Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Proper 7 of Series C (preached 6-24-07)

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read just a few moments ago from the eighth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ- I want you to imagine, if you would, a city. Now this is a fairly ordinary city, it is well-placed in a river valley, with fertile soil all around. Another thing, too- this city is doing quite well, in fact, many of its citizens are downright wealthy. How did they get their wealth? They received it from agriculture, more specifically from growing corn and raising pigs. Does this sound familiar? Well, maybe not the ‘wealthy’ part, but it seems like this city you are imagining could be located right in the middle of Nebraska. But you see, I am not describing a city in the modern Midwest, no, the city I’m describing existed thousands of miles away and two thousand years ago. It was the city of Gerasea, which Jesus visited in our text today. And when He arrived there, He found Himself in corn and hog country, with people living the ‘American dream’ long before there was an America to dream, people like you and like me. But in this peaceful, prosperous farming community, there was a problem- Satan was lurking just around the corner.
Almost as soon as Jesus stepped out of His boat, He was met by a man. Now this man was no ordinary man, because he was possessed by many demons- a whole ‘legion’ of them, as we learn later in the text. Luke says in verse twenty-nine that the man was possessed by an “unclean spirit,” and if any word was appropriate to describe this man, it was ‘unclean.’ For a first century Jew, the concept of being clean or unclean did not refer to dirt on the body, but to a person’s standing before God’s holy Law. God is pure and holy, and so to approach Him, people must be clean, purified from sin, and this man was anything but. First of all, he was a Gentile- when Jesus traveled over the Sea of Galilee, He passed from His own Jewish home to the land of unclean Gentiles, non-Jews. Luke makes this clear in verse twenty-six, “They sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.” This land was not just geographically opposite, but in addition the Gentiles in this land were pagans, worshipping many gods, in addition to natural things. The whole land was in the grip of Satan, not just this man. But the most obvious source of uncleanness was Satan himself- this man was under the direct control of Satan! He had no hope of ever coming in contact with God, because he was simply too unclean.
But Jesus refused to let this happen, to let this man die in the grip of Satan. He cast the demons out of him and sent them into a large herd of pigs, which ran into the sea and drowned. This is where the story could have ended, but the townspeople and pig herders, those people who are so similar to you and me, were afraid. Luke tells in verse thirty-seven, “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear.” They saw or heard about the great and mighty works of Christ, who in His mercy freed this man from the dominion of Satan, and their response was fear. The Son of God stood in their midst and showed His power over the prince of darkness, and all they could think about was their possessions, which had drowned in the sea. These people were just as unclean as the man possessed by demons- they remained in the grip of Satan because they trusted in their things more than in Christ.
And what about us today? You cannot tell me that some of you didn’t feel a bit of sympathy for those townspeople when you first heard the text read this morning. Mark, in his account of this event, tells us that the herd of hogs numbered two thousand head. Even if you never raised pigs, you know what kind of money was involved. It is a simple fact shown once again in our text today- the things of this world, all of our material goods, keep us from seeing the great works of Christ. Now, I am sure that many of you would say that if Jesus Himself came and did a mighty work right in front of you, you would not kick Him out of the county. And that is probably true, but Christ has done great works in your life, and how do you react? He comes to us every Sunday in the divine service, bringing us His gifts in the Lord’s Supper and the Word of God read and spoken, and we too often respond by not coming to this place and receiving His gifts. Or if we do come, the things of this world interfere with our time spent in this place, distracting us from the true purpose of being here. God has given us the great gifts of prayer and His Word, but how often do we chase after money, not leaving any time to use these gifts. How often do we focus on the size of our home, the quantity of our ‘things,’ instead of on the great gifts that God has given to us? We are like the people in our text in so many ways, including our reliance on the things of this world when confronted with God’s grace.
In addition, there are many in our world today who are similar to the demon-possessed man, who are trapped in the power of Satan with no hope of ever being released. And we often pass them by, too concerned with our own things and our own time to reach out with the love and message of Christ to a dying world.
All of our sinful actions, especially our reliance on the things of this world over the grace and gifts of Christ, make us unclean. They are sinful, and sinful people can never be in the presence of a holy and clean God. In our text, the townspeople and farmers made themselves unclean by rejecting Christ and His merciful works. Today, we make ourselves unclean by returning to our material things when confronted with Christ’s mercy, and we cannot make ourselves clean. In fact, like the demon-possessed man in our text, without Christ, we would be dirty forever, and like him we would not be able to be with a holy God. Without Christ, both we and the demon-possessed man would spend eternity in hell. But thanks be to God, for Christ did come to us.
We were unclean, lost in the power of Satan, but Jesus came to us in a cleansing washing of water with His Word, saving us through Holy Baptism. One of the parts of the baptismal liturgy that did not make it into the new hymnal was the ‘exorcism.’ Now this was not some elaborate section, but the pastor simply demanded that Satan leave the person and give room for the Holy Spirit. This exorcism acknowledged the fact that before our baptism, we were trapped in the grip of Satan, we were under his control with no way out. But through this washing Christ came to us through the Holy Spirit, working faith and cleansing us, expelling the devil from us, with all of his works and all of his ways. As Paul says in Ephesians five, “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” We were unclean in our sin, lost in the grip of Satan, but Christ cleansed us through Baptism, presenting us to His Father, and there we are accepted by Him. At the baptismal font, Jesus asked us through the pastor as He did in verse thirty of our text, “What is your name?” Having heard our mortal, human name, He placed a new name on us, the name by which God has revealed Himself to us, the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and in this name we have life.
But Baptism is not only a bath, where God simply decided to cleanse us because He was tired of us being dirty. It brings us the benefits that Christ won for us. And how did He win these benefits? By coming to our world as a man and walking the dusty streets of Palestine, teaching those around Him. But He did not simply teach, He acted. Throughout His time on earth, Jesus did battle with sin, waging war on death and the devil. He drove out disease, renewing God’s good creation that had been corrupted by sin. In our text today, Christ stood in the midst of unclean people and faced a legion of Satan’s soldiers, defeating them with a rebuke. Satan would continue to oppose Jesus up to the very end, where Judas would give into uncleanness and betray Jesus with a kiss. Then the people whom Christ came to this earth to save nailed Him to a cross, and crucified Him, the pure and holy one, God Himself, as an unclean criminal. Christ lay in a tomb, just as the demon-possessed man lived among the tombs, and the powers of darkness thought they had won the victory. But they were once again wrong. Christ rose victorious from the grave, winning the gifts of the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. Through His death as an unclean criminal and His rising to life on Easter morning, Christ cleanses us, and this cleansing saves. The translation of verse thirty-six in the text today says, “And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man was healed.” The word ‘healed’ does not capture what Luke originally wrote- he wrote that the man was ‘saved.’ He was not simply given physical healing, but was transferred from the power of Satan into the kingdom of God- He was delivered from the powers of sin, death, and the devil through the mighty work of Jesus. When we were baptized, we were saved just as that man was, transferred from death to life, from Satan to Christ. Because of what Christ did for us on this earth two thousand years ago, we can stand before God forever, cleansed and redeemed, singing His praises into all eternity.
And that is not all, but Christ sends His cleansed people back into the world. The most amazing thing about our text today is the conclusion. “The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with Him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.’ And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.” Jesus made this man, only moments before a servant of Satan, a missionary! He went out to his home and told them what Christ had done for him, namely that He saved him from the power of the devil. As a member of God’s kingdom through the gracious work of Christ, he could do nothing else but proclaim Christ.
In the same way, Christ sends us out from the baptismal font to speak about what He has done for us there to all those around us. There is nothing special about it- Christians throughout history have simply told their friends and family what Christ has done for the sake of the world. We have been given the greatest gift of all by the grace of Christ, how can we do anything else but tell others about it? We have one great advantage over the new missionary in our text- we know the end of the story, that Christ died on a cross for our sins and rose again for our salvation, and that message we proclaim to others.
In this sinful world, we will never be truly free from our reliance on our own material things, but we know that Christ has redeemed us, He has freed us from the power of the devil, and He has cleansed us from our sin. We return to this place to receive the abundant, overflowing grace of Christ offered in the Lord’s Supper and in absolution, and in the proclamation of the Word from this pulpit. Christ’s gifts strengthen and forgive us, they save us again and again from our sin. It is in His name, placed on us in our Baptism, that we are cleansed and presented before God as His child, and as His child, we ‘return to our homes and declare how much God has done for us.’ Amen.

No comments: