Sunday, June 24, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 12 or The Nativity of John the Baptist
Isaiah 65:1-9
Psalm 22:19-28
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39
Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm 141
Acts 13:13-26
Luke 1:57-67 [68-80]

And he went his way, publishing throughout the whole city how great things Jesus had done for him.

I think if I were preaching this Sunday, I would choose to use the texts from the regular lectionary, despite the difficult nature of the story from Luke. The Gospel lesson is a tough one, showing Jesus in a light that seems to counter all that we know about Him. From our Pentecost point of view, it seems cruel to destroy a herd of pigs, cruel not only to the pigs but also to the people whose lives and livelihoods depended on those animals. Yet, the texts reveal to us the extraordinary generosity of God, who reaches out to those in need in mercy and in grace.

Yet, it is worth noting that Sunday, June 24th is the Nativity of John the Baptist. We celebrate on this day because the scriptures tell us that John was born six months before Jesus. Therefore, we are six months from Christmas. Are you already shopping for those Christmas gifts?

All kidding aside, John the Baptist is a worthwhile figure to consider against the other texts for this week. In his ministry, we are reminded that he came as a voice in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. He cried out for repentance, so that the people would be prepared for that day when Christ did come, so that they would be ready to receive Him. Perhaps if those people on the lakeshore in the country of the Gerasenes had known John the Baptist and heard him preach, they might have been ready to receive openly receive Jesus on that day.

John the Baptist came to point the way toward Christ. We hear all about John during Advent, so the story is familiar. Yet, it is good to be reminded of his birth during this season of Pentecost, to see that we are called to be like John, crying out in the wilderness and pointing toward the One who brings healing and peace. Though Christ has already come, it is our calling as Christians to prepare the way to the Lord. We look to John as our example. He knew that he must diminish so that Christ could increase.

Malachi 3 foretells of John’s ministry – to announce the coming of the Lord. According to Malachi, the day would not be easy. He asks, “But who can abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth?” Who, indeed can stand against the power and the authority of God? Those pig herders could not stand – for them the mercy of God was a destructive force that brought them pain and suffering rather than healing and peace. We won’t find the answer to the question in the ranks of soldiers or in the palaces of kings. We won’t even find the answer in the religious bodies of self-righteous men. The one who can abide the day of His coming is the person of faith. It is the one who believes that Jesus came to reveal God’s kingdom to the world, to bring forgiveness to the sinners and make all those who believe heirs in the promises of God.

John came before Jesus and though he was greater than any of the prophets, he was lesser than the least of those who live in Christ. He lived under the Law and he died under the Law. A Christian abides in faith. As we grow in faith and knowledge of God’s grace, we become less and less until the day when all God will see is His Son in our face. In Malachi, we are reminded of the story of the silver refiner, who heats the silver over and over again until there are no longer any impurities left in the metal. When the silver is perfectly refined, the refiner can look into the molten metal and see His face. This happens in our lives as we are transformed into His image. He casts out the demons, heals our wounds, grants us forgiveness until it is like looking in a mirror, where our faces and His face are like one.

We aren’t perfect today. We are becoming perfect each day as we live in Christ. Unfortunately, we still fail. We are sinners even while we are saints. That is why the refiner must continue to work out the impurities of our life. 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 drawn from what is good, right and true.

The Gospel story for this week is a bit strange, in that Jesus’ response to the demons is odd and even cruel. The disciples were traveling with Jesus and the group had just arrived in the country of the Gerasenes, which was across the lake from Galilee. During the crossing Jesus calmed the storm, so the disciples were in a state of awe over Jesus’ powers. “Who is this?” they had asked. When Jesus stepped on shore, a man possessed by demons met Him. Luke’s description makes the man sound wild – naked and living in the tombs. No one was able to bind or control him. He fell down at Jesus’ feet and cried out. The demons had complete control of the man, but recognized the power and authority of Jesus. “Legion” was the name of the demon because there were many, and they begged Jesus not to send them back to the abyss.

It seems to me that it would have been easier for Jesus not to give in to the demon’s requests. He should have sent them to the abyss so that they could not plague anyone else. Though pigs were unclean according to the laws of the Jews, it seems out of character for Jesus to have brought such hardship on the people of the Gerasenes. Whatever the reason, Jesus gave the demons permission to enter into the herd of pigs that were on the hillside and the herd responded to this intrusion by rushing down the steep bank into the lake. 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.

God’s ways are never easy to understand. Even those with faith had times when they cried out to God in wonder, fearing abandonment. As He was dying on the cross, Jesus cried the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This was a quote from the beginning of this Psalm for this week, repeating the cry of David who suffered greatly at the hands of his enemies. While Jesus hung from the cross, most of His friends went into hiding. Those who stood by Him to the end could do nothing but mourn the loss. Even God seemed to leave His presence as He took upon Himself the sin of the world to put its power to death forever. Yet, if we read the entirety of the Psalm which begins with such heartbreaking words, we find that God is never far from us, even in our loneliest moments. There is one who is always near. The Lord God Almighty is never far off. He is close and ready to help. Sometimes we simply do not understand the type of help we need, but God knows.

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. That is even true when it comes to our salvation.

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. However, his writing is more than a prediction of what will happen some day; it is a revelation of God, His purpose and His plan. As we read the book of Isaiah, we are reminded that God’s plan is right and true and that we should trust in Him to carry it out.

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, 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!

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 will inherit all that He had to give them. That promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

You would think that the healing of the man possessed of demons would have caused those witnesses to believe in Jesus. But they did not see it through the eyes of faith. They saw it 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. He asked Jesus if he could be a disciple, but Jesus sent him into the Decapolis to tell everyone what God had done.

We are called to be disciples of Christ through faith, but we aren’t called to stay huddled in the fellowship of His believers. Jesus saves us from our own demons and sends us out into the cities to tell everyone about His mercy and all he has done for us. We are called to sing His praises so that the whole world will see Him revealed. We are called to be like John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness and telling them that the kingdom of God is near. God reveals Himself, but He sends us forth to share the good news so that all who hear might believe and see God’s mercy and grace.

As we live this life of faith, day by day and step by step, we are becoming more and more like Him. Though we fail, the master refiner will continue to burn out the impurities until we will reflect clearly the face God.

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