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Second Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: 1 Kings 19:1–4, 8–15a; Galatians 3:10–14, 23–29 & Luke 8:26–39

I wonder if the imagery of stories from the Bible perhaps creates an unrealistic expectation for us of when and how we might experience God’s presence in our lives?

If you think about just a few of the most notable stories from the Bible – such as the Flood, God appearing to Moses in the burning bush, Moses parting the Red Sea, and God leading the Israelites through the wilderness in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night – there are several things they all have in common. They are very dramatic events; and they are also very visual and physical events. 

Perhaps then, we expect that if we are to have an experience of God’s presence in our lives, it will be through an event that we experience both physically and visually. While this might be true for some individuals, my sense is that God’s presence will not be so obvious.

Take the experience of the prophet Elijah in our reading this morning from the First Book of Kings. After destroying 400 prophets of Baal, a god that was worshipped by the Canaanites, and who was also worshipped by Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab of Israel, Elijah is forced to flee for his life after Jezebel threatens to have him killed. 

He goes on a journey to Mount Horeb, the place where Moses received the commandments from God, a journey of 40 days and 40 nights, which is reminiscent of the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt. After spending the night in a cave on Mount Horeb, the word of God comes to Elijah instructing him to go and stand outside the cave, because God is about to pass by.

What follows is a sequence of dramatic, visual and physical events. The first is a wind so powerful that it’ splitting mountains and breaking rocks. The second is an earthquake, and the third and final event is a fire. Elijah expects to experience the presence of God in one of these events, but he doesn’t. However, we hear that after the fire, there is a sound of sheer silence, which obviously means there was no sound at all, nor was there any activity that could be seen or felt. It is in this silence, that Elijah experiences the presence of God.

It’s no wonder then, that during the last two thousand years and more, monks and others from various religious orders, have spent much of their time alone and in silence. It’s in that solitude and silence, that they experience God. This has been my own personal experience as well. The times that I have been more aware of God’s presence, and the times that I have discerned God calling me to various tasks of ministry, have all been in times of solitude and silence with God. 

That’s not to say that God isn’t present with us during those times when we are busy and surrounded by noise. It just means it’s harder for us to be aware of God’s presence. And again, perhaps another reason why we don’t notice God’s presence, is because we are waiting for that earth-shattering event to occur in order for us to experience God.

There seems to me to be somewhat of a parallel between the challenges this presents to us, and the challenges that Paul is addressing in today’s reading from the Letter to the Galatians. 

In this passage, Paul is responding to opponents of his who are criticising aspects of what he is teaching the churches in Galatia. We must remember that the members of these churches, which were founded by Paul, are mainly Gentile Christians. The opponents of Paul are Jewish Christians, who are saying that the Gentile Christians must observe all facets of Jewish law if they want to receive salvation and be reconciled to God. Paul obviously disputes this, and he states that people receive salvation, and are reconciled to God, through the gift of God’s grace, if they believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

Paul quotes from the prophet Habakkuk to support his argument when he says: “The one who is righteous will live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). What Paul is saying, is that trying to be right with God by our own effort doesn’t work. Good intentions, such as “I’ll do better next time” or “I’ll never do that again”, usually end in failure. Instead, we should put our trust in God and leave it to Him.

Paul also quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy: “Cursed be anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by observing them” (Deuteronomy 27:26 NRSV) to prove that, contrary to what his opponents claim, the law cannot justify and save—it can only condemn. Breaking even one commandment brings a person under condemnation. And because everyone has broken the commandments, everyone then stands condemned. The law can’t do anything to reverse the condemnation (Romans 3:20-24). But Jesus took the curse of the law upon himself when he was hung on the cross. He did this so we wouldn’t have to bear our own punishment. The only condition, is that we accept his death on our behalf as the means by which we are saved (Colossians 1:20-23).

Paul also argues that before there was faith in Jesus, everyone was actually imprisoned and guarded under the law. The law was effectively a tyrant. But Jesus has now released everyone from this imprisonment, which is a nice segue into our Gospel passage and the story of Jesus arriving in the land of the Gerasenes and freeing a man who was held captive under the control of a number of demons. This land is inhabited by Gentiles, and the man possessed by demons is also a Gentile. The man, who must have appeared to others in the region as violent and dangerous, had been kept under guard in chains and shackles to control him, but he managed to break them and free himself.

When Jesus meets the man, the demons who are controlling him instantly recognise Jesus as the Son of God, and they beg Jesus to let them leave the man and instead enter into a herd of pigs that were feeding on the side of a hill overlooking the Lake Galilee. Jesus allows them to do that, and the pigs then rush down the hillside into the lake and drown. 

When the people in the area become aware of what has happened, they are scared, and they ask Jesus to leave. The man who had been possessed by the demons begs Jesus to let him go with him, but Jesus tells him to instead return to his home and declare how much God had done for him. So the man goes away and proclaims throughout the city what Jesus has done for him.

This story is a story of salvation among the Gentiles. It is a story about God and what God is doing in the world. And this early evangelist among Gentiles, bears witness to God’s presence and work in the world.

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