Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Brian Cox, a herd of pigs, and Jesus

This sermon was preached in an Evensong service earlier this year. I'll add more sermons as and when!

I wonder whether you’re a fan of Brian Cox. I wonder if you know who Brian Cox is – well, even if you don’t recognise the name, you may well recognise the face of the TV presenter, often to be seen gazing into the middle distance with a contented half-smile, sitting on a rock against the backdrop of a sunset, as he explains the mysteries of the universe.

Cox is, of course, the pop star from the 90s band D:Ream, whose most famous song , the anthem ‘Things can only get better’ was much used in the 1997 general election, turned physics professor and researcher. It’s hardly surprising that, with such cool profs, applications to read physics at university have increased over the last few years.  

For those of us without the inclination or the means to do physics degrees, there’s always the telly, and for every one teenager inspired to study this stuff properly, there will be a couple of thousand or so, who, without even realising it, have been spending their Sunday evenings of late learning the laws of thermodynamics, learning that, as Brian Cox puts it, energy is eternal, that, while the universe behaves as it does, energy cannot be transformed but not destroyed; when it is diverted from one system, its nature is such that it finds another through which to pass.

And so we come to this story from the Gospels which, in essence, is about just that – the demonic energy of Legion passing from one man into an entire herd of pigs. On one level, this is a story about the power of the gospel to save those who are caught up in the forces of evil, and also, a story about the power of the gospel to save all people, that is to say the Gentiles, not just to bring back the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

It’s important to note that in Luke’s telling of this narrative, Jesus very obviously crosses over from Jewish Galilee into gentile territory, and the first person he meets there is the very embodiment of ritual impurity – living among graves, which were unclean places, living among pigs, which were unclean animals, and tormented by not just one but many, legion, unclean spirits. And what Jesus offers this man is, in a word, salvation. In the NRSV translation, Jesus heals the man – but in the Greek, which puts it more strongly, Jesus saves the man.

Maybe this life-changing encounter with Jesus not only liberates the man himself, whose name we don’t know, but also foretells the great proclamations of Pentecost and of the Jerusalem Council, the vision of Peter and the prophecy of Simeon that we have sung this evening, that through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days, all people will be drawn to the transformative, saving love of God.

It’s worth bearing in mind that Luke may well have had in mind a passage from Isaiah, the prophet whose vision of salvation for all the world inspires the words of the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s oracle of Jesus. In Isaiah 65 the prophet describes God reaching out his hands in welcome and accepting love to ‘a rebellious people’, who, like the man in our story, live among tombs and who eat the flesh of pigs, refusing God’s outstretched arms because God is too clean for them. This state of affairs, says the prophet Isaiah, will ultimately be overturned in the new heavens and the new earth which God is about to create, in which all animal sacrifice will be unnecessary.       

And yet, it is a story with a shadow side, with a herd of pigs drowning in a lake under the influence of the Legion of demons, with a swineherd watching helplessly on as his livelihood disappeared into the water. Is it that one man’s salvation is another’s ruin?  Is it that the good news to the Gentiles, which Luke proclaims, is also bad news to the Gentiles, at least to Gentile pig-farmers?

It might be, judging by the end of this story, with all the locals begging Jesus to leave, that this might be the case; that Jesus may not be the best person to have around if you are trying to make a living raising pigs.

Then again, maybe pig-rearing was a precarious business in the first century, whether or not Jesus happened to be passing through. It wasn’t just the Jews who considered pigs unclean; Egyptians and Hittites did too, and pigs were sacrificed as part of pagan worship rituals in various cultures of the first century. Maybe it’s partly their connection with pagan worship rites that makes the pig the most famous of all unclean animals in the Scriptures. So pigs were, in their Gentile world, sacrificial animals just as lambs were in the Jewish communities from which Jesus had recently come in this passage from Luke. As I said, maybe rearing pigs in a Gentile community was just as freighted with ritual significance as rearing lambs among Jews.

So if, the first law of thermodynamics is right, and energy cannot be destroyed, but can be transformed, within the laws of physics, it makes sense that the demons in our story would have to go somewhere, and if they have to go somewhere, then a conveniently nearby herd of sacrificial animals might be just the place for them. That the demonic energy would have to go somewhere would be obvious to Luke’s first readers, even if they’d never heard of Brian Cox or the laws of physics; later on in the gospel, Jesus says that when an unclean spirit leaves a person, ‘it wanders through the waterless regions looking for a resting-place’ and that, if it returns to its original house and finds it empty, it brings seven other demons back with it to set up a commune, so that the poor person who started out with one demon ends up with seven.

Notice that the demons wander through waterless regions, and that the demons in our story are well and truly drowned, taking the sacrificial pigs with them. No chance of a demonic come-back in this story.

All of this might sound pretty remote to our way of thinking; many of us probably don’t view the forces of evil in this way, at least not in a literal sense.

But if we think about it, this ancient wisdom touches on a reality we know all too painfully well, that the cycles of abuse, addiction and exploitation are, sadly often, self-perpetuating, that the school bullies are those who are bullied by their parents at home, that trying to convince a teenager to work hard for her GCSEs, who comes from a home in which three generations have never worked, is an uphill struggle of the proportions of Sisyphus.

Like the sacrificial pigs in our story, it is usually the innocent who are the victims of others’ demons. The environmental impact of climate change illustrates this chillingly; if and when the world’s temperature increases by a couple of degrees celcius, it will be animals, and the poorest humans living in places such as Bangladesh, who will be the first innocent victims of human activity. We live in a fallen world, and while that remains so, there will always be the innocent victims of others’ demons.

On a more immediate and mundane level, maybe we can all recognise this scenario: a middle manager, frustrated and unfulfilled by her job and burdened with pressure to perform, subconsciously takes her stress out on one of her employees, threatening him if he doesn’t meet the newly-hiked up performance targets; the man goes home and shouts at his wife who snaps at her children who go into school the next day and, in their sense of confused rejection, are rude to their teacher who sits at his desk and wonders why on earth he bothers to persist in this job, before putting on his coat at the end of the day and going home to his partner. To use the biblical language, the demons in our lives can simply go from place to place, from person to person, piling up on each other so that pretty soon, we have our own Legion of darkness. The people on the margins of our society - the homeless, the vulnerable, the addicted - and the people whose troubles are no less real but much less obvious  – the isolated, the embittered, the survivors of life - didn’t become so instantly. A whole legion of forces led them there, and a whole legion of forces keep them there.          

So where does this leave us as Christians? Do we need our own sacrificial animals on which to pile all the legion of our own shadowy pain? Thankfully, and obviously, the resounding answer to that has to be a loud no – we do have a sacrifice, whom we remember every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Isaiah tells us that ‘like a lamb before the slaughter he was silent’ as the pain of the nails and the weight of sin seared through him’ And’, says Isaiah, ‘the Lord has laid on him, the iniquity of us all.’ The iniquity, the sin, the demons of us all. On the cross, Jesus took on our sin, our shame, our shadows and our demons. And the wonderful news of the gospel is that even the Legion of the world’s darkness wasn’t enough to drive Jesus to destruction – the divine power in him raised him to a new and transformed life three days later.

Energy had been transformed in the most profound, most world-changing way. This is the heart of our faith as Christians. It’s what we celebrate every time we share bread and wine together, and it’s what we will celebrate with great joy on Easter Sunday. Yet so often we forget this – we carry our own demons within us, or we load them onto others, often our own innocent victims – we forget that all the time, the great sacrifice of Jesus, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, has been made.

We see evil around us still, we need only open our newspapers or turn on our TVs to hear yet another story of innocent victims in this broken world. The kingdom of God has been inaugurated by Jesus, but it has not yet been fulfilled – as some people put it, we live in the ‘now and not yet’ in between the resurrection and the ultimate fulfilment of all that the resurrection means, in the new heavens and the new earth, when all energy will be transformed into the glory of God.   

So let us, if we can, consider our own demons, the dark places in our own lives. May we not load them on to others, but let us ‘cast all our cares on him who cares for us’ and may we find in Jesus true salvation. As we live in this fallen world of innocent victims and home-seeking demons, may we find in it the Jesus who bore our pain. And may we do so in expectant hope of the world to come, in which all energy will be ultimately transformed, in which evil will be finally overcome, and in which God will be all in all. Amen.   

I can't resist adding this        


1 comment:

  1. What a superb sermon, I remember hearing this at Tewin and wishing I could hear it again ... thanks Lucy!