Monday, January 16, 2012

Victory over the Demonic

Victory Over the Demonic

Matthew 8:28-34

When Harrison Ford was thrown into a pit full of venomous snakes in a Raiders of the Lost Ark movie, I almost had to turn it off. For me, that has to be listed among the ultimate horrors. I heard a true story about someone falling out of a boat into the middle of a gang of water moccasins. The fury of the snakes churned the water. There was no hope for survival. The anger of the snakes and the poison of their venom is horrifying.

I imagine the fury of the demons taking residence in the two men in Matthew 8 to be something like that. The Bible describes them as so violent that no one wanted to pass their direction. And when Jesus did, they ran out to oppose him.

“‘What do you want with us, Son of God?’” they shouted. ‘Have you come to torture us before the appointed time?’” (v.29) There is a time appointed for their eventual destruction, and they seem to know that. That time will be when God brings his kingdom in power and destroys all evil. What bothers them is that Jesus has come now, before they perceive the end time to be here.

The demons seem to assume that until the end of time when they will be subdued, they have free reign to wreck havoc and destruction. Thomas Long wrote, “They mistakenly believe that, until that last day, they have unfettered license to wreck destruction. They can torment as many souls as they can inhabit, wreck as many institutions as they can infiltrate, cause as much pain and sorry as they can imagine.” (Matthew, 97)

How surprised they are that Jesus shows up before the expected time. “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. They didn’t just ask. They shouted. They are in rebellion. They are disrespectful. They recognize Jesus as the Son of God, but they don’t honor him for it. They yell at him. Jesus casts the demons into a herd of pigs who rush into the water and drown. The shocked pig herders run into town and report what Jesus has done to the pigs and the demon-possessed men. The towns people come out to get a look for themselves, and then they ask Jesus to leave.

Three things stand out in this story as particularly significant. One, very little detail is spent on the demon-possessed men. Mark describes only one demon-possessed man, but explains how he used to cut himself and break the chains that had been used to bind him. He was a crazy man totally out of control. He had no peace. But after the demons were cast out, the man was calm, he got dressed, and he conversed calmly with Jesus (Mark 5). No such details are given in this story about the men. The focus is not on what Jesus can do for them or us. The focus is on the incredible power of Jesus to conquer even demonic forces.

Two, the story shows Jesus power over the dark realms. We have seen Jesus’ miraculous power at work all through this chapter. He heals a man with leprosy, so he has power over physical ailments. He heals bodies. Secondly, he healed the servant of centurion, showing his interest in and concern for those outside of Israel. Next, he healed Peter’s mother-in-law and a host of others who came to him for care. After the healings, Jesus’ miraculous powers are turned upon nature when he stills the watery tempest. Then, lest anyone think the span of Jesus authority and power has been exhausted, he shows his complete mastery over the demonic. He casts out the innumerable demons.

Three, the people of the region reject Jesus. They don’t really even know who he is. This is Gentile territory so there is no way they can really know him. But, even in Israel the people are uncertain about Jesus. Interestingly, the evil spirits know who Jesus is! The Son of God! The identity of Jesus was revealed first by demonic forces. But, sadly, instead of getting to know Christ, the people cast him out. “Like many communities before and since, this town prefers the demons they know to the power of God they do not know.” (Long, Matthew, 98)

Four, the time of God’s defeat of evil is NOW! The Kingdom of God has already been revealed in power. We can take comfort and confidence in knowing that the kingdom is with us already.

Warren Baldwin

Thursday, January 5, 2012

I Know the Plans I Have For You

I Know the Plans I Have For You
Jeremiah 29:11

Here are some actual headlines I read on Friday, December 29, 2011:

A Controversial Year: Health Issues in 2011: Concerns over PSA screenings, mammograms, multivitamins, birth control & much more.

The 10 Dirtiest Foods You're Eating.

N. Korea: No changes to come.

Man, 99, Divorces Wife of 77 Years.

2011 scandals: Phone hacking, lewd photo tweets & celebrity meltdowns top the list of 2011 scandals

Sears lists the stores it will close: Here are the 79 locations the company plans to shutter, with more likely to be announced.

Stocks off to weak start on year’s final trading session: Fitch slashes Sear’s credit rating. Oil declines, while gold surges.

The article about scandals revisited some of the horrid scenes we witnessed this year in the lives of some prominent people. Among them were Representative Anthony Weaver with his texting of improper pictures, Jerry Sandusky of Penn State with his abuse of authority over teenagers, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn of the IMF and his abusive treatment of women.

This is some cap to the wonderful Christmas season we just celebrated, isn’t it? During the Christmas season we talked a lot about, or at least heard a lot of talk about, peace, joy, happiness, new life. Then we have to read the news.

You know, I’m not surprised that some people don’t read the news! Spending an hour or two reading these kinds of articles doesn’t set you up for an energized day!

Why read them? I was actually reading them for this sermon. My key text is Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Can you think of a verse that excites more hope? A verse that promises more happiness? A verse that energizes our spirits more? “I have plans to prosper you,” God promises.

That is a popular verse in America. On Facebook, on blogs, in religious articles, you will see this verse a lot. It helps us forget the problems we have as a nation. As a church. As individuals. I want to turn the news off and this verse on. I want to forget there is a financial crisis. Cancer. Car wrecks. I want to think about being prospe
red. I want to be happy. I want to retire young, live long, and die in my sleep. I love this verse.

But, in preparation for this lesson, I read Jeremiah 29:11 in context. Context means you read the verses before and after it. Here is what I found: God’s promise to prosper Israel occurred in a context of pain, abandonment and deeper sorrow than I ever want to swim in.

Here is the story in 3 short briefs:
1) Israel prospered
2) Israel got real proud
3) Israel got thumped by God.

Being thumped by God meant she was conquered by the Babylonians and carted off to a foreign country. This was actually a process that took place over several years. Some Israelites were carted off in 597 B.C. The rest were carted off in 587 B.C. It took several trips to get all the Israelites from Israel to Babylon.

This, verse was likely written in 594 B.C. That means, it was written after Israel was conquered by a foreign nation, and when some of the Israelites were in captivity, and others were about to go. Did you catch that? Jeremiah 29:11 was written during a ten year period of crisis for Israel.

Look at some verses. Jeremiah 29:1 provides the setting: “This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.”

We know it is about exile. About shattered hopes and dashed dreams. Babylon came across the desert, conquered Israel and carried the Israelites back to Babylon. The Israelites were held in captivity for about 70 years. When Jeremiah 29:11 was proclaimed, some of the people were already there, and in a few years even more would be there.

I read some grim news stories from American newspapers. What if we could see some news headlines from Israel in 594 B.C.? This is what we might read in the Jerusalem Times.

Israelites in Babylon hoping to be Home Soon. Will they be disappointed?

Prophets say: “Israelites to come home.” Jeremiah counters with: “Not so soon. More are going!”

God Voices Displeasure With Our Country.

Priests Make Further Departures from the Law.

King Forgets his Vows. Harem Grows with Three more Girls.

Jeremiah Threatens: Economic Condition Looks Bleak. Babylon to take all our gold.

How would you encourage a faithful Israelite in those days? They were hoping doom wouldn’t come, but it did, in the form of the enemy. It was God’s punishment. God offered hope by saying, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” That promise is followed with another promise in v.14: “I will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

In the context of exile and promise God gives the Israelites three charges:
1) Do not despair. In verses 5 & 6 he says, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there (Babylon); do not decrease.”

2) Seek the welfare of the environment in which you live. Verse 7 says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

3) Call upon the Lord. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.” (Verses 13-14).

This gives me hope! As bad as our news headlines are, they aren’t nearly as grim as that of the Jerusalem times. So I can have even more confidence to not despair, seek the welfare of the environment in which I live, and seek the Lord.

Warren Baldwin