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In the name of the Father & the Son & the Holy Spirit…Glory to Jesus Christ!
Today’s Gospel from Matthew is a familiar one. It is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It comes around at least twice; and when we have a late Pascha three times every year, as a Sunday Gospel Reading. Why did all 3 of these Apostles and the entire Church find this particular lesson to be so important? It teaches us reality!
The Gospel lesson of the Demoniac and the pigs is a true shining explanation of reality, and therefore one that the Church in her wisdom wants us to hear over and over and over again. Christ and the Apostles arrive in the Gadarene region; immediately encountering 2 men completely out of their minds – possessed by many demons and exceedingly fierce. What is going on here? How did these men end up in such terrible condition? We should never judge; simply because we don’t have a clue as to what is really going on. There is always far more going on in any situation than we can know, and this is why God tells us to leave judgement to Him. Only God sees and understands all things. We see a man in this condition, or perhaps someone living on the street in our culture, out of his mind and in desperate straights, and we often tend to think he must have done something very bad to deserve this fate. The demons did everything they could to cause the Gadarene demoniacs to destroy themselves. They drove them from human companions – this is always what the evil one is trying to get us to do. Isolate ourselves. A common saying of the Fathers is: “We enter heaven together with our brothers and sisters, we enter hell alone.” The evil one will always try to help us to be hurt and offended about someone or something in our Church, and whisper in our ear that we shouldn’t stick around to deal with it. It’s easier to just leave. He is like a wolf, trying to separate a suffering sheep from the flock so he can devour him in solitude. If you want to stay sane, you can be wounded; but it is not optional to stay wounded. We place ourselves in grave danger when we allow ourselves to be separated, and should constantly be asking God for the grace to forgive, and to accept forgiveness. Doubtless the demons did everything in their power to try to destroy these men, yet they managed to resist, and then when they encountered Christ, they immediately responded to cling to him, and be freed from the demons. We can never judge, we just don’t see the whole picture.
The Gospel presents us with a reality that we would probably not usually like to dwell on. It is an uncomfortable reality that very starkly illuminates the seriousness of what is actually going on while we are having our brief visit to this planet. There is a very real enemy of man who hates us with a hatred that is fierce and ugly beyond what we can even imagine. He is furious that God would create such helpless and pathetic creatures as us, and place the very stamp of His divinity within us. What was God thinking! Satan wants to show God what a mistake He made. Satan’s goal is to cause us to not even realize, let alone work towards the great calling and purpose that we have been gifted with and created for. He and his demons are committed to do anything they can to separate us from our brothers and sisters in Christ; to cause us to stray from the love of God, and then to destroy us; thereby proving to God we don’t deserve the great heritage God has bestowed upon us.
Of course Satan is correct in this assessment – we don’t deserve the unbelievable love and care God has given to us, his creatures, and we can do nothing to earn it. It is a gift from God and only the love and grace of God make this possible. We can only gratefully accept His unwavering love. By cooperating with God and being united with Him and transformed into the Image of Christ placed within us, we fulfill our destiny. The Church calls this “Theosis” however we really can’t even begin the journey, without a clear understanding of reality. This is what the Gospel story of the Demoniacs, and really all of the Gospel lessons are trying to teach us. What is real and of lasting eternal substance – not just a fleeting distraction that will crumble and prove to have no lasting value? It is of course, only that which leads us to the eternal Kingdom of God, our true home.
These days, many in our culture would like to dismiss demonic activity as just mental disturbances, figments of an old superstitious mindset. CS Lewis was a fairly modern man; the dean of Oxford College in England, better known today as the author of the Narnia series of books and many other writings. He wrote a very instructive book on the strategy of demons called “The Screwtape Letters” I think he sums up the demonic strategy and our earthly reality quite well when he says:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe and feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
The demons have a very good grasp on what is real. While they do everything in their power to cloud this understanding for us, the Children of God, they themselves are under no illusions, and know that they are completely subject to Christ and his Church, and that their time is short and coming to an end. In today’s gospel the demons cry; “What have we to do with You Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come to torment us before the time?” No, the Demons do not struggle with reality; they only try to distort it for us, hoping to keep us from knowing true reality and desperately trying to keep us asleep.
Overall, the battle is not really a battle, it is already won. Christ is completely in charge. However each of us individually are engaged in a battle while here on earth – for our very souls. This present age, before the final judgement, is given to us to determine our eternal future. The final judgement will most certainly end time, but we will enter into eternity – where time as we know it does not exist, and the final judgement – not so much at some cataclysmic battle at the end of the ages, as upon our death. This almost always occurs much sooner than we had planned on! The demons do have some freedom to whisper lies, and attempt to fill our minds with phantasy before the time of the final judgement, while we and they are here living on the earth. Battling with these thoughts and rejecting their influence, allows us to grow in maturity as children of God. As we exercise our free will, and choose God’s path – our conscience begins to awaken. We become more aware of the fierce battle for our very souls that is going on all around us. The good news is that only 1/3 of the angles fell and became the demons; so they are outnumbered 2 to 1!
During our beautiful Vespers services, there are some prayers that are aimed at helping us along in protecting us and strengthening us in this battle with the demons. “Clothe us in the armour of light. Deliver us from everything which comes with darkness. Grant sleep, which You have given us for the repose of our weakness, free from every phantasy of the devil.”… “Let not our hearts incline to evil words or thoughts, but save us from all those who pursue our souls”… “Protect us this evening and throughout the coming night from all our enemies, from every assault of the powers of hell, from vain and useless thoughts, and from evil memories.”
Did you catch that: “from vain and useless thoughts and from evil memories.” I don’t know about you, but that probably describes half the thoughts that go rumbling through my head. If the majority of the thoughts and memories that I catch myself thinking and dwelling on, were subject to the purifying fire of God we spoke about last week, I’m afraid they would end up in the ash pile, not the gold side. Speculation about others motives; impure sexual images; memories that I have not asked God in to heal, and still cause me to feel hurt and offended, or make me wish for revenge, or fill me with guilt; labelling myself or others in a negative way; mind reading – feeling I know what others are thinking without them telling me; future telling – knowing how things are bound to turn out – and it’s usually bad; and pretty much most of the other garbage flowing through my mind in a stream of consciousness that is not focused upon God, would fall into the “vain and useless thoughts and evil memories” category.
It is no wonder that the Jesus prayer has been given such a high recommendation by the Fathers throughout all the centuries. As soon as we catch our minds spinning off in some less than helpful direction, the Jesus prayer is the quickest and simplest way to fill our minds and hearts once again with thoughts of real and eternal value. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me a sinner.” This is always a prayer to cling to and fill our mind with. Once the demons start to see that when they whisper some of their poisonous little suggestions to us, it actually causes us to wake up and start to repeat the Jesus Prayer, they become much more reluctant to play with us. They find it quite discouraging and counter-productive, if their efforts just cause us to turn to Christ.
Have you ever really listened to the exorcism prayers at the start of every baptism service? A small sample of the prayers; “…most crafty, impure, vile, loathsome and alien spirit, by the might of Jesus Christ who has all power both in heaven and on earth…Depart. Acknowledge the vainness of your might, which has not power even over swine…” and “Breath and spit upon him”. This is just a small sample of how the Church deals with the enemy in the battle for our souls.
The evil one hates us and wants to destroy us but he is restrained by God. Even when we, in our self destructive delusion, cooperate with the evil one and buy into his twisted rebellion and anger, thereby giving him some acceptance of his influence, God places limits on what Satan can actually do to us. Many of us can personally testify to God’s protection, even before we had an understanding of His ways and love for us, and consciously chose to follow Him. Thank God for His ever present love. In the Gospel lesson when the demons enter the pigs, they immediately rush headlong to their death. Even animals can not bear the stench of the demons. God permits this to happen to show in very graphic and real terms, what is the end result of life with the demons. Through God’s grace, the demoniacs resisted this final destruction, even when they had the entire legion of demons affecting them. All God requires from us is to willingly choose to turn to Him in His love. As the epistle of St. Paul to the Romans said today: “The word is near you in your mouth and in your heart: that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead you will be saved.”
The people of Gadarene beg Christ to leave them. He has disturbed their present comfort level and has cost them a tidy sum on the pork belly market. Here is the most terrifying line in the Gospel reading. “So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city.” Christ will patiently stand and wait to be invited into our lives, but will obey our wish to have him leave, should we choose to send him away. It is always our decision. Thank God He never goes far. After all He is everywhere present and fills all things. Hopefully we will wake up in the middle of the night and cry out in fear…Lord have mercy! Christ knew that the people of the region were not ready to receive the good news that the Kingdom of God was at hand. They had clearly shown that they valued commerce and getting ahead more than following God, even when God was right in their midst, working wonders and healing the sickest among them.
In Mark’s gospel, it says that the demoniac, once healed and sitting at the feet of Jesus and in his right mind, begged that he might stay with Jesus. This was the surest indication that he was now in his right mind. We understand true reality when we want to always stay with Jesus. Earlier when first encountering Christ, the man was fearful. Before we make the decision, and keep making that decision to cling to Christ with all of our heart and mind and soul, it seems like a scary decision. Will we be giving up our present comfortable life? Even if our life is less than comfortable looking to others, we often fiercely hang on to it. The saying; “the devil we know is better than what we don’t know” seems to describe how we live much of our lives. God often allows the consequences of our poor choices to continue to affect us, so that we will somehow come to our senses and cry out to Him to save us. He will not impose His will upon us, even though it breaks His heart to see the mess we choose to live with, rather than simply choosing true life in Christ. He laments about Jerusalem, and really about all of His wayward children in Matthew and Luke: “How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
Shortly after this encounter with the demoniac, Christ sends his 12 disciples out to preach that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and gives them power and authority over demons. Shortly after this he sends the 70 out to preach that the Kingdom of God is here. They return overjoyed that even the demons are subject to them in Christ’s name. Jesus instructs them that this is a minor benefit compared to the true goal – that their names are written in the Kingdom of heaven.
We need to firmly get our minds and hearts to understand that the Kingdom of God is the ultimate reality, and is always present and accessible, here and now! There is always much more going on than we can see with our physical eyes, and hear with our physical ears. Following Christ is a very light and joyful yoke, in huge contrast to the crushing and destructive yoke we take on when we choose to chart our own course. We know so little about what is really going on, and what true reality actually looks like, that we struggle to make good decisions. We are often so out of touch that we don’t even realize what our true state of being is. May God help us, to be willing to allow Him to show us true reality, and open our spiritual eyes and ears to His ever present love and protection. Like the freed Gadarene demoniac’s, let us proclaim to all the world what great things Christ has done for us! Glory to Jesus Christ!