"Clean and Fill"

A young girl was at kindergarten drawing a picture for her mom. The teacher walks up to her and asks what she's drawing. "I'm drawing a picture of God," the girl replied. "But no one knows what God looks like," the teacher said. To which the girl replied, "They will when I finish the picture."

What does God look like, where is God, Jesus are you God, prove it? In some ways this sounds like the religious leaders we heard about in our Gospel reading today doesn't it.

The Pharisees were asking for another miraculous sign from Jesus, but in reality they weren't sincerely seeking to know Jesus. Jesus knew they had already seen enough miraculous proof to convince them he was the Messiah. All they had to do was open their hearts to this revelation. You see the Pharisees had already decided to believe Jesus was not the Messiah so another miracle wasn't going to change their thinking.

You and I see and experience miracles everyday: the sunrise, sunset, change of season, birth, life saving surgery, healings, and so forth. But if we don't believe in God with our heart, if we don't believe he is the author of the miracles we witness, seeing another miracle isn't going to change our thinking either.

How many miracles did the Pharisees need to see before they believed, how many do we have to see before we will believe Jesus is the indeed promised Messiah?

The truth is we don't need to see any more miracles to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. We already have plenty of evidence, Jesus' birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and centuries of his work in fellow believers around the world. Instead of looking for more miracles, more proof of the divinity of Jesus, we ought to accept what God has already given us and move forward to grow in faith.

To make his point to the Pharisees, Jesus uses the story of Jonah, which the religious leaders would certainly know. We know Jonah as the one who was swallowed by the big fish where he remained for three days. Jonah was a prophet sent by God to the Assyrian City of Nineveh, which was located just across the Tigris River from the city of Mosul in Iraq, which we hear about an awful lot in the news these days.

Because Nineveh was such a cruel and brutal nation, Jonah tried to run away from his God given assignment to go and preach God's message so that the folks of Nineveh might repent. And in the end, to Jonah's displeasure, the people of Nineveh did repent after hearing the Word of God preached.

By contrast, when Jesus came to his people, they refused to repent. Instead of repenting and believing, instead of ridding their lives of sin and allowing the Holy Spirit to take up residence within their hearts, the Pharisees were more interested in seeing miracles, and they had no interest in accepting the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the one sent by God, the one the Jews had been waiting for.

Verses 43-45 of our Gospel reading really spoke to me this week. In this small section of text Jesus is talking about the attitude of the people of Israel, and most specifically the religious leaders.

Hear Jesus words again in a more contemporary translation of the scripture. "When a defiling evil spirit is expelled from someone, it drifts along through the desert looking for an oasis, some unsuspecting soul it can bedevil. When it doesn't find anyone, it says I'll go back to my old haunt. On return it finds the person spotlessly clean, but vacant. It then runs out and rounds up seven other spirits more evil than itself and they all move in, whooping it up. That person ends up far worse off than if he'd never gotten cleaned up in the first place.

That's what this generation is like: You may think you have cleaned out the junk from your lives and gotten ready for God, but you weren't hospitable to my kingdom message, and now all the devils are moving back in."

Basically Jesus is saying, you weren't open to receiving my kingdom message, and now all the sin you worked so hard to rid yourself of is moving back in. How many of us can relate to this in some way? Has there been a time in your life when you wouldn't allow the Words of God into your heart, and as a result Satan and sin took over, perhaps leading you to speak an unkind word, or to treat someone poorly.

This happens to everyone. There have been times in my life when I could talk myself into moving away from God's Word, for the sake of priming my ego, self-gratification, or to say or do something unkind. And if I'm not careful I still can fall into this trap. Ridding ones life of sin is not a one-time event, it's a continual process.

Have you ever gone to the doctor for your annual check-up and one of the results of your physical is that you have to lose weight. Well after the visit you go home and immediately get with it, you begin a, low fat, low salt, low carb., and some would say a no-taste diet.

Over time you begin to feel great and see results, but since your heart really isn't into the diet, and you haven't really replaced bad food choices with better food choices, you slowly begin to cheat until you realize you're no longer eating the way you started after visiting the doctor. Overtime, as a result of your cheating you've put back on the weight you lost, and in many cases you weigh more than you did.

In other words we've expelled the bad stuff from our bodies, but overtime we're tempted by the bad food again, because we haven't really replaced the bad food with good food. As a result we end up eating more bad stuff, and then we throw our hands up in disgust at our lack of discipline or follow-through.

Soon we feel bad and we try again, and again, and again, trying all the different diets, only to get the same results. Some call this yo-yo dieting.

Why is this? Well the experts say it's because we treated our new way of eating as a diet to lose weight, instead of making a lifestyle change to improve our overall health.

Well the same is true of our spiritual life. We may begin coming to church and become pretty regular attendees but then something happens and we decide to try a desert, in other words we take a weekend off, and it's not too long before a weekend becomes a month or two and then perhaps years.

The point is we're treating going to church and being involved in a faith community as a religious obligation (much like a diet) and haven't made worshipping and following Jesus a heart-felt lifestyle change. Therefore the changes we attempted to make in our lives don't stick.

And this is what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel reading. If we rid ourselves of the evil spirits and stop doing sinful things, but fail to replace the old lifestyle with a love for God and obedience to God, we will fall right back to our old ways. And in many cases our old ways become worse and worse.

Then like a diet we may try something different, a new church, a new spiritual discipline, and so forth But the results are much like the yo-yo dieting, we get more and more discouraged, and become embarrassed, feel guilty, and just say the heck with it. We become yo-yo- Christians. And like the dieter we begin to blame others for our problems. We blame the fast food restaurants and the makers of packaged food. In like manner we blame God and we blame the church.

Again, growing and maintaining a healthy faith, requires a lifestyle change, not a quick fix of church or religion. Like losing weight, it requires discipline, accountability, and responsibility.

So how do we develop a healthier faith, and a life more focused on Jesus? Well ridding our lives of sin is the first step, and in some ways is the easier step, but to be successful in our quest to become spiritually healthy we must also take the second step of filling our lives with God's Word and the Holy Spirit.

In other words love for God and obedience to him must be part of our lifestyle, not just an every-now-and-then weekend worship experience. Unfilled and complacent people are easy targets for Satan, and believe me Satan looks for easy targets.

Lets now consider some ways we can make a lifestyle change so that we don't become yo-yo Christians. In your bulletin you will find a list of spiritual disciplines that will help nurture your spiritual health.

You don't have to do all of them at the same time, but I encourage you to give some of these disciplines a try as you tend to your spiritual health. These disciplines, coupled with regular worship, will help you move from where we are on your faith journey to where God's wants you to be.

And as you tend to your spiritual health you'll want to know if you're progressing. Well much like stepping on a scale to see if you've lost weight, one way to measure your spiritual health progress is to consider what some call the marks of discipleship: love, word, cross, and fruit.

The love Jesus speaks to is the love of a servant and being humble. So one measure of spiritual health is are we loving others as God has loved us and are we humble in our service, giving of ourselves from the heart, not out of obligation or seeking to earn favor with God or anyone else.

Word refers to seeking a deep understanding of Jesus and all he has to offer. Many folks have a surface knowledge of Jesus, but to be growing a healthy spiritual life we need to go beyond surface awareness to a deeper understanding.

A deep understanding gives us a stronger foundation to face the storms of this world, and will prevent us from breaking when tragedy, persecution, or injustice strikes.

Now as challenging as the disciplines of love and word are, they're not the end of discipleship. Love and word are means of grace to lead us to the freedom needed to carry our crosses. Carrying our cross means we are willing to follow Jesus no matter what others think of us, or say about us.

The cross for a Christian is not merely a painful burden to bear. It's not an illness, an accident, or any other unavoidable suffering. A disciple's cross is a choice made in passionate obedience to God on behalf of the gospel. Jesus invites us to count the cost of what it means to follow him, and then follow with a special concern for those who have needs.

Now the ultimate mark of discipleship is fruit. Disciples of Jesus Christ glorify God by bearing much fruit, the fruit of the Spirit: "Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control", and you can find these fruits listed in Galatians 5:22-23. The fruitfulness of a Christian is both quality and quantity, if we neglect either we fail.

So we need to ask ourselves, as a measure of spiritual health, "Am I bearing fruit, and what is the quality of fruit I'm bearing, am I truly being a faithful disciple and witness for Jesus."

In just a few days we'll begin the season of Lent, a time to repent, a time to be cleansed of our sin and a time for showing sorrow and remorse for our sin. Instead of giving up something for Lent, I encourage all of us to add a spiritual discipline or two, to our daily diet, seeking to grow in faith and grow in our relationship with Christ.

As we journey this Lenten season with Jesus, may we clean our hearts of all that is bad, and may God fill our souls with all that is good.


Read other messages by Pastor Wade