The Pastor’s Pen – June 23, 2019

mountain top

Dwelling place’…or ‘rest stop’?

June 23, 2019

Scripture: 1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7) 8-15a, Luke 8:26-39

I chose two of today’s listed readings to share with you because although they are from completely different times and speak to completely different contexts, there was something about each one that I felt complimented the other.  In some way, aside from both being the revealed word of our Lord, they also both gave what I consider to be interesting insight into the nature of our God.  In our lesson from the Old Testament we hear of wind, earthquake, and fire, followed by the sound of sheer silence, and in the gospel reading from Luke we hear of a man who very much came from a conflicted place of wind, earthquake, and fire, and through the grace and healing touch was also able to find our Lord in the silence and the whisper. 

And it seems that so much of life today is all tied up in frenetic busyness that very much marches to this beat of rushing wind, cataclysmic earth shaking, and destructive fire and fury…all of which indeed is very much in need of the sheer silence of God’s presence and the whispered assurances of the Holy Spirit.  And aside from the obvious comparison between the two readings in which the man known as ‘Legion’ was brought out of the chaos and fury of madness and by grace restored to wholeness in the calm and healing presence of Jesus, there is also another truth here that begs to be told…namely that whenever we finally allow ourselves to enter into the calm embrace of the love of our Lord and finally listen closely enough to hear the stirrings of the Spirit within…we may not always hear what we want to hear…as was most certainly the case with our friend ‘Legion’.

The passage from Luke’s gospel is one of those fascinating human-interest stories in the bible.  There are so many possible points of entry when one first reads through it.  There is the strange fact that Jesus encounters a man who goes by the name of ‘Legion’, which in itself is a bold challenge to the prevailing Romans and their occupation, a very political challenge which a careful reading of the gospels finds Jesus doing quite frequently.  Or we could consider the whole idea of some poor farmer’s pigs suddenly hurtling over the edge of the cliffs into certain death and presumably complete loss on the rocky shores below…certainly a strange idea that somehow doesn’t feel right or in keeping with the notion of a good and loving God. 

Or we could look at the reaction of the townspeople who came out and witnessed the destruction of the pigs and the seeming complete transformation of the man who had previously been a constant threat and menace to their community.  The passage tells us that they were very fearful after hearing about the strange events that had just taken place and that they begged Jesus to go away and to leave them alone.  They were unsure of exactly what power had been unleashed among them, but they knew it was at the hand of this stranger from Galilee.

But there is another aspect, another thing we may consider when trying both to understand the possible relationship between our two readings and in seeking to read this scripture passage into understanding for today.  And that has to do with the man himself, the one known as ‘Legion’, the one who had just gone through an incredible transformative deliverance from a life that had been pure torment and horror up until that moment when he met Jesus.  On one level this man’s healing and return to health and wholeness could be seen as a complete story in its own right.  The miraculous transformation from one moment to the next, in effect the creation of a whole new person in his right mind, at peace, and able to stand up and give God the glory…is a song that always needs to be sung.

However, there is one other point that for me at least, is the one we most need to focus on today.  And that concerns the circumstances recounted at the very end of the Lukan narrative where this now joy-filled proclaimer of God’s grace and goodness asks to follow along behind Jesus as he prepares to leave the region at the request of the townsfolk.  It would seem natural for Jesus to welcome him into his band of disciples, for it seems that a fresh burst of enthusiasm would always be a good thing on the road Jesus had to walk each day.  However, Jesus does not do what most of us I think, would have expected him to do.

Instead of gladly inviting ‘Legion’ to come along, Jesus tells him to stay right there, to stay in the region where he had spent his whole life as a terror and a fearsome force…to stay among those who from forever had been terrified of him, and to be a force for goodness and hope right there in their midst.  Jesus did not allow ‘Legion’ to leave behind all of his past, but rather called him to remain there and to be a defining point of grace, a light shining for all to see as he testified of God’s amazing healing love and mercy to all those who formerly loathed and feared him…to be the sound of a holy whisper and calm in the midst of the wind-driven fear within his community.  And it is this decision by Jesus, to ask ‘Legion’ to remain behind and continue to witness in the darkness that, at least for me, seems to have the most possible impact for us in these times as we too seek to serve our Lord earnestly and faithfully.

Years ago I read a small book that turned out to be an important and formative piece of my faith journey and understanding.  The book, which has both religious supporters and detractors was titled ‘Hind’s Feet on High Places’, and it was written by Hannah Hurnard. It is the story of one known simply as ‘Much-Afraid’ and of her long and difficult journey to the top of the mountain of the Lord’s delight.  She is forced to endure much in the way of howling wind, quaking of the foundations of all she knew, as well as the torturous fires of trial and testing before she finally arrives at the place of full communion with our Lord and Savior.  And it is there, there in the loving embrace of our Lord that she is given the most unexpected and difficult words of instruction…it is there on the mountaintop of our Lord’s delight, there on the ‘High Places’ that Much-Afraid, now renamed ‘Grace-and-Glory is told that in fact she cannot stay there…but rather, that she must return to the valley below…that she must now go back down into the trial and the wind, into the roar of the earthquake and fire, in order to be there for our Lord.  After completely spending herself in the pursuit of full communion with God, she is told to turn around and to go back…to go back and to tell others the story of that wondrous mountain so far away…to do exactly what ‘Legion’ was asked to do…and as our scripture tells us, that he in fact did.

And I bring out this point because I fear that so often we are told or hear of promises of mountaintop dwelling places…places where we can reside fully free from the noise and trials of life…places where we do not have to worry about the gross injustice and strife that the world serves up as its daily portion…dwelling instead with other like-minded individuals completely free from such concerns.  And, while some of those offers of ‘false lodging places’ come from alternative philosophies of even from purveyors of modern-day snake oil who offer drugs or other stimulants that promise to remove the trials and turmoil of life…unfortunately, some of the most convincing salesmen of this false story of a life that is free from the pressures and struggles of life as it is lived all around us in fact, speak or preach from within certain understandings or interpretations of our own Christian faith.

Indeed, in spite of what these other interpretations may offer, our scriptures today make it very clear, at least to me, that we are not called to dwell on the mountain-top of self-confidence that any of these growing and popular faith practices offer.  These whose primary aim seems to be two fold…either consumed with assuring you of a guarantee of a future reward in the next life, or promising peace and serenity by giving you a virtual tightrope of proper religious thought and belief on which you are supposed to walk without stumbling and without hesitation…a tightrope that purports to keep you high above the fray of the messy, unjust, and difficult strife so consuming the world far below.

It troubles me that so many faith-understandings seem to promise what they cannot deliver…too many promise a peace that is based, not on a Lord Jesus who has promised to walk along beside us through the difficulty of life honestly and lovingly lived, but rather on adherence to a particular moral code and a set of approved and sanctioned beliefs and proper positions on a whole set of social issues.

In truth, that whole way of living ‘above it all, above the fray of honest and truthful life’ is itself merely a distraction that enables would-be faithful to avoid the hard, messy work of love and compassion that can only truthfully be given as it is received from the source of all love…there…there in the trenches, there in the wind, earthquake, and fire of human struggle and weakness.  Our call is to dwell there, and not on any ‘mountain of the Lord’s delight’ that may have been falsely promised to us.

Which is not at all to say that the mountain of our Lord’s presence and sure embrace is a place we will never experience, for surely any single moment in the presence of our Lord truly feels like a mountain-top moment…but rather to assert that those very experiences in embrace of our Lord are meant to be times of refreshment and encouragement, ‘rest stops’ where we might drink deeply of the flowing streams of God’s grace, ‘rest stops’ where we can take a moment and drink deeply of the fountains of joy and peace that know no end and which defy understanding…times of momentary respite and points of communion…before we as well are once again sent out, sent back into the valley and the darkness below in order to engage the forces of injustice and hopelessness by which so many of our sisters and brothers are kept bound…sent forth as emissaries of hope to bring light into the hearts of all humankind…of all God’s beloved…of all God’s children.

‘Legion’…one who had lived a life of horror, unable to break free into hope or joyous life whatsoever…one who, after going to the mountaintop with Jesus became such a witness of profound change and contrast, not only for those who knew him in his previous state but for himself as well, who now for the first time it seems was able to sit peaceful and calm before the Lord…the wind, earthquake, and fire within him fully gone away and now in the sheer silence of the presence of our Lord he sat, wholly healed and whole.  And he begged Jesus to be able to dwell there…to stay there in his presence…to follow and to leave behind his old life of trial and turmoil…as well I am sure as the condemnation of those who had borne the brunt of his behaviors for so long…Legion so wished to be fully and finally delivered and set free from the struggle that life was and so often still is…but Jesus did not let him do so, instead telling him to stay put, to stay in the absolute ‘fray of life’ in his own community as it moved all about him…to stand there as a sign of God’s promise and redemption…to stand there in his appointed place and proclaim the goodness of our God…and that is what he did…

The truth truly will set you free…but it will not allow you to stop laboring for the Lord…in fact, the truth of God’s love is a call and command to continue doing so with all you have, and with all you are.  The truth sets you free from the bondage of the ways of the world, including those clothed in the sheep’s clothing of proper religious practice, and instead commands you to work solely for our Lord of Love as guided by the Holy Spirit down in the dark valleys of the world.

God whispered in the sheer silence…the sheer silence that followed the crashing turmoil of wind, quake, and fire.  It is this silence we are to seek out, both to find our God, but also to really hear the words of our Lord…words that will surely renew, encourage, strengthen, and then send us to the task at hand of loving one another as God loves us…without condition, without hesitation, without any thought but for the present moment’s need…and the delivery of that portion of God’s love we have been given to the one still waiting inside the darkened cave…

…come let us dwell in the presence of our God in the very midst of the wind, quake, and fire of life all around us…for that is where new life and lasting hope is born…

…amen

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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