Sunday, June 20, 2010

Time After Pentecost – Lectionary 12
Isaiah 65:1-9
Psalm 22:19-28
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

But be not thou far off, O Jehovah: O thou my succor, haste thee to help me.

Psalm 22 begins, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus cries this verse from the cross, words that do not make sense to us. How can Jesus feel abandoned, especially since He was doing exactly what God intended Him to do? Did He really feel forsaken? Did He really feel alone? We can certainly see why He might have quoted this psalm from the cross. The singer tells how he is surrounded by evil doers who have pierced his hands and feet and cats lots for his clothes. We see those very actions played out in the crucifixion story. But still, we wonder how it can be that Jesus feels alone.

The psalm is more than a cry for help; it is a song of trust that even when we feel alone, God is never far away. The psalmist sings of trusting in God; he knows that God will come through in the end. God will provide deliverance, as He did in the singer’s forefather’s lives. We are thus called to the same trust: though we will experience times when we feel like we are all alone, we can cry out to God knowing that He is never far away. God’s ways are never easy to understand. Even those with deep and abiding faith had times when they cry out to God in wonder, fearing abandonment.

The trouble is this: our faith is not quite so deep and abiding. We become easily distracted by the cares of this life. If we were the ones on the cross, we would probably ask why we have been abandoned; our eyes set on the current trouble, forgetting that there is promise on the other side. God knows what we need better than we do, and we can’t see His grace until we have come through it. We aren’t perfect; day by day we are being perfected by God. Unfortunately, we still fail. We are sinners even while we are saints. The work won’t be complete until the day we meet the Lord face to face. Until that day, we will experience the pain and suffering that is brought on by our sin. We are easily distracted from the goal; our attention is drawn from seeing God’s good works in our lives.

There is one guy in today’s Gospel story that sees God’s grace: the demoniac. His life was out of control: well, out of his control and out of the control of the people around him. He was so out of his mind that he was running naked and living in tombs. Chains could not keep him bound. Demons possessed his body and his mind. When Jesus stepped off the boat, having traveled from the other side, the man met him on the shore. Jesus was in Gentile country, taking the message of God’s kingdom outside familiar borders.

It seems odd to me that the man met him as he left the boat. Was he waiting for Jesus? Was he seeking help? Was he, or the demons, trying to cause trouble for the visitors? Was he, or the demons, trying to shock the new arrivals or demand something from them? Right away, even before the man could speak, Jesus commands the demon to leave Jesus. Jesus recognized something abnormal about the scene and dealt with it right up front. But the demon was not so willing to go.

“What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the Most High God? I beseech thee, torment me not,” the demon cried. Perhaps the demon thought that he was safe in the land of the Gentiles, a place where the God of Israel had little influence over the people. Perhaps that demon thought that the Messiah would not bother with the foreigners and their troubles. But Jesus has mercy on whom He has mercy. He heals those who cross His path, whoever they are. “What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the Most High God?” The demon didn’t think that Jesus belonged in that place or had authority over that man, but the demon was wrong.

The plea is interesting in this story. The demon says, “Do not torment me.” Ironic that it would use that term, considering it has tormented the poor man for a long time. We learn that the name of the demon is legion, because it is many. This poor man has been tormented not by one demon, but by many. Apparently these demons had been set free from the abyss, a place of the dead or the prison where Satan and the demons will eventually be bound for eternity. They wanted to remain free, but in their freedom they are bound to live according to their character: tormenters. What was Jesus to do?

Jesus was in the region of the Gerasenes. This was near the Decapolis, the Ten Cities, but 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 by demons that caused the man to do horrific things. He was violent and was forced to live a solitary life among the dead. With a word, Jesus set him free from the control of those demons. He was immediately in his right mind, was given clothes and was willing to sit quietly and listen to Jesus speak. It might seem like only one person benefitted from this experience—the man—but the whole community found peace in his healing. Unfortunately, they missed this gift because they could only see how they were affected.

Jesus didn’t send those demons into the abyss; He sent them into a herd of pigs. The pigs responded by running off the side of the hill into the water. This story makes so little sense to us, especially since we like to eat pork. Why would Jesus send the demons into a herd of pigs? How could that be the gracious answer to this situation? After all, those pigs belonged to someone. They were the livelihood of a family or several families. They were the food for a village. How was this the better choice for Jesus to make?

What would have happened to that legion of demons? Where do those demons go when they are cast out of the possessed? Jesus tells us in chapter eleven that when a demon comes out of a man it goes in search of a new home. What would have happened to that legion of demons in a place where the people are unprepared to deal with them? Instead of one out of control man, they may have had dozens suffering from possession. Sending the demons into the pigs saved them from a horrific future. The death of the pigs also meant the death of the demons. Did Jesus really accept their plea? Did He really honor their wishes? Or did He save a city from terror?

But the people could not see beyond their trouble. They lost a herd of pigs. They lost a lot. They were so distracted by their loss that they missed God’s grace in this encounter. When the people saw the power that Jesus had over the demons and their herd, they begged Jesus to leave them. They were distracted from the grace that Jesus had to offer by their sudden loss of the livelihood. The event was frightening to the people because one man’s salvation meant destruction to them. Jesus had changed their lives, but only one seemed to benefit. They saw Jesus as an enemy. They were so focused on the loss of their herd that they missed the Word of hope and forgiveness that Jesus came to bring.

They chased Jesus away, but that one man went and told many about the grace of God. Luke tells us that he “went his way, publishing throughout the whole city how great things Jesus had done for him.” He didn’t just tell one or two folk about Jesus. He went about publishing all the great things Jesus had done for Him. Jesus told him to do this, to share the good news with the people in his home. Jesus cared for the Gentiles of the Decapolis as much as He cared for the sheep of His own flock. He wanted them to know, so He sent a messenger ahead to announce the grace of God. This word spread, and when it came time for Jesus—and the disciples after Him—to visit the Gentiles, the seeds of faith had already been planted. The pig herders had no warning; they had no preparation for the revelation of God they witnessed. They weren’t ready to trust in the God who had so much power and authority.

Unfortunately, we sometimes would prefer to be independent. We feel that we do not need anyone to come to our aid. We want to do it ourselves. Like the man who refuses to stop to ask for directions or the teenager that insists on going their own way, we want the control that comes from doing it ourselves. When we ask another for help, we have to give up a little of that control, and allow them to do things their own way. I think it is even harder to ask God for help, because He is beyond our control. We ask for something we think we need, and God answers, but His help is not always what we expect or want. Sometimes He sends our demons into the pigs because it is the best way of dealing with our prayers. But, we miss the grace in His answers because we are distracted by the troubles that we see when the response is not what we expect.

The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah is 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, be independent without the helper that is waiting.

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, “They say, ‘Stand by thyself; come not near me, for I am holier than thou.’” God’s people had declared themselves holier than Him!

God offered help to His people, but they refused. They took control of their own lives and learned about the consequences of their independence. Yet, there is always promise in the Word of God. He would not 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 would inherit all that He had to give them. That promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

In Christ we see the fulfillment of the promises that God gave to His people in the ancient times. But those promises were not meant for just for them: the promises were meant for all. Faith was not a gift that is limited by borders. Everyone would have the opportunity to trust in God: all the nations. Paul writes, “But before faith came, we were kept in ward under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.” Before Christ we were prisoners of the Law. It was given to Moses to point us toward Christ. Through the Law we discover our inability to keep it perfectly and look to Jesus for our salvation.

Now we are one body in Christ, sons of God through faith. Baptism brings us together into a family, into a community. We can’t live our faith alone. In Christ we inherit the promises that were given to Abraham and we are made part of something much greater. He covers us with His righteousness and we are all one together. As Paul writes, “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female; for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus.”

As we live this life of faith, day by day and step by step, we are becoming more and more like Him. We know that we are called to live in that faith, trusting that God knows best and that His way is the right way. But we still fail. We still try to control our circumstances, do what we think is right. We expect God to answer our prayers in our way and our time. When that doesn’t happen, we feel abandoned. But when we cry out to God, we do so knowing that He will hear. May He give us the strength to trust in His answers, to receive His grace however it may come.

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