Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Broken Chains

Broken Chains
Lk 8:26-39[1]
  We live in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Or so the song goes.  The annual celebration of our “freedom” is just around the corner.  But the people I meet don’t seem to be free.  They’re bound by all kinds of things.  Some are bound by fear--fear of dying, fear of illness, fear of becoming financially destitute, fear of being alone.  Some are bound by pain--the pain of some disease. Or the pain of some trauma that was inflicted on them.  Some are bound by addictions--to alcohol, drugs, food, and gambling, among many others.  I find that many who are addicted to something are usually trying to cover over the pain of whatever trauma they may have suffered.  Then there are those who are bound by economic issues.  Perhaps they simply cannot make enough money to support their family.  Or perhaps they’ve made some bad choices and have gotten themselves into more debt than they can handle.  Or perhaps they simply live in a place where a decent house costs more than a family can afford, and are strapped with a huge mortgage that they can barely pay. 
  When you look more closely, it doesn’t seem like many people in our society are truly free.  And if you asked them were freedom is to be found, I’m afraid not many people have a very good answer.  These days, it seems that we as a people believe--I mean really believe--that all our problems would be solved if we had enough money.  And so we have a fascination with playing the lottery--which most people have about as good a chance of winning as I have of walking on the moon!  Others believe that if they just meet the right person then all their problems will go away.  And so we’re just as fascinated with finding “the right one” with whom we’re “meant to be.”  I’m afraid we’re looking for freedom in all the wrong places.
  Though it might not be apparent on the surface of things, our Gospel lesson for today has something to say about true freedom and where it is to be found.  It’s the story of a very strange encounter between Jesus and a man who’s soul was incredibly tormented.  Apparently the man was “possessed” by demons--not just one but many.[2]  This brings us into a realm that isn’t something we run into everyday.  And yet, like Jesus’ healing miracles, his exorcisms seem to be an important part of his ministry.  Unlike other exorcists of his day, Jesus didn’t have to use elaborate means to “cast out” the demons that tormented people.  All he had to do was say the word.  In fact, in every instance when Jesus encountered someone who was “possessed” by a demon, the spirit cries out in fear at the very sight of Jesus.  In this story, they begged him not to banish them to the “abyss.”[3]  They seem to know that he has a power they cannot possibly withstand.
  Ironically, although people generally responded favorably to Jesus’ healing miracles, they didn’t do so in response to his exorcisms.  When Jesus released a people from whatever was tormenting them, those who witnessed it were afraid.  In this case, in fact, they begged him to leave them.  You would think that they would welcome one who could set them free from the powers of evil that oppressed them.  But this was Gentile territory, and perhaps they simply valued their pigs more than they valued the freedom Jesus offered.  Or perhaps it was because they were afraid of Jesus because he had the power to say the word and free a man who had been horribly tormented for years?[4]  It’s hard to say exactly why the locals asked him to leave. 
  One thing we can say, however, is that when Jesus worked exorcisms, there was a purpose to them.  We said last week that the healing miracles were intended to demonstrate that through Jesus God was present among them and at work carrying out the compassion and mercy of his kingdom.  In the same way, I think that the exorcisms were intended to demonstrate that through Jesus God was setting people free from all that kept them bound.[5]  And in the face of the freedom of God’s kingdom, the powers of evil have no defense.  As I mentioned, whenever Jesus encountered someone who was “possessed” by a demon, the spirit of evil was instantly terrified.  Not only did they know who he was, they also knew what he could do--he could banish them with just a word![6]  And though Jesus couldn’t stay to help the people of this place because they were so afraid of him, he left the man who had been set free as a living testimony to the truth that evil cannot prevail over God’s freedom.
  The real source of freedom from all the evil and pain and trauma and injustice that binds people in our world today is the power of God’s kingdom at work among us and through us.  I wish it could be as simple as “saying the word” and granting freedom to those who are suffering from the powers of evil in our world.  Unfortunately, true freedom may only come for some people after years of work--whether it’s overcoming trauma or digging out of debt.  But I think the journey for those who are bound begins by those of us who have experienced God’s freedom carrying out our calling to live  as witnesses to that amazing good news.  We can show them our broken chains as a testimony that God can give them the freedom they’ve always longed for.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/23/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Possession by “demons” poses more difficulties even than healing miracles for the contemporary mind.  Most either attribute them to mental illness or to the destructive forces of oppressive social institutions.  Among others, Walter Wink attempts to unite the two in Unmasking the Powers, 41-68, where he specifically deals with this passage as a case in point.  Cf. similarly, Paul W. Hollenbach, “Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study,” Journal of Biblical Literature 49 (Dec 1981): 567-588.  Perhaps Joseph A. Fitzmyer, in The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 733 puts it best when he describes this simply as “evil afflicting the psychic being of a mortal man.”  Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 106: “These demons are apparently forces, conceived of in personal terms, which are destructive of life and annihilate being itself.”  See also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:230, where he says that Jesus “saw and experienced what there was actually to be seen and experienced: an abyss of darkness which was not merely supposed or imagined or invented or projected into the sphere of being but was actual and concrete.”
[3] Cf. Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX, 739: where he says that the “abyss” can refer to “the abode of the dead” or “the final prison of Satan and the demons (Rev. 20:3).”  Cf. also F. Bovon,  Luke 1: A commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, 329.
[4] This is the view of Fred Craddock, Luke, 117.  He says, “the fear is evoked by the recognition of a power present which was greater than the power of evil spirits.” Presumably the evil spirits were the greatest power they could comprehend.
[5] Cf. Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX, 543, where he says that Jesus' exorcisms are “the powerful manifestations and means whereby the dominion of God is established over human beings in the place of the ‘dominion of Belial,’ freeing them from the evil to which they have been subjected.”  cf. also Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 104: “The lordship of God drives out of creation the powers of destruction, which are demons and idols, and heals the created beings who have been damaged by them. If the kingdom of God is coming as Jesus proclaimed, then salvation is coming as well.”  Cf. similarly, Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:230, where he says that Jesus’ exorcisms “reveal the total and absolutely victorious clash of the kingdom of God with nothingness, with the whole world of the chaos negated by God, with the opposing realm of darkness.”
[6] cf. Bovon,  Luke 1, 327.

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