June 23 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 65:1-9; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Theme: Another week when there are no obvious choices, a position somewhat aggravated by the difficulty in finding any clear links between the readings. I rather did the Galatians thing 3 weeks ago on Te Pouhere Sunday. I guess some sort of discipleship theme could be developed on the basis of Isaiah 65:8-9 and Luke 8:39 (God will always find some people to serve him even in the most unlikely of circumstances), but that's a bit of a stretch. A better prospect may be to work with Isaiah 65 (1) and Luke 8:37 along the lines of wilful or actual spiritual blindness. But the gospel passage is the standout reading today, so for reasons that may or may not become clear as I proceed I'm going for "The Fear of Jesus is the Beginning of What?"
Introduction. For those who like a little hard-edged realism in the Scriptures Isaiah serves up a first course to please the palate. The first 7 verses are as gritty as they come. God seems a somewhat pitiful suitor, calling out to, but ignored by, his beloved. His people have other, more attractive objects of desire, some gruesome hints of which we find in verse 4. Even so, God will not entirely give up on his people. If a lack of adherence to the Law is the fundamental problem in Isaiah's time, Paul addresses the opposite problem. Now the Law is seen as an obstacle to faith for the people of Galatia – they have allowed themselves to be imprisoned by it, not realising that in Christ they have been set free. The gospel passage shows (among many other things) that the idea of being setting free is not always as appealing as one might think.
Background. Fear seems to dominate our lives these days; at least it does if our news media are to be believed. This week one of the compelling images is surely that of the expression on the face of the usually coquettish goddess of the over-indulgent, Nigella Lawson, as her husband grabs her by the throat. Of course, the amount of attention that one incident got – and the sympathy she got – is out of all proportion when placed alongside the suffering of (to take just one example) hundreds and thousands of women and children in Syria – or, for that matter, the hundreds and probably thousands of victims of domestic violence in this country. But it haunts us because Nigella is not a statistic or a number – she is a real person and we feel for her for that reason.
We have been constantly reminded this week of the fear that is said to be gripping South Africa at what might happen when Nelson Mandela dies; while in Afghanistan people are said to be afraid of what will happen as the foreign troops leave. Today as I write this (Thursday) comes news of the cost of surveillance of convicted paedophile Stuart Murray Wilson, made necessary by the fear of the Wanganui Community that he might break out of his "home detention" and offend again. In Ireland crowds of demonstrators, fearful of what the G8 Leaders may be up to at their latest conference, surround the venue, while demonstrators in Brazil cause fear that the country's swanky new football stadia may not be ready in time for the World Cup finals.
I found a completely different, and at first sight trivial, example of fear when I was watching a magic show on TV on Tuesday evening. Yes, I confess, I'm a complete sucker for magicians and illusionists, and I particularly enjoy the "up-close-and-personal" ones who seem to do an impossible trick right under the nose of some innocent bystander. The guy featured on Tuesday is a superb example of this art – the series is called "Dynamo – Magician Impossible". Often he stopped someone in the street and did some impossible trick with that person's credit card, money, or jewellery, so that both he and his "victim" were standing close together. What fascinated me most – apart from the sheer skill of the magician – was how often, when the victim saw what happened, he or she instinctively pulled away, often taking a few steps before returning. The unknown, the inexplicable, the unbelievable caused an immediate albeit only fleeting feeling of fear. Hold onto that thought for a moment.
Everywhere we turn there is fear, fear of other people, fear of the future, fear of what might or might not happen. Perhaps the best summary of this psychological state is to be found in Wisdom 17:8-15, but today's gospel passage is also a textbook case. And as I pondered it, the thought came to my mind: Fear of the Lord God may be the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10), but what are we to make of fear of Jesus of Nazareth? Is that also the beginning of wisdom (of spiritual growth), or is it the beginning of something more like total defeat or despair? We might call to mind Peter's famous response to the over-abundant haul of fish: "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." In that case, of course, his fear of Jesus was positive and healthy. But there is no such happy response in Luke's masterful story of the healing of the demoniac. Fear wins the day.
Notice first that this story follows immediately the story of Jesus calming the storm; and notice in particular the response of the disciples: They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, "Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?" We might say they were saved by their curiosity – they stayed with Jesus because they wanted to know "how he did this impossible act", or, as they put it, "who is this guy who can do this impossible act?"
So you see the reference to Dynamo, the Magician Impossible was not entire irrelevant. If we had been "in the audience" when Jesus encountered the demoniac what might we have seen and heard? Perhaps we would have seen first a very disturbed man and, at some distance, a placid herd of pigs enjoying snuffling through the grass and soil on the hillside. Then, perhaps, we might have heard a few words from Jesus the Miracle-Worker Impossible, perhaps saw some movement of his hands, and then, incredibly, right before our eyes, we saw the previously very disturbed man become quiet and still and the previously placid pigs become extremely disturbed to the point that they stampeded into the lake and drowned.
And if we had been in the audience at that time, how would we have reacted? With a cry of "Alleluia! Praise the Lord!"? Would we have immediately dropped everything to follow him? Would that have been sufficient to convince us that Jesus is for real, he really is the Son of God – God come among us as one of us? Or would we have reacted in the same way as the crowd that assembled from all around? Luke writes: Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them for they were seized with great fear.
Sad, eh? Their fear left no room for curiosity, which might have saved them. They were so fearful of Jesus they wanted him gone from their presence. Another, darker piece of magic has taken place. They have transferred the fear they had of the demoniac to the man who healed the demoniac. The latter returns home: Jesus is "deported".
Isaiah. It is difficult to think of another passage that haunts us in quite the same way as this one, particularly in the opening two verses. What an image of God it gives us! Anyone who has felt the pangs of being unloved, rejected, belittled and ignored can surely relate to this description of God's pain. His chosen people, his beloved have abandoned him to return to pagan worship. Instead of turning to him, the source of all life, they "sit inside tombs", places of death. They eat vile food, what we might call a representative charge for their many acts of disobedience of the Law. Above all they have become abominably proud and arrogant, saying (presumably, to God himself?), "Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you." So they stand under divine judgment, for God's justice requires nothing less. Yet God believes that they are not completely a lost cause. There is hope for some of them.
Taking It Personally.
- Ponder verses 1 and 2a. What image of God comes to your mind? What words might you choose to describe their tone? Can you identify with God's feelings as described here?
- Could it be that these words are addressed to you? Has God been calling out to you, holding his hands out to you, wanting you to respond to him?
- A day for self-examination and confession, perhaps. And a day for thanking God for his patience, and responding afresh to his calling.
Galatians. Paul has a "successive stages" view of our faith history. The Law was given as a "holding measure", pending the advent of Christ. The central purpose of the Law was to keep us from doing evil, to restrain us from our natural propensity to turn away from God and do whatever we felt like. But now Christ has come, and all is different. Through baptism we have a new guide who empowers us to do what is right and pleasing in the eyes of God. And, more than that, our relationship with God has changed. We are no longer his people and under his orders: we are now his children embraced by his love.
Taking It Personally.
- Reflect on the difference in your relationship between yourself and your parents when you were a young child, and that relationship in your adult years. Was there not a time when your parents made all the decisions for you and told you what to do and what not to do? And (hopefully) did not that change as you grew to adulthood and you assumed more and more responsibility for your own decisions? Is that a helpful analogy with the point Paul is trying to make here?
- Put on a coat or jacket, and as you do so repeat the words "Through my baptism I have been clothed with Christ". What is the point Paul is trying to make here, do you think? If someone looks at you today could they see that you are "clothed with Christ"?
Luke. As you read through this story notice how often the narrative is concerned with fear. It is set in Gentile country "opposite Galilee", to Jews a place where they do not belong. Immediately a very frightening looking man approaches. Luke paints a very graphic picture of him, emphasising in verse 29 the man's extraordinary brutal strength. He is the archetypal outsider, confined to life in the tombs. The demons within the man recognise Jesus and call out in fear to him, recognising that he has the power to send them back to the abyss from which they have come and of which they are scared. Now watch the crowd arrive. Luke's mastery of detail is as delightful as ever. What do they see first? The "patient" now "clothed and in his right mind". And what is their response to this amazing healing? "And they were afraid." And when their "reinforcements" arrived, they were afraid, too. So Jesus leaves them to it, but notice the last little exchange between him and the now healed man. He wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus declines his request. He tells him to go back home and tell the locals "how much God has done for you"; and, says Luke, the man went on his way "proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him". There's the last bit of magic – the healed mind understands that "God" and "Jesus" are interchangeable.
Taking It Personally.
- A wonderful passage for praying with the imagination. Watch out, in particular, for your response to Jesus' "impossible magic".
- Now ask yourself this question: am I frightened of Jesus? Am I frightened of letting him get too close to me, of being too real?
- Now turn to verse 39 and hear Jesus saying those words to you. What has God done for you – and who have you told about it?