge their sick pleasures as often as they are able.

But enough about hell. Let's move on to a more cheerful subject. Just as we build hell within and around ourselves when we put ourselves, our possessions, and our own pleasures ahead of God and our neighbor, so we build heaven inside ourselves when we put God first and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

This does not mean that we are supposed to treat ourselves badly, or be lax and foolish about providing for the material needs of ourselves and our family. It's not a matter of spiritual things being good and material things being bad. Rather, it's a matter of keeping things in their proper order and priority.

It is only when we put ourselves and the material world first that they become evil. If we keep them in their place, secondary to loving God and loving our fellow human beings, then taking care of our own material, social, and psychological needs, and those of our family, is a good thing. When we provide for ourselves and our family to have healthy bodies and all the necessities of life--not to mention some good, healthy recreational pleasures--then we are putting ourselves into a position where we can better serve the needs of the people around us. In other words, we put ourselves in a position to do God's will here on earth.

So the teaching of our church is that the life that leads to heaven is not one of depriving ourselves and withdrawing from the world; rather it is a life of active engagement in the various activities, businesses, and services of this world, and in the various forms of recreation that keep us healthy and give us innocent pleasures with our family and friends. The life of heaven is a life of joy, and we are best preparing ourselves for heaven when we learn to enjoy all the healthy pleasures of this life.

However, heaven is not one big long vacation. Though the angels do enjoy all the music, sports, games, and other recreations that we have here, their greatest pleasure comes from an active life of serving others in the ways that they love most. Their greatest satisfactions come, not from gaining pleasure for themselves, but from knowing that they are giving others happiness and joy. No angel is forced to work. Rather, they go about the kind of work they have chosen with heartfelt joy and dedication. The "eternal rest" of heaven is not a rest of idleness, but rather the inner restfulness and peace of being able to express our love to others in useful, practical, and enjoyable ways without having to struggle within ourselves about what we want to do with our life or how to go about doing the work we love.

Heaven, in other words, is a community where everyone's joy is to give joy to others, and where the angel-people serve one another simply because they love God and they love other people, and want to make them happy.

As I've said many times before, and will say many times again, we do not have to wait until after we die to experience this beautiful state of being. Perhaps we will never experience it quite as deeply and fully here as we will in the spiritual world. And as long as we are here, we will always have our struggles and our difficult times. But if heaven is something we build within ourselves, then we can be--in fact, we must be--building it within and around ourselves right here on earth.

This is where we face the deeper meaning of death. This is where our stay on this earth truly becomes a matter of death and life. Because there is another kind of death that all of us must be willing to go through if we are to find our place in heaven. Yes, our body must die before we can become angels. But there must also be an inner death before we can be spiritually resurrected as angels.

What is this death? It is the death of our old self. It is the death of our old bad habits; our old self-centeredness; our old focus on material possessions and pleasures. We come into this world absorbed in our own pleasure and pain, and as we enter adulthood, our lives tend to be focused on the material necessities of life. Yet as necessary as these things are during our stay here on earth, we will never find our way into heaven if we do not move beyond them.

We cannot choose the time of our physical death. But we do face a decision between death and life every day. It is the decision of whether we are going to live this day, this hour, this moment thinking of God and our neighbor first, or thinking of ourselves and our own pleasures first. If we wish to enter spiritual life, we must be willing to let our old self die. We must be willing to gradually but persistently put aside every wrong desire, every false thought, and every useless and hurtful action. We must be willing to put our own popularity, our own power, our own pleasure second, and put the happiness of the people around us first.

Of course, we will never fully achieve this ideal. We are imperfect beings, and at times we will fail. Yet if we continue to make the effort; if we continue to work on ourselves; if we continue to rededicate ourselves to the Lord's way, then the Lord will raise us from spiritual death to heavenly life just as he physically raised the widow's son from death to life. Amen.


Artwork: Pools of Serenity  Thomas Kincaid and is
used with permission. 
Christ-Centered Art Gallery

Music:  In the Garden
1999 Bruce DeBoer
Used with Permission

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