“OVER THE HILL?” – a sermon by Rev Mark Gilborson
A Sermon preached
I don’t know if you would ever describe yourself as being ‘over the hill’. Perhaps this is a description that we can only make of ourselves, after all if I called one of you ‘over the hill’ you might react in the same way as if you called me it!
So what does it mean? Well I did a bit of research, one of the definitions is ‘passed the peak of ones youthful vigour and freshness’, well if that is true I guess there is not much hope for any of us! Another definition is ‘far along in life’ to put it plainly ‘old’. Well we are far along in life for sure, and the word ‘old’ is a bit odd, it means very little, old in relation to what, the average, our peers? My children call me old because I am older than them. Of course to get back to our elevated landscape terminology we do have ‘as old as the hills’.
Yet when I told Andrew what the title of my sermon was so that he might include in on your website I insisted and was most fastidious that the question mark be included so as to read ‘over the hill?’ I guess that what ‘over the hill’ really means is a description of someone or something that does not have the value it once had, no longer the same usefulness, semi-redundant. My insertion of the question mark is instead of becoming a damning statement holding up a mirror so that it becomes a question that we might apply to our lives, churches, relationships and theology. Hmmm mirrors, now they are not the most pleasant things to look at when we are feeling over the hill!
Of course the gospel story includes a group of pigs literally going over a hill, well actually down a steep bank and into a river, but you get the point. You may have heard about the man who misread the recipe for lemon meringue pie, the pie kept throwing it self off the edge of the table – lemming meringue pie! The myth of lemmings committing mass suicide is just that, it is a myth, the need to migrate in huge numbers often cause the lemmings to literally push their compatriots off the edges of cliffs or into masses of water because those at the back are not aware of those at the front.
Whatever happened here, and this story is told in all three synoptic gospels, a herd of pigs became so agitated that their behaviour caused their involuntary suicide, a panic ensues and they are herded into the abyss. Their response to the presence and work of Jesus is sheer terror, they are terrified to death. The abyss that Luke talks of is interesting too, the abyss represents the chaos and disorder of Genesis 1, and the story of Noah, the story preceding this one is the calming of the storm, Jesus’ power over the chaotic waters that threaten life itself. Demons were believed to have come from the abyss, a place of darkness, where there is no order and here we see Jesus allowing order to be restored, putting things back where they should be, calming a different kind of storm. Another view might be that this destruction is not the will of Jesus but actually a sign of the ultimately self-destructive nature of evil.
Ok let’s move away from the pigs, you might say to me Mark, is this strange and destructive story actually over the hill, it’s language of spiritual possession, talking demons and exorcism, an anathema to our modern thinking?
Well first I would say that in our world of measuring and checking and confirming we are sometimes in danger of missing the point, I might be able to prove that E=MC2 but can I prove that those flowers smell nice? I might be able to describe the exact size, dimensions and weight of the communion table to meet strictest scientific examination but how can I prove how much I love my children? We today may take stories of demon possession more rationally ascribing them to mental illness or chemical imbalance yet even in our modern world some of it is still guesswork. It is a fact that there was a common experience held by the ancients of unexplained terrors that created enormous emotional and sometimes physical terrors in the lives of individuals and communities. Luke’s description and Jesus response are entirely appropriate for the thinking at that time. Maybe where Jesus is different was that he was actually willing and able to do something about it.
That brings me to my final ‘over the hill’ point in this story. This man from the city, this demoniac, this man abandoned to the tombs, this emotionally unstable, mentally ill man, possessed and dispossessed was over the hill. His condition had caused his separation from the rest of the community, actually maybe it was not his condition but his communities response to his condition, he was a pariah, an outcast, unwanted and rejected, past his best not related to his age but to his usefulness, beyond the pale, over the hill.
The consequences of the demoniac’s condition are surely some of the most dreadful that the presence of evil can inflict, he is separated from normal human relations. He is naked, not living in a house but amongst the tombs, an appropriate symbolic dwelling place for one claimed by the powers of evil; moreover he has been here a long time. It is interesting that the man or that which possesses him recognises who Jesus is, ‘son of the most high God’, it would take the disciples some time before they got to this level of understanding. It is interesting that the rest of the people on seeing this did not recognise who Jesus really was for they asked him to leave their presence. It is fascinating that all this took place amongst gentiles, in a gentile land, in a graveyard and in the presence of many pigs. Jesus, it seems, is starting to minister to those outside of the Jewish faith, his mission expanded, the Old Testament world view evolving, Jesus’ journey from one hill of theology and doctrine and faith for a specific people in a specific place through a valley of death onto another hill, that would be for all people of all backgrounds and all ages who would be willing to travel with him.
As I conclude I want to include three ways of seeing the hill we are over, the first alludes to my last point, that of death.
The psalmist wants to describe it as a valley, yet for Jesus it was on a hill. The writer of Galatians proclaims that he has been crucified with Christ and it is no longer he that lives but Christ who lives within him. If being over the hill refers to death or impending death then here the idea is transformed, it was Jesus’ death that broke the bonds of death and that heralds the dawn of eternal life. Just as Jesus smashed the chains of the man demon possessed man so he breaks the chains of death and the fear of death. You may have watched some of the makeover programmes on the television, this is a makeover in the extreme. Life in Jesus for the Gerasenes’ man is one of swapping nakedness for warmth, outcast for belonging, clarity of mind for confusion, hope for despair. Yet there is a cost to discipleship and here it is an economic loss, the rich young ruler couldn’t afford to pay it despite his wealth, here the pig herders prefer swine to a saviour. Possessions, even at the cost of possession are more valued than this man they would rather push over the hill. We must be warned the gospel, new life in the face of death cannot easily coexist with business as usual if that business depends on human misery.
My second concluding over the hill is that sometimes being over the hill means that you have reached the highest point and thus the best vantage point to see. From this point you can see where you have come from and on a clear day, with a clear mind you might be able to set out in the right direction. The upcoming Circuit review is an attempt to do that and I would encourage you all to play your part in it. There is a danger in our world and in our churches that we stay in the valley. Jostein Gaarder in his book Sophie’s world tells a story of creation being a rabbit pulled out of a hat. The rabbit is the known world and we the inhabitants run around on the skin of the rabbit, deep under the fur, in relative darkness. Philosophers, Gaarder says, are the ones that have vision and suggest that there might be something out there, beyond their understanding and experience and so they start to shimmy up one of the rabbit’s hairs. Those around ridicule their foolishness and some would be philosophers lose strength and fall, some however do make it beyond the expanse of hair and glimpse something of the rest of creation ‘God’s magic trick’. They carefully return and tell others, at least those willing to listen. Their experience life changing. It seems to me that if you are described as over the hill at least you must have been on the hill at some time!
Which brings me to my final point, the hill that we are over is not a hill in isolation; just as the demons were ‘legion’ that is ‘many’ so are the hills we must climb. Some must be climbed alone, some in the company of friends, family or even as a fellowship. As you look back over weeks months and years I hope you will see what I am intimating in your own experience. Some hills and little more than tumps, others mountain ranges, some were climbed and left well behind, it seems some we are destined to climb time and time again.
But why? Well I guess it is part of life, there will be high points that are hills and hills that are obstacles. As followers of Christ we are called to be a travelling people, following where he leads. Our mission often seems hard, seemingly impossible mountains to traverse, yet this is where we are called. Might I end by reminding you of the mission of the demon possessed man, abandoned for many years, deemed as over the hill, it was he who was told to return to his home and declare what God has done for you, which he did proclaiming throughout the city.
Over the hill? Not even close!
ORDER OF SERVICE
Call to Worship
Hymn HP 278 Ye servants of God
Noughts and Crosses
Hymn HP 776 Make me a channel of your peace
Reading Galatians 2:15-21
Reading Luke 8:26-39
Sermon ‘Over the Hill?’
Hymn SF 1346 In Christ alone
Prayers of intercession
Hymn HP 463 To Go be the Glory