Last week I unearthed a surface or two that I haven’t seen since… well, maybe even since we moved here. And I have to admit, that clean and empty surface looks really nice. But I know it won’t stay that way for long, because in our household we cannot keep a surface clean. Any cleared off surface attracts clutter automatically. Whenever we wish to have a family brunch at the dining room table, we have to clear it off before we can eat. By dinnertime, it’s right back to being cluttered. Kitchen counters, dressers, even the washing machine—no surface is safe. Kids’ homework, books, keys, coats, papers, crayons, Legos, you name it. There’s something irresistible about a clean surface. It’s just waiting to get cluttered again.
The Bible talks about this “empty space waiting to be filled” phenomenon as well. Remember that warning Jesus gives in Matthew 12:43-45? Granted, he’s talking about evil spirits, but stick with me here. “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”
Okay, so maybe you’ve never dealt with demon possession. I hope not. But the comparison Jesus makes at the end, “That is how it will be with this wicked generation,” merits a further look. What does He mean by that? Many of the people in Jesus’ day rejected Him and His message. Sound familiar? Same exact thing in this current generation. And a person can be a “good” person, moral, upright, and law-abiding, without being a Christian. They can give to charity, volunteer at homeless shelters, and so on. But someone whose heart has been “swept clean and put in order” is in a precarious position indeed. I love the note in The Lutheran Study Bible on the concept of the house being empty or unoccupied: Emptiness invites occupation. A heart that is “neutral” is just like those tempting cleared-off surfaces in my house, just waiting for clutter to come and regain control.
Now, lest you think this only applies to non-believers, look with me at 2 Peter 2. This whole chapter deals with false teachers and warns God’s people against them, for their message leads only to destruction. But look what Peter says in verses 20-22: “If they have escaped the corruption of this world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and ‘A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.'”
You see, we can’t help ourselves. Our sinful nature runs so deep that we’re just like that dog or that sow, returning to the disgusting filth. Don’t think that once you’re a Christian, you can never fall away. This passage shows otherwise, and is a solemn warning against willfully returning to our sinfulness. Don’t think your little pet sin is “okay” because you’re forgiven anyhow. Grace is not an excuse to sin freely. Sin is that clutter that threatens to overtake each and every one of us. The footnote in The Lutheran Study Bible on Luke 11:24-26, the parallel of the Matthew passage above, says the following: “It is a grave mistake to imagine that we can receive the Gospel, come to Jesus, and yet continue in our destructive ways and return to our sins.” I’m convicted. There are certain sins I really don’t want to get rid of, and I confess them every week at church but then go right back to them. Like the clean surface at my house, it begins innocently enough. A few papers here, a few Legos there. But before you know it, that surface is completely overtaken by so much clutter you can’t see the counter at all. If you claim to be Christian yet have too much clutter, people won’t be able to see underneath all that clutter to the clean surface underneath. We have to get rid of the clutter so our forgiven, clean nature can shine through. Thankfully, it’s not up to us to do it alone.
The footnote I quote above on Luke 11:24-26 doesn’t end there. It continues, “Thankfully, God promises to fill those who repent with His own Spirit and bless us through His Word and Sacraments.” Ahhhh. What a relief. So we aren’t leaving an empty space vulnerable to inevitable clutter. God gives us something to fill the void. His Spirit, His Word, and His Sacraments strengthen us and combat the sin that would otherwise overtake us. Don’t leave yourself vulnerable. Those are the “cleaning agents” to fight the clutter—God’s Spirit, God’s Word, and the Sacraments. Don’t think you can do this on your own. God freely offers to help, and gathering together for mutual support and encouragement with fellow believers is crucial. Don’t imagine you can neglect worship and be okay. Where else do you have access to the Sacraments and to so many fellow believers gathered around God’s Word? Only God can remove the clutter of sin in your life, and only with His strength can you keep clearing those spaces when they start to gather clutter again. And with that, please excuse me. I’ve got a few more surfaces to declutter.