On Youth Sunday we always look forward to hearing a sermon from one of our young people. Unfortunately, the young person who was supposed to preach today was faced with a decision to make, whether to play a last soccer game or to fulfill the commitment to preach the sermon today. This is not about any one person, the greeter, who is my son, worked until 3 am and so did not make it either. The worst part about this predicament is that a choice had to be made at all. I am not one of those people who longs for the “good old days” because the reality is that there has never been a time in history that is so perfect that we would want it to last forever. There are always positive improvements that often outweigh life in times past.
However, there is one thing that I definitely long for in the good old days that we once knew, and that is the fact that the Sabbath was once reserved for worship, family, friends and relaxation. That was true for both Jewish people with a Saturday Sabbath and Christians with our Sunday Sabbath. Those days no longer exist, partly because the majority of Christians and Jews do not insist on keeping the Sabbath anymore. If everyone resisted having their Sabbath co-opted by sports and other secular events, and if everyone insisted on reserving time for worship, family and friends, then the secular world would not be able to dominate our time and co-opt our Sabbath. We complain about it but we have allowed it to happen.
Without enough notice for another young person to prepare, you are stuck with me. It may have seemed as though we had ended our quest for an answer to the question “Who is Jesus?,” but the author of the gospel of Luke has not finished exploring that question. Today we have a story which is, let’s face it, kind of creepy. For some reason the lectionary leaves out the story after our gospel for last week, when the woman who crashed the party given by Simon the Pharisee poured ointment on Jesus’ feet, used her hair to wipe his feet and kissed them. Scandalous behavior for a Jewish woman, but Jesus considers it an act of love and forgives her sins. Who is this Jesus who heals from afar, who revives the dead, who forgives even the most scandalous sinners?
It turns out that in the next story he is the one who calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Although it is really a landlocked lake, the Sea of Galilee, also called the Lake of Genessarat, is eight miles wide, thirteen miles long and prone to violent storms that rise up suddenly. The disciples were in a boat with Jesus, who was sleeping comfortably in the bow, when a storm arose which terrified even the most sea worthy fishermen among them. Yet Jesus calms the storm and saves them all from drowning. The disciples ask among themselves, “Who is this who can even calm the wind and waves?”
As the disciples were no doubt calming their nerves after such a close call, they approach the shore in a place called the land of the Gerasenes. We don’t know why Jesus chose to go across from Galilee to that place, but immediately they encounter a man who is possessed by demons. He is so seriously ill that the people of the town cannot control him, even with chains. He lives among the tombs, stark naked, unable to control his impulses, which cause pretty serious damage to him. It can be difficult for us to relate to stories about demons in a literal sense, but we all know that there are demons which can possess us today. Some of the more serious are mental illness, such as this poor man no doubt experienced, and substance abuse.
This story is all about Jesus; power over what was considered “unclean.” The man is unclean because of his uncontrollable behavior. He lives among the tombs, which were considered unclean. He lives near the place where the herds of pigs that were brought to the Middle East by the Romans to feed their soldiers were kept. Pigs were considered unclean by the people of Palestine. And even the demon that possesses him is unclean. Demons always recognize Jesus, but this one actually negotiates with him. If it must leave this man, then it wishes to possess the herd of pigs.
Notice that the man does not ask for Jesus’ help. The demon who possesses him wants to know what Jesus has to do with him. There is an element of respect, perhaps even fear, because demons always recognize the power that Jesus has. The demon tries to tell Jesus to leave him alone. Because by commanding the demons to leave the man, Jesus restores his life and denies the demon the power it had over him. When the people of the town come to see what has happened, they find the man sitting at Jesus’ feet, clean, clothed and in control of his actions. He can now return to his family and live in a home instead of a miserable, tormented existence isolated from society. This is a miracle, not just for the man, but for all who knew him.
The man’s response is a desire to leave his home and follow Jesus. But Jesus encourages him to return to his home and family and to share the good news of what has happened to him. He may not literally follow Jesus on his travels, but he can be a faithful follower in his own community. Just as Jesus gave the widow back her only son, so he returns the man who was possessed to his family. Who is this man, who has the power to exorcise demons?
We have all encountered people possessed by the powerful demons of mental illness or substance abuse. Sadly some of us may have loved ones struggling with these powerful forces that isolate them and deny them life. But it isn’t only those who are in such dire straits who say to Jesus, “What have you to do with me? Leave me alone.” Sometimes we think that life would be less complicated if only Jesus would just leave us alone. We would get a couple of hours to ourselves on Sunday mornings. We wouldn’t have to prepare Sunday school lessons, go to choir rehearsal, show up for quilting or cooking for the I.N.N., attend council meetings or do any of the myriad other things we do for God and our church. We wouldn’t have to make choices between church and sports or other secular activities that try to dominate our time and our energy. There would be plenty of time for all the other demands on our lives.
Who is Jesus? The truth is that when we hold Jesus at the center of our lives, when we understand and acknowledge that having God in our lives is a positive thing, we are healthier and even happier. There is a correlation between having faith and being part of a faith community and good health. A higher percentage of people of faith report feeling more fulfilled and experiencing happiness in life. As Kevin Massey, vice president for mission and spiritual care at Advocate Health Care in Chicago notes, “The active component in faith that supports coping in a difficult time is the capacity of faith to kindle hope. Hope is an anchor that you can throw into the future and faith is the chain on the anchor you can use to pull yourself toward the future.” When we have faith, we know that the future can hold promise, and God is the bridge between present and future.
We are so thankful to have our youth lead us in worship today, and we pray that they will make good decisions when they are faced with the difficult choice of choosing between God and the demands of the secular world. All of us have faced such decisions at one time or another and it can be more difficult for young people to withstand the pressure. We need to stand united as people of faith, and to be strong in keeping the Sabbath for our families, instead of just squeezing God into a few hours a week. We need to deny the demons their power over us. Who is Jesus? He is always there for us, and our response should be to sit at his feet, listen and learn, and emulate the love, compassion and forgiveness that he demonstrated for us. Amen.