9:30AM Sunday School
11AM & 7PM Worship

2203 San Antonio St.
Austin, TX 78705

Transformative Power

The Reverend Karen Greif

June 23, 2019
1 Kings 19:9-12; Luke 8:26-39

A Reading from the First Book of Kings

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

The first day of Theology: 214 at Austin Seminary, Alan Lewis began class with the statement:  “World view is like air we breathe. We can’t even see it.”  During that course, Dr. Lewis walked us through changes in “the theological lens” of our world view from 1517 until the spring semester of 1991. If we extend our time frame to recorded history, change boggles our minds. Once our earthly home was the center of the universe.  All heavenly bodies revolved around us. The Egyptian sun god used a chariot to carry it across the sky. The Greek sun god preferred a boat.

Our understanding of biology has really changed. Blindness and deafness were once considered punishments from God. Blood was purified via leeches.  And my own personal favorite, the Middle Ages discovery regarding the sex of a child. According to this theory, all human life begins as male.  However, only those carried by women of good character, remain male. You know what that means for those of us who have a daughter. All I can say on my behalf is that at least I’m 2 for 3.

Our world view of the supernatural has contained a vast array of beings, celestial and otherwise. with countless wars between divinities and battles between evil and the divine. Today’s scripture passages are examples of two such cosmic clashes. Eight centuries before Christ, Elijah was in all-out war with the priests of Jezebel’s god, Baal.

After a showdown on Mt. Horeb, in which Yahweh prevailed, Jezebel issues a warrant for Elijah’s death. Our Old Testament lesson finds Elijah hiding in a cave, pleading to the Lord, “I alone am left among your prophets, and they seek to take my life.” God answers Elijah in a theophany.   “Go forth, and stand upon the mountain, and the Lord will pass by.” While earlier theophanies were accompanied by wind, fire and earthquake, this time it is in “a still small voice” that the divine chooses revelation.

Our New Testament lesson is one of four divine power stories that Luke packs into the 8th chapter of his gospel. In the first, Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee. A violent storm arises. The terrified disciples awake their Master, “Do you not care we are perishing?” Jesus rebukes the storm. The wind and waves cease. The disciples talk among themselves, “Who is this that even the winds and seas obey him?” In the third story, a woman is healed simply by touching the fringes of Jesus’ garment. In the fourth, Jesus brings the dying, or perhaps even dead, daughter of Jairus, back to life. Four divine power stories also recorded by Mark and Matthew.

Luke places our lesson second. Having survived the storm… their boat reaches port in the country of the Gerasenes.  A herd of swine feeds on a hillside.  This is Jesus’ first foray into Gentile territory. As Jesus steps off the boat, he is accosted by a naked man, who is  “tormented by demons.” Well, storms, we get. And healings. And pigs, although not usually behaving as these are. But demons defy our everyday vocabulary.  Who or what are they? The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, describes demons as “’agents of all manner of ills, who serve under the reign of Satan, the Evil One.” And goes on to say, “In the New Testament they are taken for granted.” For those of us taken aback by this definition, Gallop pollsters assure us we are in a majority. Only 34 percent of 21st Century Americans believe in a personified force of evil.  UCC pastor and author, Maurice Fetty puts it this way:  “In our psychologically enlightened times, we have avoided the more ancient and mythological language of the devil and evil.  We prefer words like repression, impulses, phobias, and neuroses.”

If this implies that evil resides only in the human psyche, such a reduction seems fraught with peril. Lending credence to the famous quote from the film, The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making the world believe he didn’t exist.” What we do know is Jesus believed.  His ministry begins with Holy Spirit leading him into the desert. There the devil tempts him to renounce his divine power—not once by three times. The gospels contain 75 references to Jesus casting out demons. In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus includes the petition, “Deliver us from evil,“ one we will soon pray together.

Whether we use First or 21st Century descriptors, the forces acting upon the naked, tomb-dwelling man are hellish. Both world views agree: this man is in torment. But from our world view, we find details of the story confounding. Digging through books stacked three deep, I searched for a Rosetta Stone that would shed 21st century light on this bizarre and complex passage. Here is my best thumbnail sketch at a first century point of view.

This story takes place in a region known as the Decapolis, ten towns under Roman rule buttressed by four legions of Roman soldiers. Swine were often sacrificed to Roman gods.  Roman soldiers were also quite fond of ham and bacon and pork chops. To Jews, however, pigs were both “unclean” and ‘symbols of pagan worship.” In the first century there was a distinction between illness and demon possession. Illness required healing.  Demon possession, exorcism. In ancient pagan stories, exorcised demons often take up residence elsewhere, in animals or innate objects. Thus the swine’s suicide run into the sea would prove the validity of the exorcism. And be the first proof of Jesus’ divine power to the Gentile world. First Century readers would catch Luke’s use of irony, that we may miss. While befuddled disciples ask, “Who is this?”  The demons nail it. Pronto. As soon as his foot hits the shore. Fearing the power Jesus has over them, they drive the possessed man to an immediate encounter. He shouts at the top of his voice: “What do you have to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” What has Jesus to do with this man tormented by demons?  Everything. Despite the devil’s temptations, Jesus refused to yield his divine power. When Jesus commands the demons to get thee away, they must go.

Taken together, as they are in our lectionary, the common theme of both texts is clear. They are demonstrations that divine power supersedes all other power. Within each text, HOW is divine power revealed? In our gospel lesson, through a command of Jesus. In our Old Testament passage, in a “still, small voice.”  WHAT common source do these revelations share? The word of God; in Greek, the Logos. Expressed, in our gospel lesson, by divine decree. Discerned, in our Old Testament lesson, in a personal/mystical communication between God and Elijah. WHAT did divine power accomplish in and for the text’s recipients? A fearful, cowering Elijah Is empowered to become one of the greatest prophets in Israel. Dethroning an evil monarch and changing the course of that nation’s history. The demon-possessed man in our gospel lesson is totally transformed. Empowered to step away from his hellish existence. Restored and made whole.

Divine power is transformative power. Then, now and always. That is our good news. But that is not the only good news because we were created in the image of God, by the Logos of God, transformative power also resides within us. Alan Lewis taught us that the Logos is two things at once: The Word of God calling forth creation from a formless void. and the flesh and blood incarnation of Jesus.  The infinite Logos that stretches across time and space and its embodiment in a single human being.

This is the Christian story.  And our personal story too. The divine image is embedded within you and within me, even though we are embedded in a human body, bound in a specific time and place, We are both the eternal, transcendent essence of the divine and the finite mortal shell we inhabit. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given the ability to call forth creation, not of galaxies, but to shape ourselves and the world around us.

In the words of C.S. Lewis: “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you,  into something a little different than it was before. Through innumerable choices, you are slowly turning this central part of you, either into a Kingdom of Heaven creature or into a hellish creature. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”  Therefore our every thought, word and action has meaning.  They matter because they shape and form us – and in doing so, shape and form how the world around us unfolds.

Friends in Christ, we have been given choices.  Between good and evil: that which supports and protects or that which destroys. That which binds up wounds or inflicts or reopens them. We can choose to regard each and every person we encounter as a beloved child of God. Or NOT, when the particular lens though which we view the world denies the validity of others. We have a choice to be bearers of the fruit of the spirit. Love, joy, patience, peace, gentleness, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. Or to dwell in the hellish depts of deceit, arrogance, resentment, or unforgiveness.

Collectively, as the church, we face the same choices.  As our Book of Order so states, we are called to be  “a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished,  and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down… a community of witness, pointing beyond ourselves to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Beloved in Christ, we have been endowed through the power of the Holy Spirit, to move ourselves and the world around us, toward a Kingdom of Heaven kind of place, bringing to full fruition what Nicholas of Cusa calls “God’s vision of us.”

But sometimes I forget.  And collectively we forget. C. S. Lewis compares our forgetfulness to  “children who want to go on making mud pies because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea.” I’ve made many mud pies.  Despite my best intentions, I make them still.  But on clear days, I do remember the offer of a holiday at sea. Jesus tells the demon-possessed man, now restored and made whole,  “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.  And the man went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”  Empowered by the very same Holy Spirit, may our lives proclaim the same.  Thanks be to God that we have been given both the choice and the means to do so.