The Housing Problem
One of the most nerve-wracking experiences in life is finding a place to live. It’s as true for college students as it is for older adults. Do you remember life if you went off to college? Everyone at some time or another has to house hunt, roommate hunt, room hunt or apartment hunt. In fact, one of the biggest changes in life occurs at the end of the freshman year in college when you can actually have a choice as to where you will live and with whom you will live. The freshman experience is an unknown experience. The school assigns you a roommate and a place to live. You have little choice in the matter. It can produce some rather odd roommates. I remember summer term of my freshman year. I was assigned to room with a student from Florida. He rolled up the tube of toothpaste; I liked to squeeze the toothpaste. My idea of a fun Friday night was a fraternity party or a ball game; for him it was going to the library to read the back issues of the Jacksonville newspaper. He thought our closet was where you organized your clothes; I thought it was where you threw things you didn’t want people to see. It was a happy day for both of us when we could change. House-hunting is important. Come spring, if we lived in a college town you’d witness students camping out at the housing office to sign up for a place to live. And no housing is perfect. Those who want to live with their sisters in one dorm have to have a community bath. But they’ll tell you it’s worth the sacrifice. Those who want a frat house have no washers and dryers nor air-conditioning, but they’ll tell you it’s worth it. If you want to live in another dorm you share a suite with athletes. Then there are the neighbors to deal with.
In that regard we’re all alike. Until the day we die we have to deal with neighbors. Many people my age still ask: “How can people be so selfish, so cruel, so indifferent to others?” And we still have trade-offs. Large house and privacy? The more taxes and utilities you have to pay. The better the bargain, the more upkeep on the house. In short, there’ll always be a housing problem.
One of the clear claims of the New Testament is that the devil also goes house-hunting. In a rather direct way, the spirit of evil starts poking around our neighborhoods looking at your household and mine, seeing if it might be ripe for take over. It makes sense. If there’s evil in the world, it’s got to live somewhere. Jesus actually told a parable about the devil going house-hunting. An unclean spirit was thrown out of a house, but since it had nowhere to go it returned to the house from which it came and brought more evil spirits with it. The last state was worse than the first. Jesus stated: “When a strong person, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace; but when someone stronger comes along he overtakes that person and overcomes him; he takes all that the person trusted in and divides his spoil.” Perhaps it is hard for you and me to imagine demons attacking where we live. But it is true. The word demon (daimon) is connected with the Greek verb meaning to “tear apart” or “divide.” In antiquity the people blamed every influence which tended to tear them apart on demonic invasion. The demons were fallen angels and no one was safe from them. They inhabited the sands of the desert, as well as the depths of the oceans. No place and no time was safe from the things which tore people apart. Alan Richardson claims, “Christianity conquered the other religions of the ancient world partly because of its success in casting out the fear of demons …”
Indeed, most of Jesus’ miracles were not seen as healings, but as power encounters with a declared adversary and enemy. I suggest to you this morning something we know to be true but perhaps refuse to recognize. There’s still present in our world forces which “tear apart” and “divide” our households; the devil still goes house-hunting and there are plenty of fallen angels in the world. In fact, sometimes we are fallen angels. Consequently, I suggest that since we are a people possessed with desires that force us into deeds of evil, perhaps we should look again at what the Bible tells us to do when demons attack us and the devil goes house-hunting. It’s an area we cannot neglect. Jesus told this parable about an empty house because the people of his day were living under certain illusions. Much of our Bible is about how evil uses illusion to move in on people and set up housekeeping. People who live by illusions oftentimes come back to reality with a thud. Adam and Eve in paradise have this illusion that they can be like God. They wind up in the wilderness, kicked out of paradise for good. Their son Cain labors under the illusion that he is inferior to his brother. He winds up a murderer. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the misty dawn of our history, labor under the illusion that they can leave their children set for life with property and money. Their children squander it – every bit of it. The nation, Israel, labors under the illusion that all its problems will be solved if it just has kings like other nations. It winds up under David and Solomon burdened by taxation and split into two nations after a horrible civil war. Living under an illusion can be a horrible thing. Some of you know that. A young adult comes in with the illusion that he or she can live better in an apartment than at home. After a few months of paying deposits for everything from telephone to gas turn on, some high food and utility costs and other unforeseen expenditures, they learn that just sweeping out one problem doesn’t mean that a whole host of new demons won’t start tearing you apart. Then you can get married and really learn that the old adage “two can live cheaper than one” is a complete illusion. The parable is clear. There is no freedom without responsibility; no deliverance without constant vigilance.
Even today we know Jesus’ parable to be true. Consider some of the illusions under which we live. Some people live under the illusion that if we just create better outward conditions then we are free from problems. Outward conditions are important. We have worked hard to clean out some impediments from the past. In some respects we 20th century Americans are the most swept clean generation in history. Independence has been gained for women. Thank God we’ve swept away those barriers. You women can now almost do anything with your life you want to do. Materialism has increased for us all – we have swept away the demons of lack of gadgets. We have kicked out of our house the immobility and lack of entertainment options which shackled former generations. The automobile, the jet airplane, and new entertainment mediums have kicked out that demon. Supermarkets and gadgets have delivered mother from the house. You’d think our houses would be rather happy places, wouldn’t you? Yet evil still seems to go house-hunting and ushers in even more demons. The automobile and the jet take Mom and Dad away from the home. The new gadgets cost a great deal and both Mom and Dad have to be employed outside the home whether they want to or not. We have “latch keys” on the outside of the door and “latch key” children on the inside of the door. The new entertainment and communication devices also pump a lot of garbage into our homes. The newly-founded materialism crumbles moral values and the lifestyle based on gadgets and independence often turns into the unhappiness of divorce. And you women are now free to experience heart attacks, anxiety, smoking, drinking, lung cancer and high blood pressure. Indeed, you’re closing the gap and dying younger as a result of some of these demons that moved in when the old one was swept out. I don’t think this parable about illusions is so remote from our experience as we might think. How does a person solve this housing problem? Look at the parable. Jesus states that a strong person must guard his or her goods. In other words we must all stand up and take responsibility for the stuff we create. We can’t live under the illusion that there’s a scapegoat responsible for everything that happens to us. We have to be responsible for our own life.
You might remember that in the ceremony of the atonement in ancient Israel they took a goat, put cloth around his horns and into the cloth were placed the sins of the people. Then the goat was led out into the wilderness, ostensibly carrying the responsibility for the sins and evil with him. The goat was called a scapegoat. Even today when demons attack us, the first response of many is to find a scapegoat on whom all the blame can be placed. That’s my most frequent response, I’m afraid. We can find the scapegoats everywhere: the world situation, the neighborhood we live in, the schools we attend, the church, an illness, the television, our heredity, our friends, our teachers, our neighbors. We can indict a few scapegoats. That’s an easy sweeping out of the house. Then our conscience grows easy and more demons come rushing in.
Secondly, we cannot labor under the illusion that religious decisions made long ago are going to work for today. Life is a process of constant vigilance. Maybe you did make a nice commitment to religion, values and education as an adolescent. Great! You swept your house clean then, but it won’t last forever, if this parable is correct. Maybe you were very close to God, very close to your family, very close to the church, very committed to your values at one time. But now you’re going to rest for a while, take a breather from all that “stuff.” You tell yourself that you’re older now, that you’ve been coming to church for years and years. You decide to take a break and do other things. You’ll go back to it later. Right! Others think you’ll be good again when you get a career! You’ll straighten up then. I doubt it. You see, a house doesn’t remain empty. Your life and your values don’t stay neutral. Locate yourself away from sacred music. Locate yourself away from the ideals and ideas in the Christian heritage. Get away from prayer and the symbols of the cross and the resurrection. Locate yourself away from people who at their best are trying to transform their lives and build their characters.
Well, where is your life going to live? You’ve got to live somewhere. It’s a housing problem of the first order. What a wonderful parable this is. It has two great meanings for us: 1) we have to be responsible for our own lives every day and 2) we can’t rent ourselves out to other values for a time and then try to go back to our best selves and later find the house empty and waiting for us to move back in. You see, where there is a vacuum, there is always someone or something to fill it up. During this Lenten season, we should recommit ourselves to keeping our houses full and protected with the things of God, so there is no room for things of the devil. Amen.