The Desolate House

[Unless we tend our relationship with God, our spiritual houses
can become places of desolation.]

Nobleton Community Church
January 21, 2024
text:  Luke 13:31-35
Pastor Paul V. Lehmann

Listen to the audio here

 Thanks to our home-foreclosure crisis, we are getting all too acquainted with literal desolate houses. Foreclosure signs are a familiar sight in many communities across America. Some of these properties fall into disrepair.  Neighborhoods in cities and towns across America are decimated because of houses abandoned after their owners are either forced out by mortgage holders, or give up and walk away from them ahead of inevitable foreclosures. And we know how things often go from there: With no one tending them, the buildings start to crumble, eaves begin to sag, windows get smashed, mold becomes a problem, yards become overgrown and vandals or squatters or even drug dealers add to the deterioration. The houses begin to die and so do the neighborhoods in which they sit.

 In this passage, Jesus refers to a house that has been left “desolate.” The RSV has it “forsaken.”  It’s an opportunity for to examine how our “houses” become desolate, and how they might be restored once again.

 If there’s one biblical metaphor that translates easily to our culture today, it’s likely the one Jesus uses in Luke 13:35, where he laments over Jerusalem and says, “Look, your house is left to you desolate …” (NIV).

 What sort of houses did Jesus consider desolate? In both New Testament Greek and modern English, the word “house” can stand not only for a building but also for a family. The text begins with the Pharisees passing along a threat from Herod, whom Jesus would refer to as a fox. This passage shows us Jesus talking to Herod Antipas king of Galilee, who was out to stop him

. To the Jew the fox was a symbol of three things.

 First it was regarded as the slyest of animals.

 Second, it was regarded as the most destructive of animals.

 Third, it was the symbol of a worthless and insignificant man.

 So, it was a courageous remark by Jesus, and probably reflected a little bit of his humanity, to call the reigning king a fox.

One of the well-known preachers in England named Latimer, was once preaching in Westminster Abbey when Henry the king was in the congregation. In the pulpit he remarked: “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The king of England is here!” Then he went on to say; “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The King of Kings is here.”   Yes it is far more important what we say about Jesus The King of Kings than any earthly king.  And Jesus took his orders from God, and he would not shorten his work by one day to please or to escape any earthly king. 

Luke 13:31-35 strongly connects our journey to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51–19:28).

The passage is a continuation of 13:22-30, which records Jesus’ traveling “through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem” (v. 22).

Here, Jesus specifically discusses the likelihood that expectations will be defied with respect to those who will be welcomed in and those who will be left out come judgment day. Heavenly standards will confound the earthly status quo. In the midst of this lesson is where the Pharisees enter the scene to warn Jesus that Herod is seeking to kill him.

This warning is the source of speculation regarding the intent of the Pharisees. Because their own authority is thrown into question by much of what Jesus teaches, 13:22-30 included, the Pharisees are typically portrayed as being in tension with him. Thus, it is surprising that Luke depicts them — “some” (v.31), at least — as cautioning Jesus about Herod. Perhaps the Pharisees are merely taunting Jesus. But they may very well be concerned for his safety, suggesting that not all Pharisees are unbendingly at odds with Jesus (witness Nicodemus in the gospel of John and examples of hospitality extended to Jesus by Pharisees in Luke 7:6, 11:37 and 14:1).

Less open to speculation is Herod’s dire threat. Herod, of course, stands to be one of the biggest losers when the earthly status quo is disrupted. He has already met the prophetic challenge of John the Baptist with lethal force (9:7-9). Because of his own prophetic presence, Jesus has also made his way onto Herod’s enemies list. Having withstood temptation posed by the devil in the wilderness (4:1-13), Jesus now faces the temptation of avoiding the wrath of a despot.

Jesus responds by not succumbing to fear. He is defiant, dismissively referring to Herod as “that fox” (v. 32), one who is sly and not to be trusted. Jesus is doing holy work, “casting out demons and performing cures” (v. 32), and he instructs the Pharisees to tell Herod that this work will go on until it is accomplished. Moreover,

Jesus makes it clear that this work is integral to the overall task of making his way to Jerusalem, a task he “must” pursue (v. 33a). The word here connotes a necessity corresponding to carrying out orders, in this case a divine mission (see Luke 2:49; 9:22; 22:7).

The house of Herod was tangled. The family line did not resemble so much a tree as a tangled ball of yarn. This Herod, named Antipas, had other relatives called Herod as well, and their marriages, divorces and remarriages were not only often ill-considered, but were sometimes incestuous.

The Herods were greatly admired in the Roman Empire. Herod the Great, for instance, had saved the Olympics around the year 12 B.C. by funding them perfectly. He left behind many great architectural works, including substantial improvements to the Jewish temple — so impressive that it caused one of Jesus’ disciples to marvel: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus, however, knew about the coming desolation and replied,

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:1-2).

Jesus was right, and eventually, that desolation would become all too tangible. In A.D. 66, the Jewish population rebelled against Rome. The empire could not allow that revolt to succeed, and so in A.D. 70, Roman legions under future emperor Titus retook the city and destroyed much of it, including the temple, which has not been rebuilt to this day.

Despite his major improvements to the temple and his popularity in the empire, Herod was hated by his own people because of his murderous ways, which were emulated by his descendants.

The failed relationships in the family of Herod may represent the sort of house Jesus lamented over. But he likely was thinking about the brokenness among the common people as well, and about the failure by many to love God with their whole hearts and love their neighbors as themselves.

It’s not much of a stretch to apply “the house desolate” to our lives. An unattended life — one littered with missed opportunities, broken relationships, repeated procrastinations, a lack of empathy, un-kept promises, false starts, yielded-to temptations, selfish priorities and the like — can quickly become a forsaken or desolate “house.”

It’s pretty easy to find desolate-house-type lives in the news. Think of any one of the celebrities or politicians or yes, even big-name religious figures, who destroyed their families, lost their positions, ruined their reputations and betrayed those who trusted them because of some act of infidelity or gross selfishness. But don’t limit your thinking to just them, because it’s often much smaller acts of inattention that we are guilty of in our families, but nevertheless, just as destructive.

For example, a song by Roger Miller, high on both the country and pop charts several years ago, told of a marriage breaking down, and began, “Two broken hearts — lonely, lookin’ like houses where nobody lives.”

The old popular TV cop show “The Closer”, which ended after seven seasons, contains another example. The main character, Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (played by Kyra Sedgwick), was an effective police officer with an innate ability to discern who the bad guys were and wrangle admissions of guilt out of them. But she had one habit that drove her family and co-workers nuts: When she was hot on a case, she became so focused that she usually deflected their requests for her attention, even if they only wanted a brief moment, putting them off until “later.” As the series went along, it became obvious that she was always behind in tending the most important relationships in her life, and in an episode near the end of the series, it caught up with her.

In that episode, Brenda’s parents, whom she loved deeply but too often shortchanged with her time, are visiting in her home. Just after Brenda gets a fresh lead on her current case, her mother asks for a moment to tell her something important. Reluctant to look away from her case, Brenda promises to give her some time over breakfast the next morning. Her mother agrees, but looks disappointed. The next morning, intending to keep her date with her mother, Brenda goes to the guest bedroom to awaken her, only to find that Mama has died unexpectedly during the night. That episode ends with Brenda screaming for her husband who comes and rushes her from the room.

The next episode, set a week or so later and after the funeral, has Brenda, still grieving and badly shaken, back at work, where in a reflective moment, she tells a co-worker that she’s sorry for not listening to him better. Then she adds, “Funny, I feel like I pay more attention to what murderers have to say while ignoring the people I really care about.” In the concluding scene of that episode, her husband finds her sitting on the bed where her mother died. She says to him, “The last time I saw Mama, she asked me if I had a minute, and I didn’t have the time just then. Now, I’m the one who could really use a minute, and Mama has no time at all.” The episode ends with her weeping — inconsolably — in her husband’s arms.

Improper or deferred maintenance is always bad for relationships, and that includes our spiritual ones as well.

 An unattended spiritual house can yield a life where God is supposedly welcome, but where he refuses to abide because the place is a spiritual dump where he is ignored by the occupant — so ignored, that the occupant doesn’t even notice when the Lord is no longer there.

We can become so accustomed to starving our relationships, breaking our promises, failing to carry through, ignoring our spiritual health and so on that we don’t realize how bad things are until the whole thing comes crashing down.

(There was a certain irony in Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem in that there was no widespread awareness among its residents of how far many in the city had drifted from God.)

Jesus said to Jerusalem, “Look, your house is left to you desolate ….”  He wept over Jerusalem because of their rejection of the love he tried to show them.

He probably came to Jerusalem a lot more times than what is recorded in scripture. It is always heart wrenching when someone rejects our love. We could substitute the name Nobleton or Bushnell, or Brooksville, in the place of Jerusalem, because: Wherever we have people who have not responded to our witness of Christ, or our testimony of what Jesus has done for us, we too, will feel the rejection He felt. What might it mean for our lives to be left to ourselves? For one thing, it means that life is only what we can make of it on a temporal time scale, devoid of any hope that extends beyond our lifetime, devoid of any confidence that God will multiply our efforts in this life. For another, it means that we have no ultimate authority to which we answer. Yes, we still have societal standards, but no rock on which to stand when society is bending with ill winds. For yet another, we have no access to the sheltering wings that give comfort, no eternal healing balm for our wounds, no assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

An atheist might hear that and say, “So be it. I’m on my own in this world and that’s just fine.” In fact, the unbeliever might even declare that such a state is not one of desolation but of contentment. It’s hard to say whether any of that is bravado or whether it’s a sincere conviction, but most people don’t want to be left on their own in this life, and if they were, they’d recognize that condition as one of desolation. We want to know that when terrible things happen to us and losses pile up, ultimately it’s going to be all right.

We keep our spiritual houses from becoming desolate by tending our relationship with the Lord. We can’t keep telling the Lord “later” or “someday” and expect that to keep the relationship strong.

In The Closer episode following the death of Brenda’s mother, her husband stops by the police station and asks Brenda if she has a minute. She’s begun work on a new case and almost reflexively, she responds, stalling him, and she begins to walk away. But then, with the memory of what she missed by doing that to her mother apparently hitting her afresh, she turns back and says, “Sorry. Yes, I do.” After they are alone in her office, she tells him, “Don’t ask me. If you need to talk to me, just say, ‘Listen,’ okay?”

 It’s good for us to be in that kind of relationship with God as well, where he can just say, “Listen,” and we give him our attention.

Rick Long, the pastor of Jones Memorial UMC, Lake City, Georgia says:

“God rarely shouts “LISTEN” to me, More often I just get a gentle nudge. Someone will come to mind, and I’ll wonder why. I’ve learned to pay attention to these moments; to make a contact, a call, a visit. One might miss the nudge, thinking it’s just a coincidence; a little nothing passing through our day, but it could be so much more. When we focus our attention upon the person who comes to mind, we are actually praying for them. When we make contact with them, the conduit for grace to move between us is made. A fresh wind of the Spirit moves among us.”

When it comes to our actual houses, it’s not always our fault when maintenance is deferred. Sometimes we just don’t have the budget for every repair the house could use, and we have to prioritize but: Our spiritual house has this odd stipulation that not all maintenance is up to the occupant alone. God is ready to help us keep the place up.

It’s only our fault if we don’t seek his help and then keep the lines of communication open.

The lyrics of the song “Separate Me From What Separates Us” by Steve Ivey are a great prayer for those who wish to keep their spiritual house in good repair:

Separate me from what separates us.

Fill me with your love.

Separate me from what separates us.

My affections are set on above.

My heart cries out to you, O Lord.

You are my rock and fortress.

Protector, director, deliver me now

To the unseen things above.

Elisabeth Elliot the widow of martyred missionary Jim Elliot, one of the 5 MAF pilots who lost their lives when the Anca Indians killed them says;

“If you believe in a God who controls the big things, you have to believe in a God who controls the little things. It is we, of course, to whom things look ‘little’ or ‘big.’ “