Tag Archives: demonic

Hope in the shadow of the bomb; a poem by Thomas Centolella; and the lessons for Sunday, June 10, 2018

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1
Mark 3:20-35

PRAYER OF THE DAY: All-powerful God, in Jesus Christ you turned death into life and defeat into victory. Increase our faith and trust in him, that we may triumph over all evil in the strength of the same Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.” Psalm 130:5-6

I am just old enough to remember the “duck and cover” drills to which kids were subjected in elementary school during the height of the cold war. The sirens would go off and we would be instructed to crawl under our desks and crouch face down covering our heads with our hands. Our teachers would rush about drawing the heavy curtains across the windows, closing the doors and turning off the lights. All this took place throughout my first and second grade years. I recall hearing adults talking in hushed tones about “the bomb” and that the Russians had it and might use it against us at any time. Of course, I understood very little about who the Russians were, what the bomb was or why the Russians would want to use it against us. But I knew enough to realize that “the bomb” and Russians represented dangers sufficient to frighten the adults in my life. That alone made it very terrifying to me. If the grownups are afraid, where can a kid turn for comfort and security?

The psalmist responds to that very expression of existential terror with a call to wait for the Lord in hope. What else can you do when the grownups entrusted with custody of the bomb are calling each other names, drawing lines in the sand like playground rivals and threatening each other with “fire and fury?”  What concerns me most is not the bellicose rhetoric of our leaders. I’ve seen that before. What disturbs me is the seeming lack of concern expressed by the public, the discussion in high places of a “military option” for dealing with North Korea-as though a nuclear war were actually winnable-and the naïve assumption that, at any rate, it will all play out “over there.” I worry that, to a generation that has never known selective service, has no living memory of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and experiences war as something that is handled by someone else’s children on the other side of the world, the very real dangers posed by the current situation might appear distant and abstract. So to all you millennials out there who might be thinking this does not affect your lives and futures, be warned: Our leaders are playing Russian roulette with your lives.

I pray for and am hopeful for the success of the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Yes, I am well aware of the odds against any substantially positive outcome for this event. I am aware of all the dangers involved. My hope for this summit might reasonably be characterized as foolish. But my hope is not finally in these leaders, their diplomatic teams or their good intentions. My hope, like that of the psalmist, is in the Lord.

Sometimes witnesses and workers for peace have names like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero. But often the instruments of peace turn out to have names like Mao, Nixon and, yes, Un and Trump. As for the latter grouping, I do not suggest that there is anything to be admired in their characters or that their crimes should be overlooked. I am only pointing out that, what human beings in their smallness of heart intend for evil, God somehow engineers for good. See Genesis 50:20. God is the hidden and often overlooked ingredient in the mix of political, social and religious forces that seem to be driving history. For that reason, the future continues to elude our most erudite predictions and frequently produces outcomes that surpass our expectations and prove our fears to have been baseless. For that reason, too, when I’ve done all I think I can and the world seems still to be careening toward the abyss, I find it possible to “wait for the morning” in hope.

Here is a poem about hope by Thomas Centolella.

The Hope I know

doesn’t come with feathers.
It lives in flip-flops and, in cold weather,
a hooded sweatshirt, like a heavyweight
in training, or a monk who has taken
a half-hearted vow of perseverance.
It only has half a heart, the hope I know.
The other half it flings to every stalking hurt.
It wears a poker face, quietly reciting
the laws of probability, and gladly
takes a back seat to faith and love,
it’s that many times removed
from when it had youth on its side
and beauty. Half the world wishes
to stay as it is, half to become
whatever it can dream,
while the hope I know struggles
to keep its eyes open and its mind
from combing an unpeopled beach.
Congregations sway and croon,
constituents vote across their party line,
rescue parties wait for a break
in the weather. And who goes to sleep
with a prayer on the lips or half a smile
knows some kind of hope.
Though not the hope I know,
which slinks from dream to dream
without ID or ally, traveling best at night,
keeping to the back roads and the shadows,
approaching the radiant city
without ever quite arriving.

Source: Almost Human, Centolella, Thomas (c. Thomas Centolella, 2017, pub. by Tupelo Press, 2017). Thomas Centolella is an American poet and author of four books of poetry.  He is a recipient of the Lannan Literary Award, the American Book Award, the California Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. He is also Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University and lives in the San Francisco Bay area. You can read more about Thomas Centolella and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Genesis 3:8-15

To get the full impact of this encounter between God and God’s human creatures, we need to go back a chapter to where God, determining that it is “not good” for the “Adam” (“earth creature”) to be alone, draws from Adam a partner. Here for the first time Adam is referred to as “man” or “ish” in contrast to the “isha” or woman. Significantly, they are at this time both naked and unashamed of their nakedness. Genesis 2:25. We are told that the serpent was more cunning than all the other creatures God had made. Genesis 3:1. There is a clever play on words here that gets lost in translation. The Hebrew words for “naked” and “cunning” are “arumim” and “arum” respectively. Thus, the knowledge offered through the cunning (arum) of the serpent manifests itself first by revealing to Adam and Eve that they are naked (arumim). Genesis 3:7.

Our understanding of this text is clouded by our cultural association of nudity with sexual immorality. The eye opening shock experienced by Adam and Eve had less to do with sex and more to do with the sheer terror of exposure, a terror that could not exist if all indeed were clearly exposed. But I suspect that Adam is even now concocting his plan to throw Eve under the bus when confronted by God over the matter of the forbidden tree. Eve, too, is formulating her defense and would prefer to keep that strategy to herself. This new “knowledge” Adam and Eve have obtained discloses in a poignant way how little they can know of each other, which is truly terrifying given their growing lack of trust.

What we see in this story is a reflection of relationships in general as well as of marriages in particular. “There are no secrets between us,” I often here couples say. But of course that is never the case. I doubt most couples share between them all of their fantasies and daydreams. Most of us have experiences in our past we prefer to keep secret. We tell small, inconsequential lies to one another in order to bring comfort or avoid hurt. So too with less intimate relationships. We weigh how much to share with any given friend, keeping back those things we think might cause him/her to think less of us. In social settings we steer conversation away from topics that we think might give rise to argument, awkwardness or embarrassment. We develop “filters” to prevent us from speaking all that is on our mind because we know how destructive that can be to our relationships.

The portrayal of God in this story is quite remarkable. God comes not as the unbearable presence atop the fiery mountain in Sinai, nor as the overwhelming presence enthroned in the heavens we met in last week’s lesson from Isaiah. God comes strolling onto the scene enjoying the evening breeze just as any one of us might do in the cool of the evening. Adam and Eve are nowhere to be seen. Vs. 8. God must call them out of hiding. Vs. 9. God interrogates his creatures on their odd behavior. “Why ever would you hide from me?” Vs. 10. Of course, God knows what is wrong. God’s creatures now have secrets from God (or so they think). They don’t want to be naked in front of God anymore than they want to be naked before each other. There can be but one explanation for their unusual conduct: “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” vs. 11.

Now it is clear that the humans cannot hide their nakedness any longer-at least not from God. Rather than giving God a straightforward “yes” to the inquiry about the tree, Adam moves immediately to his defense. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Vs. 12. The woman explains, “The serpent [whom you made and put in the garden] tricked me, and I ate.” Vs. 13. If the serpent had an excuse, we don’t get a chance to hear it. God evidently feels he has taken enough evidence to enter judgment on this case.

Judgment is first pronounced upon the serpent. Henceforth, the serpent will be cursed even within the animal world, doomed to crawl on its belly eating dust for the rest of its days. Vs. 14. Furthermore, there will be enmity between the serpent and humanity that will continue throughout the generations to come. Vs. 15. In my opinion, we read too much into this text when we construe the “crushing” of the serpent’s head in this verse as the victory of Christ over Satan. The serpent is not a demonic figure in this narrative. It is one of God’s good creations. Though “cunning,” it is not inherently evil. Yet its presence in the garden and the role it plays in this story tells us that there is an element of randomness in God’s good creation. God made a world loaded with potential for good, but the potential for tragic and unintended consequences exists as well.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty I have found in preaching this text is the baggage it has accumulated over the last century in the still active campaign of “creationists” to defend their interpretation of this text as an historical, geological, astronomical and biological account of origins in the face of all we have learned from the sciences. Even our own theological language characterizing this story as “the Fall” mischaracterizes the narrative truth. This is not the story of a pristine beginning spoiled by a stolen apple. When the text is read in that way, we are left with a host of imponderables. Who is the serpent? Where did he come from? Why did God put him in the garden to begin with? It does not help to identify the serpent with the devil. That only kicks the metaphysical can further out into the cosmos. For now we must ask where the devil came from.

This creation story is best understood as descriptive of what now is rather than an explanation for why it is. To the extent that there is a “why” lurking in the narrative, it consists only in acknowledging that God creates a world filled with creatures loaded with potential. Human inquisitiveness, cunning essential to survival, knowledge that is both promising and dangerous are all woven into the fabric of creation. The creation of the “earth creature” or what we might call the emergence of self-consciousness and differentiation from the animal world is a good development, enabling the human to serve as God’s steward and gardener for the earth. Yet this same development brings with it the temptation to exploit, dominate and control. In a sense, each generation is Adam and Eve. We are born into a world with certain givens. There is inherent randomness. We inherit a history of violence, injustice and cruelty that continues to make itself felt. It is in this sense that we can speak of what is often (and inaptly) called “original sin.” Yet there are endless opportunities also for enacting compassion, justice and peace.

If you were to read further in the chapter, you would discover that judgment is not the last word in this story. Though the consequences of their transgression are not reversible, God nevertheless sends Adam and Eve from the garden with clothing made by God’s own hand, covering the nakedness that so terrifies them. Genesis 3:21. God has not given up on the human creatures. There is more to this story which is only beginning to unfold.

Psalm 130

This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6Psalm 32Psalm 38Psalm 51Psalm 102; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It is characterized by Hebrew Scripture scholars as a “lament” containing all of the essential elements of its type:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
  4. Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.

See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. The Hebrew word “mimmaamkym” “From out of the depths” is a term that is equated with “sheol” or the abode of the dead. For the Israelite there was no “after life.” The concept of resurrection from death came only much later in Israel’s thinking. Consequently, death was the end of any meaningful life. To be in sheol was to be separated from the realm of life and therefore from the Lord of Life. There is no praise of Israel’s God in sheol. Consequently, the psalmist must have been in very deep distress, though we cannot tell what his or her specific complaints were.

According to Anderson, supra, the “word ‘depths’ [mimmaamkym] reverberates with mythical overtones of the abyss of watery chaos, the realm of the powers of confusion, darkness and death that are arrayed against the sovereign power of God.” Ibid. Perhaps, but the point seems to be that the psalmist feels as utterly distant from God who is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1) as any creature can be. This distance is due, in part at least, to the psalmist’s sin. Though clearly in some sort of deep trouble, the psalmist knows that s/he is in no position to claim God’s help and salvation. Nevertheless, the psalmist is able to “hope in the Lord” and encourages all Israel to do the same because, “there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” Vs. 4. It is worth repeating here that the New Testament did not invent forgiveness. God has always been and always will be forgiving toward his people Israel and toward his people engrafted into the covenant with Israel through baptism into Jesus Christ. If that were not the case, if God did in fact “mark iniquities” (vs. 3), there would be no point in prayers such as this.

The psalmist is resolved to “wait for the Lord.” Vs. 5. S/he knows that answers to prayer are not instantaneous. Prayer requires a willingness to wait and watch for the answer. Jesus also told his disciples “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7-8. Thus, asking is only the beginning. One must then seek the answer and be willing to knock on what appears to be a closed door.

“My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.” Vs. 6. This is a striking image. In Jerusalem, watchmen took their post after sunset to keep a look out for approaching enemies. They were the ancient world’s equivalent of early warning systems. It was a tedious job on a long winter’s night and one can well imagine the watchman, who had no clock or wrist watch, scrutinizing the horizon for signs of the sunrise signaling that his lonely vigil was finally coming to an end.

In verses 7-8 the focus changes from the psalmist’s personal prayer to an admonition directed to all Israel to hope in the Lord. As we saw in Psalm 51, Israel frequently took ancient prayers of individuals and adapted them for use in public worship as prayers for the whole people. In this case, an Israelite who lived after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem may well have found in this individual’s plea for personal help a reflection of Israel’s post exilic distress. Having lost the line of David, the Temple, and her land, Israel was likewise “crying out from the depths.” Like the individual, Israel turned to the Word of the Lord and God’s promises for comfort and hope, knowing that with her God was forgiveness. Vs. 4.

2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1

For a brief but thorough introduction to Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth, see the Summary Articleby Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. In short, Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth deteriorated significantly between the writing of I Corinthians and II Corinthians. It appears that there were some individuals or groups within the church at Corinth that were challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, undermining his leadership and questioning his fitness as a preacher. Following his first letter, Paul made what he describes as a “painful visit” to the church. II Corinthians 2:1. This visit did not accomplish whatever it was he had intended. Not wanting to make another such visit, Paul wrote a “severe letter” to the church in Corinth out of “much affliction and anguish of heart.” II Corinthians 2:4. Though we cannot be certain, many commentators believe that at least part of this “severe” letter is contained in II Corinthians 10-13. E.g., Godspeed, Edgar J., An Introduction to the New Testament, (c. 1937 by University of Chicago Press) pp. 61-62. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Paul was concerned about the effect his letter would have upon the church and so sent his associate, Titus, to Corinth in order to deal with the fallout. (It is also possible that Paul sent the letter along with Titus). Paul became so preoccupied with the problems at Corinth and the potential impact of his letter that he cut short a preaching tour in Troas and traveled to Macedonia in search of Titus. There Paul finally caught up with his associate who brought him a very favorable report from Corinth. II Corinthians 7:5-13.

Paul’s severe letter had evidently done its work. The congregation gave its full support to Paul. Paul’s opponents were disciplined by the congregation so severely that Paul had to write and urge the church to reach out to them with forgiveness and “reaffirm” their love for these errant members. II Corinthians 2:5-11. It is this third letter from Paul to Corinth from which our lesson comes.

Our reading begins with Paul’s lose citation to Psalm 116:10: “I kept faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’” To make sense of this, you need to go back and read II Corinthians 4:7-12 where Paul speaks about the afflictions he has endured as a missionary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. These include being “persecuted” and “struck down.” Notwithstanding these afflictions, the Spirit continues to give Paul the courage to “speak out.” Vs. 13. Paul is convinced that, though he is always “carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (II Corinthians 4:10), the God who “raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” Vs. 14.

For this reason, says Paul, “we do not lose heart.” Vs. 16. Even though our “outer nature” is wasting away, “our inner nature is being renewed every day.” Vs. 16. The former is evident. We experience the aging process that diminishes our bodily health and strength. We see our achievements fade into insignificance. Our friends move away, die or become estranged through time and circumstance. The universe, we are told, is expanding and doomed to run out of steam. The latter is not evident. Based solely on the empirical evidence, no one can assert that we are being renewed even as we are in the process of dying or that this expanding universe is being transformed into a new heaven and earth. This reality is only illuminated by the resurrection of Jesus from death. It is for that reason we dare to believe God is at work bending each subatomic particle of the universe and turning all of its energies toward redemption. In the words of Rick Barger, president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, “If the tomb had not been empty on Easter Sunday, we’d have nothing to talk about.”

This passage is incredibly good news for social workers who spend their energies helping people crawl out of horrible situations only to fall back in again. It is good news for teachers struggling to provide a quality education to underprivileged children in underfunded, poorly run and neglected schools. It is good news for pastors of churches that continue to struggle notwithstanding their enormous efforts to build them up. We do not look only to what is seen in the light of the status quo. We view everything in the light of Jesus’ resurrection which demonstrates that the universe is bent toward the kingdom of God and that life in conformity with that kingdom is eternal.

Mark 3:20-35

What would you do if you learned that your adult son was acting erratically, not eating properly and getting himself into trouble with the authorities? Upon hearing these very reports about Jesus, his mother and brothers did what I believe any loving family would do. They organized an intervention. It was their intent to “seize” Jesus and take him home by force if necessary. They might have succeeded but for the crowd around Jesus they could not penetrate. Failing to reach Jesus, they send word that they desire to speak with him. His response must have been a blow to their hearts, particularly to his mother. “Who are my mother and brothers?” Vs. 33. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Vs. 35.

As I have noted in previous posts, there is no shortage of organizations under the Christian franchise devoted to preserving the “traditional family.” One such organization is Focus on the Family whose self described mission is “to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” Of course I think sharing the Gospel is critical and know well that success on that score requires cooperation with the Holy Spirit. I am not necessarily opposed to promoting biblical truths either, though I suspect I might not agree with Focus on what those truths are. The real sticking point, though, is the “God-ordained institution of the family.” According to Focus, the ideal family is “one man and one woman committed to each other for life, raising their children in a loving, supportive home.” That, however, is not what Jesus just told us. Marriage is not the foundation of family and blood lineage does not define its boundaries. Baptism is the foundation of family and trumps all other relationships, including marriage. See Luke 18:29-30. For disciples of Jesus, water is thicker than blood. Church is the only “God ordained” family there is. Focus on the Family is therefore focusing on the wrong family.

That is not to say that families and households are not important. To the contrary, they are. I agree with Focus that “our culture increasingly disparages family life,” though I believe poverty, inadequate wages, increasing demands for employee productivity, requirements for worker mobility, lack of job security, lack of access to adequate health care and erosion of quality educational opportunities have a lot more to do with that than marriage equality-the culprit blamed by Focus. Does anyone really believe that marriage of the gay couple across the street poses a greater threat to his/her family’s well-being than losing a job or health care coverage? If Focus is truly committed to the welfare of families, I would recommend to its board of directors a campaign against late stage capitalism. Somehow, I don’t think that would fly.

Sandwiched in between the two ends of this episode with Jesus’ family is the allegation of the scribes that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul who enables him to cast out demons. Jesus responds by pointing out the faulty reasoning of the scribes. Vs. 22. Why would Satan give Jesus power over his own legions? If in fact “Satan is cast[ing] out Satan,” his kingdom is imploding. That can only mean the Kingdom of God is at hand-just as Jesus has been saying. Vss. 23-25. Jesus goes on to say that no one can plunder a strong man’s house unless he first binds the strong man. Thus, Jesus can only do what he is doing because he has, in fact, bound Satan. Vs. 28.

Finally, we have that ever troublesome verse about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for which one “never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Vs. 28-29. That verse has been a torment to many people over the centuries, not the least of whom was the father of Soren Kierkegaard who confided to his son that he once cursed God for the dreariness of his life while living as an impoverished serf. What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? In the first place, it is important to note that this admonition is not addressed to the public but to the specific scribes who equated Jesus’ exorcism of demons with the work of demons. Unable to deny that Jesus has truly freed people from the power of Satan and unwilling to ascribe any good to Jesus whatever the evidence might show, they resort to nonsensical arguments in order to discredit Jesus. These particular scribes are hardened in their opposition to Jesus. They are not doubters, skeptics or even indifferent to Jesus. They have made up their minds and formed their opinions about Jesus. They refuse to allow the facts to confuse the issue.

To the few folks I have met over the years (and there have been a few) concerned about whether they might have committed the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I have simply told them that their concern in that regard is a pretty clear indication that they have not. I am fairly convinced that the persons (if any) who are actually guilty of this sin don’t much care and never lose a night’s sleep over it. In sum, if you are worried about having committed this unforgivable sin, you haven’t. If you have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, you are not the least bit worried about it and you are probably not reading this blog anyway.

Sunday, June 23rd

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 65:1–9
Psalm 22:19–28
Galatians 3:23–29
Luke 8:26–39

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, we bring before you the cries of a sorrowing world. In your mercy set us free from the chains that bind us, and defend us from everything that is evil, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

In this week’s gospel lesson Jesus casts a legion of demons out of a man, sends them into a herd of pigs which, in turn, rushes headlong into the sea. That’s something you don’t see every day. In fact, it is something we moderns don’t expect to see at all. There is not much room for demons or the devil (some would also add God!)  in a world governed by discoverable scientific principles. To be sure, there are some phenomena we don’t understand. But we assume that is only because we have not yet uncovered the data we need to provide a rational, scientific explanation for them. As children of the Enlightenment, we tend to believe that “the truth is out there” and by dogged investigation, experimentation and theoretical application we can arrive at the “truth.” In any event, those are the assumptions our culture has inherited from the Enlightenment thinkers of the late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

We are not only children of the Enlightenment, however. Our Nineteenth Century confidence in the persuasiveness of “reason” has been shaken severely by the Twentieth Century’s genocidal wars and the world’s seeming inability to unite in preventing global violence, environmental ruin and grinding poverty. It is no longer taken for granted that human beings are capable of being “objective” and that everyone looking at the same set of data necessarily sees the same things and draws the same conclusions. We are just beginning to understand how the way we see, hear and understand is all shaped by family influences, cultural conditioning and psychiatric traits coloring the way we process information. Philosophers, historians and literary critics refer to this new skepticism as “post-modern.”  We know too much about our world to return to the Middle Ages and pretend that the earth is flat, that we reside in the center of the universe and that heaven is just beyond the sky. At the same time, we have discovered that we are incapable of being “objective,” and that the scientific method of objective observation, experimentation and extrapolation, though it has brought us a long way in many respects, cannot finally bring us to a “truth” capable of saving us from ourselves. Modernity has failed us, but we don’t have anything yet with which to replace it.

My education was modern in nearly every respect. Back when dinosaurs walked the earth and I was in seminary, we set great store by the “historical critical” method of Bible Study. We assumed that by applying to the biblical text the proper analytical tools, we could arrive at its true meaning. That “true meaning” could nearly always be harmonized with our modern world view. To be fair, most of my teachers recognized the limits of historical criticism and were far more modest in terms of what they felt it could deliver. Biblical commentators of that era had not yet caught up with my teachers, however.  Typically, they equated instances of demon possession in the New Testament with mental illness. Clearly, if the biblical writers had had the benefit of our superior scientific knowledge and understanding, they would not have employed such primitive notions.

But maybe the biblical witnesses were not quite as primitive as we imagined and maybe we were less advanced than we supposed. The demoniac in our gospel displays conduct (aggression, self destructive behavior) that we often associate with mental disorders. He may actually have been afflicted with a degree of mental illness. Yet that is not the full extent of his problem. I think it is significant that the demon gives his name as “legion.” That probably speaks to the source of the demons as well as their number. What do you think happens to a people occupied by a hostile army, stripped of freedom and self respect, forced to raise pigs (an abomination to central tenants of its faith) in order to feed the legions of its occupiers? The same thing that happens to kids whose childhood is dominated by teasing, bullying and abuse. Anger turns inward, becoming self hate expressed in self punishment and indiscriminant violence. That is the clinical end of it, but this is not finally a clinical problem. The demoniac in the gospel lesson cannot be healed by “talk therapy” or by any medication. That will only mollify the symptoms of a sickness that is bigger than he is and afflicts not only him, but his people. For this demoniac and for all Israel to be healed, “legion” has got to go.

With that in mind, let me say that casting out demons is still very much a task for the church. I don’t have to know what a demon is or where it came from or why it exists to know that demonic power infects our culture and destroys human life at every level. I cannot read this story anymore without recalling the images of young girls, some of whom I have known, who starve and mutilate their bodies because they do not look exactly like the flawless (airbrushed and photo-shopped) women in teen and glamour magazines. Offering these girls crisis intervention, counseling and medical treatment is all well and good, but it is not true healing. As long as the systemic evil oppressing them remains, we have only “healed the wound of my people lightly.” Jeremiah 6:14. Maybe the demons that need to be named these days are called Vogue, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan and Victoria’s Secret. Perhaps it is time to call out the devil from behind the “beauty” industry and tell him in no uncertain terms: “You don’t get to say and decide for us what is beautiful anymore. Now get the hell out of the hearts and minds of our children.”  This truly is a liberating word of the Lord that many, many of our young people need desperately to hear.

Isaiah 65:1–9

This passage comes to us form Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). For some background on Isaiah generally, see the summary article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org. For our purposes, it is enough to note that our lesson for Sunday was directed to the Babylonian captives who had returned to Palestine inspired by the prophetic utterances of an earlier prophet of the exile. That prophet’s sayings are collected at Isaiah 40-55 (Second Isaiah). Filled with hope and expectation, these pioneers soon discovered that their dream of rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple would not easily be realized. The land was inhabited with hostile peoples who claimed it as their own. Jerusalem was in ruins and the hoped for influx of additional returning exiles had not materialized. Broken and discouraged, the returning exiles were on the brink of extinction.

In order to fully appreciate this Sunday’s reading, you need to back up a chapter to Isaiah 64 which begins with the cry, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” The anguished prophet recites God’s doing of “terrible things” alluding to prior acts of salvation for Israel. Though Israel has sinned against her God, the prophet reminds God, “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter.” S/he then asks why God remains silent when the people cry out for salvation.

Our lesson for Sunday is a response to this question. In a nut shell, God replies: I am not silent; you are deaf. God has been reaching out to Israel, trying to get her attention but Israel is a rebellious people who will not listen. They have fallen back into idolatrous ways, “sacrificing in gardens and burning incense upon bricks.” vs. 3. Commentators are divided over what this means. Old Testament scholar, Claus Westermann believes that this is a reference to “sacrifices in the high places,” a problem referenced throughout I & II Kings. Westermann, Claus Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1969 SCM Press) p. 401. Though most likely intended for worship of Israel’s God, these shrines and the priests that oversaw them absorbed Canaanite practices into their cultic worship. While the biblical authors and the prophets understood worship of Israel’s God to be wholly incompatible with Canaanite religion, the Israelite people did not always view it that way.  Worship at these “high places” was never thoroughly eliminated at any time throughout Israel’s history as an independent kingdom. Thus, it is not surprising that it springs up again as the Jews begin to return from Babylon to resettle what once was Canaan.

It is alleged that the people “sit in tombs, and spend the night in secret places.” vs. 4. Again, it is difficult to determine exactly what is going on here. Westermann believes that the reference here is to rites designed to obtain oracles from the dead. Id at 402. Such rites are not unknown in Israel, see, e.g., Saul’s appeal to the witch of Endor, I Samuel 28:3-25. Whatever is happening, it constitutes resort to someone or something other than Israel’s God whose word alone is worthy to be trusted. One cannot expect to hear a word from God when seeking other words from other sources.

The people are castigated for eating “swine flesh” contrary to specific biblical injunctions, e.g. Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8. This practice might have been dictated more by hard times and scarcity of food than by willful disobedience. Nevertheless, it reflects a lack of faith in the God who promises to provide for the needs of his people. Dietary restrictions and other cultic rules might sound petty and nonsensical to us, but for Israel they were part and parcel of a holistic covenant existence where every moment of life is filled with reminders of God’s faithfulness and opportunities for thankful obedience. Because the presence of God is known within the framework of the covenant relationship, rejection of the covenant naturally creates a sense of God’s absence.

“As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all.” vs. 8. Though Israel’s faithlessness will be punished, God will not make an end of Israel. To the contrary, God will “bring forth descendents from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains.” vs. 9. Judgment is a necessary word, but never the final word from God. There is a future for this harried people and a promise-if only they have ears to hear it.

Psalm 22:19–28

This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46. Our reading begins at vs. 19 where the psalmist makes a plaintive cry for salvation. Verse 22 marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.

I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g., Psalm 5; Psalm 7; Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.

It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.

Galatians 3:23–29

This passage spells out the consequences of faith in Jesus Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  vs. 28. Yet I find myself asking in good Lutheran fashion: “What does this mean?” Surely it cannot mean that we lose our distinctiveness through unity in Christ. It cannot mean that there is some spiritual essence that is truly “me” and that my maleness, my American identity, my love of J.S. Bach and Ella Fitzgerald is merely accidental. So what, then, can oneness in Christ mean?

I believe we need to expand our literary scope to I Corinthians to answer this question. Paul does not envision oneness coming about through the shedding of our differences. To the contrary, unity in Christ is achieved through harmonizing these differences in a community bound together by love. This is not a sentimental sort of love. It is a love that is practiced between people who might not like each other very much. It is the kind of love Paul speaks about in I Corinthians 13. It “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7. Becoming one in Christ is a slow, painful and difficult process built through ongoing repentance and forgiveness.

One might conclude from all of this that Paul is replacing the requirements of circumcision and dietary rules with the far more onerous burden of loving each other by our own strength of character. Nothing could be further from Paul’s intent. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1. The life to which Paul calls us is one of joy and thankfulness. Note well that Paul distinguishes between “works of the flesh” which, however well meaning produce sin of one kind or another, and “fruits of the Spirit” that bring life. Galatians 5:16-25 The fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control are not achieved by following any rule. Instead, they grow spontaneously from a forgiven heart that knows the generosity and love of God through faith in Jesus. Knowing God’s limitless generosity toward us enables us to be equally generous and accepting of our sisters and brothers in Christ-with all of their differences. The Body of Christ is enriched and strengthened as the one Lord Jesus is reflected in many and diverse ways through its individual members.

Luke 8:26–39

Just prior to this story of the demoniac and the pigs, Jesus calmed a threatening storm on the Sea of Galilee leaving his terrified disciples asking, “Who then is this, that he commands even the wind and the water, and they obey him?” Luke 8:25. In last week’s gospel lesson the guests at the party of Simon the Pharisee were asking each other, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” Luke 7:49. Ironically, the answer is given by the legion of demons who recognize Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” The evil one knows his enemy.

As I mentioned in my opening remarks, I think it is no mere coincidence that the demon answers to the name of “legion.” Matthew and Mark agree with Luke on this point, (Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20) but Luke seems to take the story to a heightened level of confrontation with the Rome Empire which has been lurking in the background since the first chapter in his gospel. A “legion” was a Roman infantry division of 6,000 troops. Four such legions were holding the province of Syria, which included the principalities of Palestine. While the Decapolis was predominantly gentile territory, it had a substantial Jewish population as well. The quartering of hogs in what Jews considered to be part of the ancestral holy land could not have been welcome. In all likelihood, the hogs were being raised to feed the Roman legions and their servants. That would explain why the inhabitants were so eager to get rid of Jesus. The Roman commanders would not be pleased to learn that their dinner had been chucked into the lake and less pleased still if they were to discover that this had been the work of a Jewish exorcist. This would also explain why Jesus wished for the man who had been healed to remain in the Decapolis and proclaim all that God had done for him rather than accompany him with his disciples. The people need to know that there is a new sheriff in town. God, not Caesar, is Lord; God, not legion is in command.

The demons beg Jesus not to command them to depart into the “abyss.” This is a broad term. In Hebrew cosmology it constituted the watery deep over which the Spirit of God was blowing at the dawn of creation. See Genesis 1:1-2. In later Hebrew thought this “deep” or “abyss” became associated with the place of subterranean confinement for evil spirits. Jubilees 5:6; I Enoch 10. It figures heavily in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 9:1-11; 17:8 and 20:1-3) and is mentioned also at other points in the New Testament. See, e.g., Jude 6; II Peter 2:4. The confinement of all evil spirits in the abyss is an apocalyptic event signaling the end triumph of God over all the forces of evil. Jesus appears to spare the demons at least temporarily from this fate, but their entry into the swine which, in turn, perish in the sea suggests that maybe the demons found their own way to the “watery deep.” Perhaps we ought not to read too much into the fate of the demons. The point seems to be that “legion” no longer occupies the man he once possessed and cannot long maintain his hold on the people God calls his own.