Angels, Spirits and Devils

A Halloween Sermon
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 26, 1997

Readings:

1 Samuel 16:14-23 David drives the evil spirit out of Saul with music
Matthew 4:1-11 Jesus tempted by the Devil
Apocalypse Explained #323c.12 "Harp" means affirmation of truth

Whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play it with his hand. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him. (1 Samuel 16:23)

Fortunately, unlike King Saul, we did not have any evil spirits present at our Halloween party last night. In fact, we were in very good spirits--even though we did have a few strange and scary characters lurking around. . . .

At Halloween, our thoughts turn to supernatural, nocturnal, and generally unearthly beings and powers. It is hard to see all the costumes of ghosts and angels without thinking at least a little about other realms of existence besides the physical. The costumes are expressions of our spirits--of our imaginations. Most of the time these particular areas of our imagination are confined to story books. But on Halloween our imaginings--both the noble and the terrifying--appear in full dress.

In our culture, Halloween has become a children's festival. It is a far cry from the genuinely scary All Hallow's Eve of earlier centuries, when real witches and evil spirits were believed to be out and about, and people shut themselves indoors for fear. We live in a less superstitious time. Science and the intellectual revolution have banished the fear of spirits from most people's minds. Many deny their existence altogether, and look upon those who do believe in of angels and spirits as irrational and backward. They see belief in spiritual entities--including God--to be an unnecessary vestige of our past.

For several decades, it looked as though this materialistic view might prevail in our culture. But the recent resurgence of interest in angels, spirits, near death experiences, and other manifestations of the spiritual world is evidence that the human mind does not stop at material things, but has a deep-seated need to reach beyond the physical to the spiritual. For many, the materialistic world view has been tried and found wanting. While pure science apart from spirit has brought us many material comforts and advances, it has failed to address the deepest questions and needs of the human spirit.

Throughout our societal flirtation with materialism Halloween has, if anything, become even more popular. Despite the inevitable commercialization, it remains a regular reminder, ingrained in our culture, of the reality of the world that lies beyond and within the physical world. I suspect its popularity is a result of our need for spiritual balance in an age that has been far too unbalanced in the direction of non-spiritual pursuits.

Even some of the parts of Halloween that many of us find objectionable may serve a use. When I see some of the ghoulish and sometimes sickening faces that appear at this time of year on the TV screen and in various store displays and advertisements, I want to turn away to avoid having such images imprinted on my mind. Yet this is one of the few times when our culture explicitly recognizes the reality of evil. Our reaction to ghoulish Halloween masks is the same as our reaction to the ghoulish face of evil: we want to avoid it, both as individuals and as a culture.

Usually, avoiding evil is a good idea. In fact, Swedenborg sums up our spiritual rebirth as a process of avoiding evils as sins and doing good things because they come from the Lord. So there is a sense in which we should avoid evil and its trappings.

The problem is that we cannot always avoid evil because evil is not only around us . . . it is also within us. If we "avoid evil" by refusing to face up to the wrong and evil parts of ourselves, then we are not avoiding evil at all. We are doing just the opposite: we are allowing it to continue working unopposed in our lives.

As a culture, we have not only flirted with materialism; we have also flirted with denying evil's existence. A popular social theory of our day holds that nothing and nobody is evil; murderers, thieves, rapists, and other criminals are merely responding to a faulty environment--poor social conditions, lack of proper care as children, poverty, malnutrition, and so on. There is some truth to this. It is true that even people who are basically good-hearted will often fall into damaging and destructive ways of living if this is all (or practically all) that they have seen as they have grown up. We do need to address social issues of poverty, injustice, and all the evils that follow in their wake.

The flaw with social theories that deny the existence of evil in human motives and actions is that they fail to account for how poverty and injustice began. If there were no evil in the human mind and spirit, where did it all start? Where did the first wars come from? Where did the longstanding gap between rich and poor come from? Where did theft, murder, and lying come from? If there were no human evil, how could children ever be exposed to unloving and harmful environments in the first place?

Evil is making a comeback in our society. I don't mean that our society is committing more evil acts; I mean that social theories and religions that deny the existence of evil have been tried and found wanting. There is renewed acceptance of the idea that evil is very real, and is working in the human mind and heart.

One danger in this new acceptance is that we might descend back into superstitious fear of evil and be no better off than when we cringed behind locked doors on Halloween for fear that witches would cast evil spells on us. However, I believe that for the most part, that kind of fear of demonic spirits has been too thoroughly exorcized from our consciousness to pose a real threat.

A greater threat is that we might descend back into a black and white view of the world, in which some people are good and others are evil--and we, of course, are the good ones, while "they" are the evil ones. In some quarters, along with a rising recognition of evil there is a rising tide of intolerance and bigotry that must be countered if we are to move forward rather than backward in our return to a belief in the reality of spiritual good and evil.

The teachings of our church about the spiritual world form a very good counterbalance to that kind of unthinking return to a black and white world of good and evil people. It is not that we don't see black and white in spiritual matters. Rather, it is that our position here on earth happens to be in the gray area between black and white.

Let me explain. Swedenborg says that the spiritual world is made up of three regions: heaven, hell, and a in-between region called the World of Spirits. Heaven is the closest we human beings come to pure goodness. People who go to heaven and become angels have set aside their evil desires and accepted goodness and truth from God as the focus of their lives. They are not perfect--and sometimes they do experience the downward tug of pride and selfishness. But their lives are devoted to loving God and loving their neighbor.

Hell is just the opposite: it is the closest we human beings come to pure evil. People who become devils or satans in hell have put aside any good motives or pangs of conscience in favor of an existence exclusively devoted to their own pleasure at the expense of others. Even evil spirits do not manage to be purely evil; if they did, they would annihilate themselves. The only reason they can continue to live is that, closed off and protected in the deepest levels of their souls, there is the infant existence of an angel of light. It has never had the chance to mature, but that deeply buried presence of goodness is what keeps evil spirits alive despite all their destructive motives and actions.

So far, we could make a good case for a black and white universe--good on one side and evil on the other. But we would have to ignore the third region of the spiritual world: the World of Spirits. This region between heaven and hell is where good and evil meet . . . and blend into countless shades of gray. This is also where our earth with its human population has its primary contact with the spiritual world. As long as we are here on earth, not a single one of us is entirely an angel of light nor entirely a devil of darkness. We are all shades of gray, moving either toward the light or toward the darkness.

Whatever measures we as a society may need to take to restrain criminals from harming others, there is no excuse for making the spiritual judgment that any person is irredeemably evil. As long as people are still alive here on earth, there is hope that they may choose a heavenly path, no matter what their past has been. Our job is not to condemn--and thus use the force of our minds to push people closer to hell--but to reach out to them in an attempt to separate them from the evil they may be involved in. We may have to put them in prison, but our motive for doing so should be to protect the innocent and to make it more likely that criminals will reconsider the course of their lives. Our motive should not be to pay them back for what they did. Our intentions should always be for the good of everyone involved--even if we may sometimes have to express those intentions in seemingly harsh ways with some people and in some situations.

So far, we have been talking mostly about the negative side of spiritual reality--about evil and hellish spirits and their influence on us here on earth. But even though ghosts and ghouls are very popular at Halloween, so are angels, princesses, Indian chiefs, and other characters who represent what is good and heavenly in the human spirit.

In our readings from Samuel, evil spirits assail King Saul. In Matthew, it is Jesus that they attack. We have all had our struggles with evil and depressing thoughts and desires. We will continue to have them as long as we are living and growing spiritually here on earth. But the Lord does not leave us hopeless. He sends his angels--and good spirits of the earthly human variety--to help us in our struggles with evil.

I was particularly touched by the reading about King Saul and David because of a recent experience Patty and I have had with little Caleb. We read in Samuel, "Whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play it with his hand. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him." In Apocalypse Revealed #276, Swedenborg tells us that a harp corresponds to affirmation of the Lord, which evil spirits cannot endure--and this is why David caused the evil spirit to depart from Saul by playing his harp.

Caleb has had a cold lately. Like most babies, when he feels sick and has a hard time breathing through his nose, he doesn't sleep well. None of our usual ways of getting him to sleep had been working. We finally discovered (once again) that if we sing to him when he is tired and crying, he will settle down and go to sleep. I like to think that, just as with Saul when David played music for him, when the evil spirits that hover around and contribute to Caleb's misery in the midst of his cold hear the singing and feel our love for him, they can't stand it, so they go away and leave the baby in peace.

This is the kind of peace that we can all have if we affirm our belief in the Lord by turning to the Lord in prayer when we are being assailed by evil spirits who push us toward depression and despair, or toward doing and saying things that we know are wrong and hurtful. If, in the words of Jesus, we "worship the Lord our God, and serve him only," then after our time of trial the devil will depart from us, and angels will come and lovingly attend to us.


Music: Dimensions
1999 Bruce DeBoer


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