4th Sunday after the Epiphany
4th Epiphany 4.22 Luke 4:31-44
Have you noticed what a bad neighborhood Jesus lived in? It makes downtown Detroit, or North St. Louis look positively tranquil and good. But wow, yeah. Take Capernaum, please!—where Jesus lived for a while at the beginning of his public ministry: what a hole! It’s not vast urban tent cities of drug addicts, thieves, and hobos taking dumps on the sidewalk (like downtown San Francisco and LA are these days, I’m told) or like New Haven CT with all the muggings and the shootings. Nah; it’s worser…!
Downtown Capernaum is like demon city! You can’t throw a rock without hitting some demonic lunatic. They were everywhere! The streets were crawling with them! And I don’t know about you, but having lived in St. Louis and New Haven and Chicago, I’ll take my chances with physical crime any day over the supernatural variety with demons, or zombies! who are demon-possessed! Because that’s some messed up shtuff, right?!
You’d think Jesus, with a very free choice of dwelling places (as King of the Universe 🙂 would live in a nicer place, wouldn’t you? But here’s the thing: it seems like Capernaum was a nicer place… before Jesus moved in! He’s the one who drags the neighborhood down. It seems he’s something of a magnet for demons, demoniacs, lunatics, lepers, zombies, vagrants celestial and terrestrial; they’re all drawn to Jesus, like moths to the flame. And (pursuing the moths to the flame analogy which just now occurred to me, and which I’m liking a lot) Jesus can (perhaps?) be pictured like a cosmic bug zapper on a hot summer night: the mosquitoes, er, demons, flock to him, but, like a fusion powered bug zapper, they are all burned up in his atmosphere.
Still, it does seem that Jesus draws a bad crowd, rather drags down the property values in the neighborhoods he moves into. Because… the demons will come and find him; they’re relentless and they’re not quiet, either, when they come, or well behaved, and they do mug a few folks before Jesus zaps them. So, having Jesus move in next door can be… kinda scary! Sure, he gets rid of the demons, eventually!, but not after drawing a whole huge flock of ‘em to your own neighborhood! And who wants to live with the mayhem and madness of bad neighborhoods?
I recall drifting off to sleep, upon a warm summer night, in New Haven, years ago, in a sublet just off Whaley Avenue, only to be awakened by a bullet ricocheting off our house (fired, I believe, by a certain “Leroy” who was aiming not at our house but at a police officer, apparently, according to my friend Robert who was sleeping in the front room, who heard the gunshot (and the bullet ricochet off the siding a couple feet above his head) and a female voice going: “Leroy, you can’t shoot at no police officer!” and a deeper, male voice, presumably “Leroy” replying: “Shut up bit…dear; I shoot at whoever I want to”). While such drama is, of course, fun, for a while, it can interfere with proper sleep. I moved out to Hamden, a few weeks later, to house-sit for a professor with my buddy Allen Bean.
Anyway; bad things can happen even in “good and safe” neighborhoods—where Jesus hasn’t come yet. Like the Hollywood Hills of California. If you haven’t seen the heartfelt and charming family film “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood…” then you might want to ear muff for the next paragraph because it contains plot spoilers and you will want to see this film…
The movie is about the Manson Family murders of 1969 which occurred in a very snooty neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills where Roman Polanski was living with Sharon Tate. In the film, the fictional actor Rick Dalton is living next door to Polanski and Tate, when 3 murderous hippies—members of the Manson Family—break into Rick’s house one night (mistaking it for Polanski’s, in the film) to murder everyone. Delightful mayhem ensues which I won’t totally spoil. But after it all goes down, a shaken Rick Dalton is standing in the cul de sac in front of Sharon Tate’s front gate. She buzzes Rick on the intercom, crying, “What in the world is going on over there?” Rick goes “Ah, freakin’ hippies! They broke into my house to murder me and my buddy Cliff and his dog.” His neighbor exclaims: “Oh, my God! That’s awful! Is everyone alright?” Rick replies: “Uh, the hippies aren’t!”
You can un-ear-muff. This is the unsettling thing about Jesus moving in next door: a previously safe neighborhood can turn demonic, instantly!, because demons are drawn to the Light (like Manson Family Murderers) like moths to a flame, but… they’ll burn up in Christ’s atmosphere (like Rick, he happens to have a flamethrower, handy).
Now… how do you feel about that? One more story before you answer (I know it’s been a lot of stories and pop culture references, but you’re not un-amused, unless I miss my guess, though you’re probably wondering: “do all these stories have a point? Like about Jesus and our Gospel today?” Well, yes, they do. I’m going to tie them all together with a practically Hollywood ending :-). Trust me. I’m a trained professional.
So, John Mayer, in one of his more popular songs “In Your Atmosphere” is also concerned about going to LA in general, and the safety, for him, of the Hollywood Hills neighborhood, in particular. Because his actress girlfriend (who has dumped him because she’s too good for him) lives there; and Mayer, though he really likes LA, muses, “I don’t think I’m going to go to LA anymore/ I don’t know what it’s like to land/ and not race through your door/ So I don’t think I’m going to go to LA anymore/ I’m gonna steer clear/ I’d burn up in your atmosphere/ ‘Cause I’d die if I saw you/ I’d die if I didn’t see you there/ So I don’t think I’m going to go to LA anymore”.
People worry a lot when they hear this Gospel about demon possession. It was all we talked about Tuesday morning, studying this text. “Pastor, are demons still around today?” Which is a nice way of saying, “How bad is my neighborhood, demon-wise? Could they come for me and get me, and what would Jesus do about it?”
Good questions! And here’s the thing: Jesus draws the demons like moths to the flame. So, if you want to hang with Jesus (and you really, really should hang with him!—it is life and joy and beautiful beyond describing) there’ll be demons! And they might break into your house, taking it for Jesus’. And mayhem may ensue…
But here’s the thing that Mayer’s song illustrates, so well. The real darkness, the demon making the neighborhood bad is the one that lives in the singer’s dark, messed up, heart! Like moths to the flame, we’re drawn to the Light Jesus is, and we want to go there, but we don’t want to go there—‘cause we’ll burn up in his atmosphere; we’d die if we saw him; we’d die if we didn’t see him there; like falling space junk, burning up on re-entry in the atmosphere.
Christianity is like this: the demon Jesus must cast out is the one that’s been living in you since birth. It’s not an entirely benign procedure! His Light will burn like hell, but then… you’ll rise. You’ll wake. In Christ’s likeness. To serve him. In heaven. With Peter’s mother-in-law; and all those he’s lit up before. And that’ll be… fun—seriously, fun!
So, don’t worry about going to LA anymore. Just… go. You’re drawn; like a moth to the flame. And here, in Zion’s ever, always dangerous neighborhood, by Christ’s mysterious Way, in Word and Worship, we all burn up in his atmosphere, finally… to shine like the Son. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.