25 October 2015
Today’s text is the story of the Gadarene demoniac: the man from whom Christ cast out a legion of demons. And I want to focus on three lessons it has for us.
First, the demonic is real. Too often I fail at the Christian life because I forget the nature of the conflict I’m in. St. Paul says, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” It’s easy for us to get distracted by the outward appearances, and miss what’s happening beneath the surface.
Sometimes the demonic is obvious. Anyone who saw this man, running naked around the tombs, resisting all attempts to restrain him, had to see a deeper, evil power at work in his life. There could be no confusion about that. And when, today, we see our brothers and sisters being beheaded, or subject to terrorist attack, simply because they confess Christ, it is obvious that the devil is alive and well.
But sometimes the demonic is more subtle. In fact, Satan does his best work in the dark, beneath the surface of our minds. Think how he enflames the passions of anger and lust: not just with violent video games and online pornography, but also with the little frustrations and distractions of daily life. Like termites eat the frame of a house, so the demons nibble away at the fabric of our culture and of our minds. See how he is active in the lives of the people of Gadara. They could handle the demoniac, as long as he stayed out of their sight in the cemetery. They had come to think of it all as somehow normal; they had found a way to live with it, until Jesus came.
And that brings us to our second lesson. How can we tell the presence and power and working of the devil? Consider what the demons had in common with the townsfolk. When Jesus lands, the demons approach him. “What do you have to do with us?” they ask him. “Have you come to torment us before the time?” In other words, the very presence of Christ is painful to them and to their work. They want nothing to do with him, and will go anywhere to get away: even into a herd of pigs.
What about the townsfolk? When they learn what Jesus has done, do they greet him with thanks for having healed the demoniac? On the contrary! They beg Jesus to get back into the boat and go. Go where? Anywhere, just so it wasn’t there.
We can spot the presence and power of the demonic by seeing whether the Lord Jesus is welcomed, or not. The man who was cured, begged Jesus to let him be with him. The townsfolk, and the demons, begged Jesus to go away.
That is why we must learn to call on the name of Jesus. The holy fathers teach us that the name of Jesus is a scourge of demons. One way to use that name is to learn the prayer of Jesus: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The name of Jesus is not magical; but it is personal and powerful. As an old hymn says, “Take the name of Jesus with you, child of sorrow and of woe; it will joy and comfort give you, take it then, where’ere you go.”
That’s why we come to the services of the Church. We come here broken and battered in our battle with the foe; but here the Triune God welcomes us, washes our wounds, clothes us with his grace and feeds us with the body and blood of Jesus.
Third, and last, though our battle is great, the outcome is not in doubt. We may despair when we see how wide and strong is the power of the demonic. We may wonder if anyone can be saved in this present darkness. But let us heed the words of St. John: “Greater is he who is in you, than he who is in the world.” Don’t let the terrors across the world, or the many times we fail, lead us to doubt or despair. If we have fallen, let us not stay prone. Let us rise and call on the name of Jesus. He does not despise a broken and contrite heart.
Don’t despair. The devil rages, because he knows his time is short. Just as Christ left Gadara to continue his ministry, so he continues to work today. Call on him…cling to him. He will cover us with his mercy and restore us to a right mind, by the power of his Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
20 September 2015
“Mom, would you let me off a little way down the street from school?” “Dad, stop whistling that tune!” It’s not unusual for teenaged children to be ashamed of their parents. After all, parents like things that aren’t cool any more. They’re so…well…so much older and out of fashion. (Of course, that doesn’t apply if Dad grows a hipster beard, right?)
What happens when someone is ashamed of someone they know? It’s usually a case of two worlds colliding, with the embarrassed person in the middle. To use the teenaged kid example, there’s the world of home and there’s the world of school. Each of them plays by really different rules and follows really different goals. The kid torn between the home-world and the school-world is like the chameleon on scotch plaid.
Shame was a real issue for the people who first received Mark’s gospel. Some of them had a Jewish background; others were Gentiles, especially Romans. For both groups, a cross was an embarrassment.
To the Romans and Gentiles, the cross was an instrument of capital punishment. It would be like having a gallows, a gurney, or an electric chair at the heart of Christianity. In Rome there’s an anti-Christian graffiti from the third century. It shows a donkey on a cross and bears the inscription, “Alexamenos worships his God.”
To the Jews, the cross was even worse. It represented a divine curse, for Deuteronomy said, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” In the Jewish revolt, whole towns would surrender rather than see one of their citizens be crucified.
So it’s not hard to see why Christians might be ashamed of Christ and of his word—the word of the cross—in the first centuries. It was a message that just didn’t fit.
We’re at a time once more when the Cross of Christ doesn’t fit…a time when, once again, we’re confronted with the question: “Am I ashamed of Christ and his Cross?”
We are ashamed of the Cross when we buy the narrative that Jesus is just another great religious teacher…a guru, but not God in flesh. Just as during the days of his earthly ministry there were many prepared to admit him as Teacher, or Prophet, but not as God—so also today. No one bats an eyelid any more when the media refers to “Prophet Muhammed”—but just try saying “Christ God,” and see where it gets you!
We are ashamed of Christ when we endorse our passions and affirm them instead of fighting against them. “Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh and its desires,” St. Paul tells us. Yes, we should be concerned about new definitions of marriage and of sexuality—but the confusion in our culture just objectifies the confusion in our own hearts, homes and lives.
I know it isn’t easy to fight against the passions. But here, too, we can be ashamed of Christ and his Cross when we try to fight them in our own name and strength and power, instead of by the name of Jesus and the strength and power of the Cross.
I have a friend from high school who just this past week celebrated his 28th year of sobriety. He wrote, “Yesterday…I have been clean and sober for 28 years. That does not mean that I have been without difficulty and issues, but it does mean that I was better equipped to handle what came my way. The first thing I remember was God in my life, because I cried out to Him and my obsession to drink and get high was immediately lifted. That was and still is today the very most important part of my sobriety—that I gave my life to the Lord...”
We have much to be ashamed of, dear friends in Christ: the many ways and many times we have acted as if he is other than the center of our life…the times we have surrendered ourselves to our passions instead of fighting them…the times we have tried to fight them in our own power and wisdom and strength.
But let us never be ashamed of Christ our God and of his holy cross. Let the word of Christ’s Cross be the light for our feet and the lamp for our path. Let the word of Christ’s Cross be our weapon of peace and our trophy invincible. When the passions assail us, when our sins trouble us, when death itself looms, let our one boast be in the Cross of Christ. Let us never, never, never be ashamed of Christ our God, who loved us, and gave himself for us!
31 August 2015
When I was a kid, I loved to discover how things worked. And I got to be pretty good at taking things apart. Whether it was a piece of electronics, or some household object, I could soon have the whole thing in pieces in front of me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite so good at putting things back together. Inevitably there’d be two or three pieces sitting there. when I was done. I had no idea where they went, but without them, the thing wouldn’t work. Even today, I dread those words “Some assembly required” when I buy something.
It was a little like that for the Jewish leaders in today’s text. They thought they had all the pieces assembled right. Oh, to be sure, there were always tensions and troubles in their world. How to deal with the Romans…how to interpret strange sections of the Torah, (like that one about a healed leper showing himself to the priests when leprosy was incurable)…Then in the background there was their ancestors’ constantly falling into idolatry. But on the whole, they got the parts together and it all seemed to work.
Then along came Jesus, and they didn’t know what to do. On the one hand, nobody could deny that he did miracles and wonders: raising the dead, casting out demons—even healing lepers, like that strange passage talked about.
But on the other hand, he wouldn’t play by their rules. He went out of his way to heal on the Sabbath day. His disciples came from Galilee, a place crawling with Gentiles—all except for Judas Iscariot, of course. Try as they might, they couldn’t figure out what to do with him. He didn’t fit their plans, so they rejected him.
That’s why he quoted the words of the Psalm to them, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” He knew what was in their hearts. Just as their fathers had killed the prophets, so they would strike at him. Something had to give…so they killed him. But God raised him from the dead, and revealed him to be his Son, and poured out his Spirit on those who trusted him.
It’s easy to see that from our vantage point. But I wonder how many times we need to hear these same words. We work on building our lives. We try to put the pieces together. Most everything seems to fit. But sometimes we might see Christ as just another piece, and miss how he’s the key piece, the cornerstone. Or in some areas of our life we might try to get by without him altogether.
I admire those who are able to build or remodel a building. You may know that buildings have two kinds of walls: weight-bearing and non-weight bearing. They both look the same from the outside, but they’re not. Here’s how to tell the difference. Knock the wall down. If nothing happens, then it’s a non-weight bearing wall. If the roof starts to cave in, you’ll know it was weight bearing.
Where does Christ fit in your plans: for big things like your career and your marriage and the way you see life-issues like human sexuality and race issues and politics…and for little things like your day to day existence? Try the weight-bearing wall test. Take him completely out of the picture for that issue or act. If the whole thing still makes sense without him then, my friend, he is not a weight-bearing wall in your life. Sooner or later, you will either repent or try to kill him altogether—to remove him from your life.
But he will have none of it. The Jewish leaders muddled along for another 30 years before their world came completely down. You see, Jesus is Lord. He is the one in whom all things hold together. Through him you were made…indeed, you are central to him, for he left heaven and suffered and died and rose for you. If he is not central to you, it’s not yet too late. Turn to him and trust him…not just for the big things but also for the little ones.
He is the cornerstone to life and death. Everything else makes sense only when he is the key to all. Let us stop trying to have life on our terms, with our plans. Let us give our plans and our lives with all their parts into those hands which were wounded for us. He loves us, beloved; he will build of us something true and beautiful and good, for service in his Kingdom: of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
10 May 2015
The whole of the Christian life consists of these two parts: to do the will of God, and to suffer for his sake. Consider the life of our Lord Jesus Christ himself. He who is God, the giver of the Law, submitted himself to the Law for our sake. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law,” he told his disciples. “I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” And having kept the Law in its fullness, he willingly suffered its penalty for us and for our salvation. The wages of sin is death, but he gave himself as a ransom to death, in order to give us life.
Consider also the Theotokos. When God revealed through Gabriel that she would bear his Son, she said, “Let it be to me according to your word.” And when her spotless Son was led to the tree, the words of Simeon were fulfilled, “A sword will pierce your own heart too.”
Indeed, these two things have marked the lives of all the saints, from the beginning of the world till now: they did the will of God, and suffered for Christ’s sake.
I bring this up, beloved, because at the heart of today’s gospel the Lord says something very strange: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”
Now normally we think of food as something that gives us energy to work, or as a reward after we’ve done work. But here Christ says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.”
How often, in my Christian life, do I say to myself, “As soon as I feel strong enough…as soon as my basic needs are met…as soon as I’ve got life going the way I want it to….then I’ll willingly do God’s will and gladly suffer hardship for Christ’s sake.” Day follows day, week follows week, and I’m still stuck in the same ruts, struggling with the same sins, getting older but no better, slipping into despair. Does this describe you, too?
If so, maybe we have it backwards. Maybe we will find the meaning and satisfaction and purpose we so desperately long for, not by feeding our passions and focusing on our own desires, but by finding our delight, as Christ does, in doing the will of God and suffering for his sake.
For the past month or so, I have been so caught up with preparations for our trip, and finishing the semester, that I’ve neglected my normal habit of walking a couple of miles a day. And how has that been working for me? I have less strength, less motivation, and have gotten less done.
What’s true physically is also true spiritually. When things happen and my first question is, “How does this fit in with what I want?”—I inevitably get frustrated and angry and despair. But when I learn to pray from the heart, “Thy will be done,” and embrace the things that come as from the hand of a Lord who so loved me that he embraced death for me—then I learn to live in peace and joy.
My friends, Khouria and I will be away for much of the next three months. May I offer a challenge to you? Meditate on these strange words of Christ, and apply them to all that comes your way. Don’t desire that things go your way, according to your will; but embrace what happens as an expression of his will. When Christ kept these words, when he obeyed and suffered, it meant life for you and me. When we embrace them for ourselves, think what joy it will bring for us, and what life in Christ for others!