Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
It was a humbled and questioning people who returned from exile in the first part of the sixth century BC. Decades earlier, their parents and grandparents had been uprooted by the Babylonians and carried off into captivity, leaving Jerusalem desolate, the holy city and centre of Israel’s life and hope a grieving vassal. As the exiles return, they try to make sense of it all. If this is the Promised Land, then has God ceased to be faithful? If the presence of God in the temple had not protected them, then where should they look for hope and security? Why had this disaster befallen God’s elect?
God’s reply, through Isaiah, is to say ‘I never left you’: ‘I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’, to a nation that did not call on my name.’ It is not God who was absent, but his people. Having called them into covenant relationship with him, God found the people constantly hedging their bets, offering worship and sacrifice to other gods, and attempting to create their own security by military and political alliances rather than depending on the promises of God.
God remained constant: he would not abandon his people to exile; his love would seek a way to bring them back home, not just to the land he had promised them but to relationship with him. And in today’s Gospel reading we see this same constancy at work: God is still ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek him. And in Luke’s Gospel, the response to God’s offer and invitation is given form and a figure, though he isn’t given a name.
The man possessed by demons is defined by his malady. He’s an outcast whose presence others find disturbing and scary, so he is pushed out of polite society, out of the city, to the edges. Unable to control him, others shackle him – unsuccessfully – and keep their distance. But broken free of the chains, the man roams free and forms the welcome party when Jesus arrives on ‘the opposite side’ of the Sea of Galilee. And Jesus is on the opposite side in ways that are more than just topographical. The country of the Gerasenes is Gentile territory, a place religiously, ethnically and culturally separate from Judaism. As if this journey into foreign territory, with all its potential for contagion and impurity weren’t enough, Luke piles up the transgressions: the man is manifestly ill; he is naked; there are pigs in the vicinity; the man makes his home among the tombs. Everything about this scene screams ‘unclean’. The man, in his illness, has crossed the boundaries of society and community: he is isolated, alone, barely human any longer. When Jesus speaks to him, it’s the demons who respond, so thoroughly have they possessed him that his very personhood has disintegrated. And it is these that Jesus addresses and commands to leave the man, demonstrating his power over all that is opposed to God and to the flourishing of life.
And if the man’s illness has put him outside society and community, then it is Jesus who crosses the boundaries to bring him back. Disregarding all the laws and conventions of holiness and purity and righteousness and community, Jesus goes to where the man is, to the place of alienation, marginalisation, disorder and disintegration. What God said in Isaiah we see Jesus enact: ‘I held out my hands all day longto a rebellious people… a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardensand offering incense on bricks; who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh…’
After his encounter with Jesus, we see the man clothed, in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus. He’s shown in the posture of a disciple, and his wish is to stay with Jesus, to become one of his followers. But Jesus says no: the man’s discipleship will not be worked out by going with Jesus but by staying put: remaining where he is, among an unbelieving population, and witnessing to how much God has done for him. And that’s where Luke leaves the story, with the man going away, ‘proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ And notice that where Jesus tells the man to witness to how much God has done for him, the man tells people what Jesus has done. In this miracle, as in the calming of the storm that precedes it, and the healing of Jairus’ daughter and of the woman with the haemorrhage that follows it, Luke isn’t concerned to show us the actions of a good man or a charismatic rabbi. He is showing us God at work.
It is God himself, who has taken on flesh in Jesus, who comes into the far country of our alienation, and who puts himself in the places of forsakenness, isolation, destruction and death so he can restore us to life and personhood and community and relationship. For it will not be very long before Jesus himself is bound, shunned by the crowds and his friends as he becomes one from whom others hide their faces, and is finally left alone among the tombs. The power Jesus shows over Legion anticipates his final victory over the forces of death and destruction in his passion and resurrection. Legion had asked Jesus ‘what have you to do with me?’ and Jesus’ response to him, and to all the forces that occupy and control us, is to show that he is Lord, and that he will not let them have dominion over us.
The healed man is restored to life and health and community and personhood. And he is sent to the Gentiles among whom he lives, prefiguring all that will follow in Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles. He has no special training, no qualifications in biblical studies or theology, nothing except his story of what meeting Jesus meant for him.
This is his witness. He was lost, and now is found. He was far from himself and society and community, and now he is home. He was living in the shadow of death, and Jesus gave him life.
This is the story he tells, and this is the hope entrusted to the Church, which should be the place where we learn better what it is to be human together, and tell of the great things God has done for us, so that others hear this good news too, and can respond to the God who in Jesus reaches out his hands to say ‘here I am, here I am’.
For Jesus’ work continues. The victory has been won, but this good news needs proclaiming so that those who believe their lives are irreparably damaged because of something they’ve done or something that’s happened to them learn that they are loved and forgiven and free; so that those pushed to the edges of our society, ignored or disdained hear God’s invitation to community and relationship, made real among his people; so that those in thrall to addiction or idolatry of any kind can hear Jesus calling them to a fuller and freer life.
‘Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you,’ says Jesus to the healed man. What would you do if Jesus said that to you? What would you say? This is the ordinary, wonderful work of witness to which most of us are called. And if you’re not sure, if you’re standing on the edge, peering into this thing called faith, then what might it take to reach out a hand, to respond to the God who is already reaching out to you? If it would help, come and talk to me or to Zack about it.
‘I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’,’ says God. He’s still calling, still inviting, still ready to come to the place where we are, so he can bring us back, to life and community and home, in him.