“Where Jesus Is” (Full Service)
The sermon begins at 28:38.
“Where Jesus is”
Scripture: Luke 8:26-39
This morning, we’re continuing to offer a little taste of what it’s like to walk in the land that Jesus called home. If events had unfolded differently, some of us would just have been arriving home yesterday. And though it’s not the same as being there, we thought that a few pictures – and a focus on the passages that are tied to some of our favourite places – might help transport all of us there, even if only for a few minutes.
Last week, Monica gave us a sense of just how much of Jesus’ ministry took place within sight of the Sea of Galilee. And, in her sermon, she took us right out onto the water, and helped us understand what it means to have Jesus as our companion in stormy seas.
Today, I want to take us over to the east side of the lake. This is where Jesus and the twelve landed after that other famous moment in a boat, when Jesus stilled the storm. After frantically battling wind and waves on their own throughout much of the night (Mk.4:35), the disciples finally turned to Jesus who, the gospels tell us, was fast asleep in the boat. In response to their call, Jesus woke up, decisively rebuked the wind and the waves, and left his disciples wrestling with a profound question: “Who is this guy, that he can issue orders to the water and the wind?” And, to be honest, that’s still a question worth wrestling with today. And I’ll give you a hint: the answer’s found in Psalm 89. You can tell me next Sunday if you find it.
In the calm that followed, though, Jesus and the disciples were finally able to finish their crossing, and they landed, as Luke tells us, “in the country of Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee”.
So, a little bit of a geography lesson here. In Jesus’ day, the area which was officially known as Galilee occupied the western shore of the lake. This was ruled by a guy named Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great. The northeastern shore, though, was part of a region called Gaulanitis – from which the Golan Heights still get their name today. This area was ruled by another of Herod’s sons, Philip. But to the south of Philip’s territory, the rest of the eastern shore was part of a region known as the Decapolis – that’s Greek for the ten cities. And this is the area where Jesus and the twelve landed – close to a spot that, today, is known as Kursi…
And Kursi is certainly one of my favourite places in Israel. It’s where I always try to hold our Sunday morning worship when we’re there. In the fifth century AD, a monastery was built there, at the spot where they believed this event occurred. That monastery lasted for about two hundred years, before it was destroyed by an earthquake. And the site was then largely forgotten until 1970, about 1200 years later, when a construction crew uncovered the ruins while pushing a new road up the eastern shore. I’ve said it before – you almost can’t dig in Israel without hitting something…
Today, Kursi is a beautiful spot – especially on a Sunday morning. The first time I was there, the sun was just coming up over the Golan, shining through the reconstructed arch and gilding the mosaics in the chapel floor. You might say it’s a place that’s been touched by the reverence of the ages…
And that means that a lot has changed since the day when Jesus was there. Today, the entire eastern shore of the lake is part of Israel. But it wasn’t back then. Back in the first century, the eastern shore was Gentile territory, pagan territory; the herd of pigs which appears later on in the passage is a sure sign of that, since bacon had no place on the menu for those who followed the dietary laws of the Old Testament.
And, whenever I’ve been there, Kursi has also been a place of peace and calm – an ideal spot to start your day. But it certainly wasn’t back then. In Jesus’ day, this particular stretch of shore was home to a man who embodied rage. Think the incredible hulk but without the green. A guy someone once called a nude, rude, dude in a very bad mood.
And, as I said, for me, Kursi has become a place of worship; but, again, it certainly wasn’t back then. Back then, it was a place of death -- and not just because of the tombs that were there. Back in the first century, there was a much deeper death, a spiritual death, that dwelt in this place, and that dwelt in this man – “for he was possessed by many demons.”
But, and this is the thing, the transformations that have happened in that place are precisely the kind of transformations that Jesus brings – from death to life, from wildness to worship, from chaos to calm. In Luke’s gospel, the passage immediately before this has the very same message. Jesus speaks into the storm and silences the wind. He says peace, be still. And the same thing happens here. There was a violent, spiritual storm going on in this man’s life. And Jesus ends it when no one else could.
And that kind of change, contrast, and reversal litters the landscape of the gospels... In the presence of Jesus, there are tax-collectors who became philanthropists, persecutors who became preachers, women liberated from horrific pasts who became some of the most devoted followers Jesus had.
And that same kind of transformation litters the landscape of Christian history as well, and the individual lives of which that history is composed. Take Augustine, for example. Augustine was born in 354 A.D. to a pagan father and a Christian mother. Augustine’s father taught his son to go for every pleasure the world had to offer, a lesson the young Augustine learned all too well. When Augustine was sixteen, he says, he stole fruit from a neighbor’s garden – and not because he wanted the fruit, but because he wanted the thrill of doing something forbidden. In his autobiography, The Confessions, Augustine wrote that “it was foul, and I loved it.”
Augustine, though, also wrote about his conversion. It’s the story of an uneasy soul trying to escape God, all the while knowing that God is inescapable. After having tried just about everything on the world’s menu, Augustine finally heard a voice saying to him, "Take and read." He turned to the Bible, and the passage that finally brought him to the tipping point was Romans 13:13-14: "Let us live honourably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh..." How many modern lives need to hear words just like that today?
And then there’s John Newton. Newton is one of those who, if his name was on some institution, building, or even bird these days, we’d find it being dropped or changed. Newton, you see, wasn’t just a slave owner, as so many others were before the nineteenth century – he was a slave trader, and captain of a slave ship. The difference was that Jesus got to Newton long before the mounting political pressure got to others. Having come through a North Atlantic storm -- as he saw it, by the grace of God alone -- Newton abandoned his profession, and offered himself in service to the one who’d not only saved him from the storm, but from his appalling sin as well. Newton went on to pen one of the world’s most powerful hymns: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!”
And then there’s Guillaume Bignon, a modern philosopher and apologist, who, much like C.S. Lewis and so many others, was dragged reluctantly from atheism to faith. In his childhood years, Bignon went through all the motions as a Christian, but found religion increasingly empty as he matured, and he began to focus his life instead on the pursuit of pleasure -- which he found, as he puts it, in music, volleyball, engineering, and young women. Eventually, though, Bignon’s atheism was challenged when he met one young woman who took her faith in Jesus seriously…
Initially, Bignon explored Christianity in order to convince this young lady that her faith was absurd so that he could pursue his “romantic ambitions” with her. But, ironically, he instead found Christianity to be entirely plausible. He then had a series of experiences which he described as “divine interventions” which led him to become a devoted follower of Jesus. Atheism, he suggests, must conclude either that our human search for meaning is just unhappy chemicals in need of pharmaceuticals, or else the haunting of an illusory spiritual phantasm that needs to be exorcised. Christianity, though, makes the case that this unhappiness isn’t just malfunctioning neurotransmitters, but a broken spirit in need of restoration. Conversion stories may go both ways, he says, but in the end, one ends in nihilism and the other in redemption. The choice is clear: either “misery loves company”, or “God so loved the world”. Even today, those five words still have the power to change a life…
Back on the shores of Galilee, the people of the region saw for themselves the changes that Jesus could bring. They came and found this man sitting, clothed and in his right mind. No longer raging. No longer naked. No longer storm-tossed and demon-possessed. Jesus had spoken, and the man was free.
You know, what’s really interesting to me about this passage is that I’m sure you and I would have found this guy terrifying if we met him before he met Jesus. But his neighbours actually find him scarier after he met Jesus. It seems they were accustomed to his stormy life, mind, and spirit. What they weren’t accustomed to was Jesus and the changes that he brings. And so they ask Jesus to leave.
A question we might want to ask ourselves, therefore, is whether you and I have become too accustomed to Jesus – maybe even complacent about Jesus. Do we, as the church, still expect Jesus to calm storms, or do we merely hope he’ll help us smooth out some of life’s minor ripples? Do we still expect him to transform human lives, or has he become nothing more than an inspiration for good people to try to do a little better?
To put this all in a rather different way, are we more afraid of the stormy world around us, or of what Jesus wants to do in that world through us? Let me repeat that: are we more afraid of the stormy world around us, or of what Jesus wants to do in that world through us? Are we ready to become part of the changes Jesus brings?
The man may not have known Jesus as we do, but he certainly saw Jesus for what he is -- the Son of the most-high God! And, understandably, knowing who Jesus is, and what Jesus has done for him, the man begs Jesus to allow him to join him – to follow him, no matter where he might go… The fact is that there was now no place in this world that this man would rather be than in the presence of Jesus. He wanted to live forever in that place where storms become calms; where lives are healed; where souls are redeemed.
Stunningly, though, Jesus refuses. Instead, Jesus, tells him to stay right where he is, with his family and friends – and to tell them all that the Lord has done for him. The man wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus says “Stay!” The point being that you don’t have to be with Jesus physically in order to see Jesus at work.
For those who’ve gone with me to the Holy Land, I think there’s often a temptation, even a longing, to do the reverse – to just stay – to stay right there where Jesus was. I know I’ve felt that myself. And I suppose it’s one of the reasons I keep going back. For me, there’s something transformative about standing in those places where Jesus stood.
And that’s something that the disciples also experienced, on the Mount of Transfiguration, where they offered to put up shelters so they could just stay “on the mountaintop” with Jesus forever. But Jesus again says no. He wouldn’t leave his disciples on the mountaintop for the simple reason that there was work to be done in the valley.
And as much as these places in Israel have come to mean to me, Jesus’ will for me has always been for me, not to stay, but to go – to come back, to come home, to my friends and my family, and talk about what the Lord has done for me – and not just in Israel, but throughout my life.
In a sense, Jesus is telling us that our calling today – yours and mine -- is to be, not where Jesus was back then, but where he is now – and that includes right here, among those we know. This is our Gerassa. This is where our story needs to be told.
And if we’re obedient in that, then you and I will see storms calmed here, and we will see lives healed here, and we will see souls redeemed here… Because it’s not the place, but the person – the person of Jesus Christ. And that person has promised to be with us, wherever we are, until the very end of the age. Thanks be to God. Amen.