Thursday, July 21, 2016

Sermon on Psalm 119:57-60, 105, for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, "Friends of the Law"



No sermon manuscript this week--just notes and you can go to the podbean link for the audio file of my sermon. A sermon about Psalm 119, and how is a Christian able to have a positive view of God's law? What resolves the tension in us about how we relate to God's Law?

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:   http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen at:  http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

  1. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible, and is an “acrostic poem.” It’s divided into 22 stanza, of 8 lines/verses each, and there is one stanza for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (176 verses total). There are 8 key words used in the Psalm that are synonyms for the Law of God. These 8 words show up 177 times in the 176 verses, so that the Psalm “overflows” with words about God’s instruction. Read the section from our Introit, or any other section of Psalm 119. What does the author think of God’s Law?
  2. Look also at Psalm 19:7-11. What does that Psalm describe as some of the uses or benefits of God’s Law?
  3. Lutheran teaching about God’s Law ordinarily identifies 3 basic “uses” that God has for His Law: 1) a curb—to restrain sin, 2) a mirror—to accuse or “Show Our Sin” (SOS), and 3) a guide—a positive instruction in what is good and pleasing to God. Which of these uses seems to be in focus in Psalm 1, 19, or 119?
  4. A tension exists in every Christian with regard to God’s law, because of the conflict between our old sinful nature and the new spiritual nature in Christ. How does the new, regenerated person in Christ, view God’s law? Romans 7:18, 22-23. How does the old sinful nature view God’s law? Romans 7:10, 25. Speaking to the new man in Christ Jesus, why does it make sense to say that we delight in the law of God, ala Psalm 119?
  5. What joy is there to be found in obedience? 1 John 5:1-5. Choose one of the Ten Commandments, and write some notes or reflect on how there is joy to be found in obeying it. What hardships or challenges from the world will also accompany that obedience? How does Jesus embody perfect obedience, joy, and love to the Father? Psalm 1, Hebrews 12:1-2

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Sermon on Luke 10;25-37, for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, The Good Samaritan



Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The Good Samaritan is probably one of the most recognizable stories that Jesus taught, in all the Gospels. And the parable is part of a series of questions between a Jewish lawyer and Jesus, beginning with this question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” As we unfold this teaching of Jesus for us, consider also the words of St. Paul: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift, but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:4-5). This passage illuminates a fundamental flaw with the lawyer’s question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The faulty logic in the question is that you can’t do anything in order to inherit something. Like Paul says, if you are working for something, you earn your wages as pay that is rightfully due to you. Your employer is not giving you a “gift.” You earned it.
But inheritance is an entirely different matter. To receive an inheritance isn’t a wage or something a person earns or is owed for what they’ve done—but an inheritance is, strictly speaking, a gift. And a gift that is received because you have been named an heir, by the person who generously wants to give you what you did not earn. You may be a family member, or an adopted child, or a beloved friend. But your place in the inheritance is not by what you have done, but by the love and generosity of the giver. The same is true with heavenly things. “To the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, His faith is counted as righteousness.” God justifies those who have faith in Him. Not those who wish to justify themselves by what they believe they deserve or have earned. Notice what the lawyer was hoping to do, when you read vs. 29, “he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’” He thought that he could justify himself, or find himself worthy of God’s approval and of eternal life. All he needed was the correct understanding of his duty, so he could do it.
This is all introduction to the parable, because at first glance, Jesus’ answers to the lawyer sound like Jesus is saying you can work or earn your way into eternal life. But with this introductory examination, and with further examination, you can see that Jesus was helping the man to realize how he was utterly unable to justify himself, and needed “outside help” in order to enter into eternal life.
So let’s go back to the beginning. The lawyer is trying to test Jesus, when he asks, “What must I do to eternal life.” Right away, we see his tainted motive, to catch Jesus in His words. By the way, who is the only other person, besides Pharisees, lawyers, and scribes, who puts Jesus to the test in the Gospels? Can anybody guess? The devil! And Jesus’ response to him, quoting the very law of Moses—that this young lawyer claims to uphold—He quotes: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” We have to note these errors in the lawyer’s thinking and motive, as we hear Jesus’ response.
First Jesus turns back to the lawyer, to find out what is written in the law. The lawyer correctly summarizes the Law of Moses, in the same way that Jesus also taught. The Law says, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agrees with the summary, and says, “Do this, and you will live.” Now, this is the question we have to ponder—is Jesus agreeing that works are the way to eternal life, and that the young lawyer may be able to do them and earn that reward? The answer lies in the parable.
The lawyer wants to narrow down or put a finer point on his duty—if this is truly the way to eternal life—by loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself—that sounds reasonable to this law-upholding lawyer. He’s ready to commit to the task, but needs to know, who is my neighbor? Even this question is misguided, as we’ll see how Jesus redirects it. It is a limiting question, that presumes that there are some who are, and also some who are not our neighbors. Now Leviticus 19, our Old Testament reading, is where the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from. In that same verse, the lawyer might have remembered it mentions “the sons of your own people.” Perhaps on this basis, the lawyer thought his neighbor was just his fellow Jew. Or Leviticus 19 also refers to the “sojourner” or traveling foreigner living among them. But who wasn’t he thinking of, as his neighbor?
Jesus, in answering with the parable of the Good Samaritan, opens or expands the definition of neighbor as wide as possible. In the parable, the traveler who is robbed, beaten, stripped and left for dead, is passed by two religious Jews—a priest and a Levite. The curious thing is that each of them should have been guided and motivated by the Law, just like the lawyer. But they pass by and do nothing. Did they feel no compassion? Did they evaluate that they had no duty to get involved, and someone else would take care? Was there a risk or cost or something to be lost, by getting involved in this sticky, bloody situation—with a man who was potentially already dead, or  dying? Did they see the naked and bleeding man, and wonder if he was to be counted a neighbor or not? The parable doesn’t focus on their calculations, though we can probably recognize some of the selfish thoughts that might run through our minds. And is our willingness to help or show compassion driven by the human need of our neighbor, or by some other calculation that we make, about our duty?
But the Samaritan, when he sees, immediately has compassion. Jesus’ word for compassion is a deep, gut level emotion. A strong inner sense of mercy and desire to help. He immediately applies first aid, bandaging the man’s wounds. He places him on his animal, and leads him to an inn, where he gives further care to help and heal the man. He pays for the man’s further care, and promises to return and cover any additional costs. The Good Samaritan not only shows mercy, but a costly mercy to a complete stranger. The rescue for the wounded man comes from an outsider, one who is rejected by the Jews.
This becomes Jesus’ answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer isn’t “these people, but not those”—but rather the answer is, “Who can you be a neighbor to?” Anyone who needs our help is our neighbor. Jesus removes any limitation, and shows us that we are all to be neighbors to everyone, by showing mercy to others. So the Law of Moses isn’t upheld by selective interpretations and narrowing down who is and isn’t our neighbor. Here we come against the lawyer’s basic problem again. Can he, or can we, do enough to satisfy the Law’s demands? Especially in its deepest sense? Do we love God with our whole heart, whole soul, whole strength, and whole mind? Do we love our neighbor as ourselves? Every neighbor—not just the easy to love, or our friends, or those who look, act, and think like us—but every person? Not just the ones we notice, but all who need our help?
If anyone can confidently answer Yes to every one of those questions, I’d like to meet the person. The basic problem that confronts the lawyer, after Jesus’ parable, is the same for you and I. By all means, we are to “Go and do likewise.” Show the mercy of the Good Samaritan to our every neighbor. But if we cannot answer Yes, without reservation, to every one of the law’s demands—and more than just answering yes, have God verify that we have truly done all this—then we are finally, utterly unable to justify ourselves.
Paul again describes the shape of that problem for us in Galatians 3:10 “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” We are under a curse if we do not abide by all things written in the book of the Law. Or as James adds, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). The Law will not allow the least, the tiniest omission or deviation from it. If the lawyer wanted to follow Jesus’ advice to “Do this, and you will live”, he would quickly find that the curse of the law weighed against him, and he would fail.
But this does not mean that Jesus does not uphold the Law of God, as the lawyer might have hoped to demonstrate, by catching Jesus in His words. Rather, Jesus teaches that He did not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets….but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). On a deeper level, the parable of the Good Samaritan shows a picture to us of the love of Jesus. Jesus is the Good Samaritan, like our sermon hymn beautifully describes. He is the rejected outsider who comes to show a costly love to those who are wounded and left for dead. For sinners like us, crushed and wounded in soul, Jesus comes to bind up our wounds, pouring on them His healing balm, and taking us to the house prepared for sinners—His church. He pays all our expenses, ensures our continued care, and promises to return for us again. These are the very things Christ does for us.
So when we come back to the question, and abandon the thought of what can we do to inherit eternal life—and think instead of simply how can we inherit eternal life—the answer comes back to the grace of Jesus Christ alone. Back to that verse I shared at the beginning: “to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”. Believe in Jesus Christ, and you are justified—counted as righteous before God. And God, by His mercy and grace, names us His forgiven heirs and children. In the waters of Holy Baptism He adopts us in His house and into His family. In the bread and wine of Holy Communion, He forgives and sustains us in Jesus’ body and His blood. And in due time, when Jesus returns to His church—the house prepared for sinners—He will call us into our promised inheritance, of eternal life with Him. So trust not in your works to save you, but trust in Jesus Christ, our Good Samaritan—the One who showed us perfect mercy. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.


Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:   http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen at:  http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

  1. Read Luke 10:25-37. Jewish lawyers studied the Torah or the Law of Moses. It says in verse 25, the lawyer was “putting Jesus to the test.” Apart from the Pharisees and teachers of the law testing Jesus, who is the only one who “puts Jesus to the test” in the Gospels? Luke 4:12; Deuteronomy 6:16.
  2. What is the inherent flaw in the question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” What is an inheritance, and how does one become an heir? Is it something you earn?
  3. Notice the questions and answers in Luke 10:25-37. There are four total questions and answers, broken into two interconnected sets. What do the lawyer’s questions reveal about his intentions, both toward Jesus and about Himself?
  4. When he summarizes the Law correctly (in the same way that Jesus also did…Matthew 22:36-40), what is the primary challenge he faced, when Jesus instructed him, “Do this, and you will live?” Galatians 3:10-14; James 2:10; Romans 3:19ff.
  5. Why are we not able to “justify ourselves”? Romans 3:23-24; cf. Luke 18:9-14. Who alone is able to justify, and how? Romans 3:26
  6. In the progression of characters in Jesus’ parable, from a Jewish priest to a Levite, the next person to be expected might be a Jewish layman. Why is it startling and surprising for a Samaritan to be the third character and the hero of the parable? John 4:9, 27.
  7. How is the Good Samaritan a fitting picture of Jesus Christ, and what He has done for us? List as many parallels as you can find (see the sermon hymn by John Newton for help).  How can we show the mercy of Jesus? What does it mean to show costly love and have compassion?

Monday, June 27, 2016

Sermon on Luke 9:51-62, 6th Sunday after Pentecost, "He set His face"



Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Something new that I learned about the Gospel of Luke, in preparing for this sermon, was how much of Luke’s Gospel focuses on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. For 9 chapters Luke describes Jesus’ birth, childhood, baptism, and early Galilean ministry. The next major chunk of the Gospel of Luke focuses on Jesus’ movement toward Jerusalem—a shift toward His ultimate goal and mission. And then, like all the Gospels, the last major section focuses on Jesus’ Passion, in Jerusalem. But today’s reading introduces that major “travel section” or the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. And the things that Jesus encounters in this reading today, become recurring themes along this journey building up to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. Themes of rejection, and instruction in the cost of discipleship. Warnings of the things that would hinder or prevent us from following Jesus or entering the kingdom of God. This focused period of Jesus’ ministry shows His eyes set on the goal, and He’s teaching His disciples to focus their eyes on the same, so that we avoid all things that would distract or hinder us, and join Jesus on His journey to the cross and resurrection.
Our first verse: When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem. There is a determination and single-minded focus of Jesus on what lay ahead of Him. Jesus’ death on the cross, His resurrection, and ascension to heaven are all in view here. Jesus is focused on the task that lays ahead, and will not be deterred from it. This is apparently part of the reason that the Samaritans reject Him—as it says in v. 53 They did not receive Him because His face was set toward Jerusalem. Samaritans, if you remember, were long-time bitter enemies of the Jews, and believed that Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem, was the proper place to worship God. They also were divided from the Jews, their partial-blood relatives, by their intermingling of pagan worship with worship of the true God. Jesus regularly crossed this divide of animosity, and willingly came and taught amongst Samaritans—most famously with the woman at the well—but He also did not stay long where He was not welcomed or received.
Again and again on His road to Jerusalem, Jesus would face rejection—His way to the cross was an uphill battle, with no one urging Him along. Rather rejection and obstacles faced Him all the way. But we begin to see here, and you can see all through the Gospel, how Jesus faces that rejection. It’s not by calling down destruction upon people, as James and John asked. Jesus rebukes them for that. His ministry on earth, and from now until His return, is a time of grace and favor, the day of salvation. Jesus allows no thoughts of vengeance or condemnation from His disciples, but simply moves on to another village, where there may be free course for the Gospel. The Good News of Jesus will face resistance and rejection—Jesus clearly tells us that—but the Gospel marches on wherever there is an open door and receptive ears.
Martin Luther once described the Good News of Jesus like a passing rain shower that moves from place to place, and that we should not despise God’s grace, or take it for granted, because, like rain, it may move on from us, and bless another place. Doubtless Jesus had hopes that even if the Samaritans did not receive Him now, they might still receive Him in the future. After His resurrection, Jesus said to His disciples, “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Samaria. The Gospel would return to these lands, and eventually find receptive hearts.
Do you face rejection today, if you are identified as a disciple of Jesus? Do people know that you are a Christian? Probably, if any of us face some form of rejection, it’s pretty mild—though I don’t know everyone’s personal circumstances. But even with the changing climate of our culture, Christians are still in the majority, and have influence in society, even if it’s decreasing. None of us, I’d wager, experience the fear of death or persecution in the way that our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world do. But there still are temptations to hide our faith, or to withdraw from sight when we hear Christianity insulted or ridiculed. How inconstant we can be, even under light pressure!
Do you ever find it hard to maintain your faith around unbelieving friends or family? Is it easier to just blend in and follow the ways of the world, than to represent Christ? Or, do we hold strong to our faith, regardless of what others think, but it’s our convictions that suffer—the things we believe start to get eroded around the edges, and worldliness creeps in. Jesus’ teaching here on discipleship reminds us that there will always be earthly things that will compete with and draw our focus away from Him. There will always be things to distract or hinder us, so that we are tempted to put those things first, instead of God first.
In the next part of the reading, verses 57-62, Jesus meets three would-be disciples. Jesus speaks to each of them in a way that seems harsh to us, almost as though He rejects their discipleship. He does not actually reject them from following Him, but presents to them the costs and challenges of discipleship, and their response is not given. It’s left open so as to invite us also to consider Jesus’ words. Count the cost of discipleship, and consider what it means to truly follow Him. Let’s briefly consider Jesus’ words to each.
To the first who will follow Jesus wherever He goes—Jesus answers, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Jesus warns any would-be disciple that following Him doesn’t bring any promise of earthly gain or material reward. Even Jesus traveled as one who was homeless, dependent on the hospitality of others. Being a disciple of Jesus was no protection against material hardship or poverty, and no promise of getting rich. Elsewhere Jesus reminds us not to store up treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal—but to store up treasures in heaven.
The second disciple hesitates when Jesus calls, and asks “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus replies, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” We would miss Jesus’ point if we thought that with this or the next disciple, that Jesus is teaching us to dishonor family or that one should ignore family obligations. Nor is the point about funerals per se. Rather, this man had been called by Jesus, and he gave excuses and delayed. Jesus makes a play on words, and His meaning is “let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.” In other words, those who had no concern for the kingdom of Jesus could attend to the human affairs and customs of burial, but this disciple was to join Jesus in the spiritual duty of proclaiming God’s kingdom. We might have all our own excuses and delays, reasons why we’re too busy to think of God, or concern ourselves with following Jesus. Life is busy and full of obligations—things that may not even be bad in themselves—but will they take priority over our devotion to God? Will God have to wait, while we make our career, while we earn our degree, finish that project, watch that game, or whatever it might be? Or are we ready to heed and follow His call now? Are we putting Jesus on hold?
The third disciple, says he will follow Jesus, but first must return and say goodbye to his household. Again this sounds like a reasonable request to us. It’s even a request that Elijah grants his student Elisha in our Old Testament reading today. But Jesus says, “No one who lays his hand upon the plow and looks behind him is fit for the kingdom of God.” Now the meaning of the saying is fairly easy to figure out. If one is driving a plow across a field, and is constantly looking backward, instead of focusing ahead of themselves, they won’t be able to cut a straight furrow in the soil. Driving a car while looking backwards might give you the same idea. Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospels that no one can serve two masters, you will love the one and hate the other, you cannot love both. So here we cannot have divided loyalties, split between following Jesus and wherever else our heart might be. Our heart must be in one place—for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus’ demand for discipleship seems very high. No certainty about shelter or material things. No time to delay or finish earthly business when God’s kingdom calls. No splitting loyalties with Jesus. Jesus wants every disciple to count the cost. Know the sacrifices involved in discipleship, and that Jesus is above all other things—even family. When we see Jesus’ demand for discipleship, surely we also start to examine ourselves, and consider where we have fallen short. Our walk with Jesus has not always been one of unflinching constancy, or pure devotion. We have hesitated, doubted, or stumbled. Like James and John, we’ve been caught in a spirit of judgmentalism at times. Like Peter we’ve grown weak and failed, when courage was needed the most. And the question nags us: Am I fit for the kingdom of God?
The answer is to look to the One whose face was set towards Jerusalem. To the One whose hand was set to the plow with undivided focus, aiming straight ahead for His cross. The One who left behind house and home and family, and attended to the work of His kingdom. Jesus Christ, the only One who is truly fit for the kingdom of God. It is in His perfect life lived for us, in His perfect constancy and trust in the Father, and His sacrificial laying down of His life for us, that we are given the forgiveness of sins. It’s through Jesus that we are made disciples. Our “fitness” for the kingdom of God doesn’t come from within ourselves, but it comes through Jesus Christ. He is our sufficiency, through Him we are able. He wills and works in us according to His good pleasure, to make disciples who will follow Him with constant love and pure devotion. Love for all that He has done and continues to do for us. In Jesus’ Name, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:   http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen at:  http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

  1. Luke 9:51 marks a thematic turning point in the Gospel, when Jesus turns His face to Jerusalem, to fulfill His prophetic goal, of death and resurrection. In the Gospel of Luke, this sets up a “journey” theme that is marked by this passage, Luke 13:22; 17:11, and 19:28. How does the theme of “journey” relate to our Christian life? What is our destination?
  2. Jesus’ journey encounters frequent hindrances and obstacles, that also hinder His disciples. How does Jesus remove or proceed around them? What kind of rejection do you as a disciple of Jesus face today? Luke 10:16; John 12:48. Does rejection as a Christian make it hard for you to maintain your Christian faith around unbelieving friends or family? What about your convictions?
  3. The Samaritans maintained that the true place to worship God was on Mt. Gerizim, while Jews maintained that Jerusalem was the true site for for worshipping God. John 4:20-24. This is likely why Jesus was rejected in the Samaritan village in Luke 9:52-53. Where is the true place of worship, according to Jesus? Or is it better to ask, “how”? John 4:20-24.
  4. James and John think this rejection should be answered by destruction, and fire from heaven. Elijah had called down fire from heaven, but not to destroy God’s enemies, but to demonstrate who the true God is. Why does Jesus rebuke James and John’s attitude? What is Jesus’ purpose from now until He returns? John 12:47-48; 3:17-18. What is this present time for the world? 2 Corinthians 6:2
  5. Jesus addresses three would-be disciples in Luke 9:57-62, with statements that seem harsh to us. The responses of the individuals are not given, inviting us to examine how we would respond. What sort of comforts are we not promised, by following Jesus? Why is it necessary to stay focused and not have a divided attention? Luke 9:62
  6. Jesus “set His face” to Jerusalem, 9:51. This parallels the theme of putting your hand to the plow and not looking back. How was Jesus focused and undeterred from His goal? Why is that important for our salvation?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Sermon on Luke 8:26-39, for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, "Tell how much Jesus has done for you"



Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today in our Gospel reading, we find the longest and most descriptive passage of Jesus casting out a demon. It’s a startling glimpse into the spiritual world, and the powers that afflict humans under the devil’s influence—but also an amazing proof of how powerless they are against Jesus, the Son of God.
The man who is suffering this demon affliction is the most tormented of any demon-possessed person described in the Bible. He is possessed by a multitude of demons, and he has been driven raving mad. Well known to the villagers of that region, he lives in complete isolation, away from human community, choosing instead to live among the graves of the dead. In their attempts to restrain him, they had chained him many times, but he possessed superhuman strength, and shackles could not hold him. It’s truly a despairing and frightening situation both for the man and the people who live in fear of him and are powerless to help.
            The man comes to Jesus, and the demon begins to speak through the man—calling Jesus the Son of the Most High God. The demons recognize who Jesus is, even though the people of the region do not—and the demons tremble at Jesus’ presence. They know He is the Son of God. Just having Jesus draw near to the man, causes the spiritual forces of evil to cower and beg before Jesus. The name “Legion”, that the unclean spirit gives, indicates the vast number of demons that were tormenting this poor man. A Roman legion was 4,000-6,000 soldiers. Ironic that they beg Jesus not to torment them, though they have been tormenting this poor man for a great while  They especially fear being cast down into the Abyss—or bottomless pit—another name for hell. They seem to be begging that Jesus is sending them to their fate too soon—and so plead for escape into the herd of pigs. It strikes us as unusual that Jesus granted this request, and though we are given no reason why—it certainly is the first of the confirmations that the demons had been completely driven out of the man.
            Many people in our modern, “scientific” world, scoff at the idea of demons, or evil spirits that have the power to indwell or control a person, influence them to evil, or keep them in spiritual darkness and bondage. And yet Jesus routinely faces people with just such afflictions, and He commands the spirits to be gone, and they are transparently healed, as everyone can see. We might think of mental illness, when we see the condition of the demon possessed man—but not everything can be reduced to that simple explanation. But if we take Jesus and the Scriptures at face value, we acknowledge that the world is more than what meets our eyes—that there is a very real spiritual world, and that there is spiritual good, and spiritual evil. Angels, the messengers of God, and guardians of His saints—and demons—the corrupt and fallen angels, who drive people to evil and despair, like the man in today’s reading.
            Many of you have heard me talk about the Lutherans I have met in Madagascar, and their intense belief in and awareness of the spiritual world. They believe that it’s not only in their country with witch doctors and people practicing dark forms of idolatry, where demon possession can be found and is common. But they also believe that there is demon possession and affliction in the U.S.—just that we have trained ourselves not to see or recognize it. The greatest single lesson that our brothers in Madagascar taught me about this spiritual warfare is this—that it is only the Word of God and the power of Jesus that conquers and has power over evil. It’s not by superstition or rituals, but by the authority of Jesus’ Word, that even demons must run and flee.
            But in our reading, it’s not just the demons who flee at the power of Jesus’ Word—it’s also the frightened herdsman, who run to their villages to tell what had happened to their pigs, and the man. Their fear of the miracle that Jesus had done, and the power it displayed—was apparently even greater than their fear of this demon possessed man who lived in their region. Him, they could live with—but this Jesus, who had healed the man—He had to go!
            It is a beautiful picture to see the man completely restored and healed by Jesus. He had been utterly isolated and living among the graves. Now he was restored to human community and fellowship, and stood among the living. He had been naked and raving mad, with terrible violence and strength. Now he was properly clothed, in his right mind, and self-controlled. And more than that, he was seated as a disciple, ready to learn, at Jesus’ feet. The transformation was so complete and so indisputable, that the villagers were terrified at the power of Jesus. Greater than just being restored to human fellowship, the man was restored to fellowship with God, and to stand in the favor and grace of Jesus Christ. Sadly, rather than being happy for the man, and rejoicing with him, they determine that Jesus is too much trouble for their region, and perhaps too costly, and they beg him to leave.
            There is no doubt that discipleship, to follow Jesus, can come at a cost. While Jesus’ salvation comes to us for free, and Jesus came to help us in time of need—when we follow Him, there may be losses to us. Some may wish to have nothing to do with Jesus, and we may even lost family or friends. Some lose much more for the sake of the gospel—yet Jesus promises that if we lose our life for His sake, we will find it. We experience the restoration of fellowship with God, the forgiveness of our sins, and the joy of knowing and following Jesus.
            As the scene with Jesus concludes, the man begs to stay with Jesus. After years of great affliction and isolation, and being tormented by demons, the joy and peace of freedom from that dark misery must have been astonishing. What a load to have been lifted? And what greater honor than to enjoy that new freedom with the One who had graciously set him free? But Jesus had a special plan and purpose for that man: “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you….and he went away, proclaiming through the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.” First we notice that Jesus’ actions and God’s actions are one—what God has done for you—what Jesus had done for him. But second, Jesus sends him back into ordinary life—but with a new and greater purpose. To go home and share with everyone what God had done. Every person that he met, every friend he once knew, every gawker who remembered or knew of the raving man who once lived in the tombs, was brought face to face with a free man, in his right mind—plain and indisputable evidence of the healing and miraculous power of Jesus. What a missionary, a living witness, to his people!
            And what about you? While we may not have been individually possessed by demons, or released from the powers of darkness in the same way as that man—the Bible does teach that we were once darkness, but now we are light in the Lord. Once we were rebels and sinners, turned away from God, but Jesus, in His great compassion, came to us and set us free by His Word, and by His almighty power. Jesus now calls us into the light, to walk as children of light. He redeems and sets us free from the power of sin and death. We gather each week to hear this good news of what Jesus has done for us, announced and proclaimed again and again. And each week He sends us home, sends us back to our daily lives, to declare how much God has done for us. We proclaim the excellencies of what Jesus has done for us. The message itself is a liberating one, because even as we speak it to others, Jesus is working to release them from their bondage—to hear His Word and be set free.
            We live in a world where spiritual warfare is very real, and a present danger. Whether we acknowledge it or not. The devil does not rest simply because people don’t believe he exists. Rather he proceeds all the more in his work, unhindered. But for those who are disciples of Jesus—who believe and know the power of the One who casts out demons with His almighty Word, and gives that same word and authority to His disciples—we don’t have to be afraid. There is no spiritual darkness that we need fear, because Jesus is the Mightier One who fights for us. It’s by His power and His Name that the powers of evil can be held at bay. It’s by speaking His true and authoritative Word, that demons tremble, and that disciples of Jesus win spiritual victory. It’s by prayer to the One True God, that we go on the offensive against the spiritual forces of the evil One.
            Jesus has sealed us as His own, and given us His Name and protection in Baptism. He has washed us clean of every sin. He has armed and equipped us with the spiritual weapons to engage in a battle, that is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual powers of darkness. Watch Jesus defeat them. Hear the story of His death and resurrection again and again. See the miracles where darkness is on the run, because Jesus is near. And confidently know, that this same Jesus, our Savior, is God with us. Who can stand against? None!  We praise Jesus, Amen.