Sermon delivered by Dr. Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on June 7, 2009.
Luke 11: 24-26.
In any city, Sunday is the saddest day of the week…when the tempo of the working week is suspended, and the poverty of meaning in every-day urban life is exposed. On Sunday, when the frantic (daily) race pauses for twenty-four hours, all the aimlessness, meaninglessness, and emptiness of the people’s existence rises up before them once more….What lengths they go to then to escape this experience. They flee to a dance hall. There the music is loud and boisterous, which saves the trouble of talking….Sports provide another “refuge” for the Sunday neurotics. They can pretend, for example, that the most important thing in the world is which football team wins a game.
—Viktor E. Frankl, M.D. from The Doctor & the Soul
Is there anything about yourself that you would like to change? We all have something about ourselves that we wish were different. Some things seem changeable; some do not. Maybe it is a bad habit like biting your nails. One day, you think, It is time I beat this habit.
Maybe you waste time. You feellike you watch too much TV. I come in and I don’t do anything. I come in and just watch TV. I need to change this.
Maybe it is an attitude about someone that you don’t particularly care about. You finally come to the place after hearing your eight-year-old say the exact same words that you have repeated about this person and you recognize how bad it sounds. When you corrected your child, he said, Well, you said it. You think, I need to change my attitude.
We all have something that we want to change. A number of times a year we set out to change these things and how long does the change last? We decide we are not going to bite our fingernails, and then one day we look down and we have bit them off. We realize that we are back in front of the TV again or we are back saying the same words about somebody. It seems like it doesn’t take too long until we are back.
The pounds that we lost out of a desire to change are back on the scales. The cigarettes are back in our purse or in the console in the car. We are not in any better shape and we wind up wearing this guilt like an ill-fitted suit. We just can’t seem to shake it and it is always there. Why don’t we do better?
The passage from Luke 11:24-26 sheds light from one angle on this. Jesus is talking about evil and how evil can invade a person’s life. He tells this parable about a person that a demon has left. The demon goes out and wanders among the dry places. Demons did not like water or that is the way people told it in Jesus’ day. The demon is out in the dry places and cannot find a place to live. It comes back and the person’s life is empty. The demon brings seven of his best friends and says, “Come on, let’s go back and live there.”
In the time of Jesus, God was in heaven, people were on earth, and everywhere in the air there were thought to be demons, powers, and forces that worked against us to trap us and do harm to us. The real evil to be feared in the world was not the occupying Roman soliders. It was not the thieves and bandits who might have been hiding between mountains on the way from one town to another. People thought the real fear was demons.
If you look at Paul’s Letter to the Church at Ephesus, there is even a place where he says, “The real enemies are the invisible powers.” The real enemies are the forces that work against us, an invisible kingdom.
When Jesus told this parable, he was describing the common understanding of the day and the fate of an empty life? What is the fate of emptiness? A person tries to take things out of his life, tries to take the demon outs, and now it is all empty and prepared but nothing else has come in. So the powers, the temptations, the desires all come back with a vengeance. The clear message is that just because you emptied your life of the bad doesn’t mean that you have replaced it with something good. As long as it is just sitting there empty, the destructive powers want to come raging back.
The passage from Luke is a short passage and it seems to be written with a view of the world and demons that seems to be different to us than the way we view the world, but there is a lot here. This passage explains why the stereotype view of Christianity fails to satisfy. Most people from the outside view Christianity as merely being good and not doing bad. They view Christianity as this religion in which everything is guided by the “thou shalt nots.” Thou shalt not bear false witness . . . Thou shalt not steal . . . Thou shalt not kill. You know the list. So they think that a relationship to God and faith in Christ is merely based on taking the bad stuff out. People who try that find themselves exceptionally unsatisfied. Why? Because it is still empty. If that is what it means to be a Christian, no wonder it does not satisfy. The life is empty.
A number of people often talk to me about repentance. They want to know, How do I know that I have truly repented? I don’t feel like I have repented. They are trying to leave something bad behind. The passage helps us understand why repentance is no more satisfying than it is sometimes because a lot of times we stop half way. We only go as far as to say, I don’t want to be that kind of person. I don’t want to do that any more. I am sorry, God, that I did that. We don’t turn all the way to embrace the goodness, the love, and the fullness that God has waiting for us. We turn and say, I don’t want that any more, but we don’t turn all the way over to God to get what it is God wants to fill our lives with.
If you took physics in high school, you learned that nature abhors a vacuum. If you take everything out, something is going to come rushing back in to fill it. This is the spiritual principle of that at work.
We have several people in the church who have lawn service companies. Ask them, What is the best way to get rid of weeds? The best way to get rid of weeds is not to go pull, spray, and try to kill them. The best way is to have a great full yard of grass because the weeds always attack the bare spots. Where there is emptiness, where there is barrenness, where there is nothing that is where the bad tries to get in. What Jesus is describing here is simply this principle in the spiritual realm. A life that is simply empty of all bad, all evil, and all destruction sounds wonderful, but it is still going to be accessible for all these things to come back again.
Do you know anybody in recovery from a Twelve-Step group? One of the reasons why that works so well is because if your goal is simply to stop some destructive behavior and you say, OK, I am going to stop, and just leave it at that, you are still so vulnerable. But if you can replace the behavior that has hurt you so much of your life with good relationships and the support and encouragement of other people—people who pray for you and lift you up and are there for you—all of a sudden that is not just an emptiness, that is a fullness that comes in and allows us to become what God intended for us.
Have you ever had a family member who had a sudden illness—a stroke, a heart attack, something that forced that family member to go live in extended care or in a nursing home or someplace like that. For a while, the house has been sitting there empty, no one opening and closing the doors, no children tracking in dirt, no teenagers jostling around and falling into the walls while they are wrestling and making a spot in the wall where you can see that their bodies have hit, nobody who has left water on and running. The windows have been shut; the curtains have been drawn. You think, Nobody has been here. This should be in really good shape. Then you walk in that house and you think, What happened? An empty house deteriorates so fast. You think, How did it get this dirty? Where did this dirt come from? Who brought this in here? What is this broken? Why is this falling down? Why is that sagging? Those of you who have ever had to deal with an empty house know that the highest insurance is on a house that is vacant because a vacant house has a tendency to have problems.
We can see in that the parable of what Jesus is trying to tell us. Emptiness is the problem. It is not enough simply to take the things out of our lives that hurt us, but it is to replace those things with things that are good.
Let me ask you this. What do you think God’s highest desire is for your life? Is it simply to have those things that have hurt you gone—those things that are not good for you and work against you—or is it that God’s fullness would dwell within you, that the spirit of God would come and be in you, lift you, and bless you and lead you to places of service, lead you to love and be compassionate towards other people, to lead you to become a generous person, to lead you to be involved in the things on earth that God wants to see done. Just to have stuff taken out is nothing, but to have the blessing of God come and live within us and fill us up, that is where the life of faith in Jesus Christ begins to make a difference for us.
In preparing this message, I got to this place and I thought, Who believes their life is empty? Nobody. We all can pull out our I-Phones, our Blackberries, or however we keep a calendar and show that our lives are filled to the brim. Look at my ‘to do list’ this week. Look where I have to be. Look at all the appointments I have.
If you are a stay-at-home parent, you can show all the places where you have to be to take your children. You don’t know how you are doing to make it. You have to coordinate with other people to make sure that the kids get every place they are supposed to be. Which one of us would ever think that we have an empty life?
Here is a question to end the sermon: When we show each other these schedules that are so full, are we showing each other the fullness of God or the traces of eight demons? Is it evidence that God has come and filled our lives with goodness or that our empty lives have become filled with things that hurt us? Which is it?
The meditation text for this sermon is from Viktor Frankl. He lived through the concentration camps of World War II and became one of the great leading psychologists in the aftermath. He describes this world. He says, “Sunday is the saddest day of the week.” Everything else has been suspended and we don’t have anything to fill it up so we fill it up any way we can. One of the most serious spiritual problems that we face in our American culture today is empty lives disguising as full lives.
What is it that God really wants to do for you? God wants to take out of our lives the things that simply do us no good and replace them with the spirit of Jesus Christ, a spirit that leads to all the good things we have heard about in church all of our lives—faith, hope, peace, joy, kindness, all the fruits of the spirit.
Where are you? What’s in your house? Is what is in your house the fullness of God or is it the traces of demons that God would relieve us of? Something to pray about. Let’s do it now.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.