Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Go Away Jesus

In this morning’s gospel lesson (Mt. 8:24-34), Matthew abbreviates a story that Mark tells at length, and I like the way Matthew shortens it. It makes it tougher. And I like tough passages.

Jesus’ boat lands in the country of the Gadarenes, where he is immediately met by two demoniacs. With very little exchange, Jesus sends the demons into a herd of swine, as they requested, and the herd rushes down a steep bank and into the sea. End of demons, end of pigs.

We all know how a faithful Jew would have felt about pigs: they were unclean. And I also read that the sea—with all its unpredictable tempests and unavoidable dangers—represents the home for demons, which means Jesus is sending these two back where they belong. In some ways, that makes this a tidy sort of miracle, and all of that is also contained in Mark’s account. But Matthew omits much of the back and forth between Jesus and the possessed man (men in Matthew), and so my eyes fall to the last sentence even more strongly than they do when I read Mark’s version.

The whole town came out to meet Jesus, and, when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood. Thanks but no thanks. Keep on moving. You don’t have a place here. You’re not welcome. Hit the road, Jack. Given that this exorcism comes at the end of a string of short miracles, I think their rejection of Jesus isn’t rooted in their sadness over the loss of the herd, which is reasonable but misplaced. I think they reject the power that he represents—his unique, divine authority over the physical and spiritual realms. He was too much for them to handle.

Have you ever met someone who needed help but seemed to prefer staying right in that place of need? It is frustrating to try to help someone get his life back on track only to have that person reject your attempts. I have found that to be particularly true for addicts. Even though they might be willing to acknowledge to you that they need your help, they seem to enjoy making it impossible for you to help them, sabotaging your every effort. Sometimes we come up against a power that is so much greater than ourselves that we reject it even though it is there to help us.

The hard part is realizing when we’re the ones asking Jesus to keep moving. It’s us, too. Like the crowds who followed Jesus, we are attracted to a miracle-working Jesus as long as he’s doing feats of wonder over there—in the meadow down the street far enough away from my house. But, when he comes into my neighborhood and starts to address the pattern of life of that has everything around me stabilized, I feel threatened. What are you going to ask me to give up? It’s the implicit question in my heart when I encounter Jesus. I kind of know that being a part of something this powerful, this good, is going to cost me something. It will cost me familiarity. It will cost me the delusion that I’m in control. It will cost me the pain of admitting that I need help, that I can’t do it on my own.

Accepting Jesus is always easier when he stays at church. When he knocks on my door and all that stuff the preacher has been talking about escapes the tidy little box I’ve put it in, faith in Jesus isn’t so easy. That’s when it requires something personal.

UPDATE: I was preaching on this text at the 12:10 service today, and I got about half-way through the sermon when I realized that I didn't have an answer. In order for this to be an edifying sermon, there needs to be a "so what" angle. As my mouth kept going, my mind started if we're all naturally unwilling to accept a relationship with God, what are we supposed to do about it? Pray.

I think praying--even for something we don't really want--softens our hearts and makes us susceptible to the Spirit, which we might otherwise reject. So pray--even if you don't want to. Ask for things you're not sure about and see whether God works in you to make them happen anyway.

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