God Comes To Disturb
“’What do you want with us, Son of God?’ they shouted. ‘Have you come here to torture us?’” (Matthew 8:28).
They pulled up on the shore to an ugly scene. They were on the outskirts of a town in Gergesenes. Looming ahead were the tombs. An air hung over the whole land, thick and gloomy, that seemed to say: “Do Not Disturb.” Our gospel on the fourth Sunday after Epiphany brings us to a problem. It’s about our tendency, as men and women, to go about life wearing “Do Not Disturb” signs. Obviously, these aren’t the signs you see on gates, saying, “No Trespassing,” or, “My Dog has Rabbis.” These are the signs we wear in our hearts, invisible but bold, telling God to stay, or perhaps, to keep a polite distance. In our gospel reading, we see two examples of men shutting doors to God.
The first instance is the starkest. Out from the tombs stumbled two men possessed of devils. What do we make of this? Modern Christians pride themselves for being enlightened. We deem ourselves smarter than Christians in the past, who believed in demons, spirits, and hobgoblins. We would like to psychologize this story. Maybe we would say the “possessed” men simply had schizophrenia or depression. We like to dramatize possession as in “The Exorcist,” or laugh about it, like in that famous Dirt Devil commercial. However entertaining these may be, they ignore the very serious reality of evil.
It was a wise philosophy who once argued for the existence of spiritual realities. The claim, he said, is that Christians believe in miracles because of dogma, and atheists disbelieve in miracles because of evidence. However, the reality is the opposite. Christians believe in miracles because of the evidence. Atheists disbelieve in miracles because miracles don’t fit with their dogmas. We are actually a very sheltered society. Our perception of reality is filtered through television, Wikipedia and all our comforting secular creeds. Evil is real and threatens our lives in more ways then we know.
St. Peter urges, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). This is why, in Orthodoxy, we invite priests into our homes year after year, to purge our homes of any unwholesome spirit and invite God’s peace. The saints and bishops urge us to go to confession regularly, as often as possible, because without it our hearts become vulnerable and defenseless. We are in a war. We would be wise to take St. Paul’s advice to heart: “put on the whole armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes…Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace…take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:11). The demon possessed, in this story, remind us of the reality of evil. By God’s grace only, we can live lives of peace and joy.
“’What do you want with us, Son of God?’ they shouted. ‘Have you come here to torture us’” (Matthew 8:28)?
III. Evil doesn’t mix with good.
Jesus Christ promised us that if we followed him, the world would reject us. The world at large does not want God. He does not fit in “man’s world.” What we see in the demoniac’s aggression towards Jesus is a picture, vivid and brutal, of the way evil responds to goodness. If you spend your life in a dark room and someone switches on the light, the light will sting. Your eyes need to adjust. Hearts are no different.
As Christians in the 21st century, we need to remember this. We cannot any longer “go with the flow.” For too long, American Christians have tried to look like everyone else. “Keep up with the Jones,” and all that. Well, sure enough, the Jones are not what they used to be. In fact, the Jones are pagan. The Church gives us a lifestyle. It is a culture. As society continues to cut of its Christian roots, we have to become more and more alert to this. The Church is an anchor in a tempestuous sea. Its sacraments, prayer life, and call to holiness have a gravity which pulls us back to the heartbeat of God. When our lives revolve around the Church, we live.
What about the townspeople? I find their response to Christ far more disturbing than the demoniacs’. The first was straightforward. The latter was far subtler. This is where the gospel cuts deep.
“The demons begged Jesus, ‘If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.’ He said to them, ‘Go!’ So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed man. Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region” (Matthew 8:32-34).
It seems like bad luck for the pig herders. You can imagine their frustration. A fellow gets off a boat, sends a bunch of demons in their pigs and their whole livestock is lost. But there is a deeper meaning here. In Jewish society, pigs symbolized sin and rebellion. The law forbade it. The people of Gergesenes had rejected God. Their pig herds represented the state of their hearts. Jesus Christ came to free them of their sin, but they wanted to keep it, they wanted to wallow in it.
Can you imagine? God himself shows up at the doorsteps of the village. They reject Him. They do not even care to invite Jesus in and ask for an explanation. They are not interested. They would prefer the status quo, just like us today. It is okay if God exists, somewhere off in heaven, but give us our space…in our hearts, we wear a “Do Not Disturb” sign.
Truth be told, our God is a God who disturbs. He is loving and sometimes love is disturbing. God is not a cosmic grandfather who sits upstairs and winks at sin. He is a caring Father who disciplines and educates. He seeks entry into our hearts to purge them and make them new. Lovingly and patiently, God comes to disturb.
God disturbs us in our conscience. The other day, I told my boy not to take something off the counter. Well, he paused, looked at me, then the object, and swiped it off the counter despite. I took him aside, disciplined him and said, “Son, you have to obey me.” With big, wet eyes he looked up at me, “Papa, you made me sad.” I replied, “Son, I know you’re sad, and you need to obey me.” As the loving father that he is, God provokes our conscience. He wounds us, when needed, that we might become holy.
God disturbs us through one another. No one is an island. We are all obliged to one another. We owe it to each other to help one other, through encouragement and forgiveness, and sometimes through words of guidance or rebuke. God speaks through and in his people.
God disturbs us in the tug in our hearts. He is not polite; he is loving. On the road to Emmaus, the apostles said, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us” (Luke 24:32)? This is why we have to spend time in sacraments, prayer, and the scriptures. We need to examine our souls in the light of God’s truth. T. S. Elliot wrote a poem about this.
“Why should men love the Church? Why should they love Her laws? She tells them of life and death and of all they would forget. She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they would like to be soft” (T. S. Eliot). The Church is the hospital. God is the physician.
“The whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave” (Matthew 8:32-34).
This is a warning and an invitation. Life is too short, the presence of God too beautiful, for us to go about wearing “Do Not Disturb” signs. God will disturb us, in a way, so that we can know greater joy. Our God is the God of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty and he comes to make us a little more like Him.