A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Romans 13:1-7 & St. Matthew 8:23-34
by William Klock
As we’ve been making our way through the Epiphany Season the Church has been presenting us each week with these Scripture lessons that focus on the miracles of Jesus. Two weeks ago we saw him turn water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana; last week we saw him cleansing a leper from his leprosy and healing the servant of a Roman centurion. Today we see Jesus calming a storm and casting out demons. If you remember back to the miracle in which Jesus turned the water into wine, St. John ended that story by telling us that because of the miracle they witnessed, Jesus’ disciples believed in him. In fact, this was the first of seven “signs” that St. John arranges his Gospel around—signs of Jesus’ divinity and messiahship.
But understand: The miracles of Jesus weren’t just raw proofs of his divinity. Jesus’ mission wasn’t just to go around for three years proving to everyone that he was God, and then dying to pay the penalty of our sins. No. Because if all Jesus had done was provide proofs of his divinity, the Jews of his day would have simply applied to Jesus all their misconceptions of God and what it means to follow him. Jesus used those three years—and all his teaching and miracles—to manifest the grace of God—to correct all the misconceptions the people had about God in order to prepare them for the gracious salvation he was about to offer.
Now consider how Epiphany has been showing us these examples from Jesus’ life so that we can follow them. Brothers and sisters, when we go out into the world, we have a problem very similar to the one Jesus had. He couldn’t just go to the world and announce that he was God, because the world had too many misconceptions about God. And we can’t just go out into the world and declare that we’re the Church and that we’re presenting the Gospel, because the world has too many misconceptions about what the Church is and what the Gospel is. Jesus came into the world and manifested the grace of God so that people could truly know him. Our mission is to go out into the world and manifest the grace of God too—to show the world what the realChurch really is and to show the world what the real Gospel really is. This is why carrying the light of Christ to the world means caring for others—sorrowing with them in their sorrows and rejoicing with them in their joys—and why it means showing mercy the same way Jesus showed mercy as we saw last week. And now today’s lessons show us another way that we manifest the grace of God to the world. The lessons today remind us that our God is a God with authority and power, and because we trust in him, we manifest both his power and our trust as we live in his peace.
I thought about titling this sermon, “A Horror Show in Four Acts”, because the lessons show us three terrors—three things that terrorise us and leave us in fear. Chances are at least one of these three things scares all of us—three acts. But there’s a fourth and final act for the Christian that’s implied in each of the other three, because the lessons don’t leave us in fear. They also remind us that that Jesus isn’t just our Lord; he’s the Lord of all creation, and because of that, we can rest in his peace knowing that he is sovereign over all things—that because we know he is Lord of all, we have no need to fear. And in the end the lessons remind us that living in peace is an act of faith that manifests Christ to the people around us.
The Gospel begins with a familiar story. We’re now about two years into Jesus’ ministry. He’s been working miracles and he’s been preaching and teaching, and while there were many people who believed, most did not. Jesus had come to the Jews, but the more good he did, the more most of the Jews hardened their hearts against him. The more he showed his divinity, the more he didn’t fit into their conception of God. The more he did God’s work, the more he didn’t fit into their ideas of how God was supposed to work. So Jesus decides to take his message to the Gentiles for a while. He and his disciples board a boat to cross from the region of Galilee, across the Sea of Galilee, to a mostly Greek area, the Decapolis, on the other side. If the Jews won’t listen, maybe the Gentiles will.
That’s when St. Matthew tells us, “And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves” (Matthew 8:24). The Sea of Galilee is about 20km across at its widest point, so these guys were probably a long way from shore. They were fisherman and they were certainly good swimmers, but imagine being on the ferry halfway between here and Powell River and being thrown overboard. It’s a long way to swim and even a strong swimmer might not make it in calm water, let alone in a storm. And as much as storms were common on the Sea of Galilee and these fishermen would have been used to them, this doesn’t seem to be an ordinary storm. No doubt these men knew how to tell when a storm was brewing and wouldn’t have gone out if they suspected one. This one seems to have come up unexpectedly and it was so severe that the waves swamped the boat. Matthew describes it in just a few short words and we read them so quickly that we might not realise just how bad the situation was. The situation was dire and their lives were at risk. My dad likes to watch a T.V. programme that shows what it’s like to be a fisherman in Alaska in the middle of big storms. I’ve watched it a couple of times and had no idea just how rough it could be in the middle of the northern Pacific—and not just rough but dangerous. I can envision what we read in the Gospel today to be a sort of First Century version of the same thing. And I can imagine the disciples—some of whom, again, were experienced fishermen—all struggling together. Maybe some were bailing water out, some were rowing, and others were fighting to get the sail down before it tore apart or before the little boat rolled over. It’s a scene of frantic activity. You can smell the fear.
And then in the middle of all that chaos, Matthew tells us that Jesus was fast asleep. So here you’ve got a bunch of men fearing for their lives, a little boat being tossed around on the waves, water swamping it, and juxtaposed against that is Jesus lying there asleep. And judging from the point of the story, Jesus knew what was going on. Unless he was utterly exhausted, it doesn’t seem likely that he could have slept through the noise and chaos and the water. It’s as if the storm woke him, but he peacefully rolled over and went back to sleep—just to make a point. And he makes his point when the disciples frantically shake him awake: “Save us Lord; we are perishing!” And Jesus sits up and looks at them—I think with the same look he gave Mary and Joseph when they lost him in Jerusalem and found him again in the Temple and he said, “Why were you looking for me and so worried? Didn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” He now looks at the disciples the same way and asks, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” And then Matthew says he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea and everything became calm. Even after two years with Jesus, the disciples are amazed: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
Jesus taught his disciples a lessons and he teaches it to us at the same time. Disciples are disciples precisely because they follow and trust their teacher. Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for waking him up and asking him to save them. What he rebukes is their fear. And that’s the key for the disciple of Jesus—them and us. Those men in the boat should have known better. Jesus is the sovereign Lord of creation, and not only that, but he has promised that if we will simply put him first in our lives, he will take care of everything else. No Christian has any cause to fear the storms of the world. First, we can have confidence that in his sovereignty, God is in control of all things, and second, we can have faith that if we are putting him first in our lives, that his Father is working out everything else in our lives for our good. Even in the face of death, we have nothing to fear, because if we’ve truly got an eternal perspective, we know that there are more important things than even life in this world.
And so I can imagine the conversation that followed as Jesus asked his disciples how they expected to be his witnesses to the world if they allowed their fear to overcome them in something like a storm that they surely knew was under his control all the time. And friends, Jesus asks us the same question when we allow ourselves to be overcome by the situations of life.
The second half of the Gospel takes us into Act Two. Matthew says that they cross the Sea of Galilee and arrived in Gadaras. They were walking to town—maybe even discussing what it meant to have faith—and suddenly “two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way” (Matthew 8:28). Again, because Matthew uses so few words, we might miss the creepiness of the whole situation. Here they are passing the cemetery—Matthew doesn’t say what time of day it was, but you can almost imagine that maybe it was at dusk and the fog was rolling—and suddenly out of the tombstones run two demon-possessed men. In the other accounts we’re told that they no one could control them and that their name was Legion—they were many. (Consider that a Roman legion had 6000 men in it.) Jesus sets his friends up for another test of faith. If any of the disciples hadn’t been afraid in the storm, they probably were now. And what might have surprised them even more is that these demons knew who Jesus was—they recognised him. The Son of God, the one who whose mission it was to bind them, was suddenly encroaching on their turf early and they’re angry. So they cry out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”
What’s remarkable is that these demons, being in the presence of Jesus, actually invite him to cast them out. There was a heard of pigs there and they beg Jesus, “Cast us into the pigs.” And of course that’s what Jesus does. All he has to say is “Go” and the demons leave the two men, enter the pigs and then the demon-crazed pigs run down the hill toward the sea and drown themselves in the water. Again, it’s a creepy scene, but one that at the same time manifests the power of God in Christ. The pig herders ran into town to tell everyone what happened. The other accounts tell us that when the townspeople arrived the two men were, for the first time in as long as anyone could remember, sitting there with Jesus, happy and completely normal. He calmed the raging sea, showing he is Lord over nature. Now he calms two demon-possessed men, showing he’s Lord of the spirit world—even over the very forces of evil.
And again we have a lesson. Jesus reminds us of his power. If we are truly his disciples, we have no need to fear the power of the Enemy any more than we do the power of the storm. And, brothers and sisters, we have even less reason to fear Satan than Jesus disciples did. Those demons at Gadaras that day knew that the time of their defeat was coming, but hadn’t come yet. They still had power and authority in the world. But since then, Jesus has accomplished his work. He finished it on the cross when he crushed the head of the serpent. And yet as Christians, thanks to the superstitions of the world and the popular but false depictions of evil that we see in T.V. and movies, not to mention unbiblical teaching that comes out of some parts of the Church today, lots of Christians live in perpetual fear of the devil, looking for a demon under every rock and behind every tree, living in fear that this or that will lead to demon possession, and even attributing their sins to demonic influence.
But friends, what do the Scriptures say about Satan’s power over us? The Gospels and the book of Revelation tell us that he is bound (Mark 3:27; Luke 11:20; Revelation 20). St. Paul tells us that his power is restricted and restrained (2 Thessalonians 2:6ff); that he has lost his authority (Colossians 1:13); and that he is defeated, disarmed, and spoiled (Colossians 2:15; Revelation 12:7ff; Mark 3:27). Daniel’s vision reminds us that his kingdom has been destroyed and replaced by God’s kingdom (Daniel 7). St. John tells us that he has already been judged (John 16:110); that he cannot touch Christians (1 John 5:18); that his works have been destroyed (1 John 3:8); and that he has nothing (John 14:30). And St. James tells us all we have to do is resist him and he must flee (James 4:7). That’s the reality of the situation. And so we need to ask ourselves what it communicates to the world, when God’s people choose to live as if Jesus failed to defeat Satan on the cross, and when God’s people choose to live in fear of the enemy who is not only now defeated, but over whom Jesus demonstrated his power. Because of Jesus’ triumph and as we live in faith, we can say with Martin Luther:
And tho’ this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us:
The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little world shall fell him.
Now, Act Three. Look at the Epistle. Maybe big storms don’t scare you and maybe demons don’t either. But I said that today’s lessons address three terrors. What about the government? Those of you who know my anarchist political leanings won’t be surprised when I say that of these three terrors, it’s government that scares me the most. Government is nothing more than force. With a stroke of a pen, government officials can rob us of our liberties and imprison us if we try to exercise them. With the stroke of a pen, government can declare vice to be virtue and imprison you for taking a stand for what God has told us is right. Government can wipe out everything you’ve spent your life building—at least in earthly terms—by regulating, taxing, by devaluing the currency, or simply by confiscating it. It’s truly scary what government can do. I’m leaving for southern California this afternoon and I’ll be driving, because currently the government of my country won’t let you on an airplane without photographing you nude or sexually molesting you. And consider what it was like for those early Christians living under Roman rule. Their faith was outlawed. Under emperors like Nero and Diocletian, Christians were arrested and crucified, thrown to lions in the arena, and dipped in pitch and burned alive to light Nero’s garden parties. It’s very scary what those with the power of the sword can compel us to do. And yet, consider what St. Paul then tells us in Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”
And we think: “Well, Paul must have been talking about benevolent governments.” Friends, there weren’t any “benevolent” governments in Paul’s day. Even at its best, the Roman Empire was terribly corrupt and oppressive. And so we ask “Why?” And he tells us, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Here’s another application of our knowing that God is sovereign. He is sovereign over nature, so we have nothing to fear there. He is sovereign over the devil, so we have nothing to fear there. And he’s also sovereign over our sovereigns. Whatever power our rulers hold, is power that God allows them to hold. Ultimately, Paul’s argument is that all power is God’s power. When good government exercises its power, it’s doing so on behalf of God. But even when bad governments exercise power—even when they’re in rebellion against God—he is still sovereign. Just as we have nothing to fear from devils and demons who think they can thwart God’s plans, we have nothing to fear when it comes even to a bad government—because ultimately God is in control.
And so Paul tells us, submit to those who rule over you. When government does what is right, your submission to it is truly submission to God’s own authority. And Paul even warns in verse 2: “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” And so he says: Pay your taxes, show respect to whom it’s due, and honour those who deserve honour.
The fact is that even under many of the most evil regimes, the government still works to maintain order, to encourage good, and to punish evil. Where we have an obligation to resist the government is when the government abuses the power God has given and uses it for evil. And yet as we see the example of the first Christians, they didn’t resist government for their own benefit as individuals, but to witness Christ to others. They allowed themselves to be carried off to the arena, but they worked to protect others from injustice and it was through that kind of witness that an enormous influence for good was eventually had on the Roman Empire.
So again, today’s theme is that of the manifestation of Christ’s power and authority—over nature, over spirits, and even over our human authorities and institutions. What that means for us, practically speaking, is that as we live in trust instead of fear—showing the evidence of our faith in Jesus and showing the world our eternal perspective—we manifest Christ to the world. We show the world that his power is real. When we can live in the midst of a natural disaster and devote ourselves to helping others instead of worrying about our own lives and our own possessions, we demonstrate in a tangible way not only the love and mercy of Christ, but his power and authority. As we choose to live in victory over evil instead of living in fear of it, we demonstrate to the world, in a very practical way, the power and authority of Christ over evil. And as we submit to those who govern us, we show our trust in the true Sovereign who rules over all, and demonstrate, again in a practical way, our faith that he will look after us.
These things aren’t always easy to do. There are times when disaster truly does threaten our lives. There are times when evil is very tempting. And there are time when government wields the sword unjustly. But no matter the situation, the grace of God is always with us and we can always know that God is sovereign. And so we pray:
Lord God, you know that we are in the midst of such dangers and that we cannot always stand upright because of the frailty of our nature: grant us strength and protection to support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.