The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
Jesus wants everyone, even those others don’t – and even those that make some others not want to be with Him!
The church Matt Chandler pastors had been reaching out to a young woman named Kim who wasn’t yet sure she wanted to turn her live over to Christ. When some church members heard that a certain evangelist was coming to town, they invited Kim to go with them to hear him. They hoped and prayed he might open her heart a bit more to Jesus.
He did just the opposite. He ranted against sexual promiscuity, and how it damaged people. To illustrate his point, he held up a beautiful red rose and exclaimed how lovely it looked and how wonderful it smelled. Then he threw the rose into the crowd, and asked each person to take a whiff, caress its petals, and pass the flower on to the next person.
As he neared the end of his message, he asked for the rose back. By that point it had become broken and drooping, and had lost many of its petals and much of its fragrance. He held it up and asked, “Now who in the world would want this?”
After that, no one saw Kim at church for weeks. But one day her mother called Matt to tell him she’d been in a car accident. Matt went to the hospital to visit her.
In the middle of their conversation, seemingly out of nowhere, Kim asked Matt, “Do you think I’m a dirty rose?” Matt said that he was in no position to judge whether she was any more of a dirty rose than he or anyone else in his church, that Jesus loves all human roses – whatever their condition – with all His heart, and that He knows just how to keep making us, day after day, better looking and better smelling.
Matt spoke the absolute Gospel truth. There is a problem, however. There are always people, some of them claiming to be followers of Jesus, who don’t like how indiscriminately inclusive Jesus is. They don’t like how He brings in the “wrong” folks and, because of the company He keeps, they want Him to leave them alone.
In today’s Gospel story Jesus takes a trip to visit the “wrong” folks. Though His priority people were the Jews, He crosses the Sea of Galilee to enter a Gentile area.
The first person Jesus deals with there is someone from whom almost everyone flees: a deranged and violent man who runs around naked and sleeps in cemetery caves carved out of rock for tombs.
Secular people might understand him in purely psychological terms. Beyond a doubt, he is a fragmented personality suffering from thousands of conflicting impulses. The Bible describes him as someone bedeviled by thousands of demons; and certainly his uncanny discernment of Jesus’ identity – he addresses Jesus right away as “the Son of the Most High God” – and his unnatural physical strength – he breaks metal chains like string – suggest the supernatural. Either way, he is a deeply troubled and frightening person whom no one wants anywhere near. Yet, Jesus engages him in conversation and, without being asked, commands the evil spirits to come out of him, calms him down and makes him happy and whole. Imagine the shock of those Gerasenes who suddenly find their former demoniac sitting quietly instead of running around erratically, clothed instead of naked, and serene instead of raging.
In the process of healing the man, Jesus does something that has troubled many a sensitive soul. Instead of sending the demons into the “abyss”, Jesus allows them to enter a herd of innocent pigs – which drives the poor creatures into such a frenzy that they stampede into the sea and drown.
We don’t know for sure, but I suspect that several things are going on in Jesus’ head. First, he realizes the healed man will have doubts about his deliverance, and I’m supposing that Jesus is meaning to give him a vivid, visual demonstration of his demons’ destruction in order to shore up his fragile faith. To preserve the poor man’s tranquility of heart, Jesus sacrifices the pigs – who will, after all, soon enough be butchered for bacon and pork roast anyway. Second, I’m supposing that Jesus is meaning to show the Gerasenes what they’ve allowed themselves to become: people whose priorities are so askew that they show no joy over the salvation of a lost soul, but only worry over their lost income in the death of all those pigs they could have sold for a pretty price. They are so sick – so demonized, perhaps? – that all they want from the Son of God, the Lord of all love and mercy, is that he go away and never come back!
Twice, the text tells us, the Gerasenes are filled with fear over Jesus’ supernatural work of grace. Of what are they afraid? We can only guess, but here are my reasonable guesses: First, they are afraid that, if Jesus has already deprived them of some of their income for the sake of the needy, He might expect of them other sacrifices for their sake as well. Second, they are afraid that, if Someone as powerful as Jesus has come into their midst, challenged their values and upset their social structure, He might look to make other changes, want to bring other disreputable characters into their community, and further disturb their comfortable social status quo. They prefer their old ordinary life, even with its détente with evil spirits, to a God-invaded and God-disrupted life. Third, they are afraid that the change in the former demoniac might not last, and one day they’ll find the terror they had marginalized embedded in the heart of their community.
Jesus does threaten the life we’re used to. He does break down the false barriers and boundaries we erect. He does put in positions that feel risky. The only question is whether we trust Him enough to let Him make the changes He wants and believe that doing so will make us and our community better.
Jesus loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to leave us that way. Jesus takes us as He finds us, and then causes us to grow in such a way that we become breathing, walking miracles attesting to His grace.
How much faith do we have in Jesus? If He made this man as different as the Bible says He did, then He is powerful enough to change any of us profoundly. So, for all we know, the next Billy Graham might be a drunk right now, the next Martin Luther King Jr. might be a profanity-spewing, misogynistic rapper right now, the next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star right now, and the next Simon Peter might be someone fighting mental illness right now.
Do we trust Jesus enough to allow Him to build His church with whomever He wishes, and to make all us “wrong” people just right for accomplishing His perfect will? Let us pray.