Jesus Go Away!
Reflecting on the Third Sunday of Advent: Three Days after Sunday (Year A)
Psalter: Psalm 42
Old Testament: Zechariah 8:1-17
Gospel: Matthew 8:14-17, 28-34
O God of Isaiah and John the Baptist, through all such faithful ones you proclaim the unfolding of future joy and renewed life. Strengthen our hearts to believe your advent promise that one day we will walk in the holy way of Christ, where sorrow and sighing will be no more and the journey of God's people will be joy. Amen.
When he came to the other side, to the region of the Gadarenes, two men possessed by demons came out of the tombs and met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine, and suddenly, the whole herd stampeded down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the water. The swineherds ran off, and, going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the men possessed by demons. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him they begged him to leave their region Matthew 8:28-34).
In April 1995 the Sunday after the Oklahoma City bombing, I knew it was impossible to ignore mentioning such a heinous and dramatic act in my sermon. I don’t remember much of what I said that day, but I did mention that it was important for all Christians to pray for Timothy McVeigh as Jesus instructed us to do so in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:44). I acknowledged it would be a difficult task considering the anger everyone felt, myself included; but Jesus gave us a directive to do so and pray for him we must.
After the service as I was greeting in the back of the sanctuary, one individual approached me obviously incensed by my comments and told me in no uncertain terms that she would not be praying for McVeigh and she didn’t care if Jesus told us to do so. I have to say that while I admired her honesty, it made me wonder how many times all of us who follow Jesus desire a discipleship of convenience—following Jesus when it is easy—loving only those who love us, failing to love those whom Jesus loved and died for—which is everyone.
In Matthew chapter eight, Jesus is in Gentile territory in the north opposite Galilee. As Jesus steps out of the boat on dry land, he is met by a pitiful sight of two men living among the cemetery, the land of the dead, which seems appropriate because though they are alive they are nevertheless deceased in a way worse than death. They are demon possessed. Their lives are not their own. They are in bondage to evil. Many years ago, Bob Dylan sang, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” These men are owned by forces that have almost destroyed their humanity, their identity as ones created in the image of God.
In his encounter with the men, Jesus does what always happens when he confronts evil—he casts it out and restores life and wholeness to those in its chains. As Charles Wesley poetically writes,
Long my imprisoned spirit lay Fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Jesus has done for these men what no one else could do. When Jesus, God’s Son sets us free, we are free indeed.
But not everyone is celebrating the men’s liberation. The townsfolk have watched this prophet send their profits go over the cliff as Jesus’ casts the demons into a nearby herd of swine. All too often it is true that when people are in great need to address that need requires sacrifice on the part of others. Some might complain that isn’t fair, but it is reality. The price the people of the village have to pay for this man’s wholeness is financial struggle for the foreseeable future. Knowing what they are facing makes it impossible to rejoice and celebrate their recovery from the cemetery, the land of the dead. If Jesus stays around what might happen next. It’s one thing to do some nice things for people, but bringing the kind of goodness that turns things upside down upsetting the routine of daily existence is too much. “Jesus,” they say, “please go away.”
In one sense, we might be able to excuse their response. They are, after all, Gentiles— pagans—who do not understand the redemptive ways of the God of Israel who is now acting in Jesus; but for those of us who know and understand and believe in Jesus, we have no excuse when we opt for a convenient brand of discipleship that is all too happy to do decent things for others that require little time, effort, and sacrifice—especially economic sacrifice—but feel resentment when we are asked to follow Jesus in a way that calls for the kind of sacrifice that resembles the cruciform shape of ministry. When we complain about being put upon and having to be generous until it hurts for the sake of others, we do not reflect the image of the one we follow who sacrificed it all for us on the cross. When we justify our inaction because it is not fair to us we forget that Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf was not fair to him. It should be remembered that when Jesus asked for the cup of crucifixion to be taken from him, it was a plea for the hope of another way. Jesus never complained that what he was about to do was unfair.
When we employ our discipleship only when it’s convenient, we are just like the people in the country of the Gerasenes telling Jesus to go away lest he continue to insist we choose between our convenience or our Christianity. When we choose the former in essence we say, “I don’t care what Jesus says or does, I’m not doing it.”
By the end of the story, it is clear that Jesus leaves Gerasene with people still in bondage. The men among the tombs have been liberated, but the witnesses to their liberation are trapped in their own kind of slavery. As I said, in one sense, they have an excuse—they are pagans who do not know the God of Israel.
Those of us who do have no such justification. Is our discipleship one of convenience? Do we send Jesus away when confronted with the cruciform shape of ministry?
PRAYER: God of hope, you call us home from the exile of selfish oppression to the freedom of justice, the balm of healing, and the joy of sharing. Make us strong to join you in your holy work, as friends of strangers and victims, companions of those whom others shun, and as the happiness of those whose hearts are broken. We make our prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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