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Sermon: A Missional Confrontation With Evil

Luke 8:26-39

Israel, Sea of Galilee (Lake of Tiberias)

Israel, Sea of Galilee (Lake of Tiberias) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Sermon: Faith Under Fire

It’s back to the sermons here on the blog, and here’s the first one I shall preach in the new appointment tomorrow morning. I am finishing off a sermon series they have recently had on 2 Peter.

2 Peter 3

Have you ever forgotten something you know you should have remembered and then said, “Silly me, I was having a ‘senior moment’”?

Sometimes we can laugh at ourselves when we fail to remember. But at other times, not remembering is painful. I think of Hubert, in the early stages of dementia, not always remembering that Vera is his wife. Some of you have been through experiences like that with a loved one.

And in 2 Peter 3, we hear how important remembering is for our spiritual health. We too face scoffers who mock our faith, and we too need to hear how the writer says,

I am trying to arouse your sincere intention by reminding you that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken through your apostles (verses 1b-2).

The early Christians faced scoffers, and we do, too. In our day, it ranges from friends and acquaintances who think we can’t possibly be serious about believing what we believe to sophisticated and organised atheist scoffers. Only in the last week the National Secular Society, an organisation of less than 10,000 members, have called for RE to be banned in schools. Richard Dawkins is always claiming you have to choose between evolution and a Creator God.

So it is worth us today hearing what Scripture says to us about how to stand firm when others mock our faith. To this end, 2 Peter 3 calls us to remember – to remember some things we already know, because they will fortify our faith. What are they, and what should we do about them?

Firstly, we remember what God has done – because what God has done in the past gives a sign of what he will do again. When you know what someone has done previously, it gives you hope for the future. God is not silent. He has not resigned. He is still up to the job. When we remember what he has done, we stand with hope in the face of mockers.

In particular, 2 Peter points to two things God has done in the past, and their counterpoints in what he will one day do again. Those two events are the Creation and the Flood. Just as God once judged the world in a flood of water (verse 6), so one day he will judge it with a flood of fire (verses 7, 10-11). And just as God made the heavens and the earth (verse 5), so in the future he will not simply destroy creation with the flood of fire, he will remake the new heavens and the new earth (verse 13).

How specifically does remembering these twin themes of Creation and Flood help us in the face of mockery? Let us take creation first. The fact that God has acted in creation (whatever means he chose to accomplish it) points to the new creation he will usher in at the end of all things as we know them now. Our Christian hope is not simply of ‘going to heaven when we die’; the biblical hope is that we shall receive resurrection bodies and live in a renewed creation. This is our destiny. The God who created, and who goes on upholding even this broken creation, will one day make all things new – including the heavens and the earth. And that renewed creation will be our home for ever. Remembering God’s work in creation firms up our faith in where we are going.

One thing Debbie and I did in preparation for moving here was that we bought sat-navs for our cars. They have been a great help in our first fortnight here. We know we only have to punch in the postcode and perhaps the door number of where we are doing, and – provided we follow the instructions – we will arrive at our destination.

Occasionally, of course, they go wrong. I had to educate mine to recognise that the postcode for this church did not put it in an unnamed road, but in Station Road!  And occasionally, too, we go wrong. I did on Friday night, when we drove back from the circuit welcome service. We arrived at a roundabout in Chobham, I think, where I was instructed to go straight on. Only problem was, you had to go left or right. I knew I had been on a roundabout like that a few days ago, where the same thing happened, and the correct solution was to go right. In the dark, I thought I was at that roundabout.

Well … I wasn’t. Turning right led us ultimately down a narrow country lane, where further progress was blocked by a ford. Debbie is better at reversing in tight circumstances than I am, so she took the wheel and eventually the sat-nav recalculated a route home for us and we made it back.

The life of faith can be rather like that. We can end up on detours caused by our own foolishness or the actions of others, but when we live by faith in Christ, arrival at the ultimate destination is still certain. God’s creation and the promise of his new creation tell us that. And knowing that gives us a reason to stand firm when others mock us. We have reason to believe in a hope-filled future.

But you’ll remember it wasn’t just the Creation to which 2 Peter pointed, it was the Flood as well. As God once judged people’s sin in a flood of water, so this chapter tells us he will also one day judge with a flood of fire.

Is this just a case of saying that those who disagree with us have got it coming to them? No, it’s more than that. This chapter tells us that the reason some people don’t merely disagree with our convictions but specifically scoff at us is because they ‘come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts’ (verse 3). In other words, some people who vehemently mock Christianity do so because to accept Christian faith would be to invite judgment on their morally dubious lives. The Christian speaker, author and activist Tony Campolo tells a story of how a student who had previously been well disposed towards Christianity came up to him one day and said that he’d been having doubts about God for about six months.

“Is that when you started sleeping with your girlfriend?” Campolo replied.

And he was right. The student’s intellectual objections were a cover for his rejection of Christian sexual ethics.

It isn’t that every objection to faith stems from that motive – of course not! But 2 Peter 3 reminds us that some of our opponents have hidden, unworthy motives for attacking our faith. The more mocking they are, the more likely it is. And they won’t get away with it in the long run. God sees their lives and their hearts. This is not anything for us to gloat about – in fact, we should be stirred to pray for such people. But it is a reassurance that we serve a God whose ultimate purposes are justice.

So the first step in coping with mockery of our faith is to remember what God has done and recognise what he will do. We gain confidence in God’s good future for us, and in his justice.

Secondly, we remember God’s character. The original readers of this letter were being mocked for their belief that Jesus would return and that God would judge creation. “Where is the promise of his coming?” (verse 4), they taunted. So 2 Peter 3 reminds them of Psalm 90,

that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (verse 8 )

and from that draws the conclusion that God has delayed his final purposes in his divine patience, because he does not want any to perish, but to come to repentance (verse 9). He does not want to have to judge the mockers – he would rather they found new life in Christ. Nor does he want Christians to fall away – he desires that we resist that temptation and stay faithful, even when it would feel more comfortable to disown our Lord and Saviour.

What, then, do we need to remember about God’s character? One word: grace. We would not know God in Christ were it not for his grace, his unmerited favour extended in love to us through Jesus and the Cross. God wants to demonstrate that same love even to those who ridicule his Son and our faith in him.

Every now and again, I read discussions on the Internet about the existence of God. Some of the comments from atheists are arrogant and hateful. My instinctive feelings towards such people are not good. But I need to remember that these are people for whom Christ died, and had God not been gracious to me I would never have known him. It is when we forget truths like this that we may be most likely to slide away from true faith into a parody of true religion that is full of self-righteousness rather than God’s extravagant love to the world through Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we need to remember just how much God has forgiven us, and let that fact inform the way we relate to difficult or hostile people. God wants them to know him. He may well want to use us in reaching them. That will have implications for our words, our actions and our attitudes.

The third and final thing we need to do is to remember God’s call. If we have a future in the new creation, and if God is both just and gracious, what kind of people does he call us to be? Let me just draw together a couple of fragments.

In verse 13, where we read about the new heavens and the new earth, we learn that the new creation is a place ‘where righteousness is at home’. If we want to be at home, we need to lead a consistent life, a righteous one. And to that end, the final plea of the letter in verse 18 is that its readers might

grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

What does this amount to? If we believe in God’s coming new creation, then we need to live in harmony with it. That means righteousness (and justice – the Greek word covers both). And if we believe that God is gracious enough to want even his enemies to find his love and put their faith in him, then we need to grow in grace – to become more like him, especially in becoming more full of grace to others ourselves.

All that amounts to a tough call. In the face of opposition and mockery, God calls us not to give up or mingle with the crowd, but to live righteous and just lives that are full of grace for the most undeserving of sinners. But how else are we going to live a convincing witness to Jesus Christ in the world? We are deluded if we think all we have to do is provide the right answers to people’s questions – although that is important. Jesus calls us to a difficult assignment, but an important one: to live the life of faith, even and especially when we are under fire.

But he’s simply asking us to do what he did when the heat was on, and the good news is that he gives us the Holy Spirit in order to do his will. When I read the claims of atheists on the Internet, I realise they not only need to hear reasonable answers from Christians, they need to see Christians show by their lifestyles that a different way is real and possible.

And that’s a good place for me to end my first sermon here, with that challenge. Our calling is to live different, Jesus-shaped lives in the midst of the world and not just in our religious ghettoes.

Who is up for the challenge?

Sabbatical, Day 70, Holy Saturday: Jesus’ Body Lies In A Tomb

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This is the Damaris Trust video for Holy Saturday (not Easter Saturday, please: we’re not into Easter until tomorrow). Pete Greig talks about where God was on the day that Jesus lay dead in a tomb. He discusses our experiences of feeling in this inbetween state, and the hope that we can cling to.

…………

One of the themes of John’s Gospel after Jesus dies is that of secret disciples. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus arrange for the burial of Jesus’ body. Joseph follows Jesus secretly for fear of ‘the Jews’ (i.e., the religious leadership); Nicodemus had come to see Jesus in chapter three ‘by night’. I mention that, because this morning I have had forwarded on to me the Premier Radio campaign to get Christians to sign up online to declare they are Christians. I first read about this a week ago on Jason Clark’s blog, where he expressed reservations about the initiative.

Now I have seen it for myself, I share Clark’s concerns. The declaration amounts to an assent to certain doctrines. Yet as the Epistle of James says, ‘Even the devils believe.’ Clark proposes an alternative that includes a strong element of discipleship action, and I don’t see how you can exclude that from any understanding of what a Christian is. I would add that the declaration also woefully omits any sense of faith being about the grace of God. It’s all couched in ‘me, me, me’ language. 

I don’t like saying this about Premier Radio, and especially about their Chief Executive Peter Kerridge. I met him a few times in his previous appointment, when he worked as an avowedly Christian radio professional on a community commercial radio station in Harlow, Essex, called Ten 17 radio. He was training Christian leaders (including me) to create snappy ninety-second ‘thoughts for the day’ that would be broadcast on their breakfast programme, in the midst of Top 40 hit singles. We could be as religious as we liked, so long as we were lively and entertaining. It was a great vision.

Equally, I don’t want any of this construed as sympathy for the National Secular Society’s campaign for ‘debaptism’. Their requests that churches delete records of baptism at the request of those who renounce Christian faith amounts to an altering of history that would make Soviets and Maoists proud. People are free to accept or reject faith anyway. It all amounts to a silly campaign from a tiny group of self-important self-appointed self-publicists.

…………

Tonight I’ve been to Chelmsford Cathedral. There was a Service of Light and Confirmations. I went for the confirmations. Five of the twenty candidates came from the parish church where we are worshipping. Another used to be part of that parish. It was great to support them.

I found the Easter Eve liturgy curious in one respect: already we were proclaiming ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!’ I had never uttered those words before Easter morning. I am sure there is a good reason, but I can’t see it. I thought we would still be marking the waiting period.

The Bishop of Chelmsford made a thought-provoking point at the beginning of his brief address. He spoke about how the tomb of Jesus was in a garden. Gardens are places of rest and new life. He then compared it with Eden, the symbolic place for the beginning of human life, and said that the Garden containing Jesus’ tomb was the place where new life and new creation began. (Sounded very Tom Wright!) You may have thought of that many times before, but it was a new and fresh thought for Easter this year for me.

See you tomorrow, when I shall be celebrating that Christ is risen!