June 23, 2013 Sermon

Sermon

“Close Encounters of the Divine Kind”

 

June 23, 2013

The Reverend Chris M. Delmar

 

1 Kings 19:1-15

19Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

 

Luke 8:26-39

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

 

Let’ Pray:

Compassionate One, open our hearts and souls to the power of your transforming and liberating grace as we listen to your Spirit speaking to us today.  May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen. 

 

Today is the first Sunday of Summer, the season when the living is supposedly easy.  Well, things do tend to slow down a bit, and we don’t run around quite as breathlessly as we do the rest of the year.  And, if we are lucky, we get time off from everyday demands, to relax and refresh.  Besides vacation, my favorite thing about summer is the abundance of ice cream and fresh produce (which cancel out the ice cream!) and all the new movies to choose from.  Like Man of Steel, the latest incarnation of Superman on the big screen, which Dan and I saw last weekend.  I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if you haven’t seen it, by reporting that Superman once again saves the day, and the film is becoming one of the blockbuster hits of this summer.

Our Scripture readings bring to mind two older blockbusters: Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Exorcist.  In Close Encounters, a utility worker comes into direct contact with aliens and their light spectacular spaceship on Devil’s Tower in the wilds of Wyoming.  This experience completely transforms his life and purpose, as he is selected to join the aliens on their extraterrestrial travels.  In The Exorcist, one of the scariest movies ever, a young girl is possessed by a gore spewing, head twisting, uncontrollable demon, who wreaks havoc in her life and her mother’s Georgetown home, until the demon possesses one of the exorcising priests, and they leap to their death.

Our lectionary texts are as action-packed as any of these blockbusters.  Good prophet Elijah kills scores of bad prophets with the sword, flees for his life into the desert because the evil Queen Jezebel wants to kill him, is brought to his knees in a kryptonite-like moment of despairing weakness, then is rescued by an angel providing sustenance, so he can travel to a sacred mountaintop, where rock shattering wind, earthquake, and fire, are followed by conversation with God.  In Luke’s Gospel, God’s divine hero Jesus casts out a slew of demons from a crazed man, stampeding pigs charge to their death with the demons into the sea, and fellow villagers are frightened out of their wits by Jesus’ extra human show of power.

Wow!  What are we to make of these astonishing texts?  Exorcisms and miracles don’t much fit our post-modern, scientific worldview.  Many people tell me they believe in God and that Jesus is God’s son, but they don’t believe in miracles, at least not like the ones described in the Bible.  Barbara Brown Taylor writes that miracles are “a problem” for us 21st sophisticates.  They “tend to nag at those of us who do not experience them very often,” and so we intellectualize how they occurred.[i]  Miracles are hard to believe in, especially if we are desperately hoping for one that hasn’t happened.  And I also think it is hard for us to see ourselves in these Bible passages.   Like the question that the demon-possessed man shouts at Jesus, “What have you to do with me?” we might ask, what do these long ago stories have to do with any of us on this first Sunday of summer?  We aren’t prophets like Elijah.  We aren’t possessed by demons, like the poor soul in Luke’s exorcism, right?  And we aren’t afraid of Jesus like the Gerasene country folk?  Not us!

But God is still speaking through these texts, and what we are being invited to see is that both are about close encounters with God that have quite a lot to do with us.  Though they take place long ago with ancient folks who seem very different than ourselves, they really aren’t, if we think more broadly about them and their struggles, and more honestly about ourselves and our own challenges.  These close encounters of the divine kind are hopeful witnesses to us of God’s steadfast presence with those who were hurting and broken, and of God’s life-restoring power and all-encompassing love for them.  They are also about God’s call to live into God’s purposes and not just our own.

Let’s look more closely at Elijah’s close encounter.  Elijah is one of God’s most faithful and zealous prophets.  Now, his killing of the prophets of Baal should trouble us, as it sounds uncomfortably like the Christian Crusades or Jihad terrorism so wrongly justified on behalf of God.  So we need to acknowledge that difficulty, and then look past it to what else was happening with Elijah.  He fled his home in the Northern Kingdom for the southern wilds of Beer-sheba, because Jezebel has a price on his head.  He is afraid, isolated, and doubting, in a literal and spiritual wilderness.  He’s so depleted and depressed, that he asks God to let him die.  What he is really saying is that he desperately needs God’s help, because he does not have the strength to go on by himself.  Like the psalmist in our Call to Worship, he deeply longs for God’s presence and guidance, which he needs as much as actual food and water to survive.  His plea is one that we too might express during hard, faith crushing experiences.  When God’s absence rather than God’s presence seems most apparent, and we might lament, “Where is God?” or “Why doesn’t God tell us what to do?”

Some Biblical commentators describe Elijah’s complaining as a distorted, self-indulgent whine, because he isn’t the only faithful prophet left in Israel. But that is not God’s view or God’s response.  God doesn’t tell Elijah to gird up his loins like a man and stop whining.  God doesn’t try to talk Elijah out of his feelings, or point out that there are other faithful folks.   God meets Elijah where he is: in the wilderness, confessing how badly he feels. And God gives Elijah what he most longs for—a sure sense that God is with him in the worst time of his life, steadfastly caring for him, listening, letting him express his fears and doubts, and guiding him about what he should do next.  Elijah is lifted out of the depths of hopelessness, re-energized to go on with his life and the purpose that God has for him:  returning to his struggles in the Northern Kingdom, so that he can anoint its next king.  By God’s transforming grace, he is re-equipped to handle whatever comes next.

Much has been written about God speaking to Elijah, not in the wind or the earthquake, or the fire, but out of the sound of sheer silence that follows.  But the NRSV translation is not the best, because the Hebrew is more akin to a thin, small whisper, or light murmuring sound.  When I was in Divinity School, my Old Testament Professor, Bob Wilson, said he had heard a lot of really bad sermons about God speaking in “the sound of sheer silence,” and he had better not hear any from any of us!   So I won’t do that to you, but like Elijah, we do need to listen carefully, so that we can hear God’s guiding whispers.  But the most significant lesson from Elijah’s experience is that we can trust that God is with us, especially when we feel most cast down by life, and that God is seeking to strengthen and direct us, so that we can go on with whatever we are facing, and with God’s purposes for us.  For God restores Elijah not only for his own sake, but also for God’s purposes of bringing through him more wholeness to the world.  And like Elijah, we too live not just for ourselves, but in response to God’s call as followers of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to live beyond ourselves, for the sake of God’s kingdom, here on earth.

The exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac is also a close encounter of the divine kind, in this case, through Jesus Christ, on the non-Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee, in the Decapolis part of the Roman Empire.   As soon as Jesus comes ashore, he is accosted by a man with so many demons, that he says his name is Legion—like a Roman company of six thousand soldiers, which shows the overwhelming forces oppressing this unfortunate.   He is deeply distressed, living naked on the margins of society more dead than alive, in the tombs, and near a hillside of pigs.  From a Jewish perspective, nearness to tombs and pigs also make him untouchable and unclean. So he was a dangerous, unclean outcast; someone to be avoided and kept at a safe distance.

But, Jesus doesn’t avoid him.  For Jesus came with God’s Spirit upon him, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.  He is all about seeking out the marginalized and the lost, and restoring them to physical, mental, spiritual, and social health.  So with God’s power working through him, he overpowers the man’s demons, and sets him free, so that he is able to sit calmly at the foot of Jesus, like a disciple, clothed, and in his right mind.  The man has been completely transformed by his close encounter with Jesus, healed by God’s amazing, life-changing grace.

But an odd thing happens.  Instead of rejoicing when the townspeople see the man sitting peacefully at Jesus’ feet, they become fearful and ask Jesus to leave.  Why?  Luke doesn’t tell us.  In Man of Steel, there’s a scene when the father of young Clark Kent tells him he cannot use his superhuman powers yet, because people are afraid of what they don’t understand.  The Gerasenes don’t understand Jesus’ extraordinary power, so they are frightened by it.  Also, he not only healed the demoniac, he caused the destruction of a large herd of pigs, a source of livelihood and food for the non-Jewish villagers.  If he could do those things, what else might he do to them and what else might he cost them?  What else might he change?  Change is hard and scary, even good change.  We resist and fear it, and this tends to be true whether individuals, or families, or groups, or whole countries.

Fear is often a response to Jesus, because he stirs things up and wants us to see the world differently and be different in it.  Enemies are to be forgiven.  The last will be first.  Those who lose their lives will save them.  So we might not really want a close encounter with Jesus, because we might wonder will he demand too much of us, or will we lose control of what we want to do, if we let him into our lives?  Will he take away bad roles and habits we are used to, maybe even secretly enjoy, and force us to change?  We may think the Gerasene demoniac’s encounter with Jesus doesn’t even apply to us, because he was so clearly deranged.  But if we are honest, we all struggle with “demons” of some sort, and need healing from them.

Kathleen Norris, author of Amazing Grace, writes, “Scratch the surface of any ordinary church congregation and you will find not hypocrites, but people struggling with demons…Who does not have something deep within that they would not wish to exorcise, so that it no longer casts a shadow on their capacity to receive and give love?”[ii]  One demon she needed to exorcise was anger, which was seriously hurting her marriage.  One of mine is perfectionism, which leads to overworking and stress.  Perhaps for you, it is other addictions or enslaving struggles with fear, anxiety, depression, a past trauma, low self-esteem, or like, Elijah, doubt.

The Gerasene’s close encounter with Jesus invites each of us to ask ourselves, “Where are the places in us that are broken or captive and need God’s healing, liberating grace?  Where are the places that Jesus might go that scare us, because we don’t want to change?” And if you have honestly acknowledged your demons and have asked for God’s help, but have not yet been healed, do not lose hope.  The Gerasene demoniac struggled for a very long time, but God through Jesus Christ did come to him, meeting him in his wilderness of brokenness to bring him to wholeness.  We need to trust that God continually seeks to redeem what is broken in this world, including us.

There is one more lesson for us in the Gerasene’s close encounter.   He was transformed into a new disciple of Christ, directed by Jesus to return to the city to tell what God has done for him, rather than departing with Jesus, as he wanted to do.  Jesus commissions him to share the good news so that others might come to believe in the transforming power and love of God.

Those of us here on Gods Acre who have been touched by God’s healing in our own lives should also tell our stories of what God has done for us, so others, both in and outside of our community of faith, may find hope and assurance that God is still at work healing the world.  But often, when we have come through some difficult struggle, we tend to act afterwards as though nothing has happened.  Maybe we don’t want to look bad, or maybe we just want to forget and move on.  Part of our reluctance to share our stories may be because we do not feel safe in sharing them.  We wonder, “Can I tell you what God has done in my life and trust that the story will be safe with you?  Or, will you judge me, and my story will end up as gossip at the Club?  Can I tell you the truth about who I really am, and what God is doing in my life and still have you call me friend?  Or, will you shun me?”  These are understandable fears.  But, sisters and brothers, being part of God’s gathered people, means God calls us all to participate in God’s purposes of healing this beautiful but broken world, and that includes answering God’s call to witness to the good news of God’s love and grace.  Tell your own stories about what God has done for you, because they are the most powerful and hopeful witnesses to those of us who are longing to be free from whatever binds us, even more than the ancient stories of the Bible, because they have happened here and now, in our time.

So, take a risk for God’s kingdom and for the sake of your sisters and brothers in Christ, and tell them about your own close encounters of a divine kind.  And trust in the transforming power of God’s love and grace to give you courage to speak, and to face whatever you might be facing, this first Sunday of summer, and in all the days ahead.  Amen.



[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 49

[ii] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (Riverhead Books, 1998), p. 46

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