February 27th, 2014
In Matthew 12 Jesus tells a parable that likens the expulsion of an unclean spirit to the cleaning of a house:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
One might draw out several implications from this foreboding passage. One stands out: a heart expunged of a dark influence is none the better unless something else is established in its place. Dismissing a sinful tendency is not the same as displacing it. Only a new desire can effectively cancel out the interest in the former.
The Scottish pastor of the early 19th century, Thomas Chalmers, may have made that point the clearest in his perhaps most famous sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” As the preface to the linked document will warn, sermons written by churchmen of that day often require a perseverance to which we are not accustomed (perhaps I have prepared you in some way). But for all the sermon’s pithiness there is a corresponding intuitiveness to his argument. Why do we stop desiring any particular thing? Isn’t it because something else came to be more desirable to us? Didn’t we lose our affections for picture books only after we came to savor books with words that could evoke far more than just images as we read? Wasn’t it the blessedness of learning what another might say that helped us forsake the tendency to always be interrupting or commandeering the conversation?
Doesn’t every struggle to abandon what we know, at some level, is diminishing us entail becoming convinced there is a more desirable use of our time, attention, and affection? Can’t even the desire to have a house swept clean be surmounted by a desire for a deeper purity?
I put to us all an uncommon kind of application of the sermon text last Sunday: I asked that before you pray, you listen to that song we’d shared in last week’s Backstory by Audrey Assad “I Shall Not Want.” Assad’s song sets Jesus’ parable, Chalmer’s sermon, and our deepest desire in the language of the heart. That is, she arranges words, rhythm, and melody into a form that speaks not only to our minds but to something deeper in us, something in but beyond propositions. Her song prays for a rehabilitation of her heart that involves more than merely dispensing with what stands opposed to God; she begs for a new expulsive affection that is both of and for God.
Did you listen to it? Did any of the things she asked deliverance from reflect a similar desire?
What would be the new affections that would need to enter the house of your heart?
The film had all the appearances of science-fiction, but faith ends up playing more a role than the fantastic. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix, Signs is about a former episcopal priest named Graham (Gibson) who’d lost his faith when his wife lost her life in a freak car-accident.
But soon the film’s tension turns to the disturbing appearances of those crop circles made famous by pranksters about a decade ago, except these circles turn out to be the product of none other than some form of alien life. Think Swamp Thing but with more menacing mandibles.
Without ruining too much of the plot, the world shudders at the sudden manifestation of fourteen bright lights hovering high above the earth’s major cities. Graham huddles his children and brother (Phoenix) together to await the extra-terrestrials’ next move. In this scene, their bewilderment above them turns to talk of notions that may transcend even these unearthly intruders.
Psalm 139, our text this Sunday, represents the hopeful convictions of the first kind of people Graham breathlessly mentions. But the psalmist is both more effusive–his understanding of this transcendent Benevolence far more intimate.
This psalm full of agony and ecstasy may be one of the psalms hardest to believe. Or at least our experience would tend to cast a doubt on how convinced we are of God’s all-encompassing and compassionate presence. For our anxieties, angers, and apathy all stem from an absence of confidence in what the Psalmist so unflinchingly affirms.
But as you’ll see, his affirmation lives in the real-world. His is not the “best of all possible worlds.” It’s full of hate, some within his own heart. At it’s heart though this Psalm is about knowing and being known. It takes heart in a kind of knowing, and takes heed to seek a knowledge deeper still. If, as the apostle Paul affirms, a day is coming when we shall fully know as we have been fully known (1 Cor 13:12), what then until then?
- seek His peace
- sift your passions
- submit to probing
His words, like all the psalms, are prayers. That’s why we’ve been learning to pray the Psalms of late. This psalm requires no less improvisational vocalizing of our struggle to understand and to believe–perhaps if only to take to God our doubts of God.
Sit with Psalm 139. What are your “fourteen lights” right now that invite a confession of your convictions?
This Saturday night, March 1st from 6:30pm until the cops arrive at the home of Breanna Elam (222 South Oak Cliff Blvd), the ladies will have a night out to themselves. Bring a game and something to munch on. For more information contact Karla Pollock.
If you missed our first night of corporate prayer earlier this month, we’ll gather again at the home of Mark and Rachel Kull (923 Zeb) Sunday night, March 9th, from 6-8pm. If you’d like to know what to expect, we recapped the evening a couple weeks back. “Unless the Lord builds it, the laborers labor in vain,” Psalm 127 says. We know we’re out to be building for the Kingdom through our faithful presence to God, to one another, and to our world(s). We suppose our time of prayer is out to ensure we remember Who the builder really is. Come along.
And while it’s not this Sunday, we wanted to give you some advance notice–if only to blunt the pain. We, under protest, push our clocks forward one hour, NEXT Sunday, March 9th. Consider yourself ruefully apprised.
Finally, we’d invite you to pray:
- for Imelda Ottmers as she continues to recover from a car accident
- for Ryan Garman and Anna Tanksley as their wedding day approaches in early March
- for Kryia Johnson as she settles into her first week in Senegal
- for the church in hostile places like Syria, N Korea, and elsewhere
See you Sunday at 9:30,