Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (June 23, 2013)

Wordle: Untitled

“Living Among the Tombs” (Luke 8:26-39)
I used to live among the tombs. Well, not quite. Julie and I lived right next door to the Marysville Cemetery when we first moved to town. We rented a townhome cozily situated on a cul-de-sac just off of 88th Street, adjacent to the cemetery. Our neighbors were very quiet. Ba dum dum.          

In today’s reading from St. Luke, we learn of a man living among the tombs. He would not have been as quiet as my former “neighbors.” A “Legion” of unclean, evil spirits had taken charge of his body. St. Matthew describes him as “fierce” (Matt. 8:28). St. Mark says that “night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones” (Mark 5:5). Demon-possessed people were often very noisy, doing everything possible to torment and torture the individuals whose bodies they had taken over.          

This man lived among the tombs, probably caves along the hillside away from the nearby village. They were places of death and decay. If the wind was blowing just so, perhaps you could smell the rotting flesh of the recently deceased. The place of the tombs is the place of death. And death is the devil’s domain. He is the one who brought death into the world in the first place when he tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God in the perfection of Paradise. The tombs. An appropriate place for the devil and his demons … and the victim in our Gospel reading. Driven away from his community. Isolated. Unclothed. Out of his mind.          

Until, that is, Jesus arrived on the scene. This seems to be a chance encounter. But as you know, nothing happens by chance with God. Jesus had just sailed with the disciples from the west side of the Sea of Galilee and over to the eastern shore. And there, he meets this man of the tombs.         

This was Gentile, pagan territory. This explains also the presence of pig farmers in the area, something Jews would not be engaged in. They would be far from the mud and the muck and the slop of these animals marked “unclean” under the Old Covenant. This probably had more to do with the fact that pagans used pigs as part of their worship as opposed to the dangers of eating undercooked pork.          

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” the man asks. What does Jesus have to do with him? Jesus has everything to do with him. This is in part a fulfillment of the words from Isaiah the prophet we heard today: “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me … who sit in tombs … who eat pig’s flesh.” What does Jesus have to do with him? Jesus has everything to do with this man … to cast out the demons, to heal him. And this is exactly why Jesus came to this earth, because he has everything to do with you … because of his great love for each and every one of you. He came to defeat the devil and to conquer sin, death, and hell for you.          

What’s going on here with this conversation with the demon? First, the demons recognize that they’re in trouble when Jesus is around. The demons recognize him as the Son of God even before the disciples. Just before today’s reading is the account of Jesus calming the storm. The disciples marvel and say, “Who then is this?” They disciples were still dumbfounded. Yet the demons knew exactly who they were up against. And so they beg not to be tormented or to be sent into the “Abyss” … another term for hell, the final place of torment for the devil and all his demonic hordes. Instead, they ask to enter the nearby herd of pigs. Now, you have to wonder why Jesus grants this request. It’s a mystery, that’s for sure. If anything, it’s a demonstration of how murderous the devil is. If he cannot destroy a human being, he’ll take it out on a helpless animal. And don't you find it just a bit ironic that these demons saw no problem in tormenting a human soul, yet they begged Jesus not to torment them?          

Delivered, healed, the man sits at the feet of Jesus … clothed, and in his right mind, ready to listen to Jesus, to hear his Word, begging to follow him. Jesus sends him away from the tombs and back to his community, back to his home, with a message: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And that’s exactly what he did.          

Yet the wonderful, powerful message of what Jesus had done isn’t received well by all. The observers were overcome with fear. They were fearful of this display of power. They were fearful about their dead pigs and the economic loss they would now face. They cared more about their pocketbook than the soul of their neighbor. They saw only the judgment of the demons, but refused to recognize the blessing of Jesus. They begged him to leave their region. The healed man begged to follow Jesus.          

You and I live among the tombs. Not because we have a cemetery on the next block. It’s because death and the devil’s domain is still all around us. Our sin isolates us from each other. Darkness reigns even in broad daylight. “Change and decay in all around I see,” we sing in the hymn.          

Demonic activity doesn’t seem as noticeable in our culture today. In other regions of the world today, you hear about more dramatic demonstrations of demon possession. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because Satan knows that we like to think we’re so sophisticated. We don’t fear him anymore. We have a comic image of him in red tights with horns and pitchfork. And so he carries out covert operations. He does his best to make sin look respectable. He disguises himself as the false gods of tolerance and acceptance and makes us believe that they are the highest cultural values. Before you know it, you and I begin to tolerate our own sins and fail to realize our need to repent.          

And then Jesus arrives on the scene in Word and Sacrament. Our old sinful nature did not ask for him; our old Adam did not seek him. Yet in his great love and mercy, he sought us out and brought us out of the devil’s domain in Holy Baptism.          

Our old nature still wants nothing to do with Jesus, and would love to return to the devil’s domain. We are constantly tempted to sneak back and wallow there in the mud and the muck and the slop of this sinful life.          

But Jesus passed through death and came forth from his tomb, and in so doing, he defeated the devil for you. No longer can Satan accuse you. No longer do your sins condemn you. No longer does Satan have any claim over you. No longer does death have the last word, because on the Last Day, you will come forth from your tomb or grave or wherever your body ended up, never to die again.         

In Holy Baptism, your sins are forgiven, and you are brought into the domain of the Triune God. Now, not even the devil’s Legions can stand against you. Your sinful nature was drowned, just like those pigs with the demons inside them. You have been given a new nature, a new heart of faith that trusts in Christ. You sit at the feet of Jesus to hear his Word. You are clothed with the white robe of Christ’s righteousness. You are now in your “right minds,” or as St. Paul says, “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) … that is, we have faith in the saving will of God in Christ and we recognize what pleases him in our lives.          

Jesus came forth from the tomb for you so that you might no longer be people of the tombs. He brings you into the community of the Church and into communion with God. No longer are you isolated in your sin and your struggle against temptation, but you are brought together in this ark full of rescued sinners, sailing together in repentant trust and hope in Christ. And you are sent with a message. Jesus doesn’t send all of you across the globe to bear the news of his mission. But like the man in our lesson, he sends each of you to your homes to tell how much God has done for you. And like the villagers in the reading who wanted Jesus to go away, the message of Jesus won’t always be received well in our circles. Do people fear God’s power today? Maybe a few. Most people, I think, fear what they have to give up in repentance … certain behaviors, certain relationships, giving up control of their life and giving it over to God. In a society that is increasingly hostile to Christianity, it may end up meaning economic loss, too. But even a loss of income should mean nothing when you consider the eternal gains and the heavenly riches that await us.          

Rather than “Leave us, Jesus” … for us, it’s “Stay with us, Jesus! We need your healing! We need your power! We need your forgiveness! We need your presence!”          

And all of that is here for you today.          


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