A sermon for this Sunday . . .
The New Testament reading we heard this evening was a story of deliverance, the healing of a man possessed not just by one demon but a whole legion of them. It’s a story that raises as many issues as it resolves - for one thing, it leaves me feeling distinctly sorry for the pigs themselves and for the farmers who owned them. I can only hope that their insurance policy covered acts of God. But it’s worth pausing to ask why Luke tells this story. Obviously because it happened and he knew of it; obviously to demonstrate the divine power and authority that rested in Jesus. But also to assure his readers that they, we, are offered the same deliverance and freedom and restoration as was the man possessed.
Now we may find it a bit of a challenge, to identify with the man who was delivered of all those demons. After all, he was so obsessed and possessed that he’d been thrown out of the community. That’s not how we’d see ourselves, but think again: there is a connection. This was a man beset by fear, and fear’s a big thing in every human life. We have lots of fears: we fear not achieving, not being accepted, not finding friends, we fear losing status, losing possessions, and we fear dying and death. That’s just to name a few - there’s a million more besides. So there’s a legion of fears around that could well possessed us, control our lives.
Fear is a boo word, isn’t it? - a threatening word, a bad word. And yet it’s also a positive word in church. As a child in Sunday school that confused me. The Book of Proverbs tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So to “fear God” is a good thing, something Christians are supposed to do. As a minister I’d often edit the word ‘fear’ out of, for example, funeral services, because many of those hearing me wouldn’t understand the theology. Instead of “fearing God” I’d talk of “honouring God.” My version of Psalm 130, for example, would be “the merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever on those who honour him”, rather than “on those who fear him”. I wanted to use a more positive and understandable word, but maybe I did lose an important facet of its meaning.
For it may well be a good thing to “fear the Lord,” because that fear takes the place of all the other fears that otherwise control, damage and deface our lives. If we fear the Lord, we have nothing else to fear, all the other fears are shown up for what they are.
So that’s good, if we want it. Notice though in the story we’ve heard tonight, that as the one man is delivered from all those nameless and terrible fears, the community he came from is now so filled with fear that they beg Jesus to leave them. The man we have to call Legion since we’re not told his real name was so beset by fear that he had become terrifying both to himself and to others; but the rest of the villagers were living fairly comfortably with the lesser fears that controlled their lives. They didn’t want them challenged, and so they wanted Jesus to go away and leave them alone. As ever, I find myself asking where I am in this story. Am I like those villagers, not wanting Jesus to challenge and change me?
I remember once walking up a mountain path where at a certain point I had to cross a chasm. It really wasn’t that much more than a decent step from the one side to the other, but when you looked over the edge you could see it was an awfully long way down, fifty feet or more. It was quite scary - I don’t do heights and drops. I was tempted to give into my fears and turn back. One member of our group did just that, in fact. But I’m glad I did dare to cross.
But the villagers in the story didn’t dare. They preferred to live with their fears, so they sent Jesus away. Maybe the reason why Jesus didn’t let the man Legion go with him, but told him to go back home, was so he could persuade the villagers out of their fearfulness. A memory that pops into my mind at this point is our pet rabbit when I was a child. It escaped, and a whole world was open to it, full of grass and dandelion leaves and other good things. We couldn’t catch it. But after a while it went back to its cage, to its hutch, back to the prison in which it felt safe.
Perhaps that’s it, then: fearing God isn’t a safe place to be. Or it doesn’t feel that way. God is always more than we can imagine, his glory more than we can bear. And any attempt we may make to say “This is what God is like” must always fall short, the reality is far beyond us. Even if we say, as St John says, that “God is love” it’s not enough. This story shows us the love of God in action, love that works always to deliver, to set free, to open new ways. But when we speak of love we are limited by our understanding of human love, complicated as it is by liking, by desiring, by possessing and being possessed, by falling in love, all of which are less than the love divine we experience only in flashes.
Religion, sadly, does have a habit of (a) trying to define God, and then (b) falling out about it. Anthony de Mello tells the story of being asked by a blind man to describe the colour green. He told him it was soft, like gentle music being played. The next day another blind man asked him the same question, and this time he told him green was soft, like the feeling of silk or satin. Later he saw the two blind men belting each other over the head with bottles. One was shouting, “Green is soft like music!” while the other was yelling “You’re wrong, green is soft like satin!” It’s on such flimsy foundations that religious argument, dissention, division and even war is built. That’s what happens when we try to define God, rather than honouring and fearing God. In place of the real and mysterious God we substitute a flimsy image of our own devising, a little god to encourage and nurture the legion of all-too-human fears which we allow in to control our lives.
But here is one thing we can say, and agree on as Christians: God is like Jesus. And the God who is like Jesus doesn’t want to load us, with fears and cares and reasons to fight, but simply to love us, with a love that sets us free from fear. So St Paul wrote, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Elsewhere he says that we are made children of God, with no more cause to fear, that we can put on Christ as a garment, at home and at peace in him.
Left to my own devices, I’m as bad as Legion, reduced to rootling about among the graves, among the stuff of time, the waste of human endeavour, the futility of an existence that’s heading nowhere. I’m held prisoner by both fears and desires: I worry about being found out, I worry about what others might think of me, I worry about whether I match up to expectations, whether I’m liked, successful, I worry about measuring up and fitting in. I need to be stroked, to be patted and praised, to be pleased and entertained. And in all of these I find chains that bind me. Chains we all share.
And sadly it’s true that left to its own devices, religion can be just another of those chains. We can be imprisoned by doctrines, we end up disagreeing over things we ourselves have made important and decisive. We make this or that statement about what God is like, and then fight about them. The truth is that we know nothing about God. God is by definition unknowable.
Religion is pointless unless it encourages and nurtures faith. And faith is misguided unless it is centred on grace and compassion and love. Knowing things about God is not the point; relationship with God is. It is as we call him Father and are simply still and expectant in his presence, it is as we fear him in that way, that he reveals to us that he is like Jesus, and that like Jesus he desires our freedom, our wholeness, and our peace. He offers us a one-to-one relationship with him that then fuels and enables and supports our relationships with one another. The key to that relationship is Christ, and the words he teaches us that begin “Our Father”. Here we have, like the madman by the lake, the chance to break out of our chains, and banish our fears, the demons that beset us. Here we can become aware of our true selves, discovering that we’re loved not because we deserve it or we’ve earned it, but because that is what God does. We are claimed by grace, by the forgiving and healing and restoring power that only Jesus offers. In him, and only in him, do we find our freedom.