Sermon notes for Sunday, July 9, the 5th Sunday After Pentecost
A question that is suggested in the book WHEN HEARTS BECOME FLAME by Stephen Muse: What is my question for Jesus?
The question I would ask tells a great deal about my relationship to Him, who I imagine He is, what role He plays in my life.
The Scripture readings for the day also have questions in them. They however suggest wrong questions. St. Paul (Romans 10:1-10) contrasting those who live by faith with those who try to attain righteousness through their own strict adherence to Torah suggests there are questions we should not ask because they are the wrong questions:
. . . But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
The person who believes that they can attain God’s righteousness by their own ability perfectly to keep Torah imagines that he/she can ascend to heaven, and to bring the Christ to earth. Or, they imagine by their own ritual and moral perfection that they could even raise the Messiah from the dead.
St. Paul says the questions are wrong. It is not by our own righteousness that we can accomplish God’s will. We cannot by our good works ascend to heaven, nor would we by our own righteous behavior be able to escape the depth of hell.
The questions are wrong because they reflect a total misunderstanding of the Christ, of who He is, why we need Him, what He does for our salvation. Christ does not come from heaven to earth because of the righteousness of some on earth. Nor does Christ rise from the dead because of the goodness of God’s people. It is while we are sinners and because we are sinners that Christ descends to earth and becomes incarnate and then descends into Hades and rises from the dead.
So, “What is my question for Christ?”
The Gospel lesson for the day is Matthew 8:28-9:1, Christ’s encounter with the Gergesene demoniacs. They too have a question for Christ:
“What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?”
St. John Chrysostom in his commentary on this Gospel notes the real difference between Christ and the demons. The demons are terrified of Christ – they have a real fear of God. But it does them no good, for they aren’t motivated by their fear of God to do good.
Christ, for His part, is not but gentle with the demons. He doesn’t threaten them, though they obviously feel threatened. Christ does not torment them, but actually grants them their request. They want out of His presence. Obviously they don’t even have the power to flee from Christ. They are powerless in His presence. They have to ask His permission to leave. This story is used in the prayers of exorcism at a baptism. We remind Satan, even taunt him, that he has no power when Christ is present and can only do what Christ allows him to do. Satan cannot even flee without asking Christ’s permission!
Christ treats the demons with kindness and respect, as only their creator could do. Christ is not threatened by them and clearly not afraid of them.
The demons might have recognized the even-keeled temperament of their Creator, but they don’t. They don’t ask the right question. They don’t ask Christ if they could serve Him. They may represent some kind of chaotic, uncontrolled power and evil, but they also are shown to be powerless and inconsequential by Christ.
Proverbs tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10; c.f. Psalm 111:10). The demons have the fear of God as is shown in their attitude toward Christ. It does them no good, as it doesn’t lead to wisdom. They want to flee His presence rather than embrace His goodness. Their question for Jesus doesn’t help as it doesn’t put them in a right relationship with Christ. It is no doubt because their relationship to Christ is wrong that they ask the wrong question.
Each of us should think about what is my question for Christ?
If I say something like, “Will He help me?” – that is not a question directed to Christ but a question for our self to answer. I need to change the question and ask it directly to Christ. I need to talk to Him. I need to orient my life so that I can so directly talk to Him.
If I ask, “Can you help me, Jesus?” – the answer is yes, of course He could, but whether the help I want is in accordance with God’s will is another issue. To ask that question seems to reflect some doubt in my heart about his ability/power or about His goodness and love.
To ask the right question, I need to think about who Jesus is, what His will and intention is, what is He capable of? And who am I in relationship to Him? Depending on who I am in relationship to Him determines what I can ask of Him.
If I am His servant, and He really is my Lord, I can ask, “How can I serve You?” “What is your will for me?”
My ability to hear His response will depend on my relationship to Him. I need to know who He is before I can relate to Him, or ask the right question of Him.