Posts Tagged ‘Presence of God’

Who Is This 6-23-19

In this sermon, based on Luke 8:26-39 (as well as the larger chapter), I explore the depths and the barriers that Jesus is willing to overcome to free us from what hinders us.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/who-is-this-6-23-19

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

May the grace and peace of our Triune God be yours, now and forever. Amen

I can’t help but think that the advent of caller ID is a wonderful thing…but I’ve also noticed the tendency that when that number pops up on our cell phone…if it doesn’t match up with someone on our contact list…we tend to let it go to voice mail don’t we?

This whole idea has aggregated in a different way as well…when someone loses their contact list for whatever reason…but then someone else shoots them a text only to get a sort of token response…New phone, who is this? (pause) Ever gotten that text? A response from someone that you know, that should know you…but because of our reliance on technology and apparent inability to remember phone numbers…we have a disconnect?

I’ve often wondered what the mentality might be for the person on the other end of that text…to receive a message that implies familiarity…but there is still confusion over the identity of this person who is trying to communicate…to connect…to somehow be in relationship in a remote fashion…and all we can do is pose the confused question, perhaps somewhat sheepishly…Who is this? (pause)

Now I share this idea…and this question of identity…because that very question brackets not only this smaller episode in the life and ministry of Jesus…but also the larger section of the gospel that we find ourselves in today.

Directly before today’s passage…Jesus has been hanging out in Galilee…doing his thing…and decides…seemingly out of no-where…that he and the disciples need to cross the sea…and as they cross in the boat…Jesus promptly falls asleep. If you’re familiar with that little moment…a great big storm comes up…the disciples freak out and wake Jesus up in the midst of their terror…thinking that he doesn’t care that they’re dying…

Jesus probably takes a big old deep breath and then promptly calms the storm, leading the disciples to ask that same question.  Who is this? (Pause)  Who is this, that he commands the wind and the water and they obey him? (pause)

Now Jesus doesn’t offer them a long-worded answer to their question…in fact there’s no answer at all, beyond the actions that we continue to see throughout the course of this entire chapter of Luke.  Jesus has just shown that he has authority over nature by calming the storm.  In today’s lesson, we see that he’s got authority over the supernatural…commanding demons and being obeyed.

Once he and the disciples head back across the sea, he’s immediately approached by an important guy who’s daughter is sick and dying…and on the way Jesus unwittingly heals the woman who’s been bleeding for 12 years, displaying authority over disease…until finally making it to the guys house, finding the daughter dead, and in one of the rare instances from the gospels…Jesus raises her from death displaying authority even over that.

4 different actions…4 different situations that show his followers…and not only them but us as well…the depths that Jesus continues to enter into to display the authority of the divine…to show the depths that our God who took on flesh is willing to enter into in order to free us from what hinders us.  That’s the larger picture on display here…and so now tuck that into the back of your minds as we dive into deeper into this story of the demoniac. (pause)

Now there’s a lot going on here…a lot action, a lot of side notes, a lot of little details that might initially muddy the water for us just a little bit…but everything that we hear about is important…and all of it helps shed a little bit more light on the nature of this God who became human, and willingly entered deeper and deeper into this particular man’s existence, even in this one moment…in order to bring him to new life.

First off…remember where they are…Jesus has crossed the sea, and as we hear, has arrived in this area known as Gerasenes.  Its Gentile territory, which as you might recall is kind of a faux-pau for Jewish people…they avoid Gentile territory if they can possibly help it.

Now while this might seem arrogant, even a touch on the racist side…they do so in order to maintain ritual cleanliness…a state of being able to approach God…and simply being in the presence of Gentiles can risk that status…but Jesus goes deeper.

Apparently they’re on some sort of mountain, which is common pretty much all the way around the Sea of Galilee…but this particular mountain houses something of a graveyard…tombs…probably natural caves in the mountainside where the dead are buried…and if you’re thinking that dead bodies…the literal presence of death, is risk to being clean…you’re right.  Another notch deeper…but let’s keep going.

Immediately, this man possessed of demons comes out…raving mad…trailing along broken chains and shackles from previous attempts to subdue him…and not only…but he’s buck naked…and in Jesus time…to view the nakedness of another person who is not your spouse brings shame upon you…not the one who’s naked…but the one who views it…big cultural no-no…and yet Jesus steps into that too…and the final nail in this cultural cleanliness coffin…the presence of that giant herd of swine…because pigs are considered unclean.

All of these different hurdles…these different situations coalescing into a perfect storm of reasons for Jesus to avoid this guy…and yet…he does the polar opposite. Jesus not only takes notice of the guy…but he’s willing to get into the midst of it along side him.

If we read between the lines just a bit, it would seem that almost immediately Jesus orders the demons out of the man…but it also seems like it doesn’t quite work…and all it seems to do is enrage the multitude of unclean spirits within the man…as they beseech Jesus not to torment them…and then Jesus goes one step further…what is your name…and we hear the answer Legion…for many demons had entered him…how many? Well, we don’t exactly know, but a legion of Roman soldiers was between 5-6000 troops…so you know…it was a lot demons.

And these demons…they recognize this supernatural authority of Jesus…and they beg him not to send them into the abyss…essentially asking “Hey Jesus can you not destroy us? How about we jump over into those pigs?” And Jesus says “Yah why don’t you do that.” And once they do the pigs promptly run off a cliff into the sea and drown…and side note…in the Jewish tradition…the sea or the ocean is an image for the abyss…that unseen and unknown…so I guess it didn’t turn out so great for the demons did it? (pause)

So now this man, who’s name we do not know…is returned to his right mind…he is clothed…he is calm…and as residents of the area…fetched by the swineherders…as they come to check it out…this man that they’ve only known as a raving lunatic…is sitting at the feet of Jesus…and they are terrified…asking Jesus to leave.

Now the man, he wants to stay with Jesus…which doesn’t really surprise me…Jesus had freed him of this torment that had been going on for who knows how long…but Jesus has other ideas…and he send the man home…returning him to the society that had driven him out…and Jesus gives instructions to share all that God has done for him.

Isn’t that funny…this guy doesn’t need any training…he doesn’t have to follow along like an apprentice for a few years…all Jesus calls him to do is share his experience and how it has changed his life…and with that, this man leaves the story, proclaiming the good news, but beyond that, we don’t know his fate. (pause)

But that being said, I want to back up.  Think about what Jesus does for this guy.  We don’t know exactly how this demon possession has manifested…and maybe we all form our own opinions based on our 21st century existence as to what’s going on with the guy…all we really know is that something has a hold of him.

Maybe we think…mental illness and the multitude of forms that takes in different people in this day and age. (pause) Maybe we think…addiction, and the way that various types of dependency, whether chemical or behavioral, take hold of individuals. (Pause)  Maybe you’ve watched as someone you love has suffered in one of these ways…maybe you’ve experienced yourself…maybe you still are. (Pause)

And I wonder…what can we learn from this situation with Jesus?  We see him ask the name of the demon…that he has to do this before being able to cast them out…and maybe this serves as a reminder for us that you have to identity the problem…the issue…sometimes you’ve got to name it before it can be dealt with.  I’ve heard it said that the first step in overcoming a problem is recognizing that we have a problem. (pause)

But perhaps more importantly…the other thing that we learn from Jesus is that we are not alone in the midst of the thing that has us hindered…that we have a God who is willing to step over every boundary…every barrier…even death…in order to be with us in the midst of our darkness and suffering…and that the ultimate goal of this God who created the entirety of existence and yet willingly took on flesh to dwell among us…the ultimate goal seems to be to free us up to live a life of fulfillment and joy…and that in the midst of that good life, we are also called to accompany those in the midst of their own darkness.

Let us never forget that we are the body of Christ…and just as Jesus was willing to enter into a place of pain and torment and even death in order to bring that one man out of it…we too are called to enter into these same moments with one another…not because we have the power to cast out the demon, whatever that demon might be…but because there is power in our shared presence…there is strength that we receive from one another…and there is hope in knowing that we are never alone. (pause)
Who is this? Who is this man? Who is this Jesus? Who is this God…this God is the one who is will never abandon us, no matter what darkness has taken hold. Amen.

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Drama 7-15-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 6:14-29, I explore the story of John the Baptist’s death. This is an oddball gospel, both in terms of its location within the narrative as well as the absence of Jesus within it.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/drama-7-15-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

All we have to do is take a quick glance around the sanctuary to see the decorations, and we can tell that it was VBS week.  I love VBS week…it is wonderful…Each day, somewhere between 35-40 kids, another dozen or so jr high and high school helpers, a handful of adults, and 5 camp staff flocked into the church…and the energy level is off the charts.

Its loud…its crazy…its exciting…and I love it. There is just nothing else like it throughout the course of the year. Now, I spent some time trying to come up with the perfect words to describe the atmosphere here in the church during VBS…and in the end, the one that seemed the most fitting was simply…dramatic.

Now when I call it dramatic, I don’t mean to say that there was a lot of angsty drama going on, the likes of which we see on various reality tv shows…quite the opposite in fact…but the stark difference between a normal week here in the church building and the week of VBS is…well…dramatic…its what we might call epic craziness. (pause)

And speaking of epic craziness…let’s talk about the Herod’s for a moment shall we? (pause) Interestingly enough…the Herod family is smack dab at the heart of today’s gospel lesson…and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, this is an odd one. Because while we typically refer to this story as the death of John the Baptist…we could make the argument that even John is somewhat secondary in this passage.

But to begin to make sense of it, we need some background…as the passage kicks off today, the very first name we hear is Herod…and honestly, Herod is kind of a common name throughout the gospel isn’t it? But when you hear the name Herod, you need to remember that its not just one guy…in fact its an entire family.  They all stem from Herod the Great. He was actually the big wig at the start of the gospels.

He’d come to prominence about 30BC, and had found enough favor with the Roman Senate to get the old “king” in Israel kicked out, and to get himself established in this role throughout much of the region. He was brilliant but cruel…and he was excessively paranoid that someone would usurp his power just like he had done…he was so paranoid in fact that he actually had many of his own family executed if he thought they posed a threat.

Speaking of family, Herod the Great had a ton of wives, and countless sons and daughters…and once he found himself in the twilight of his life, he did start passing along authority…establishing 4 of his sons as something called a tetrarch…not really a king…not really a governor…but somewhere along those lines…and then once he died, all four of these sons who now had a little power for themselves, started jockeying for position and greater authority…and that includes Herod Antipas, also known as King Herod here in today’s story.

Now remember, he wasn’t a king, and in fact when he asked the Romans for the same title given to his father they just sorta laughed at him…He had authority…he had power…but it wasn’t as absolute as he liked to think it was. And so he was constantly scheming, just like the rest of his family…trying to make deals, and broker arrangements to better his position. They’d ALL learned it from Herod the Great, and from what information we can find from history, the whole family, which carried on in prominence over the course of about 4 generations, was just as guilty.

Take for instance, Herodias. By this point, she’s married to Herod Antipas…but previously, she’d been married to his half-brother Philip, another tetrarch.  Herodias divorced Philip and married Antipas at some point.  Even stranger, she was already a Herod…thought to be a generation younger…a niece to both Antipas and Philip…the daughter of yet another brother. And she doesn’t seem like an overly nice person either…holding grudges against people who speak out against her and her apparent opportunistic nature…people like John who is imprisoned over this type of thing.

Now we’ve got more junk going on to…because Herod throws himself a party…he invites ALL the bigwigs from Galilee, the region he controlled…and as they are at this party…something kinda disturbing happens.

We hear that the daughter of Herodias comes in and dances…and that her dancing “pleases” Herod and the guests. We don’t know exactly what’s going on here. We don’t know if she’s a young girl, or if she’s older….we don’t know if she’s a willing participant in this whole deal or if she’s being coerced. We also don’t know exactly what the dynamic is between these two. She might be Herod’s daughter…although she’s probably his step-daughter.  Regardless, the odd-ball language really seems to be some thinly veiled indications that there’s some pretty major inappropriateness going on here…and I’ll let you fill in the blanks yourself on that one…and if that is in fact the case, I can only think that this whole family dynamic is utterly depraved. They’re power-hungry. They’re opportunistic…they’re wildly inappropriate. (pause) You think you’ve got family drama…your family’s got nothing on the Herods.

Now in the middle of this, some more trickery happens, and Herodias takes full advantage of this drunken oath made by her husband towards her daughter, and uses it to silence the critic who has spoken out against her…as she instructs her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist.  To add to the whole deal, the daughter ups it a notch as well, giving it a flair of the dramatic, by asking for his head on a platter.

And here’s where things get really dicey. Herod doesn’t want to do it. Granted he’s had John arrested…and he probably didn’t like the criticisms any more than his wife did…but apparently he also enjoyed having John around…but when those who think they have power foolishly flaunt it, often it bites them doesn’t it? And that’s what happens here.

Herod has a choice to save face with the people he needs to impress, or he can do the right thing and deny the execution of an innocent man…and we see what happens…and the innocent…the one who lacks power in this particular case, suffers at the hands of the powerful. (pause)

Here’s the thing.  As we’ve already mentioned…this passage is known as the death of John the Baptist…and rightly so.  But did you notice that this entire thing is basically a narrative side-note…this whole account is simply the apparent thought process behind Herod Antipas remembering that he had John killed…an event that had happened quite a bit before where we find the story in Mark’s gospel…we’re about half way through the whole deal…but we actually heard that John was arrested back in chapter 1…clear back at the beginning…so why don’t we hear about his death until now…why on earth did Mark think it was fitting to interrupt the flow of the gospel narrative for Herod to hear some current events and then justify it by remembering a utterly crazy situation that had happened a year or two earlier? Think about that.

And as you think about it…I want to back up to VBS…Monday through Thursday of this past week…the church was crazy…good crazy…but crazy. But then as I sat in my office on Friday…the silence was deafening.

You’ve heard that phrase before right…a deafening silence…its weird but somehow fitting…that once your ears have grown accustomed to the noise…silence seems to be somehow “louder.” (pause) I bring this up…because in the midst of the craziness of this story in and around John and the Herods…there is a silence that is equally deafening. A profound silence when we recognize it.

Keep in mind…this is the gospel lesson right. Now is there someone we haven’t heard from? A name…a person…that we tend to think of whenever we think about stories from the gospels? (pause) This passage has the RARE distinction…of never mentioning Jesus. He’s not here…granted…this story happens because Herod hears about him…and as soon as this gospel side-note wraps up, Jesus pops up to feed the 5000…so he’s around…but he’s not here is he?

Where’s Jesus…or perhaps, we might ask the broader question…Where’s God in the midst of this story.  The powerful, preying on the weak…where’s God?   Family members stabbing each other in the back to better their own position or authority….where’s God?  Horribly inappropriate actions going on between a girl and her step-father, not to mention being manipulated by her mother…where’s God? (pause)

It’s a little disturbing isn’t it? Shocking even…to notice the apparent absence of God here. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s often the interpretation when we see the brokenness in the world.  Where’s God when innocent people get caught in the crossfire…when students are gunned down in their classrooms…when young women and even small children are trafficked…or pulled from their parents.  When there is famine, or pollution…or disease…or accidents…where’s God then?

I hear these questions constantly…or I hear something similar…what does your Bible have to say about this stuff? (pause) Here’s the thing…if you read the Bible…and not just to cherry-pick feel good verses, or something to smack the other side of the political line with…but if you really read it…you’ll find that narrative of the Bible is just as much about the apparent absence of God’s presence as it is about God being among us.  And that can be a tough pill to swallow if we take it at face value.

But here’s the thing about the scriptures…they aren’t intended to be taken one verse or one story at a time…the scriptures, even though they were written over the course of thousands of years in several different languages by people of multiple cultures and faith traditions who lived on different continents….somehow the Holy Spirit has shaped them into a narrative that all fits together…a narrative intended to reveal that even in those instances when it seems like God is far away or worse yet that God hates me…or even worse yet, that these is no God…even in these times…somehow someway God is still work behind the scenes, whether we see God’s presence or not.

Jesus isn’t named in this story…and yet Mark tells us this past-tense recollection of a previous event here…in the midst of Jesus’ ministry…in the middle of the physical presence of God in our reality…in whatever it is that God is up to, bringing about the kingdom of heaven in the midst of this brokendown messed up reality…this is where Mark tells this story.

Because Jesus came into our realty…the one where it often seems like God is far away or just non-existent…and Jesus has done something about it…and not only that, but Jesus has given us a promise that despite the brokenness that all too often rears its ugly head…and makes those without power or influence feel even less so…that this is not the end…and that there is somehow more.  And so we hope for that amazing, mindblowing promise…of which we’ve only been given a glimmer…we hope for it…and because this promise is given by the man who is also God we trust it.

And we live our lives in a way that reflects it.  That’s what a life of faith is.  We live out our faith as we trust in that which we can only hope for.  We live in a confidence that no matter how bad things might be….this is not the end…and that the last word will belong to God, whether we can find God’s presence in this moment or not. That’s faith…when we can still hope, even in the midst of drama. Amen.