There is a movie entitled Luther, produced in 2003 that encompasses the reform efforts of Martin Luther in 16th century Germany. Luther became one of the most famous Protestant reformers. The truth is, as a faithful monk of the Church of Rome, Luther’s intent was to push for reform of the Church of Rome rather than separate from it, thus, beginning a new course for his faith. Once excommunicated for his “radical” interpretation of the scripture, however, the seeds of Lutheranism were planted.
So, in this 2003 movie, there is one very poignant scene in which Martin asks an elder monk who is his mentor, “Have you ever dared to think that God is not just?” Martin continues, “He has us born tainted by sin, then He’s angry with us all our lives for our faults, this righteous Judge who damns us, threatening us with the fires of hell!”
After some thought, the mentor asks, “Martin, what is it you seek?”
Martin responds, “A merciful God! A God whom I can love. A God who loves me.”
Our Gospel lesson is an account of Jesus’ encounter with a man possessed by demons – a man that was surely considered tainted by sin and separated from the love of God – separated by the demons, not one demon, but legions of demons, who had cast him into the ultimate outer darkness. We know this man we call the Gerasene demoniac was in a land foreign to him; our lesson tells us that he was from the city and that he now dwelled in a place “opposite” Galilee. We know that he represented the epitome of uncleanness; he was naked and lived among the dead. We are told that he lived in close proximity to pigs, creatures most despised by traditional Jewish culture. Thus, the Gerasene demoniac represents for us the ultimate outcast – foreign, naked, unclean, despised – and possessed by legions of demons.
Interesting, isn’t it, that the demons possessing this frightful man caused him to fall down immediately before Jesus and shout to the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” The scriptures tell us of very few “healthy” individuals who fall down before Jesus and address him so boldly as the “Son of the Most High God.” Even most of those who believed Jesus to be the Lord were too fearful to display this faith so publicly.
But, the demons and evil spirits about which we read in the scriptures always recognize their greatest adversary. They are savvy to know their competition; they must be savvy if they ever expect to overcome that competition – their survival depends upon remaining in a position of most effective offense. Interesting, isn’t it, that these demons recognize Jesus’ power far better than we do? Isn’t that how they win us over and take possession of us as they did the Gerasene demoniac?
The demons that possess us, like the demons that possess the Gerasene, are relentless in their efforts to fight off the good that would send them back to the abyss. These demons are the “little voices” that speak in our heads drowning out God’s message that we are all ministers of the Gospel; they convince us we are inadequate in our efforts to be the Body of Christ – to be the Church serving in the name of Jesus Christ to all the world. The demons that possess us are in our anxiety over our finances, or our health, or our fractured relationships with others – anxiety that robs us of peaceful rest and clarity in discernment.
And, like these demons that possess the Gerasene, our demons know well their competition. They know how to entice us into complacency in our worship and daily prayers, to convince us to be indifferent toward the neighbor or family member who is suffering, to ensnare us into the comforts of selfish thinking. Above all, the demons are skilled in driving wedges that separate us from God, rendering us unable to believe with all our heart and mind that God wants only what is best for us. The demons that possess us seek to tear away bit by bit from that image of God about whom Martin Luther speaks – a merciful God – a God whom we can love – A God who loves each of us.
Our psalm speaks of the lion’s mouth and the horns of wild bulls. Most of us have not experienced the lion’s mouth or the horns of wild bulls in the literal sense, but at one time or another in our lives, demons have mauled us with the teeth of lions and gored us with the horns of bulls. And, we have begged liked the psalmist for the Lord’s salvation from these demons.
The Gerasene demoniac is the ultimate outcast, possessed by legions of demons. Yet, the demonic powers that possess him are no match for Jesus, the Son of the Most High God. Even the demons are well aware that they have encountered a power like no other power – a power far-surpassing their power – a power to save, a power to heal. Jesus speaks healing and salvation to this outcast in the country of the Gerasenes.
In most cases the Greek language in which the New Testament is written is more descriptive than our English language. There are words in the Greek for which we have no literal translations. For instance, the Greeks have a number of different words to describe the different aspects of love where we have only one word for love – a word that is overused and under-appreciated.
There is only one word in the Greek, however, that expresses healing and salvation. Where we have two words: “heal” and “save,” Luke uses the one word, σοζο, which expresses both at the same time. Thus, to be healed by Jesus Christ as this demoniac was healed is to be saved. Σοζο may or may not include our earthly physical healing; we are human after all. But, this healing encompasses all that is our spiritual healing – our salvation. There is only one word; the meaning is the same. Through the grace of Jesus Christ, we are healed of our demons and saved by faith. And, through the gift of this grace, we know that God is a God we can love and a God that loves us and wants only the best for us.
Martin Luther took the words of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which we read earlier, and marched forth into the 16th century Protestant Reformation. His message, for which he was excommunicated from the Church of Rome, is just as vital and relevant today as it was for Martin Luther in the 16th century and just as it was for the 1st century Galatians receiving Paul’s letter: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have inaugurated the new age in which we are justified by grace through our faith in Christ. Yes, God’s judgment is real, but we are not to think of God as a God who demands that we earn our way into heaven, an angry God who focuses on our faults and dwells on punishment. As God’s law guided the descendants of Abraham prior to the birth of Christ, faith in the risen Christ now guides our right relationship with God and our neighbor. God’s laws have not changed, but we see them more clearly as our guide rather than as a catalyst for punishment.
In our Old Testament lesson we read the words of the prophet Isaiah who speaks the voice of God as he says to us, “Here I am, here I am… I hold out my hands all day long…”
God does not separate himself from us. It is we who allow the legions of demons to implant doubts, ignite our anxieties, and construct pitfalls in our path. Our God wants only what is best for us – σοζο – healing salvation. He wants us to know that he loves us, that he is a God we can love, and that we are healed by his grace.
Fathers, today is your day. This is the day we honor you; this is the day you reflect on the blessings and enormous responsibilities of fatherhood. God the Father is your model. God’s judgment is real, as a father’s compassionate discipline is necessarily real. God the Father wants only what is best for his children; so it is with our earthly fathers. Our earthly fathers know that we must suffer the consequences of our poor judgment and that we must learn from our mistakes.
It is the responsibility of our earthly fathers to bring us into the understanding of what it is to be loved unconditionally – as we are loved unconditionally by our heavenly Father. Our Heavenly Father wants us to know that he loves us, that he is a God we can love, and that we are healed by his grace.