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Deliver Us from Evil
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, February 9, 1997

Readings:

Jeremiah 7:1-7. Amend your ways and let me dwell with you
Luke 3:7-14. Bear fruits worthy of repentance
Divine Providence #117. Evils must be shunned as sins against God

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. (Jeremiah 7:3)

As I was preparing today's sermon, I realized that if I wanted to do a Valentine's Day sermon, it would have to be this week. By next week, Valentine's Day will have gone by. But by the time I realized this, it was already too late--the wheels had been churning in my head for too long, and they were going in a different direction.

Today's sermon is about as far away from Valentine's Day as you could get. I am going to complete the thought we started two weeks ago, when the sermon was titled "Lead Us Not Into Temptation." Today my title is "Deliver Us From Evil." You will have to find something else between today and Friday to get you in the mood for Valentine's Day, because I am not going to give you much help!

Two weeks ago we considered how we get into temptation, and how the Lord is always working to lead us out of temptation by leading us away from our own harmful habits and tendencies. But of course, we all do have bad habits that have developed over the years. Some of those habits are obvious to other people; some of them we hide from others so they will not see them; and some of them we do not even see ourselves, as Swedenborg suggests in our reading from Divine Providence.

The Lord cannot always lead us out of temptation, because the wrong--or evil--things that build up in us block the way. Many times it is too late for the Lord to "lead us not into temptation," because we are already right in the middle of the destructive ways of thinking, feeling, or acting that bring on the temptations. In this case, we need the Lord to deliver us from evil. Today we will look a little more closely at how this can happen--how the Lord can deliver us from evil if we will work with the Lord.

You see, the Lord cannot automatically flush away everything that is wrong with us. Oh, maybe it would be possible theoretically, but consider the consequences. Each one of us is a mixture of good and bad motives, good and bad thoughts, good and bad actions. We might think, "If only the Lord would take away all the bad parts, I would be completely good, and everything would be wonderful!"

But it is not that easy. Consider our bodies. Some of us have bodies that are in better working order than others. At the moment, mine is not doing so well. I have been having coughs and sniffles. In Swedenborgian doctrinal language, my nose and throat are "involved in evil." My head has been involved in evil once or twice in the past week, too. . . . I'm talking about headaches, so you can stop imagining things!

Now, if the Lord had taken away the evil parts of my body during the past week, I would currently be without a nose and a throat, and perhaps without my whole head. I suspect I would be missing a few internal organs as well. A hospital that treated people's illnesses in this way would soon be out of business--and when it comes to overcoming human evil, the Lord is much more skilled than even our finest physicians.

No, the Lord cannot simply take away the evil parts of ourselves because they are parts of ourselves. Taking them away would mean killing us, just as taking away vital but diseased parts of our physical bodies would cause our death. It is necessary for the Lord to take a less drastic and less dramatic approach. It is an approach that may leave us impatient for more results in the short term, but in the long term we will come out far better. If we help instead of hinder the process, we will not only come out with all our spiritual limbs and organs intact, but with much stronger and healthier ones than we had before.

I keep mentioning that we need to work with the Lord; to help the Lord deliver us from evil. How do we do that? Some Christians would say that there is nothing at all we can do. Our salvation from sin and death is purely a matter of God's grace. A person who believes this very strongly would probably not admit much more than that we can cooperate with God by believing in Jesus as our savior. Our church agrees that as Christians we must accept Jesus as our Lord and savior. But that is only the beginning of our journey as Christians. Once we have entrusted our lives to Jesus, we have the job of re-forming our lives into the pattern that Jesus has shown us.

Now this gets tricky. Those Christians who believe it is only God's grace that saves us do have an element of truth in their belief. It is only by God's power that we can be saved and rescued from the wrong ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that stand in the way of our spiritual life and health. If we rely on our own strength, we will fail. Any apparent success we have will be superficial. It will be nothing more than an effort to straighten ourselves out to avoid getting into trouble or having people think badly of us. But, as Swedenborg points out, if we avoid evils for these external reasons, we only shut them up inside of ourselves; we do not remove the self-centered desires that our evils spring from.

Because of this, it is important for us to recognize in everything we do that anything good we do is really the Lord working in us; it does not come from ourselves. Yet we do also need to work with the Lord every step of the way--not just the one time we decide we are going to have faith in the Lord and become Christian. As the prophet Jeremiah says so forcefully,

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: "This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord." (Jer. 7:3, 4)

It is not our attendance at the temple of the Lord, nor even our profession of belief in Christ that allows the Lord to dwell with us. These are only doorways. It is when we take our faith to heart and amend our ways and doings that the Lord can come and dwell with us. When we do this, we are letting the Lord dwell with us in this place--in the temple of our bodies, minds, and spirits.

Let's be more specific. In our reading from Luke, John the Baptist echoes Jeremiah's preaching when he tells the people to "bear fruits worthy of repentance." The people pressed him to be more specific. "What then should we do?" they asked. So he gave them a specific answer. "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." These are fruits worthy of repentance. These outward actions of consideration for others' needs are taught to us by the one who was sent to prepare the way of the Lord--and later by the Lord himself.

What I especially like about this passage is that even this wasn't specific enough for some of the people in the crowd. The tax collectors who came to be baptized asked, "Teacher, what should we do?" Unfortunately, he did not tell them to stop collecting taxes! But he did tell them to collect no more than the amount prescribed for them. Since tax collectors gained much of their wealth by over-collecting taxes with the Roman soldiers to back them up, this was no small obligation that John laid on them.

Some soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" Once again, he did not tell them not to be soldiers anymore--much to the chagrin of pacifists everywhere. Instead, he told them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages." This was a difficult thing also. With all his armor and weaponry, a soldier was a frightening man, and could easily make much more than his wages by engaging in a little extortion on the side.

Those of us who are not tax collectors or soldiers may wish that someone from our own occupation had been there to ask what we should do. But these two answers give us a pattern that we can apply to our own situations. Whatever our work may be, our religion teaches us that we should avoid using our position to hurt others or to profit at their expense. Instead, we should do our work honestly, fairly, and with concern for others.

This may seem obvious to us. In our church especially, there has always been a great emphasis on living the life of "charity," or kindness. It is a central belief of our church that faith by itself does not save us, but faith expressed in good works of love and kindness toward others does. These two passages from the Bible join together with hundreds of others to assure us that this is so.

What may not be so obvious is that while we are busy cleaning up our act outwardly, we are making way for the Lord to change our deeper feelings and thoughts. Sometimes this business of confronting our evils seems too much for us. We are told to search out our selfish feelings and false ways of thinking and to fight against them. But when we start paying attention to all the thoughts and feelings that fly through our heads minute by minute and day by day, the task seems overwhelming. Mixed in with our good thoughts and feelings there are so many petty jealousies and unfounded angers. Mixed in with our love for others and desire to live in a Christian way are so many uncharitable thoughts about others and alluring urges to do things we know we shouldn't. How can we ever deal with it all?

We cannot. There is too much going on inside of us and we have too little control of it to overcome all our selfish feelings and thoughts. By the time we had taken care of one of them, a dozen more would have already passed through our minds unchecked. Fortunately, the Lord does not expect us to clean up our minds and hearts by ourselves. The Lord will do that for us if we will focus on an area where we can have more effect--with the Lord's help, of course. That area is the things we actually say and do.

We all have wrong thoughts and feelings. It is part of the human condition in a world that is a mixture of good and evil. However, we do not have to act on those wrong thoughts and feelings. What the Lord requires of us is that, when we have an urge to say or do something we know we shouldn't--because we know it is wrong and hurtful--we refrain from saying or doing that thing. As Jeremiah says, the Lord requires that we amend our ways and our doings.

If we will do this, recognizing that it is by the Lord's power that we amend even our words and actions, then the Lord can come and dwell with us. The Lord will dwell within us, in the temple of our hearts and minds. Then, upon the foundation of our good words and deeds, the Lord will gradually deliver us from the evil of our self-centered thoughts and feelings, so that we may be clean both inside and out, and dwell with the Lord forever.



Music: Dreams Do Come True
1999 Bruce DeBoer

 
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