Lectionary readings: Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
Let us pray: We come before you this morning, O God, after having heard your Scripture read aloud. We pray that you would fill it with your Holy Spirit, just as we pray you would fill us with your Holy Spirit. Give us ears to hear your words. In your Son’s name we pray, Amen.
Doorknobs and Avocados and Ovens, Oh My!
There was a series of books that was very popular when I was in middle school: A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket. The series follows the Baudelaire orphans, who will inherit a fortune from their parents when the oldest turns eighteen. The villain, Count Olaf, wants their fortune, and uses various ploys to try and get it.
In one book, the children are sent to live with their Aunt Josephine. They arrive to find her house cold, the food cold, and everything else just a bit strange. They eventually realize that Aunt Josephine is afraid of pretty much everything: she is afraid the stove could explode, set the house on fire, and kill everyone. She is afraid the radiator will explode. She is afraid of doorknobs because they can shatter into a million pieces, and one of the pieces could hit her in the eye. She is afraid to eat avocados because the pit could choke her and she’d die. She is afraid the telephone will electrocute her. She is afraid to knock on doors because she could get splinters, and afraid of sofas because they could fall over and crush her.*
Because of these fears, Josephine eats only cold food. She doesn’t answer the phone when it rings. Presumably she won’t go anywhere near doors, between doorknobs maybe having to knock on them. Her house is cold because she’s afraid to turn the radiator on. And it’s easy to read the story, or hear about Josephine, and see how her fears get in the way of her life. Living without heat? (she lives in a house right by a lake, meaning it’s always cold and damp). Living without using the oven? (again, it’s always cold and damp, which is the perfect weather for warm food) Always being afraid when the telephone rings, and therefore not answering it? Never using a sofa? Aunt Josephine’s fear gets in the way of living life.
Or in our story today: we have a man who’s been possessed by a legion of demons. He’s so overcome by them that he lives among the tombs, far from all human contact. If he was a Jew, living there made him perpetually unclean because of his routine contact with death. No matter what, it’s creepy and I’m sure no one wanted to have anything to do with him, especially because he also didn’t wear any clothes. When the people from the nearby city did interact with him, it was only to put him in chains, until he somehow broke out of them and fled back into the wilderness.
But when the people see the demoniac cured and healed and sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and calm and speaking in full sentences again, they do not rejoice for him. They’re not even selfishly glad, like, “Whew! No more guard duty over that demoniac, who’s just going to break the chains anyway!” No, they are afraid–so afraid that they immediately ask Jesus to go, to leave their region entirely.
By doing so, they not only show a total disregard for the former demoniac, who presumably came from their area, who grew up with some of them and had been to their weddings and family funerals and the first-century equivalent of high school reunions–they show no care at all for him, and for the miracle of his healing–but they also send away the best thing that’s ever happened to them. I mean, come on! It’s Jesus! God made flesh, come to heal more of them, to give them forgiveness of sins and access to the Holy Spirit, to free them of all that is keeping them from God and offer them new life! And because of their fear, without thinking twice, they send God away. No, thank you, they say, heaving a sigh of relief when He’s gone, with no idea of what they’ve missed. No idea at all. They know only that they’ve removed this frightening new man from their lives and their community, and they’re content with that.
And yet who can’t relate with that? If we’re being honest, truly honest, who can’t point to a time when they’ve felt God beckoning, pointing to something better, and in so doing pointing also to some sin that needs to be addressed, and we’ve instead said, “No thank you. I like things exactly as they are, thanks so much”? I know I have. I do it all the time! To take a small example: I try to start every day with a psalm, as a way to start the day with prayer and praise. Some days it doesn’t happen. Some days I honestly forget, but other days I get afraid. I worry that I won’t do it well, although even I’m not sure what I mean by that–can you really pray not well? Or I worry that God will say something uncomfortable to me.
We all do it. We all give in to fear sometimes. We let it keep us from things we love. We let it keep us from good and beautiful and healing things. We let it keep us from God.
Let’s be real. We’re only human. It happens. Sometimes we give in to fear. It’s nothing to be proud of, but it’s also nothing to regret and wallow in forever. God makes us new, forgives our sin, and gives us new starts. It is through the grace of God that we can move through our fear, hear God anew, and begin again. Our fear, or any other sin, does not have to define us.
Through God’s grace, we can come through our fear. We can be, not the villagers of the Gerasenes, who send Jesus away out of fear, who forget that on the other side of fear are joy and new life, but the disciples, who said, “This Jesus is something new, and I need something new,” who said, “Yes, sometimes what Jesus preaches scares me, or makes me uncomfortable, or sometimes I just have no idea what he’s talking about, but this is too important to leave in the middle of.” As Peter said, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
Through the grace of God, may we do the same.
*This character specifically is from The Wide Window. I admit, it’s been a while since I’ve read it, so I refreshed my memory of Aunt Josephine here.