The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r179.htm

s179g98 Somerton Park Sunday 12 21/6/98

"They were afraid" Luk 8.35

As I read this story again, I am struck by how fear permeates it all.

The people of the town in the country of the Gerasenes had obviously lived all of their lives in fear of the man Jesus cured. We are told that he was bound with chains and shackles and "kept under guard". This man was obviously someone who was a little more than a nuisance. One doesn't bind and guard someone who graffitis or litters. I don't watch those American thriller movies, so I'm sorry if the analogy is misplaced. A picture of a rogue adversary of an Arnold Swarzenegger character comes to mind.

Yet despite the strength of this man, the demons which torment him are also demonstrably afraid at the appearance of Jesus. They are afraid that they might be tormented in their turn or banished to the abyss.

There is little doubt that the swineherds were afraid when they saw their animals perish - they rush off. Afraid of Jesus perhaps? Afraid of their employers' reaction to the loss of the herd - I mean the main task of a swineherd is surely to make sure they don't loose one pig, let alone a whole herd. Afraid for their fellow swineherds at the appearance of this powerful Jew, who traditionally did not approve of pigs? Perhaps Jesus was on a crusade to kill all unclean animals? It might sound far fetched to us now ... but we weren't there.

And the fear that the people of the town had lived with all their lives was to still remain. Jesus was not able to deal with the fear that the folk of the town had. Twice we are told after the event that they were afraid - "All the people ... asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear". It is less obvious what they were afraid of. It is clear that some fears can be dealt with quicker than others. So the person Jesus cured has a task to return to his own home, and to quietly begin chipping away at the fears of the community, where confrontation by Jesus would not be effective.

I have often wondered why Jesus "descended into hell". Surely being crucified was sufficient hell in itself, without having to suffer further. But St Paul tells us "When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)" (Ephesians 4:9-10). And this has made its way into our creed, where we affirm (in the Apostles' Creed) "he descended to the dead". (APBA p89).

This man, we are told, lived among the tombs; so Jesus visiting the country of the Gerasenes tells us what "hell" is like. The picture we have of "hell" is where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth - a place which is hot, and where there lives a funny little man with horns, covered from head to toe with a red suit and holding a pitchfork to feed the flames. As with most of these graphic descriptions, it errs somewhat. I suspect the thing that will strike us most about hell, if we are unfortunate enough to visit there, is that everyone will be afraid.

Some of that fear might be able to be dealt with, and some will not want to be relieved of their fear. We are not to know but perhaps Jesus descending to the dead may have been a remarkably similar experience for him as visiting the country of the Gerasenes - perhaps but one person is cured but others are content to continue in their fear.

For fear is deadening. It is clearly shown what the demons of fear that tormented the man would slowly do to humanity. The process was only speeded up in the pigs - they went into self-destruct mode.

So we need to be very careful when we trot out good biblical phrases like "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom".

The end of the story tells us that being with Jesus is not the be all and end all of Christian living. The man from whom the demons had gone was sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. He begged Jesus "that he might be with him", but he too had a ministry to offer.

We should note that Jesus bids the man not to get his friends and neighbours to become followers of Jesus. He is bidden simply to tell: "how much God has done for you". Jesus is content that people praise God and love one another. Becoming a disciple with the twelve is unnecessary. The twelve and the women were quite enough for Jesus to accomplish his mission. Indeed he wanted no one to be with him on the Cross.

This shows us that it is quite possible to follow Jesus rather than caring for humanity and think we are doing what God wants.

But just as the demons in the country of the Gerasenes were not confined to this poor demoniac, there are more demons, out and about, still. In the words of the Psalmist: "I hear the whispering of many -- terror all around! (Psalms 31:13). To muck about with the quotation, though not to change it's meaning - We do indeed need to fear fear itself.

Jesus leaves the country of the Gerasenes when he is asked to leave. To not do so would be to add to their fears not to diminish them. So there is no point to the sentiment of James and John who said on another occasion, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" (Luke 9:54) when the Samaritan town was inhospitable. The country of the Gerasenes were left to wallow in the fears of their own making, but with one person there to quietly chip away at those fears - to realise that Jesus wanted nothing for himself.

We too need to realise that people's seeming rejection of the Church may be through fear, fear that if they were to approach they might be rejected (that is assuming that they haven't experienced rejection already). Fear that they have committed the unforgivable sin and cannot approach. Or fear that too much might be asked of them. The Church often seems to do little to allay such fears, and seems only critical of those who have not overcome their fears and don't toe the party line. How frequently are we perceived mainly to be against immorality ...

Indeed I suspect those outside do not want to be part of an organisation which has in the past - if less so in the present - put "the fear of God" into people. How often do we as the Church come across as the fearless community. When we fight over trivialities? How many wars have been fought, with religion lurking behind the scenes? What are we afraid of? I would hazard to suggest that many outside see us as a community still ridden with fear, and therefore see nothing within our community to commend itself. We have to hear the gospel ourselves and much to overcome before we think we have something to offer others.

John tells us that "perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love." (1 John 4:18). Jesus is that perfect love which wants nothing for himself, just our health and wholeness.

How much of Christianity has made an idol of giving everything to God - "seven whole days not one in seven?" (George Herbert Australian Hymn Book 129) when God accepts us as we are and what we offer, large or small, just a little bit of our lives or perhaps a little more. "O Jesus, I have promised to serve thee to the end ..." (John Ernest Bode AHB 514) but I am sure that God will understand that trials might overtake me, and forgive. A bishop, whom I have a lot of time for, once impressed me when he said he wasn't quite ready to say to the Lord: "Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold ..." (Frances Ridley Havergal AHB 520) Or "We never can prove, the delights of his love until all on the altar we lay" (John Henry Sammis AHB 531) Is it any wonder that people are afraid of what the Church might ask of them?

In Gethsemane, Jesus gave expression to his own fears. Knowing what was before him, he expressed his quite real and understandable fear of the pain to come. And similar fears beset us all too frequently. Anxieties and depression are as common amongst people of faith as they are elsewhere, and I am not saying that these are not real or that they should be dismissed as unimportant.

What Jesus wasn't afraid of - he wasn't afraid for God, that the holy would be overcome by the naked profanity of crucifixion. So Jesus strode into unclean territory of the burial grounds and herds of swine tended by people of very mixed parentage, unafraid. The sort of holiness that Jesus exhibited is far far stronger - for it embraces ordinary people like us, it notices, acknowledges and accepts. The sort of holiness Jesus exhibited does not criticise or seek to destroy. Even in the "other place" beyond the grave we are not beyond the embrace of God.

The incident is an invitation for us all to let go of some of our fears, and be content to accept ourselves, even when we suspect we might be able to give a little more, and to love those God has put around us, without expecting them to become "Christians" or wanting anything else from them either.

In the creed we say we believe ... in one holy catholic and apostolic church ... and in my experience we stress the one, we are not altogether too sure about what the "holy" involves, and we certainly know we are sent out as apostles. But what are we sent out to do? I have shared with this congregation before, that the adjective I most like to describe myself as is "catholic". By that I do not mean (especially) "bells and smells", or that the church is "universal" as I was taught in Confirmation Classes. In my dictionary "catholic" means "embracing all", and by that I certainly do not mean we are all "huggies and kissies".. It seems to me that being "catholic" is what Jesus did as he went to the country of the Gerasenes and encountered the various people there. He was able to deal with some fears but he was content to let some others be - to give them time to realise that he wanted nothing for himself from them. "Catholic" means we too can confidently go into unfamiliar territory (otherwise the "all" doesn't mean much) when people will be living lives of fear, fear perhaps dressed up cunningly as aggression or worldly wisdom. "Catholic" means we go, not criticising either the fear or the clever facades, and find as we do so, that very "catholicism", that confident embracing of the ordinary, means some (but certainly not all) of that fear might be dissolved.

 

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