Angels and Devils
By the Rev.
Massachusetts, October 31, 1999
Transcribed from Audio Tape
50:15-20 Evil turned to good
Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they
said, "What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and
pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?" So
they sent word to Joseph, saying, "Your father left
these instructions before he died: 'This is what you are
to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the
sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so
badly.' Now please forgive the sins of the servants of
the God of your father." When their message came to
him, Joseph wept.
brothers then came and threw themselves down before him.
"We are your slaves," they said.
Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the
place of God? You intended evil, but God intended it for
good to accomplish what is now being done: the saving of
Matthew 13:24-30 The parable of the weeds
told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven
is like someone who sowed good seed in the field. But
while everyone was sleeping, an enemy came and sowed
weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat
sprouted and formed ears, then the weeds also appeared.
"The owner's servants came to him and said, 'Sir,
didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did
the weeds come from?'
enemy did this,' he replied.
servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them
he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds,
you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow
together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the
harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in
bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it
into my barn.'"
Divine Providence #251 Why does God permit evil?
the time of the very earliest humans, symbolized by Adam
and his wife, the love that is the life of humankind has
become one that desires to rule over other people, and
eventually over everything; and also to possess all the
wealth of the world, and eventually all the wealth there
is. These two loves cannot be kept in chains, since it
is in harmony with divine providence that we are all
allowed to act in freedom according to our rationality.
if bad things were not allowed to happen, the Lord could
not lead us out of evil, so that we could be reformed
and saved. For unless evils were allowed to surface, we
would not see them; therefore we would not acknowledge
them, and so we could not be led to resist them. Because
of this, evil cannot be suppressed by any act of
providence. If it were, it would remain shut in, and
like a disease such as cancer or gangrene, would spread
and destroy our entire life.
from birth we are like a little hell--and between this
hell and heaven there is never-ending conflict. And the
Lord cannot lead us out of our hell unless we see that
we are in hell, and want to be led out of it.
said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place
of God? You intended evil, but God intended it for good,
to accomplish what is now being done: the saving of many
lives. (Genesis 50:19, 20)
passage is a reference to the fact that Joseph's
brothers had sold him into slavery in Egypt. They had
intended that for evil because they were jealous of
their brother. And yet, by that happening, Joseph was
able to lead the Egyptians to store away grain for the
years of famine, and therefore save the lives of
thousands of people. So the brothers had intended it for
evil, but the Lord had intended it for good.
is Halloween, and I put a couple of pictures on the
front of your service bulletin: one of a little angel,
and one of what you might call a little devil. It always
used to bother me that a lot of the Halloween costumes
were these evil figures: ghouls and goblin and aliens
that are going to come and take over the human race. I
thought, "What kind of a holiday is this where we
dress up our kids as all these awful characters?"
Of course, there were some nice characters too, but
still, when you see all those little devils running
around, you kind of wonder about it.
I want to look at this issue of angels and devils, or in
more abstract terms, good and evil. Where does evil come
from? Why do we have it in our world? And what is good
about evil? There's a little paradox for you. So the
question we have in front of us is where did evil come
from, and why does God allow it? Why does God allow war?
Why does God allow disease? Suffering? Why does God
allow crime? Why doesn't God stop the criminal from
doing what he has in his heart before it happens?
in our reading this morning, makes a rather startling
and disturbing statement. A lot of people, when they
have read this sort of thing in Swedenborg, have been
bothered by it. He says that we all start out like a
little hell. Well . . . that doesn't look
like the babies I knew when my little babies were
born. We like to think of our babies as a little heaven.
Yet, as any parent knows, babies can be a little hell
when they're fussy and whiny and you're dead tired, and
all that they're concerned about is their own immediate
needs, no matter how tired and distraught you
are. So there is one sense in which we are born a little
hell, and that is that we are born entirely wrapped up
does, though, make the balancing statement in other
places: that when we're born, and when we're little
babies, we're surrounded by angels of the highest
heaven. And so in babies, that self-centeredness isn't
really evil, in a sense, because it's innocent: they
don't mean any harm to their parents when they're crying
for three hours in the middle of the night, and the
parents are up taking care of them and wondering how
they are going to get through the next day.
no bad intent in those babies, but there is a
self-centeredness. And if we carry that
self-centeredness with us through our growing up years
and into our adulthood, it does become evil.
Imagine adults living the same way as babies: not caring
what the people around them think, doing whatever they
happen to feel like at that time no matter what it does
to the others around them. Then you can see that that
self-centeredness grown up, would create a hell
on earth, because we would all be thinking only about
ourselves, and not about the people around us. And the
fact is that some people do reach adulthood and all
they're thinking about is themselves. So this is what
Swedenborg is referring to: that self-centeredness
that's natural in babies, but becomes a bad thing when
we don't get rid of it as we grow older.
are all mixtures of good and evil. We do have
good about us. We see good in little children. Sometimes
my little boys are really nice to each other. And if my
daughter gets in the right mood, she'll take care of the
two boys, and she's just like a little mother--she's as
sweet as can be. Then later on she'll be picking fights
with them. So we're all mixtures of good and evil.
know that within ourselves we do have high aspirations;
we have things that we want to accomplish in this life.
We have ideals for our own lives, for the lives of our
children, for our work. And yet we also know that within
us there are parts that don't really want to put out the
effort, or that don't care as much about other people as
about how we ourselves feel. We have those negative
parts of ourselves as well.
are a mixture of good and evil. And we gain this--both
the good and the evil--from our parents and our society.
There are mixtures of good and evil in our society. And
so, when I think about the children dressing up for
Halloween, it reminds me that most of our holidays only
look at the good side of things. We have
Thanksgiving--that's pretty good; we have
Christmas--that's pretty good; we have Easter--that's
is a holiday that recognizes that there truly is evil as
well as good. We dress up, and maybe we don't take it
very seriously, but when we see those little ghosts and
goblins running around, if we think about it we realize
that those are expressions of the evil in our society
and in ourselves; and the good costumes are an
expression of the good in us. And so Halloween, in a
sense, is a realistic holiday: it recognizes that we as
people and we as a society are a mixture of good and
what could be good about having that evil parading
around and showing itself to us? Here, Swedenborg gives
us some help when he says that we cannot overcome the
evil . . . the Lord cannot help
us to overcome the evil in ourselves until we see that
it is there. If we're going along blissfully ignorant,
totally ignoring the feelings of others, and we don't
even realize how rude and how hurtful we're being,
there's nothing that the Lord can do to help us out of
acting that way toward other people.
as soon as we realize, "You know, that was a pretty
nasty thing that I said. That must have hurt," then
the evil is coming out into our consciousness, and we're
recognizing that there is a problem that we need to work
on. So actually, if we get to the point where we
realize, "I'm not such a great person," that
may be a positive step. Because the fact is that
everybody else around us knew that we were being a jerk
all that time--we were the only ones that didn't. And
when we become aware of it, then is when we can begin to
work on it. So I'm not quite as bothered by the little
ghosts and goblins running around anymore because it's
one way that our society recognizes that there are evil
things within us and in our society that need to be
says that evil must appear before it can be rooted out.
This brings us to our Gospel reading: the parable of the
wheat and the tares, to use the old language. The
"tares" were a weed that looked very much like
wheat when it was first growing up, and it was hard to
tell the difference. This is why, when the master, the
owner of the land was approached by the servants saying,
"should we pull them out," he said, "No,
don't do that, because you will pull out the wheat along
with the weeds. Wait until they grow up." Then it
becomes obvious, because the wheat is bearing nice heads
of grain, whereas the weeds are doing nothing useful
except taking up the nutrients in the soil. Then you
will be able to see clearly what is the good--what's the
wheat--and what is the evil.
we need to let that evil mature in us a little bit. We
need to let it show itself. Perhaps we need to make that
nasty remark. We've been feeling inside, "What a
jerk that person is," but we've never done anything
about it. Then at some point we just get too frustrated
and the word comes out: we say that mean thing, and we
hurt the other person. Then we realize that this is the
result of those feelings we've had inside ourselves
toward that person. And this is the first time we've
recognized how hurtful those feelings are.
evil has matured. It has matured into action. And now we
can pull out that weed. We can say, "I have to get
rid of the attitude that this other person is a lesser
person than I am; that he or she is a bad person. I have
to root that out of myself so that I won't treat them
that way anymore.
so, in an odd way, what we see as evil, God intends for
good. Every evil that comes out in our lives is an
opportunity for us to make ourselves into better people.
Because whether we recognize it or not, those bad
feelings are there, and our personal faults are
there. And now we have seen them. The Lord is bringing
them out so that we can see them and reform
ourselves--make ourselves into a more thoughtful person.
So what we see as evil: that nasty remark we made to
that person . . . the Lord doesn't
necessarily see the nasty remark as good, but the fact
that we made it and saw that it was wrong, the Lord
intended for good. So the Lord turns that evil into
goodness. If we have a bad temper or a drinking problem,
sooner or later it is going to come out. And if we
recognize that, then the Lord can bring good out of it.
is where we come back full circle to the story of
Joseph. The brothers had intended this act for evil.
They hated their brother. They were jealous of him
because he was their father's favorite. Their father
gave him special presents--the coat of many colors.
(We're going to see a few more coats of colors in a
minute!) [After the sermon and offertory, the children
came into the sanctuary wearing their costumes and
joined the congregation for a Children's Talk and a
rousing chorus of "Oh When the Saints Go Marching
In."] They hated him because they were jealous. And
they did an act that was intended to hurt him.
on, they recognized that they had made a mistake, that
they were wrong. And in sort of an offhand way, they
were coming to him to apologize to him--to say,
"We're sorry for what that we did." Now, part
of it was out of fear: he was a very powerful man
by that time, and they had better apologize to
him. Yet on the other hand, they had all matured some.
They had all recognized that they had done it out of
jealousy, and it wasn't such a good thing to do. And if
we continued with the story, we would find that they had
a wonderful coming back together--a rapprochement--where
they were weeping on one another's necks, in the
Biblical phrase. They did come together and appreciate
in the end, through all of the hard things that
happened, the Lord brought the goodness of the
reconciliation. The Lord brought goodness out of that
evil. Spiritually, this is also a story of our higher
part, our good part, our spiritual part coming to rule
in the end. Whatever may have ruled our lives meanwhile,
when Joseph becomes the ruler and then gets back
together with his brothers, it's a picture of our higher
selves finally coming to rule in our lives, and putting
everything else into order.
to the question of evil. In the short term, evil is
painful. If somebody we love dies; if we lose our job;
if somebody who we cared about betrays us, it hurts.
There's no way we can deny that at least in the short
term, we are hurt by these things. Yet, the Lord can
turn these things around into long term good. There's
another saying of Jesus that helps us here: "What
good is it for a person to gain all the world but lose
his own soul?" (Mark 8:36). And the flip side of
that is: how much does it matter if we have temporary
pain, if we are growing spiritually as a result, and
becoming more thoughtful and loving people?
reminds us of all these struggles that we have between
the good and the evil in us. And I hope that as we
contemplate this, and as we struggle with these issues
in our lives, that the angel side of us will win out
over the devil side, so that in the end, we can become
angels of light. Amen.
Music: Theme from