Sunday, June 23, 2013

Be Careful What You Wish For

Sermon on Luke 8:26-39
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 23, 2013 (Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

I’m sure all of you have heard the expression, “Be careful what you wish for.”  The basic idea is that often when we get what we think we want, it turns out not to be nearly as good for us as we thought it was going to be.  Now, the expression was originally coined to refer to mischievous spirits, such as leprechauns or genies (both of which, to the extent they exist at all, are demons like those in today’s Gospel lesson), who grant wishes that turn out very differently than the wisher expected.  Sometimes it turns out that the one doing the wishing goes from the frying pan into the fire.

But even when we pray to God for various things we think we want, the expression can be applicable.  Sometimes we find out later that the reason God didn’t grant our request was precisely because He knew that granting it would cause us more problems than it would solve, and when that happens we end up thanking God that He didn’t give us what we wished for.  Sometimes even when we ask that God’s will be done, we find that God’s will, even though He promises that it will be for our eternal benefit, isn’t always pleasant to experience.  Now, of course this does not mean that we shouldn’t ask that God’s will be done.  He has commanded us to pray in that way, and has promised to hear us.  What it does mean is that we shouldn’t expect His will for us to be that we have our best life now.  Often God’s will for us in this old sinful world is that we have to suffer for His name.  Jesus wasn’t exactly experiencing His “best life now” on the cross, and we shouldn’t expect our lot to be any different than His.

The demons in today’s Gospel lesson made a request of Jesus, even though they had no right to.  Unlike human beings for whom Christ died and who wind up in hell due to their own rejection of Him, these were beings who were permanently destined to hell, without hope of redemption of any kind.  They had no standing, no right, to ask Jesus anything at all.  But, when they knew that they had no choice but to leave the man they were inhabiting, they asked Jesus for a favor out of desperation.  “Don’t send us to hell,” they say, “but send us into, uh, anyplace on this earth, um, like, let’s see what there is here around us, oh, um, how about that herd of pigs over there.”  And Jesus, knowing what was about to happen, grants their request.  He sends them into the herd of pigs, which, unable to tolerate the presence of demons inside their bodies, runs madly off a cliff and drowns, sending the demons to hell (the very place they didn’t want to go) anyway.  Be careful what you wish for.

Now, we would imagine that the people would be thankful that these demons were no longer around to disturb their peace and irritate them with the raving and screaming of this naked man who was bothering everyone who visited the city’s graveyard.  We would imagine that they had many times over the years asked God that these demons would be driven away from their city.  But here again, the way God grants their prayers doesn’t conform to what they thought He should do.  They didn’t want this herd of pigs destroyed, for one thing.  But that’s actually rather trivial.  What frightened and disturbed them even more was that the Man who had driven the demons away was powerful enough to command even demons so that they obey Him.  Being in the presence of Almighty God Himself is a scary thing.  God at a distance is safe.  God at a distance is something we think we can control, or at least ignore.  God walking among us, having His own will and His own ideas about what should happen to the very Creation itself that we live in and which He made, well, that’s just downright scary.  God living among us and doing what He wills is a threat to those who think that they have some measure of control over their own lives, or even over their relationship to Him.  That, even more than the destruction of this herd of pigs was what scared them and caused them to ask Jesus to just go away.  (By the way, what were Jews doing raising pigs anyway?  But I digress.)

This is where the danger lies with us as well.  Having God dwelling among us, and, in fact, dwelling in our very bodies and souls, having His crucified and resurrected body and blood become part of our bodies in Holy Communion, is intimidating.  Belonging to God’s kingdom involves us in a war, not just with the culture around us, but within our very bodies and souls, that is unpleasant in the extreme.  We don’t want to have to say no to virtually every change that happens in the culture around us.  We don’t want to look like the bad guy when we stand against sins that have become virtually universal in modern Western culture, especially when it comes to sins against the Fifth and Sixth Commandments (the ones which forbid murder and sexual immorality), not to mention the violation of the Seventh Commandment that takes place when people come to expect that other people’s money and property is something that they have been told they have a right to.  We don’t want to have to fight against temptation even within ourselves to go along with whatever our neighbors are doing.  It’s hard work, having that war going on all the time.  It would be so much easier not to have to worry about it.

But, be careful what you wish for.  To wish that God go away so we can control our own lives and make our own decisions about what is right and wrong, is a huge temptation.  But it’s a wish that has eternal consequences.  You see, outside of Christ’s death and resurrection, outside of our own death to sin and resurrection to new life with Him in Holy Baptism, is nothing but eternal death and hopelessness.  It’s only when that which is unclean in us (like pigs were to Jews) is drowned and dies with all sins and evil desires, that a new man comes forth and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  And so, asking Jesus to go away is a wish that takes a person from the frying pan into the fire.  The sins which looked so fun and attractive turn out to be desperate distractions from the utter meaninglessness of life without Him.  Asking Him to leave us alone so that we can live our lives in peace, results ultimately in the same fate as the demons who went into that herd of pigs.  Our choice is to be drowned and die eternally in the lake of fire, or to be drowned and die with Christ and thus to be raised with Him.

Of course, it’s not a choice at all, is it?  And that’s also something that can be both frightening and reassuring at the same time.  We can’t choose God.  He chose us.  We still aren’t in control of our relationship with Him.  He’s the one who invaded our lives, both two thousand years ago, as well as every time and place that His Word is preached and His sacraments administered.  He’s the one that’s in control of the whole thing.  And, while that can be intimidating, it’s also reassuring.  If it were up to us, we’d fail, and fail miserably.  But it’s not up to us.  As unpleasant as the Christian life can be in this old, broken, fallen world, it is God’s gift to us.  It is nothing less than being a new creature who will live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.  That’s what our God has given us.  While it can be unpleasant for a time (since what we have become is simply incompatible with what the world around us has become and is becoming), it means we have eternity with our Creator to look forward to.  And that’s not something we have to wish for, it’s something that He has already given us in His Son.  Amen.


+Soli Deo Gloria+

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