Sunday, June 24, 2007

Clothed and in Our Right Minds

Texts: Galatians 3:22-29; Luke 8:26-39

EVERY TIME YOU GET DRESSED, DID you know you’re making a theological statement?

You could be dressing for work or for a party. But whenever you put on a decent, suitable set of clothes, you’re agreeing with God that’s He’s right about the sort of creature you are and what you need from Him.

Back in the Garden of Eden, people didn’t need clothes. Adam and his wife Eve were created naked, and they felt no shame. They had nothing to be ashamed of! They lived with God in sinless innocence. Their relations with one another were those of pure marriage. They lived in harmony with creation, and didn’t need to be protected from it. Their unashamed nakedness was a sign of their openness and freedom with their Creator and one another.

But then, Adam and Eve sinned. They cast off the one restraint God had put on them, not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and tried to get wisdom and knowledge He had forbidden them to have. And when they’d been "made wise," what did they find out? That they were naked! And that suddenly, it was something to be ashamed of. So they tried to make themselves clothing out of fig leaves, and they hid from the Lord God that evening when He manifested Himself in the Garden.

But the clothes they made for themselves weren’t adequate. Adam and Eve’s efforts didn’t cover what’d gone wrong between themselves and God, between the man and the woman themselves, and between humanity and nature. The Lord God made garments of animal skins and clothed them Himself. That covering wasn’t just for their bodies; it was symbolic of the covering that needed to be made for their sin.

When we human creatures wear clothes, we’re acknowledging we’re not sufficient unto ourselves. Without clothing, we’re naked, cold, defenseless, and vulnerable. We’re at the mercy of the elements and other people. To be stripped naked is to be violated and shamed.

But even when the weather is perfectly fine, even when there’s nothing to fear from those around us, the fact that we go around clothed testifies that our human freedom and innocence are gone. Things aren’t the way they should be between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and others. We really do have something to be ashamed of. Not just our bodies, but our thoughts, our emotions, and our inclinations need covering and restraint.

But occasionally you’ll hear of people who don’t believe that. They say there’s nothing wrong with human nakedness, and to prove it, they go out in public with nothing on just to prove they can. I recently read about bike riders in sixty different cities around the world who rode naked two weeks ago, to quote, "Protest oil dependency and showcase your gorgeous self-love." Well, you know, it’s that "gorgeous self-love" that got us in the mess we’re in. People do things like that to assert their freedom, but they don’t realize that we’re not morally free. We operate at the whim of our sinful desires, unless God steps in and overmasters them. Deliberately to go naked is really to rebel against God.

So it’s significant in our reading from St. Luke that the demon-possessed man has not worn clothes for a long time. He is a demonstration of the ultimate rebellion. He has cast off all restrait from society and God and opened himself up to control by God’s enemies, the demons.

When did it start for this man? Maybe when he was a boy he rebelled against the influence of his parents and teachers. Maybe as a teenager he started dabbling in dark mysteries and the occult. Maybe he got involved in alcohol abuse and sexual sin. But in the name of self-expression, he cast off morality, social structure, his home, his clothing, and his sanity. In the name of freedom from God and His rule, this poor man ended up possessed and hounded by his demons, driven naked to live like a wild beast among the tombs.

He was so possessed, so enslaved, that he no longer had any identity of his own. It’s not just that we don’t know his name; that’s common for people whom Jesus meets and heals. It’s that in verse 29, Jesus commands the evil spirit to come out of him, and he cries out, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!"

Who’s this "me"? This man of Geresa doesn’t know Jesus of Nazareth. He doesn’t know Jesus is the Son of God Most High. He doesn’t know our Lord has power over the demons of Hell!

But the demons do. And they won’t let the man answer for himself. Naked, bleeding, living cold and crazy among the tombs, this poor fragment of humanity no longer has any self to answer with.

Now here’s something that never fails to amaze me: Every time there’s an encounter between our Lord Jesus and a demon, it’s always the demons who are quaking and afraid. Jesus is always the one in control. Jesus asks, "What is your name?"

Can this man be called back to a sense of himself? Or has his personality been stripped away from him as thoroughly as the clothing and fetters he couldn’t help but shed?

"Legion," is the reply. (A legion was a Roman battalion of 4,000 to 6,000 soldiers). No, there seems to be nothing left of what once was a human being.

But the legion of demons know that’s about to change. With Jesus there, it has to change. And they beg and beg Jesus not to send them into the Abyss, to the Lake of Fire prepared for the Devil and his angels, where they will be naked before the wrath of God for all eternity. The demons have more sense than a lot of us human beings! They didn’t want to be unclothed!

So they beg Jesus to allow them to go into the herd of pigs feeding nearby, and we know the result. Sorry, you stupid demons, you’ve just driven the pigs mad, they’ve rushed down the hill into the lake and drowned, and it’s off to the Abyss with you, after all.

Do you feel sorry for the pigs? Or for the swineherds? Surely, it was a terrible economic loss. Though if they were Jews who owned them, they had no business investing in pork! But let’s not miss the point of what Jesus has just accomplished. There were witnesses to this scene, not just the disciples, but also citizens of that region. It was important for them to have proof of what Jesus can do. It’s one thing for a priest or a healer to say, "Demons, be gone!" The demons might lie low, then break out against their victim worse than ever after the exorcist has departed the scene. But when the exorcist says, "Go!" and immediately a peaceful herd of pigs goes thundering down the hillside, you know the cure is effective. The demons are really gone.

By the time the people in the town and from the countryside gather, there the man is, no longer possessed. He’s sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. Jesus has restored him to a right sense of who he is and who God is for him. For the demons, it was "God Most High," the old pagan name for the distant all-powerful great Spirit who was only to be feared. But now, the man knows Jesus, come to minister God’s love and mercy to him. He was free in a perverse way when he raged naked among the tombs, breaking off his fetters. But now Jesus has claimed him for His own, now he belongs to Christ, and he’s never been so free in his born days.

How do the people of that region react to that? They’re overcome with fear at Jesus and what He’d done. It wasn’t just about the pigs. The thing that scared them most was the change He’d worked in that one man.

It can be scary when Jesus gets ahold of someone who used to be really bad. If we know somebody who’s really out there, who’s really wicked, who’s really far gone, we can say, "Well, I’m not like him! I must be okay." But then, Jesus makes a shocking, radical change in the wicked person’s life. He or she truly becomes good, pure, and merciful. We see up close and personal what the power of Christ can do, and all our own excuses for our own attitudes and behavior start to look pretty shabby. We’re forced to see how poor, rebellious, enslaved, and unclothed we really are.

That’s hard to face. "Jesus, go away," we say. "I want to celebrate me and my gorgeous self-love. Stop scaring me with the idea of my guilt and shame. Stop shaming me with your white-hot goodness." We hug to ourselves the rags of our good works, or our social position, or our nice temperament, and try not to see that we need Jesus to deliver us and clothe us in His righteousness, too.

When I was first exploring my call to the ministry, I submitted the usual written material about my understanding of a pastor’s duties, my sense of call, and so on. My senior pastor at the time was theologically liberal, and he objected to the orthodox, Biblically-based way I’d put things. I still remember sitting in his office and having him tell me, "You have to get rid of all that religious baggage and stand naked before God!" I wish I knew then what I know now: That none of us can stand naked before God. That if we did, the blazing fire of His purity would consume us right away.

No, the only way we can stand before God, the only way we can sit at Jesus’ feet, is if we’re clothed and in our right minds. That is, if we are clothed with Christ Himself. Until Jesus Himself clothes us, we are prisoners of sin, prisoners of our rebellion, prisoners of our enormous, raggedy self-love. As we read in Galatians, until Jesus clothes us, we are prisoners of the roles and categories the world puts upon us: Jew vs. Gentile, slave vs. free, male vs. female, rich vs. poor. But when Jesus clothes us with His redemption and righteousness, there’s only one category for us, and that’s beloved child of God and heir to His blessed promises in His only begotten Son.

St. Paul says that these promises are given to those who believe. Believe what?

Ah, there’s the sad, joyful, and astounding part. We must believe that the perfect, eternal Son of God laid aside the garment of His own power in heaven and permitted Himself to be clothed in a body of human flesh. We must believe that in that flesh He condescended to be taken captive, stripped naked, and nailed to a tree, to gasp out His life’s breath in agony and shame. That just as God slew those animals to make skin coverings for Adam and Eve, Jesus the Lamb of God shed His blood to provide the covering for our sins. That just as those pigs died to prove that the demon-possessed man was free, Jesus took on our uncleanness to deliver us from sin and the Devil.

We must believe that Jesus in His perfect purity and obedience totally defeated the powers of Hell, that He burst the prison house of death, and rose to glorious and everlasting life.

And we have to believe that Jesus did all that for us, to restore to us the joy and fellowship that Adam our father and Eve our mother knew with God in that long-lost garden.

But not to walk naked. Never again to walk naked. Rather, to be clothed with Christ, sitting at His feet, in our right minds, blessed, confident, open, and free. In His name, I invite you, put on the garment of His love, and be at peace.

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