Looking next door
(Using a pair of binoculars, open the church door or window ajar and peer through: Say things like “wonder what they are doing ‘over there”; look at that…o dear…no hope…just despicable and so on. Even get some members to come and take a look.)
We just love to look across the street and watch what other, less desirable people, are up to. We all have ‘someone’ across the street, who doesn’t quite fit in, who is a little different to us; to comment on and develop wonderful theories about. We surmise why they might do the things they do. Why they act in such peculiar ways, and we invest many hours trying to develop stories about them, to justify and excuse our spying on them through binoculars or the venetian blinds.
The street, the bitumen road or the dirt track that runs between us and them, acts as a barrier, a safety zone to separate us from actually meeting. Experience tells us, the street may as well be as wide as the sea, because there would be no way we would dare cross, to actually meet with this person; we’ve convinced ourselves that they’re a lost cause; who’d want to get caught up in their problems…after all, it was their bad choices and their silly behaviours that have brought their troubles.
Barriers separating us from others come in many forms; they don’t have to be physical. We can have psychological barriers, race barriers, and ethical barriers, religious and denominational barriers. All of which create misunderstanding, fear and suspicion and we use these fears to widen and strengthen our barriers, convincing ourselves that there is little we can do to help these people. Barriers can even be our excuses, enabling us to have some safe ground between them and us; Its too hard, I’ve tried once before, their no hoper’s; their someone else’s problem, some other churches problem. Sometimes the barriers we put up are so big we are convinced that God could not even cross. Binoculars that give us opportune to stand at a distance, are much safer and less challenging for our faith, than trusting that God can and does cross our barriers and use us to bring people into his kingdom.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus did not let any physical, social or religious barrier stop him from bringing the good news of the kingdom of God to people separated by barriers. Jesus was known as a rebel, who had no regard for barriers. He allowed sinful women to pour oil over his feet and kiss them. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He spoke against the important religious leaders, he healed and ate on the Sabbath, a holy day, and he loved his enemies and touched dead bodies, bringing them to life; all barriers that should never be crossed.
Yet he deliberately and continually crossed these barriers, not to cause offence, but to show and tell how God’s salvation plan is for everyone, as Isaiah foretold “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.”
Luke records how Jesus crossed one such barrier, the Sea of Galilee, the great expanse of water that separated the Jews from the gentiles. The lake formed a natural barrier that provided safe ground between the Jewish cities of Galilee and the Greek cities of the Decapolis. For the Jews it was religiously forbidden to enter that land. The people there were believed to be dysfunctional anti-religious and not part of God’s plan of salvation. The lake provided a safe no go zone, an ideal excuse to not visit such a place, or to have any contact with such people.
After all, what did they have in common? The Greeks had their own gods and their moral and religious traditions were full of evil, completely opposite to what they believed. Perhaps that’s why Luke in the Greek emphasises that Jesus sailed down to the country ‘opposite’ Galilee?
When Jesus arrived, there, on the other side of the barrier, opposite the religious city of Jerusalem, Jesus, ‘the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’, met the very man opposite to him. He was full of evil, as Luke writes ‘Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.’ This great evil however, was no barrier, no safe zone, or excuse for Jesus to hide behind.
Unlike the many religious, who used the lake as a barrier to protect themselves from having to help, Jesus was no onlooker; he crossed the lake to confront evil face to face. The demons knew their time had come and screamed “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!“
The demons knew that their evil was no barrier for God, and that Jesus came to destroy their reign, and begged for mercy. Commanded by Jesus, the demons entered into some pigs, and were destroyed by the very barrier that had once protected them. The water drowned and put an end to the power of evil, bringing freedom and a new life to the man whom everyone thought could not be controlled or helped; who was kept at a safe distance. Jesus crossed the barrier of water and used the water to bring the good news of the kingdom to those living opposite lives to God.
Jesus crossed the waters of the heavens, which were once the barrier, separating all of us from God. He crossed the expanse of the universe to enter our world; a world opposite to heaven, full of sin and evil, and he came to us, as he did to the demon possessed man, to bring us the good news of the kingdom of God. He crossed every human, physical and spiritual barrier, to redeem us from the power of sin, death and the devil, as the words of the song, ‘Lord I life your name on high’ list: ‘You came from heaven to earth- to show us the way,- from the earth to the cross- my dept to pay;- from the cross to the grave- from the grave- to the sky.’
And now the very waters of the sky, that separated us from God, are now used to bring us to him. In baptism, Jesus uses water and the power of his word, just as he did to the demons in the pigs, to destroy the evil that ruled in our life. He drowned our old sinful person and gave us what was his…the opposite to what we were. He gave us his righteousness, his holiness and his status as children of God, while on the cross he took upon himself, our sin, our evil and all our barriers that separated us from the love of God.
St Paul, in Ephesians 2 reminds us of this pure grace and gift of new life saying ‘remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace… and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations…He came and preached peace to you who were far away…’
And Luther, in his Small Catechism explains what this means practically for us, now that we are made new and are disciples and followers of Jesus: ‘All this he has done that I may be his own, live under him in His kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness just as He is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally.’ We now live lives that are the opposite of the world around us and opposite to our sinful human desires. We have the Holy Spirit to guide us and empower us to live holy lives, worthy of the gospel. Yet we dare not use our God given innocence and blessedness as a barrier to separate us from those opposite us; we dare not use our gift as an excuse or a safety zone, separating us from the community around us; excusing us from crossing barriers to reach those without God and without hope.
Jesus sends us, as he did the once demon possessed man, to ‘tell others how much God has done for us’. Yet be comforted and assured that it is not by our power or words that we go. It is by Jesus authority we go. And it is by the power of the gospel that we speak and it is the foolishness of the cross that we proclaim. Be assured, that when you put down your binoculars, and cross the barriers that once separated ‘us’ from ‘them’, Jesus’ promise is for you “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Amen