St. Mary’s Hadlow
19 June 2016
Readings Galatians 3:23-end, Luke 8:26-39
May I speak this morning in the name of God +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We like to think, I suspect, that we live in a world which is free of demons. It is possible, if you have enough money and if you live in leafy Kent, to build an existence of friends and family and home which keeps most of the demons of the world at bay for most of the time.
But the world can often be a dark and troubling place, and it feels especially troubled at the moment. In only the past week we have seen the mass shooting of nearly 50 young people in Florida on the grounds of their sexuality and on Thursday we witnessed the murder of Jo Cox MP, for reasons as yet unclear, but probably linked with extreme politics. This is demonic. This is not how the world was meant to be.
Those terrible events, and the increasingly bitter and divisive battle over the EU, have distracted the media’s attention from the continuing refugee crisis across Europe in which millions have lost their homes and homelands and the fact that thousands of men, women and children have drowned recently in the Mediterranean. We have hardly noticed the deaths of these people drowning in a sea which the wealthy think of as their playground.
These people weren’t coming to steal jobs or benefits or housing they were fleeing for their lives from terrible, evil, wars and paid with their lives in the sea. This is demonic. This is not how the world was meant to be.
And don’t be lulled into thinking that this all means that there is even more reason to keep our heads down in the safety of Kent. I sat in court at the start of last week and heard dozens of cases of assault, robbery, drug possession, theft and domestic violence. Three quarters of the cases before us that day were from Tunbridge Wells. There was one incredibly sad case of a women with two young children, who had been abandoned by the father who refused to support them in any way – that family of three were was living on £12.68 a week and she had been caught stealing money, not to pay for cigarettes or sky TV but so that she could stop her kids from starving and to stop the council from evicting all three of them. This is demonic. The world was not meant to be like this.
Even closer to home in Hadlow there are families living in poverty. If you think that is a preacher’s hyperbole I can tell you that the Church Urban Fund says that 19% of the children in Hadlow live in poverty. 1 in 5 of the children you see around you in this village is living below the Government’s poverty line. And before you start thinking that everyone on benefits is living it up at your expense I can tell you that is simply not true. One of the privileges of being a vicar is that I get to see behind the scenes of so many people’s lives. In this village I have sat in the homes of millionaires and I have sat in the homes of people whose children don’t eat properly. There are children in this village who are malnourished and who spend much of the summer holidays hardly getting a decent meal for six weeks because they don’t get their free school dinner. This is demonic. The world was not meant to be like this.
The names of the demons who are making this world into a dark and troubled place are indeed Legion – they are War, they are Greed, they are Poverty, they are Addiction, they are Racism, they are Homophobia, they are Exploitation, they are Obsession, they are Extremism.
Some of those demons are man-made sin and the result of bad choices, some of those demons are as the result of sickness or disease, mental or physical, some of those demons are the result of the economic systems of this world which oppress the majority for the benefit of the minority and some of these demons may just be demons, because if we believe on any level that there may be choirs of angels at the nativity then on what basis do we disbelieve that some angels rebelled against God and fell from grace.
The world is a dark and troubled place and there are demonic forces of all kinds at work in the world, and if you watch the news too much, it can feel as though the darkness is overcoming the light.
But sisters and brothers in Christ, there is good news. A light has come into the world to shine in the darkness and the darkness can never overcome the light that is Christ and his church. By being followers of Christ, by being part of his body which is the church and by partaking of the sacraments we are part of the one thing, the one and only thing, that has the power to overcome the demonic forces of this world and to transform darkness into light.
By crossing over the sea of Galilee and entering the region of the Gerasenes Jesus was travelling from God’s chosen land into the land of the Gentiles. For many Jews this would have seemed like a God-forsaken land, a place that was so unclean that they even kept pigs there, probably to feed the occupying Romans.
Have you ever been a place that has felt God-forsaken and unclean?
The two places which stick out most in my mind are a derelict farm house I once visited with my parents, probably 30 years ago now – we split up to look around separately but it felt so awful, so God-forsaken, that we all returned to the car quickly and said ‘let’s go.’ The other is Glastonbury High Street which I visited last April – there were shops selling statues of the devil and I felt genuinely disturbed to be there. But I am reminded today that, in reality, there is no place, no person and no situation that is ever totally God-forsaken or that cannot be transformed by God in the person of Jesus.
So Jesus travelled to this unclean land and there he encountered a demon possessed man who was naked and who lived amongst the tombs.
Here we have layer upon layer of uncleanliness – it is a gentile land, the man is therefore probably also a gentile, he is out of his mind, he is naked and he has made his home amongst the dead. The only way this person could have been any further beyond the bounds of where a good Jewish man ought to be is if he had been a women!
We are truly and deeply into demonic, God-forsaken, territory here. This man has been out of his mind probably for years. We are told that he was sometimes kept bound in chains and one cannot help think of the Romanian orphanages in the 1980’s where the mentally ill youngsters were kept chained to their beds.
But this poor soul often broke his chains and his demons forced him out to the solitary places, away from other people.
And that is where, in the darkest of places and the darkest of times in the life of this man, that he encountered Jesus. Because there is no person, no place and no circumstance too dark or too God-forsaken that Jesus cannot be there. We heard last week the story of the woman who sat at the feet of Jesus and wept because her many sins had been forgiven and we thought about the fact that Jesus did not come to make polite conversation with polite people, but he came expressly to go into the darkest of situations and to transform them – the ultimate of course being the transformation of the darkness of the grave by the light of the resurrection.
The demons recognised Jesus for who he was – the Son of the Most High God – and he commanded them to leave the man and they entered the herd of pigs who then rushed down the hill and were drowned. To our ears this may sound a bit harsh on the poor pigs, and it doubtless was, but it is also deeply symbolic. Not only was the man cleansed of his demons but the land was also cleansed of these unclean symbols of Roman occupation.
The swineherds were terrified and went and reported what they had seen to the local people. This feels to me like a mirror-image of the shepherds on the hills outside Bethelehem on the night of the nativity.
And when the swineherds and the towns people returned to where Jesus was the man was completely healed – we are told that he was dressed, in his right mind and sitting at the feet of Jesus, just like the woman we heard about last week. Did the people rejoice and become his disciples? No, they were afraid and asked Jesus to leave. That in itself is an interesting lesson and needs to be borne in mind by all those seeking to grow the kingdom of God – some people simply prefer the way they are and are afraid of change.
But the kingdom of God did grow that day, by one soul, and it was the person most in need. In that community the last had become first. The man asked to travel with Jesus, but Jesus had another ministry marked out for him already.
“Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”
Wouldn’t that have been a wonderful home coming to witness? What appeared to have been lost beyond redemption returned home healed and whole because of Jesus. Who knows how much further the kingdom of God grew as a result of that man’s testimony.
So not matter how depressing the news, and it may get a lot more depressing over the coming week, remember that there is no situation that God cannot enter and transform for his purposes. And no matter how bad you may feel, no matter what demons you battle with or what you may feel you have done to put yourself beyond the reach of God there is no one, no one, that Jesus does not reach out to in love and forgiveness. The demons of this world may seem strong, and sometimes even insurmountable, but they quake and flee at the name of Jesus, which is the name we love and we proclaim as our Lord and Saviour.