Return of the Evil Spirit (Matthew 12:43-45)

Last week, we started to look at some of the lesser-known stories that Jesus told. Jesus was always telling stories. Mark 4:33-34 says:

He used many such stories and illustrations to teach the people as much as they were able to understand. In fact, in his public teaching he taught only with parables, but afterward when he was alone with his disciples, he explained the meaning to them.

I used to wonder why Jesus told so many stories. It seemed to me to be like when we used to have to squeeze oranges to get juice: it tasted good, but it would have been a lot easier if oranges came in juice form, without the pulp and skin. The reason Jesus told so many stories is, in part, because God's truth can't be grasped fully as just a set of facts or principles. The stories aren't there waiting to be distilled into principles and outlines. The stories speak to us in ways that the bare facts can't.

One of the stories that Jesus told was about an evil spirit who left a house. This already is a strange story, because we don't usually talk about evil spirits. It's a story that has a lot to do with one of the greatest modern heresies, though: the myth of self-improvement. Anyone here ever tried to improve themselves? Anyone here ever tried to improve somebody else? How did that go? Yeah, that's what I thought. Our culture is saturated with the myth of self-improvement. We've got gyms, books, Oprah and Dr. Phil, magazines, quizzes, memberships, all to give us tighter buns, smoother relationships, more energy, early retirements. We should be the most self-improved culture on earth. Let me ask: how's that going? Not too well, if we're completely honest.

Here's the myth that we don't even stop to think about usually. We believe that if we try to improve ourselves, we'll be better people. Even better if we try to improve other people. Deep down, I think we believe that good people are better than bad people, and that good people go to heaven.

Sounds good - but it's wrong. The story we're about to read explodes this myth.

In Jesus' day, a lot of self-improvement was taking place. John the Baptist had gone around with one message: Repent! His message was to stop doing whatever it was that you were doing wrong. It seems that a lot of people did, too. There was also this group called the Pharisees. They had only been around about a hundred years before Jesus was born. They took the Scriptures that said that Israel would be a kingdom of priests and took it literally. They took all the strictest rules that only applied to priests and applied them to themselves. They were about as self-improved as you could get.

As a nation, Israel was at some ways at a high point. There weren't idols being worshiped. Major groups within Israel were focused on learning God's Word and living to the strictest standards possible. They were serious about improving themselves. But this, according to Jesus, was the problem.

One day, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man. This started a whole controversy about his ministry and how we got the powers to do this type of thing. Jesus responded by saying a lot of things, but I just want to look at one of his responses today. In Matthew 12:43-45, Jesus said:

When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, seeking rest but finding none. Then it says, 'I will return to the person I came from.' So it returns and finds its former home empty, swept, and clean. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before. That will be the experience of this evil generation.

Talking about evil spirits is strange to us today, but in Jesus' time, most people would have accepted the existence of such spirits. Jesus had just cast out an evil spirit, so it wouldn't have been hard to believe that such things existed. He tells a story we can all relate to, because we've all probably cleaned out garages or closets, only to find out we've just made room for more junk.

"An evil spirit leaves a person..." It doesn't say that the evil spirit was cast out or exorcised. It may have gone out by itself. It's gone out, but it hasn't given up occupancy of the house. It's just gone out for a walk. And while he's away, everything gets cleaned up.

What's Jesus talking about here? Remember his audience: people who are living morally and who do all sorts of good works. They've been improved and are upstanding in just about every way. It's really a picture of what happens when we improve ourselves. It's actually a pretty good picture. Before: dirty house occupied by evil spirit. After: clean house with evil spirit gone. Most of us would look at this as a success story, or a model to emulate. Jesus saw it as a potentially bad situation.

Over a hundred years ago, someone said this: "The devil has no objection to his house being swept and garnished. A moralist may be as truly his [Satan's] as a man of debauched habits" (Spurgeon). Cleaning up our lives isn't enough, because an empty house isn't the same as a warm house, and a harmless heart isn't the same as a holy heart.

What's the problem with trying to improve ourselves? "Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before" (Matthew 12:44-45). The relapse is worse than the original disease. Instead of one evil spirit, there's now room for eight. They're not only greater in number, but they're also more proud, more unbelieving.

It's like when we take antibiotics. It's sometimes tempting to stop taking them when you start to feel better. They always tell you to finish all 10 days, because if you stop midway through, you've just killed off the weak ones. The strong ones will come back and you'll be way worse off than you were before.

When we clean up our lives by ourselves, we've set ourselves up for a major relapse. We're worse off than we were before, even though we look better. 2 Peter 2:20 talks about religious people who look like they become followers of Christ, but then suffer a relapse: "And when people escape from the wicked ways of the world by learning about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and then get tangled up with sin and become its slave again, they are worse off than before." The condition is much worse than before they cleaned up their lives.

A good example is the Pharisees. They majored in laws on purity, Sabbath, religious observances, prayer, and tithing. They did everything by the book. But they didn't know God or love him. When God stood before them in human form, they fought him. They encouraged the crowds to cry out, "Crucify! Crucify!" The most self-improved group of people alive when Jesus was here completely missed the point, and they were worse off in the end.

Do you know who recognized Jesus? Sinners did. A hooker came and anointed Jesus' feet with tears. A woman who had been married five times and was living common-law did. The self-improved people couldn't stand these people; they called them the worst kind of sinners. The self-improved people completely missed Jesus, but hookers and immoral people worshiped him.

It amazes me that Jesus never told anyone to clean up their lives and then follow him. He found people in the worst kinds of situations, and invited them to follow - and only then dealt with their behaviors. We tend to think that we need to clean ourselves up and then begin to follow him. Jesus takes us just as we are.

It boils down to this. If we try to improve ourselves without following Jesus, it will never work. We can't be neutral about Jesus. Oswald Chambers said, "Neutrality in religion is always cowardice." If we take the middle road and try to stay friendly with Jesus, live good moral lives, but go no further, all we've done is cleaned up our lives and made room for more problems. Satan will gladly retreat in order to establish his control more firmly. The ministry of Jesus requires more than good, moral living. It requires one of the most basic choices in life.

A million zeroes never add up to anything; negatives never make positives. It's not enough to do no harm and to stop doing bad things. Only Jesus gives complete and final victory in our souls.

It also means that we have to fundamentally rethink God's activity around us. You know the people in your lives who almost live better lives than the Christians you do? We tend to think that God is especially close to these people, because they're so moral and upright. They're not followers of Jesus, but we almost think of them as honorary Christians in our minds. The reality is, they may be some of the people who are farthest from God's grace in your mind.

Then think of the people in your lives who aren't living clean and upright lives. You know, the ones who tell the bad jokes, who curse and sleep around and go to clubs and do other stuff. They're not self-improved, but they may be the people in your life who are the closest to God's grace. God may be more at work in their lives than you could ever know. And we get to recognize that work and to understand that God isn't impressed by how much we improve ourselves. It's all about grace.


To receive God's grace in our own lives

To recognize God's work in people around us - people we may have overlooked because they're not self-improved

This is a true saying, and everyone should believe it: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-and I was the worst of them all. But that is why God had mercy on me, so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. Glory and honor to God forever and ever. He is the eternal King, the unseen one who never dies; he alone is God. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15-17)


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

Lessons from a Winemaker (Luke 5:33-38)

Have you ever wondered what Jesus would be like if he were a pastor today? There might be a few problems. For one thing, Jesus tended to go places that church people don't like. He hung around the wrong kind of people. I can imagine the deacons saying, "Pastor Jesus, we're really not trying to be critical, but we saw you going to a pretty loud party. We don't think you should be going to those parties or hanging around those people."

Then there's his teaching. We think it would be great to hear Jesus preach, but think about all the times the disciples had to take Jesus aside and ask him what he was trying to say. Maybe the deacons would get Jesus in the foyer after the morning service and ask, "Pastor Jesus, good sermon, but what were you trying to say? We didn't understand half of it."

Jesus did things differently than we do them today. Most pastors tend to be pretty linear and speak in propositional form. In other words, they have an outline, they make points, they build arguments, and they may tell the odd story. Jesus spoke very differently. Mark 4:33-34 says:

He used many such stories and illustrations to teach the people as much as they were able to understand. In fact, in his public teaching he taught only with parables, but afterward when he was alone with his disciples, he explained the meaning to them.

Jesus used the everyday world to communicate eternal truths. If Jesus were preaching here today, he'd probably use stories right from everyday life - about the person driving on the 401, about the Blue Jays, politics, shopping. His stories weren't allegories. They generally made one point, rather than having intricate details that all corresponded to some eternal truth. He occasionally taught in propositional form, but mostly, he told stories.

Once his disciples asked him about this. "His disciples came and asked him, 'Why do you always tell stories when you talk to the people?'" (Matthew 13:10). Jesus' response was different than we might have guessed:

Then he explained to them, "You have been permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others have not. To those who are open to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But to those who are not listening, even what they have will be taken away from them. That is why I tell these stories, because people see what I do, but they don't really see. They hear what I say, but they don't really hear, and they don't understand. (Matthew 13:11-13)

One of the reasons Jesus told stories was actually to conceal truths. He could speak to a crowd of people, and some would get it, and others wouldn't. The stories were subversive. John Eldredge writes, "When Jesus comes to town, he speaks in a way that will get past all our intellectual defenses and disarm our hearts. He tells a certain kind of story."

I want to look at some of the lesser known and understood stories that Jesus told. We're not going to look at the more commonly known ones - the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son. I want to look at those we don't talk about as often - the wineskin that burst, the house with demons in it. If you have a Bible with you, let's look at one he told in Luke 5:33-38 today.

Jesus had just finished having dinner at a tax collector's house. In that culture, tax collectors were financially successful crooks. Probably the closest parallel today would be for Jesus to go to dinner with some members of the Mafia. The religious leaders of the day didn't like it. They asked Jesus, "Why do you eat and drink with such scum?" (Matthew 5:30)

The religious leaders really hadn't liked John the Baptist when he was around, but now they saw they had an opportunity to use John's reputation to bash Jesus. They made an accusation in the form of a question: "The religious leaders complained that Jesus' disciples were feasting instead of fasting. 'John the Baptist's disciples always fast and pray,' they declared, 'and so do the disciples of the Pharisees. Why are yours always feasting?'" (Luke 5:33)

Jews were supposed to fast once a year. The Pharisees fasted twice a week. They were criticizing Jesus for not being as religious as they and the disciples of John the Baptist were.

To this, Jesus told three stories.

First, about a wedding: "Jesus asked, 'Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Someday he will be taken away from them, and then they will fast'" (Luke 5:34-45). You've probably been to some good weddings - happy occasions with lots of fun. That's appropriate. You've probably been to some boring weddings. Jesus says, "I'm here. If you understood who I am, you would know that this isn't a time for fasting. This is a time for celebration."

Second, he talks about patches: "Then Jesus gave them this illustration: 'No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and uses it to patch an old garment. For then the new garment would be torn, and the patch wouldn't even match the old garment.'" (Luke 5:36). When you patch old clothes with fabric from new clothing, you wreck the new clothing, and you don't match the old clothing. Both are wrecked.

Jesus didn't come to patch up the old religious system. If he had done that, he would have ended up destroying his message, and he would have destroyed the old system as well. Jesus isn't into patching up. That applies to your life as well. He's not into patching up. He's into making something completely new. He's not into slightly improved. He's into brand new.

Jesus then tells a third story:

And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. The new wine would burst the old skins, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine must be put into new wineskins. But no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the fresh and the new. 'the old is better,' they say." (Luke 5:37-39)

Wine was stored in goatskins. The first time a goatskin held wine, the fermentation process would expand the skin. If you tried reusing the goatskin a second time, it would burst. Goatskin was fine once, but then it became rigid and brittle. A winemaker would know not to put new wine into a rigid goatskin. A used skin, already stretched, would break.

This tells us something about Jesus, and about us.

1. Something about Jesus

Jesus came to do something much more significant than to patch up old religious systems or to make us slightly better people. His message and life are too much for old systems and old hearts to hold. His purpose is to bring in something new, something alive, something that old, rigid hearts can't possibly hold.

Life of Pi is a novel about a spiritually inquisitive boy. His father owns a zoo, which provides some background to understand what happens when Pi talks to a priest about Jesus:

Catholics have a reputation for severity, for judgment that comes down heavily. My experience with Father Martin was not at all like that. He was very kind. He served me tea and biscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled at every touch; he treated me like a grown-up; and he told me a story. Or rather, since Christians are so fond of capital letters, a Story.

And what a story. The first thing that drew me in was disbelief. What? Humanity sins but it's God's Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine Father saying to me, "Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who's to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them."

"Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up."

"Hallelujah, my son."

"Hallelujah, Father."

What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology.

I asked for another story, one that I might find more satisfying. Surely this religion had more than one story in its bag - religions abound with stories. But Father Martin made me understand that the stories before it - and there were many - were simply prologue to the Christians. Their religion had one Story, and to it they came back again and again, over and over. It was story enough for them.

We sin, we mess up, and yet God sends his Son to be killed by us so we could be forgiven of our sins and adopted into his family. That's the Story. It doesn't fit into any old religious system, although they may have hinted at it. It's too new, too amazing. It's like new wine.

2. Something about us

This story also tells us something about us. Our hearts, like wineskins, can become rigid and prevent us from receiving what Jesus has to offer. We're continually in danger of developing hardened hearts.

Forms can't contain Jesus. Even the best religious system is incapable of fully representing him and his message. God gave a system, and people focused so much on the system that they missed God. They became focused on the rules and the systems and the requirements and missed the whole point. We have a history of doing this. Israel ended up worshiping snakes on poles, treating the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant as lucky charms.

It's true of us as well. We idealize and maintain a certain way of walking with Christ, and it's hard to give it up. Our church programs, ministries, and forms can be so rigid that it prevents us from accepting new ways of thinking that Jesus brings. We get stuck without even knowing it.

It's true of us personally. Our hearts can become rigid and inflexible without us even knowing it. The heart that was so soft to God at one point can quickly become hardened. It happens to all of us.

We're all creatures of habit. That works in most of life, but habit can, over time, dull our relationships. When our relationship with Jesus Christ becomes one of old habit, we lose intimacy and freshness in our walk with him.

I want to bring this home for us as it touches a number of areas of our lives.

First, about church. I've been on vacation for a couple of weeks. We were camping and we didn't even go to church. What we've done here today has been so good for me. But we all need to understand that what we've done today, as good as it's been, isn't the only way. It's a form. Forms can be good, but a form - even a good form - is not the essence.

I came across these thoughts from, of all people, the Archbishop of Canterbury:

Mission, it's been said, is finding out what God is doing and joining in. And at present there is actually an extraordinary amount going on in terms of the creation of new styles of church life. We can call it church planting, 'new ways of being church' or various other things; but the point is that more and more patterns of worship and shared life are appearing on the edge of our mainstream life that cry out for our support, understanding and nurture if they are not to get isolated and unaccountable. These may vary from the classic church plant model - a new congregation generated by an older one - to the Thursday night meeting for young people once a fortnight, the Sunday evening Songs of Praise in the pub, the irregular but persistent networking with the people you met at Greenbelt or Spring Harvest, the mums and toddlers event on Tuesday morning or the big school Eucharist once a term which is the only contact many parents and friends will have with real worshipping life. All of these are church in the sense that they are what happens when the invitation of Jesus is received and people recognize it in each other....

Can we live with this and make it work? This is where the unexpected growth happens, where the unlikely contacts are often made; where the Church is renewed (as it so often is) from the edges, not the centre. We need a positive willingness to see and understand all this - and to find the patterns and rhythms and means of communication that will let everyone share the benefits. That's to say we need ordained leadership which is capable of making and servicing connections between lots of different styles of 'church' - leadership which is therefore very clear about theological priorities, not protective of its status, skilled in listening and in interpreting what may seem very different language groups to each other.

When we begin to separate the form from the essence, we begin to be open to what God might be doing outside our own forms and structures.

Second, I think this is a good reminder to be understanding of others. I mean that both ways. I'm learning to be more tolerant of those who like the old forms, because I can see that same rigidity setting in my heart too. I fight it, but it's still there. It's also challenge to be open to those who are, as the Archbishop says, on the edges. We need to give them freedom to look for new wineskins, even as we cling to our old ones. We'll all be on both sides of this tension at some point in our lives.

It's also a good reminder that we're living between eras. Jesus has come, and we've tasted a little too much of his life to be content with anything less. Yet we haven't tasted enough. We've tasted just enough that we long for more. It's like the period after I had tasted real milk. I still had to drink powdered milk, but I longed for more. Once I tasted fresh donuts, I didn't want the day-olds my family had to buy because of finances. We live in that period somebody has called "already but not yet." We wrestle with forms because we're trying to capture an essence that isn't yet ours.

One of the keys to focus on the relationship with Christ rather than the forms. That sounds clich‚, but it works. If you show me a 50-year-old woman who knows the music of Avril Lavigne, I'll show you a 50-year-old mother of a teenager. If you show me Peter eating unclean food according to the Jewish religion, I'll show you someone who values listening to the Lord when he speaks. When we focus on our relationship with Christ, we stay open in ways that we wouldn't otherwise. We see the forms as only that: forms. We go places we might not choose to go, but it's okay because we're only following Jesus there.

I want to ask you today to do a heart check. Our hearts get hard without us even knowing it, just as our arteries harden without us ever feeling any pain. I invite you to come today to communion and admit that you're not the way you used to be, and pray to the one who specializes in softening hardened hearts. Sandy's going to sing a song. I hope you'll let it be your prayer.

My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how I ought to be
Alive to you and dead to me

But what can be done
For an old heart like mine
Soften it up
With oil and wine
The oil is you, your spirit of love
Please wash me anew
With the wine of your blood
(Keith Green)


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.