Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Other Kingdom

Last time we looked at why Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee; now let's consider what happened when he did.

Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him. And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the boat was covered with the waves. But He was asleep. Then His disciples came to Him and awoke Him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” But He said to them, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. So the men marveled, saying, “Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” Matt 8:23-27

As always, let's start by setting some context. The Hebrew attitude towards the sea is best described as a love/hate relationship. It was viewed at one and the same time as a source of life and death. While they were grateful for the food provided by the sea and recognized that Genesis declared life was first brought forth as the Spirit of God moved upon the face of 'the Deep', they also regarded it as being the place where Sheol (Hell) was located.

All through the psalms and the prophets the 'Deep' is regarded as a place of abandonment. It is the place where the soul sinks when God has forsaken those who have forsaken him. Consider Psalm 69...

But I pray to you, O LORD, in the time of your favor; in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation.

Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink; deliver me from those who hate me, from the deep waters.

Do not let the floodwaters engulf me or the depths swallow me up or the pit close its mouth over me.

Answer me, O LORD, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. (vs 13-16)

So great was this association between the sea and the depths of Hell that many fisherman and sea-faring types never even learned how to swim. To do so would be to set their souls at even greater risk than they endured in a boat. With this in mind, let's continue on the western shore....

When He had come to the other side, to the country of the Gergesenes, there met Him two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs, exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way. And suddenly they cried out, saying, “What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?” Now a good way off from them there was a herd of many swine feeding. So the demons begged Him, saying, “If You cast us out, permit us to go away into the herd of swine.” And He said to them, “Go.” So when they had come out, they went into the herd of swine. And suddenly the whole herd of swine ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and perished in the water. Then those who kept them fled; and they went away into the city and told everything, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus. And when they saw Him, they begged Him to depart from their region. Matt 8:28-34

On the surface these two events seem to be separate, but spiritually they deal with the same forces.

The Sea of Galilee has a reputation for being a quick tempered bit of water, due in part to the fact it lies 600 feet below sea level. Storms come up quickly and unannounced and with great ferocity. It is also quite deep and when a ship is lost it is rarely discovered again. When you add in the reputation of the sea as being the entrance to Sheol, then the concern of the disciples is fully understandable. What is not so readily understood is what they expected of Jesus when they awaked him that night.

Consider, first that Jesus was able to sleep through all this. Such I would suggest is the sleep of the innocent, with no guilt or fear to disturb it. In Mark's account the disciples mistake this supernatural calm for uncaring. But what, one wonders, did the disciples expect Jesus to do about the storm? Their response to his actions would indicate that they were surprised he was able to end it, so what was it they expected of him?

"Lord, save us! We are perishing," is the cry. But save them from what? If they expected him to do something about the storm, then why did they marvel so when he accomplished it? Could it be they simply did not want to die alone? How often do we, when faced with inevitable consequences turn to family and friends as if we expect them to solve the problem, knowing full well there is nothing they can do, simply because we need to face the inevitable with someone? We need to be held, we need to have someone tell us everything is going to be all right even when it isn't. I suspect the disciples of Jesus were no different. Afraid of the worst, they sought comfort from their teacher.

But instead of comfort, they get rebuke! He calls them men of 'little faith' and then, once again, he does the unexpected. After rebuking his disciples for their lack of faith, he rebukes the wind and the waves, possibly for disturbing his sleep. I know, it sounds flippant, but it is how I've always imagined this scene because of the word 'rebuke'. If the winds and waves had remained calm, the disciples wouldn't have panicked and prepared to face the end, and Jesus would have slept undisturbed through the entire crossing.

But what's really important is that in the minds of the disciples on board that boat they have not only been saved from death, they have been saved from the depths of Sheol. They have avoided being confined to the underworld. It matters not whether theologically their perception is accurate, what matters is that likely that was the way they saw it.

Now, on to the Gadarene graveyard. Here Jesus meets two men (other gospels say there was only one, but that is beside the point) and we see the demons challenge Jesus asking him why he wants to hassle them before the appointed time. Many commentaries have been written on Jesus' interplay with the demons. I won't belabour that point here, but I do want to consider the imagery found in what happens to the demons after they are transferred to the herd of pigs. They run down the hill in a mad frenzy and throw themselves into the sea.

What significance would this have for the disciples gathered around him? Think about it for a moment. The sea is the gateway to the underworld, demons are the denizens of that world. In the minds of the disciples and the others gathered there that day Jesus has just sent the demons back where they came from! Jesus in the course of a night and a day clearly demonstrated that the kingdom of God will not just supplant the kingdom of men on this earth, but it will conquer the kingdom of darkness as well.

This was new! Miracle workers have come and gone before; even false prophets had managed to give sight to the blind and deal with the odd fever or two; but to exert power over hell itself. To be able to control the storm is to challenge the powers of darkness that roused the waters to begin with; to strike fear in the heart of the demons and not only cast them out of a possessed man but to send them packing back to the depths from which they came; this was unprecedented. Not even Moses was credited with this much power, and he had stood in the very presence of God.

This then is the significance behind Jesus' excursion to the eastern shore, to demonstrate clearly that the authority of the Kingdom of Heaven extends everywhere, even over the kingdom of darkness. Sheol in all it's terror cannot stand in the face of the authority God had given to Jesus. The Son of Man is the embodiment of the 23rd Psalm, "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." Rather, evil fears him.

But demons and storms are just the beginning; there are greater manifestations of evil in the world. And Jesus will deal with it as well, as we shall see in our next episode when he travels back to his home town of Capernaum.


Photo: Slopes near Kursi, likely site of the swine incident.

Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 18

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