Sunday Sermon: More by Its Spirit than Its Successes

 |  Sunday Sermon

Text: Luke 11:24-26
Series: “The Church Your New Pastor Deserves”

Several years ago, Harvard Medical School psychologist Steven Berglas wrote a book, The Success Syndrome, that rocked the world of “ladder climbers” everywhere, those whose purpose in life is to pursue success at all costs. Bergals’s thesis was that success, at least as our world defines it, is a two-edged sword, a burden as much as it is a blessing because of how people who are deemed successful often locate their worth in something that can never be satisfied. In other words, once you get to the top, how do you stay there? How do you ensure you remain a success? I think you see his point. So, as a physician, what did Berglas prescribe for those who were infected with such a malady? “What’s missing in these people,” he said, “is a deep commitment or religious activity that goes beyond just writing a check to charity.” 

In other words, true success doesn’t hinge on something natural or man-made. It instead hinges on something supernatural, something that comes from a place that prestige or power or possessions cannot define. That’s a lesson that Jesus wanted the multitudes to see as he gave himself to the task of bringing to bear the supernatural power of God’s Kingdom upon the evil he encountered in this world.

In the 11th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has just driven out a demon from a man incapable of speech. But as the man starts talking, Luke tells us that the crowd who had witnessed this miracle are amazed and also perplexed. Seeking for an explanation of such a miracle, they assume that Jesus has driven out the demon by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons. It never dawned on them that Jesus might have driven out the demon by the power of God. So, Jesus corrects their misunderstanding by pointing them to the real truth of the miracle they had just witnessed, which is that evil spirits can only wreak havoc when they find a soul that is not occupied by the Spirit of God.

As he did on so many occasions, Jesus makes this point with a parable. “When an impure (or unclean) spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places (waterless places) seeking rest and does not find it. So, what does it do? It decides to the return to the place it left, and when it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order.” In other words, from outward appearances, everything about the soul to which this evil spirit returns appears normal.

But those appearances are deceiving, Jesus tells us. Because though the house is swept clean and put in order, it is still unoccupied. There is space for the demon to return; and not only for the demon to return by itself, there is also room for seven other spirits more wicked than the first. And when they all go in to occupy that vacant space, the final condition of that person is worse than the first.

So, what does this parable mean, and, more importantly, how do we apply its meaning to our life?  Here is one suggestion. You’ve heard the expression, “Nature abhors a vacuum?” That phrase was first coined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who in his exploration of life came to discover that unfilled spaces go against the laws of nature and demand to be filled with something. What Jesus calls us to understand is that it’s not just nature that abhors a vacuum; so does the human soul. Our souls are always filled with good or bad.  The choice is ours, and if we do not decide to choose a good spirit, God’s Spirit, then the choice will be made for us, and evil will hold sway in our souls.

So, how much space does Jesus occupy in your soul, and what assurance do you have that any success you enjoy in your life is because of what he does through you and not so much what you are able to accomplish by yourself? Those two questions are intricately intertwined; otherwise, we become vulnerable to “success syndrome” and in an effort to fill the void that such a syndrome creates, unless we allow Jesus to fill it, we become tempted to fill it with other things, some of which are blatantly evil, though we may not recognize it in the moment. This truth holds not just for individuals; it also holds for churches. 

Over the course of these years that I have been with you, I have said on numerous occasions that God’s call to this church is not so much that we be successful as it is that we be faithful. That’s actually God’s call to every church, but perhaps even more to this one. You look at the history of Mountain Brook Baptist Church and it is indeed marked by one success after another. We’ve reached scores of people for the cause of Christ. We’ve started other churches that in turn have done the same. We’ve supported missions causes around the world, and at times we have supported them when others had abandoned those very causes. We’ve built buildings. We’ve raised lots of money.  By the world’s standards, we’ve enjoyed one success after another. But what has fueled this church’s success in days past is not our talent or our intelligence or our affluence or our ingenuity. What has made us the exemplary church that we are and have been for these 77 years is our dependence upon God’s Holy Spirit and our willingness to be filled and led by it.

Think about it this way. What would happen to Mountain Brook Baptist Church if the Spirit of God were taken away from us? That’s a sobering thought, is it not, one that you might think an impossibility. And yet, there is that haunting passage in the book of Revelation, where the Spirit says to the church at Ephesus, which we know from other places in the New Testament was by all appearances a successful church: “I know your deeds, your hard work, and your perseverance…. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love…. Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:1-5). 

So, what would happen if the Spirit of God were taken from us and our lampstand were removed? I remember something I heard one preacher say in response to that question. “(A church) could stay alive for a number of weeks, even for a number of months. If it has personality and a lot of talent and a good bit of money and some projects and a few parties, a dead church can go on for weeks, delaying the inevitable obituary. (But) it is the prayer of the church, ‘Do not take away your Holy Spirit,’ that makes us the church” we want to be and, more importantly, the church Jesus needs us to be (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Cherry Log Sermons).

Such is my prayer for this church and going forward, I invite you to make it your prayer as well. Then we will remain faithful and God’s Spirit will do in us and through us things we never dreamed were possible. 

A quick story. During my freshman year at Montevallo, I found my way to the Baptist Student Union, a ministry to college students supported by Cooperative Program funds from local Baptist Churches. The BSU had to meet at the college’s Student Union Building because of how in the previous year the group had been dismissed from the local church that had housed it for many years. Why was the group dismissed? An African student had come to a BSU Sunday night fellowship at the church, one who as a boy had come to faith in Christ through the ministry of Southern Baptist missionaries in his country. Yet when church leaders heard that a black person was at BSU, they changed the locks on the doors the next morning and the group had to find a new home. Things like that happened in the 1970s and I’m pleased to report that the church repented of that sin and has since been more sensitive to the needs of all persons created in God’s image. But as you would understand, that experience left a mark on those college students who had been dismissed so that by the time I arrived the next year, the pain was still palpable.  

So, what did those students do? They endeavored to soothe that pain by invoking the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. Every time we would prepare to be dismissed, we would circle up and hold hands and sing that song penned by the Black songwriter, Doris Akers, which came from her own need through worship in her church to find God’s peace and strength in the face of life’s trials and tribulations. You know the song, “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit.” As I recall, it even made it into the 1991 edition of the Baptist Hymnal. “There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place, and I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord.” And how does that song end? “Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived when we shall leave this place.”

My prayer is that will always be so with Mountain Brook Baptist Church, regardless of the gathering. For then there will no place for evil spirits to find room in our souls. Our souls will instead be filled with the Spirit, which will ultimately lead to the only successes that in God’s eyes really matter.