Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 65:1-9
Psalm 3
Galatians 3:23-4:7
Luke 8:26-39

Salvation belongs to Yahweh. Your blessing be on your people.

It is a very popular notion among modern Christians to reject religion and the institution we call the Church for a more private, personal relationship with God. This often leads to the idea that faith can be lived out separate from a fellowship of believers. They believe that they can worship God anywhere, in a field or by a stream, and that they do not need to go to church. After all, the church is made of people, not bricks, and the institution as we know it today is nothing like what Christ intended. This is the excuse Iíve heard many times from people who do not attend services with other Christians. Besides, the Christians in those churches aren't really very Christian, are they?

We are told that every bad thing that happens is our fault because we are holier-than-thou, that our religious condemnation makes people reject God and do evil. We are told that a God who demands repentance and justice is not the kind of god they want to worship. We are told that the world hates us because we are hateful, intolerant, delusional hypocrites. Isn't it funny, however: Jesus told us that the world would hate us because it hates Him.

While it is true that every Christian should have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we are also part of a body that is greater than ourselves. We are part of the body of Christ which is the Church. This body is made up of many parts, parts that are imperfect but forgiven and blessed with gifts that make the body whole and perfect. We know that we are sinners in need of the Savior. You will never find a church that is filled entirely with saints. Each of us are saints and sinners in the same flesh and somehow God manages to use us in this world to share the Gospel with those who are lost and lonely.

As we read the stories in the Old Testament, we will find that there are a few characters that had personal experiences with God. Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden of Eden. Abraham spoke with God. Jacob wrestled with God. Moses delivered the entire nation of Israel out of bondage into the Promised Land by the Word of God.

Yet, most of the stories speak of God's relationship with the entire nation of Israel. The promise to Abraham were not only for himself, but were for all his seed. The Law was not for Moses alone, but for the entire nation. Judgment fell upon the whole nation even though we could find in the story specific people who are to blame. When God became angry with His chosen people for worshipping other gods, He sent them all into exile.

In today's lesson from Isaiah, God calls out His judgment against His people. They were a people who had stopped crying out to God, who had turned to other worship practices. They were burning offerings to Baal in the high places and stopped listening for Godís voice in their lives. He called out to them, but they did not hear. He showed Himself to people who did not look for Him. And they missed Him.

The book of Isaiah was written to the Hebrew nation at a time when there were great changes occurring in the world and in the nation. It is a story of God's judgment and salvation. Isaiah is considered a prophet, and much of his writing points toward the future. It isn't a prediction of what will happen, but a revelation of God, His purpose and His plan. As we read the book of Isaiah, we are reminded that God knows better than we do and that His plan is right and true. It is a call to trust in Him.

Our verses from Isaiah are the beginning of the end of the book. After sixty-four chapters of warnings, calls to repentance, and promises for salvation, God speaks to the people. They are a people who have found something they think is better than God, things they think will save them better than God. Whether it is neighbor, ally, friend or self, they think they do not need God. They want to go their own way, make their own path, and be independent without the helper that is waiting.

Sadly, there are Christians today that are not much different from those to whom Isaiah was writing. There are churches that have chosen to conform to the world and to follow their own ways. There is a leader of a major denomination that has openly admitted that he does not even believe in God. He is an atheist charged with caring for God's people. It doesnít really matter much, since so many churches have stopped looking to God and have followed their own ideologies.

God has little good to say about His people in this passage. They do not call on His name. They are rebellious. They walk in a way that is not good. They follow their own devices. They provoke God, make improper sacrifices and offerings. They follow rituals, eat food and do things that are abominable to God. These things are cultic, practices done by the religions that were popular in the day of Isaiah: they were worshipping false gods. God says, "Who say, 'Stay by yourself, don't come near to me, for I am holier than you.'" God's people had declared themselves holier than Him!

The same is sadly true of many Christians today. They reject the parts of the Bible that make them uncomfortable. They rewrite the scriptures to fit their own agendas. They do what they think is right, but in doing so they trust in their own devices. This is not a condemnation of any particular type of church. I'm sure we can find something that grieves God in every church.

God refused to be silent. Despite their sin, He was still there for them. He was still ready to be their God and to lead them in the ways of righteousness and truth. Despite their hatred, He offered them a promise: someday they would see Him again and they would turn to Him. Someday they would be saved and they will inherit all that He had to give them. That promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

We can live with the same hope today. We are still sinners. We still walk in ways that are not according to God's Word or will. We follow our own devices. God is angry at us, too, because we have stopped trusting in Him. But despite our own rebellion, God has offered us the same promise. We will see Him. Someday, the whole world will see Him and bow down in worship before Him. The question for us is this: do we know Him today? Are we following Him in our lives now? Are we walking His path, or will we find ourselves missing Him, especially when He does something that doesn't fit our expectation?

Jesus was in the region of the Gerasenes. This was near the Decapolis, the Ten Cities, and was a predominantly Gentile area, though we can't tell from the story whether the man who was set free from the demons was a Jew or a Gentile. We only know that he had been possessed with many demons, legion was its name, and these demons caused the man to do horrific things. He was violent and was forced to live a solitary life among the dead.

In those days bodies were laid in tombs hewn from rock. These caves were often used by people who were outcast by society as a place to shelter. This man was living there when Jesus came into the region. The demons within the man cried out to Jesus, "What do I have to do with you, Jesus, you Son of the Most High God? I beg you, donít torment me!" The demons knew Jesus could send them to the abyss with a word. They pleaded with Jesus to have mercy and to send them into a herd of pigs. Jesus agreed, so when the demons left the man they entered the pigs which then ran off the cliff into the water.

Who else but God could do such a miraculous thing as command demons to leave a man? This should have been one of those events though which would cause many people to believe in Jesus. But they did not see this through the eyes of faith, but through their fear. A man, one of their own, was healed of the most horrific ailment but they did not care. When they heard what Jesus had done, they asked Him to leave. "I have revealed myself to a people that did not call my name. These Gentiles weren't looking for God, but Jesus showed Himself to them.

The man was the only one to believe. For him, the faith was personal and individual because there were no others with whom he could share this amazing experience. He asked Jesus if he could be a disciple, but Jesus sent him into the Decapolis to tell everyone what God had done for him. He was sent as an evangelist and all the people were amazed. People began to believe because of his witness and he was no longer alone in the world.

Despite the fact that Israel missed God, His salvation would still come to them. The words of Isaiah in today's Old Testament lesson speak of judgment, but they also speak of salvation. Despite their sin, God still saw the value in His people. They would suffer the consequences of their sin against Him, but He would not hold it against them forever. "As the new wine is found in the cluster, and one says, 'Don't destroy it, for a blessing is in it:' so will I do for my servants' sake, that I may not destroy them all. I will bring offspring out of Jacob, and out of Judah an inheritor of my mountains. My chosen will inherit it, and my servants will dwell there."

Out of Israel, God sent Jesus and Jesus brought mercy. He saved people, removed their demons and revealed the love of God to the world. He casts out our demons by His word and gives us faith to believe, then sends us out into the world to tell everyone what He has done. Through faith in Christ Jesus we are made one with Him and we become heirs to the Kingdom of God. Our response to this love is thanksgiving and praise together and through our witness the nations will believe. We can't do it alone. We need, most of all, God's help. And we need one another.

The people on that lakeshore were not ready to be saved. They still wanted to control their own world. They wanted to chase after their own gods. Yet, God reached out to them, offered them the same promise. He sent a messenger to prepare their hearts. He wouldn't be silent for them, too. The seed of Jacob was sent for the whole world. Faith is not a gift that is limited by borders: everyone is invited to trust in God.

The world hates Jesus and the world hates us because of Him. They'll tell you that they hate us because we are hateful, intolerant, delusional hypocrites and that they could believe in God as long as He fit into their box and followed their path. But we are called by God to continue to go out there and tell our story, to tell His story, to share His grace, so that they might see Him and believe.

Paul writes, "But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, confined for the faith which should afterwards be revealed." There was a before and an after. The Old Covenant was given to point us toward the New. The Law was given to guide God's people until the day when Christ would establish the New Covenant. In Christ we no longer live under the Law. We live under grace. Before Christ we were prisoners to the Law, but Jesus sets us free to live in faith. This freedom is given to all who believe, even those who were not born under the Law.

Paul writes, "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." It didnít matter who they were or where they came from. It didn't matter if they had a pedigree or a genealogy that went back to Father Abraham. Those that believe are adopted as sons, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. We are not slaves to sin or death or the Law no matter who we are because we have been redeemed by Godís Son, Jesus Christ. By faith we are sons of Abraham and heirs to God's promises.

Sadly, one of the reasons why some people reject the church is because we spend so much of our time rejecting the faith of other Christians. We argue about Bible translations and worship music. We look at our neighbor's church and question the way they practice their faith. Don't get me wrong: some things truly matter. A Christian leader should never be an atheist. The question we must ask of our neighbors is this: do they trust God and believe in Jesus Christ. There may be differences in the way we practice our faith, even incompatible differences, but we should encourage one another even when we disagree to do the things God is calling us to do.

We are called to be disciples of Christ through faith, to go out and share our witness with the world. Our stories might be met with fear and doubt, but that's not our concern. We will be rejected and hated. We will be called names and we will be persecuted because we believe in Jesus Christ. If He was hated, how can we ever think we won't be? It isn't up to us to whitewash God's story to make it palatable to our neighbors, conforming to the world so that they won't hate us.

The Church may be an imperfect institution filled with imperfect people, but we are called into one body with a common purpose: to praise God and tell His story so that the whole world will repent and believe. We are imperfect; we will make mistakes. We will need to hear the warnings and the judgment from God. We will suffer the consequences of our sin against Him, but He will not hold it against us forever. Jesus saves us from our own demons, then He sends us out into the world to tell everyone about all He has done for us in His mercy. We are called to sing His praises so that the whole world will see. They will hate us and may reject God at first, but He will come to reveal Himself to them over and over again. May we always trust in Him, for He is the only One through whom salvation comes and it is through Him we are blessed.

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