In my first year of university, I volunteered to go on the Concordia Mission Trip during Reading Week. Some of you might remember me trying to raise funds for the travel costs of the trip, oh so many years ago. There were many times during that trip that I was taken out from where I was comfortable to be around people that I never would have chosen to be around on my own. At times the smell of alcohol was hard not to notice, and other times it was clear that their head was not working as well as it should have been. Despite attempts to show that I cared, I found myself wanting nothing more than being allowed to go so that I could move on to something that I was sure that I could be a little more comfortable with.
The events that we hear about in the Gospel reading for today, must have made the disciples uncomfortable to say the least. They had joined Jesus on his sailing trip across the Sea of Galilee, they had even witnessed Him rebuke the waves and calm the storm that threatened their lives. They were there, yet the fact that they are absolutely invisible throughout the telling of these events is a testament to their discomfort throughout this whole ordeal. Jesus has brought them out of their home in Israel, where they were quite happy to stay, and into completely foreign and Gentile land. These were not God's chosen people, certainly Jesus hadn't come for them! And then, Jesus begins to talk to this dirty, naked, absolutely disgusting man. This man is the lowest of the low, the social reject, the scum of the earth. If you don't want to touch the Grinch with a nine and a half foot pole, the disciples wouldn't want to touch this guy with a twenty foot pole. We've all felt that way at one time or another, and not just around those less fortunate in society. But also around those who just seem to look awkward, maybe lack some of the social graces that we take for granted and just can't help but feel uncomfortable around. The disciples probably wanted Jesus to rebuke this man just as He had rebuked the waves and let them move on, or maybe even turn around and get back into the boat for more familiar territory. Yet this is the man that Jesus has mercy on, this is the one who garners His loving and healing attention. Christ comes to the unclean and cleanses.
I. When the disciples would have nothing to do with this man, Christ has mercy on Him. This man is one of the most deserving of being destroyed. He is outside of God's chosen people, he is possessed by demons and does all manner of gross and despicable things. Yet Jesus uses this incident to show the disciples, and us as well, how their ministry would continue in the world after He left them.
A. Jesus doesn't destroy this man, but rather has mercy on him. Not only does Jesus save the man, He even has mercy on the demons. Rather than punishing them for corrupting what He has created good, Jesus relents from the punishment that they are destined to endure when Jesus returns and rather allows their wish to enter the herd of pigs. But in this cleansing act, Jesus also frees this man from the affliction that the demons had placed upon him. Not only is he clothed once more, and back in his right mind, restored to what he once was, he is also made a disciple. Through the cleansing and healing that this man has received from Christ, faith is created in his heart and he becomes one of Christ's followers. This man becomes a new avenue for the Gospel to be proclaimed to the world, showing the disciples that salvation is not just for a select few but for all the world.
II. “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16) Jesus says. It's not just a select few, or those that we think deserve it or “fit the bill,” but all the world. Yet so often we have our own notions of who should hear the message that God has given us to share. Usually they should look like us, dress like us, talk like us or even something so vain as make as much money as we do. At the very least they should make us feel comfortable to be around. We focus so much on the visual part of things that we forget that we too are just as dirty and disgusting with sin as the man that Jesus met. We forget that in our sinful flesh daily need God's mercy and are just as doomed to torment and death. Rather than defend my neighbour, “speak well of them and interpret everything they do in the best possible light,” as I'm told to do in Luther's explanation to the eighth commandment, I might start to spread lies and gossip. “You know what will happen if they get in here don't you?” The Old Testament reading for today pulls no punches as Isaiah describes Israel's sins when he quotes Yahweh, saying “I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually” (65:2-3). Our sinful natures turn us away from God and direct us on our own path. God tells us to preach to all the world, despite race, gender or status, but I don't really like that, so that must not be what it means and I'm not going to do it! We're like teenagers, ignoring everything that our parents, teachers or anyone in authority teach us, because we know what's best for us and no one is going to tell us otherwise. Jesus says that, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” and yet we decide that what's best is for them to stay far, far, away over there and me and my friends, those I'm comfortable with will stay over here. We set up our own twenty foot pole, to separate from those that we would rather not have to deal with. “Keep to yourself,” we shout to those who we deem to be unfit, unclean and unworthy, “do not come near me, for I am too holy for you” (Isaiah 65:5). Yet what we don't realize is that we too have been separated from God in our sin, so much so that God would not touch with any pole, not matter how long, but would rather destroy us.
B. And yet despite all our fighting and our rejection, Christ still comes to us, to those who are unclean, and He cleanses. Much like he did for the demon-possessed man in our text, Christ came to this sinful world to cleanse us from our sin through His death on the cross. Just like that man we are filthy with sin and God comes even to us who deserve nothing from him to give us His saving Grace and the eternal life that only he can give. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that “God shows His love for us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:1). It is why we sang in our service today, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy!” For it is only in Jesus Christ our Lord where we receive cleansing, healing and salvation. Through Christ you receive these gifts. Through His Word every time you hear His promise that your sins are forgiven. Through the body and blood at his table, which cleanses you from all sin strengthens you in the one true faith until life everlasting. Through the waters of baptism, where each of you have been made His very own child and the righteousness that Christ earned for you is given directly to you. You heard St. Paul write in our Epistle reading that “As many of you as were baptized have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). In His mercy, Christ has given you these means, what we call the means of grace, so that through them you might be restored and be enabled to show that mercy to those around you. But He doesn't even stop with these outside means, but goes with you, dwelling in your heart. Working through the means of grace, and working through the Holy Spirit, Christ works in your heart to restore you, just as He restored the man in our text, to be holy and righteous. He works through you to show His mercy to others as Paul writes that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
C. And then, having received the mercy that Christ has made available for us, He then sends us out, just as He sent the man saying, “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you” (8:39). Dear friends it starts at home, as we show the same loving mercy that we have received to those who are closest to us, who sit across from us at the table, our next door neighbours, those who work beside us or those who sit beside us in school. God sends you to declare, to narrate from beginning to end, to tell everything that He has done for you, to share the mercy that He shown you to all those around you. But we do not just share God's mercy through words, as some have been blessed to do powerfully, but also through our actions. In the 1800s, a crippled boy was hurrying to catch a train. Carrying gifts under his arm, he struggled with his crutches. A man bumped into him. Parcels flew every which way. The man paused to scold the boy for getting in his way. That's when another gentleman, seeing the boy upset, picked up the gifts, gave him a few coins, and said, “I'm sorry! I hope this helps.” The boy, unused to such kindness, called out, “Mister, thank you! And sir, are you Jesus?” “No,” replied the man, “but I am one of His followers.” Christ works in our hearts to bring forth the works that show His mercy to all those around us in so many diverse and vibrant ways, whether it be helping in special programs here at church, helping out at home or helping our neighbour. God works in us so that through our actions we might confess boldly and confidently to the world that even they are dirty and cast away from God by their sin, He still loves them and in His mercy sent His only Son so that they might be cleansed. We go out to let the world know that Christ comes to the unclean and cleanses.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.