I was tempted to start this week’s sermon the way I began my sermon last Sunday. I figured you wouldn’t notice, as I was at Knaphill and this is Walton. The only people who would notice were those who read this on my blog.
I was going to talk about a woman called Nancy Duarte, who is a world authority on how speakers might craft the best visual presentations. She talks about the need to find something in your message that will resonate with your hearers, so that there is empathy between speaker and audience (or congregation).
But for a lot of contemporary Christians, there are difficulties finding that resonance or empathy with today’s Gospel reading. Some get worried by the references to demons. Others are troubled by what happens to the pigs. A few will know there are issues around the reference to ‘the country of the Gerasenes’ (verses 26, 37) and whether it extended to the border of the Sea of Galilee.
Nevertheless, I want to ask you to stay with me as we explore this story. Whatever problems some of you might have with the account, I believe Jesus has much to teach us here about the way we share in his mission in the world today.
In fact, let’s take up that theme at the outset: this passage is first and foremost about mission.
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. (Verse 26)
Then? What has just happened? Jesus and his disciples have just crossed the Sea of Galilee to the ‘other’ side, the Gentile side. They have survived a terrible storm, which threatened their lives, but which didn’t bother Jesus, who commanded it to stop. This is a deliberate journey. It is an utterly intentional act that he leads the disciples away from the safety and familiarity of the Jewish side of Galilee to the Gentile side. Jesus is leading his disciples out of their comfort zone.
And that is something we need him to do with us if we are to be on mission with him. How often do we want to stay in our familiar surroundings? How often do we describe outreach as ‘getting more people to join us’? We would rather it were all done on our territory, on our premises. But Jesus will not let us get away with that. If we just want to get people to join us, we are doing little more than recruiting people to our religious club. We have lost the vision of calling people to make their allegiance to the kingdom of God.
Yes, that will put us in uncomfortable circumstances. I was dwelling on that a few weeks ago when I went to the barber’s. As I waited my turn with one of the two guys in there, a student was having his hair cut by one of them. I heard him speaking disparagingly about a posh but attractive woman he had met at a social gathering. Without a trace of shame, the young man said, “It wasn’t as though I wanted a relationship with her, I only wanted to go to bed with her.” You can add your own stories, and some of you encounter these vastly different values every day. Yes, we can feel nervous when we come across them, because we are aware that our convictions will be laughed at, but it’s no good retreating from the challenge.
Make no mistake, there are forces that will want to prevent us from making our journey to the Gentile shore. The storm that rose threatened to derail Jesus and his disciples would probably have been seen by first century Jews as a demonic manifestation. The sea was a symbol of fear and for a storm to rise up there was more than a meteorological phenomenon. This was opposition to Jesus’ journey.
We face opposition, too. Yes, there are secular groups that want to obliterate all reference to God from the public discourse, not least the National Secular Society, an organisation that refuses to divulge how many members it has, but probably has no more than seven thousand.
But we have opposition within ourselves. We prefer our comforts. We want to avoid the difficult road. But you know what? We’ve tried that, and look around! It’s not working.
Friends, if there were one priority I could set for every church today, it would be to give mission the priority Jesus did, and to stop us running all our lives and our spare time around church activities. Things need to be cut. Certain high priorities at present need to be put far lower down our lists. We need to be in ‘Gentile territory’ with the love of God.
The second thing to notice – and you’ll say I’m just stating the blindingly obvious here – is that Jesus’ mission is about confrontation with evil. But before you ask why on earth the circuit is paying me a stipend to say such things, please notice that the confrontation with evil is more complex than it first appears.
Let’s begin with the problematic issue of the demons. It’s easy to assume, because we feel so superior as modern educated people, that the ‘primitive’ authors of the biblical books were mistakenly attributing what we would call mental illness to demonic activity. However, why do we make that assumption? Is it because we have already decided we are embarrassed by what is often called the ‘supernatural’? Or maybe we do so, because we know of Christians who have been irresponsible in their easy labelling of anything disturbing as being ‘of the devil’, sometimes causing pastoral damage by doing so. This has certainly happened.
But ultimately do we not as Christians have to deal with the fact that Jesus recognised the existence of the demonic? Were we then to say that Jesus only did so because he was a child of his time, then have we not come close to denying that he is Lord? It is one thing to say that Jesus limited himself in his incarnation, but it is quite another to say that he was wrong.
So I conclude that there is a spiritual dimension to evil that needs to be faced – and faced not with fear but with faith. I think it fair to say that the demonic is real but rare. In twenty years of ministry, I can only point with certainty to one case – although there may have been others. Indeed, the late John Wimber, whose famed healing ministry included a deliverance element, said he could count on the fingers of his hands the number of times he had encountered a demon.
However, I said that the confrontation with evil was more complex than first appears. The effect of Jesus’ ministry is not only the expulsion of the demons from the afflicted man. That is one of at least four effects Jesus has in this story. A second is that he has an effect upon the local economy when he allows the demons to enter the herd of pigs. Whatever we make of that action, the local farmers will not have been pleased. Even if we say that to a Jew the pigs were unclean (which isn’t an easy justification, because Jesus declared all foods clean), we are still left with an economic effect of Jesus’ battle with evil.
It isn’t the only time something like this happens in the New Testament. In Acts 16, Paul casts a demon out of a slave girl, and the girl’s owner is enraged that he has lost his income stream. In Ephesus, the craftsmen who make idols for people to worship become angry with Paul and his entourage who promote the worship of a different deity, one who prohibits images. Gospel preaching and deliverance ministry not only have a positive effect on those who are blessed, but a negative effect on those whose economic self-interest is dependent upon sin and exploitation.
As well as the exorcism and the social effect, there is a third effect of the confrontation with evil, and it is a positive one: the man’s relationship with society is healed. No longer does he have to be ostracised as a graveyard-inhabiting madman in chains, the only people he sees being those engaged to guard him (verse 29). Now, instead of being naked he is clothed, and instead of being afflicted he is in his right mind (verse 35). The Gospel heals his relationship with society. It heals social brokenness. Relationships are restored. Ostracism and exclusion are dissolved.
The fourth Gospel effect in Jesus’ confrontation with evil is that the healed man becomes a disciple. No longer is he subject to other powers, he is now free to follow Jesus. And so much so that he wants to leave his home and go on the road with Jesus (verse 38), although Jesus has a different task for him, a missional one among his own people of proclaiming what God has done (verse 39).
This all reminds us, then, that the mission to which we are called will be a fully rounded one. Some Christians talk as if you can pick a preference: the Gospel is about conversion, or it is about supernatural healings, or it is about reconciliation, or it is about social justice. However, there is no ‘or’ about it. The Gospel affects all areas of life, and we need to share it with that in mind. Jesus cannot be limited to a small compartment of our lives: he comes to reign in every area of life. This is the Gospel of the kingdom of God: that God seeks to act as king in every sphere. This is what we proclaim, and this is what we are to live.
Naturally, there are no guarantees here. People are not computers that can be programmed to provide a guaranteed response. Hence, when the townspeople become fearful and ask Jesus to leave them (verses 35, 37). And perhaps the frightening thing for such people is that Jesus honours their terrible request to go away.
But, but, but! If Jesus had not taken the missional initiative and confronted evil, that man would never have found healing and faith. It is because Jesus went away from the familiarity of Jewish Galilee to Gentile Galilee that the man was blessed and became a disciple.
I ask you to draw a contrast between where we are in many churches now and where we might be. Mostly, we wait for people to come to us. We follow Einstein’s definition of insanity: we keep doing the same thing, but we expect a different result. We ought to have got the message by now: doing the same old same old over and over as we do a credible impersonation of a heritage industry rather than a living organism will not get us any other result than the current one of decline and aging.
I hold out to you instead a vision of a church that is prepared to cross the stormy waters from safety to vulnerability. A church that is not interested in self-preservation but in overflowing with the Good News of God’s kingdom in every area of life, expressed in word and deed. A church that in doing so is willing to risk the negative responses of those who will tell her to go away for the sake of those who will drink the message of the kingdom as life-giving water, as the afflicted man in this story did.
Friends, if you compare where we are now with where we could be, which future do you want? The present scenario is sometimes expressed in terms that I find uncomfortable: I hear some of our older members in some churches saying, “As long as this church sees me out, that’s all I care about.” In other words, as long as the congregation doesn’t die before they do, that’s enough. I find that depressing and distressing.
We have a better alternative. Yes, it’s a bit scary, but it’s the way of life. It’s the way of Jesus.
We have two choices before us. I pray we choose the way of life.