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This week, summer officially arrives. School is out, and lots of us are getting ready for vacation!
And in today’s Gospel reading, it appears that Jesus was also looking for a little bit of vacation time himself. In the lead-up to today’s reading, Jesus has been constantly teaching and healing. He’s had to deal with his family showing up and apparently expecting extra attention from him. And everywhere he goes, crowds follow him.
And so finally he says to his disciples, “hey guys, let’s get into the boat and go to the other side of the lake.” You know what’s on the “other side” of the lake? Gentile territory – places where people who aren’t Jews live (as made clear by the fact that they’ve got herds of pigs there.) And that means that, probably, nobody has heard of Jesus. Nobody will be chasing him around. And probably the crowds won’t follow him there, either.
So that should be a good place to take a break for maybe a few days. Jesus and his disciples can rest and recharge, and then they can go back and resume their work.
But as soon as Jesus comes ashore, he’s met by a guy possessed by demons. Apparently, he’s possessed by a lot of demons because they say their name is “legion” – that is, they nickname themselves after the thousand soldiers in a Roman legion. But unlike other demon possession stories up to this point, nobody expects Jesus to be there. Nobody has brought this guy to Jesus and asked for help. Even the guy himself doesn’t speak, only the demons.
Yet Jesus, even though he’s probably on vacation, decides he’s going to help this guy, even though it wasn’t expected. In fact, he does what God says in Isaiah that God is always doing – “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, and found by those who did not seek me.” And so Jesus casts the demons out of the man, sends them into a nearby herd of pigs which run into the lake a drown, and the man is healed and in good shape.
But the story doesn’t end like other stories up to this point. The people in the surrounding area are not so happy about this. In fact, they’re shaken and afraid. They’re not very happy that Jesus is there. And they ask him to please go and vacation someplace else!
The problem is NOT that they didn’t believe Jesus cast out the demons. And they don’t appear to be unhappy that this poor guy has been healed, either. Rather, it seems that they really didn’t want to be helped:
- When they weren’t asking for help – yes, this guy was possessed of many demons, and that was bad. As far as we can tell, nobody liked that. But they had a found a way to manage the situation. He lived outside the city where he wouldn’t be too much of a problem to them, and probably people came by and left him food. So, you know Jesus, we have systems for dealing with our problems. Please don’t mess with our systems..!
- By people they weren’t expecting – we don’t really know much about the folks that lived across the lake. Who knows where, or from what gods, they might have thought they could expect help. Wherever it might have come from though, a bunch of Galileans hopping off a boat was NOT what they either expected or were even willing to accept. And like many other folks, if help doesn’t come packaged the way we expect it, we’re not always sure it’s help we should accept…
- When the help disturbed their sense of security – part of the reason they didn’t like Jesus messing with their systems was that their systems involved herding pigs. Like flocks of sheep and goats in Israel, herds of pigs were their economy. And if you’ve felt just a bit of anxiety as your retirement account balance has been plunging lately, you get exactly how these folks felt when their retirement security plunged headlong into the lake. It’s nice you healed this guy, Jesus, but couldn’t you do it in a way that made us feel warm and fuzzy, instead of “seized with great fear”…?
So perhaps one of the things this story calls us to consider is whether we, also, may resist God’s presence and God’s help when we’re not looking for it or asking for it. I don’t know about you, but I’m always telling God what I need help with; or how I’d like God to act in my life; or where I’d like to see and feel God’s presence.
But sometimes, I also realize that just like those folks on the opposite side of the lake, I may be resistant to God’s help and presence when:
- I’m not looking for help – I also have my “systems” for dealing with life and its problems. You probably do, too. We need to. And there have been plenty of times in my life when well-meaning people have offered to “help” me in ways that really turned out to be anti-help! I’m sure you know how that goes, too. But sometimes that means I simply become accustomed to dealing with stuff that there might be a solution to, or for which there might be a better way. And I don’t look for or even want help. And I know there have been times when, at least in retrospect, I realize God was trying to help me out by pointing me in a new direction, but I really didn’t want to hear it. That’s kind of what was happening in today’s Gospel reading. And perhaps Luke includes this story because he wants to remind us not to miss out on what Jesus may be doing in our lives because a particular problem wasn’t on our personal laundry lists of things we were asking God’s help for. And while it’s fine to ask God for help we know we need, it’s sometimes also important to realize that God loves us enough to help us even when we’re not asking…
- Help doesn’t come packaged in ways I expect – perhaps this is true for you, too. But, it’s often the case that when I DO ask God for help, I envision a specific way I hope that help will come. I look for it. I plan for it. And I’m really, really confused if the help looks like a bunch of guys getting off the boat from the other side of the lake. But perhaps Luke includes this story to remind us that Jesus often works to help us in ways we didn’t expect and didn’t envision. And so at least, we should be open to God’s help through people and situations we hadn’t imagined before…
- God’s help disturbs my sense of security and control – especially when things are difficult and chaotic, I don’t need more chaos and instability. I don’t want or need my pigs running into the lake! But maybe Luke includes this story to remind us that sometimes the only way for Jesus to help us get beyond what we’re dealing with right now is to shake things up further. And while I never like that, perhaps it’s also a reminder to consider whether, in the midst of a lot of confusion and stress, I’ve become more attached to, and secure in, my herd of pigs than I am to the God who gave me the herd in the first place…
I suspect that I’ll always be more happy and comfortable accepting God’s help when I’ve asked for it, and when it comes packaged in ways I’m expecting. But today’s Gospel reminds us that God is always seeking us out and looking to help us, even when we aren’t looking for help. And today’s Gospel promises that Jesus loves us enough to make his presence known in ways that we don’t expect, even when we’re not asking.