God Sets the Lonely in Families
Been watching the news? Of course you have. In late December a new and mysterious virus
––new at least to the human community––emerged as it were out of nowhere, in Wuhan, China,
and people began to fall ill. You may not know this, but as of Tuesday last, the virus and sometimes fatal disease it has been causing has a name, “Covid-19.”
Just where did this new and mysterious virus come from? Did it come civet cats, like SARS?
Did it come from dromedary camels, like MERS? Nobody really knows for sure. What they do know is over 60,000 people are affected, with about 1500 deaths so far . . .And more the more this epidemic continues, the deeper its impact will become, on everything from the economy to our own personal sense of security.
But there’s an even greater epidemic stalking the world. Yep. And guess what! It’s not Covid-19; nor SARS; nor MERS; nor HIV; nor smallpox; nor measles; nor mumps. Nor chicken pox. Nor shingles. Nor polio. Nor rabies. Nor Ebola. Nor even the common cold.
The epidemic of which I speak? It’s loneliness. Yes. Loneliness.
“Thanks to remarkable new technologies and the widespread use of social media,” writes Claire Pomeroy in Scientific American, “we are more “connected” than ever before . . .Yet as a nation, we are also more lonely. [Much more lonely] In fact, a recent study found that a staggering 47% of North Americans often feel alone; left out and lacking meaningful connection with others. This is true for all ages, from teenagers to older adults. The number of people who perceive themselves to be alone, isolated or distant from others has reached epidemic levels both in the United States and in other parts of the world. In the United Kingdom, [for example,] 4 in 10 report feelings of chronic, profound loneliness, [prompting former Prime Minister Theresa May] to create of a new cabinet-level position [in parliament,] ––the ‘Minister for Loneliness’––to combat the problem. “And what’s worse”––Pomeroy goes on––“loneliness can be deadly.
Loneliness has been estimated to shorten a person’s life by 15 years, equivalent in impact to being obese, or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Feelings of loneliness trigger the release of stress hormones that in turn are associated with higher blood pressure; decreased resistance to infection; and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. There’s even evidence that this perceived sense of social isolation accelerates cognitive and functional decline and can serve as a preclinical sign for Alzheimer’s disease.”
So let me ask you a Mr. Rogers type of question, (the late Fred Rogers, no longer with us, having been an ordained Presbyterian minister.) Are you lonely? In fact, do you often feel that you are dying of loneliness? After all, “lonely is not being alone,” someone once said, “it’s the feeling that no one loves you.”
“The most terrible poverty is loneliness,” said Mother Theresa, “and the feeling of being unloved.”
Under the impress of loneliness, of course, one is tempted to believe that’s something’s wrong:
not only with the world, but with oneself; as if one were truly ill; if not physically, then in every other way.
In the ancient world that Jesus knew, being lonely, and the social isolation that gave rise to it,
was in effect mandated by law in many cases. Were you thought to be subject to a dangerous disease, like leprosy; or worse still, “mentally” ill, by order of law you were asked to leave the community, post haste, and people then actually thanked God as you made your way out of town. “Good riddance,” they cried, often feeling oh-so-good about themselves, like Dana Carvey’s ‘Church Lady’ of Saturday Night Live fame.
And as to how you might feel, well, too bad.
“And the leper in whom the plague is,” reads Leviticus 13, “his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry: ‘Unclean, unclean’. All the days where in the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean . . . He shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be.”
You think there’s negative energy in the church? It really doesn’t hold a candle to the ancient world.
On one level, that lepers should be quarantined made perfect sense. But sadly they were excluded in every other way too, leading to a crushing sense of loneliness and abandonment.
In fact, many if not most people assumed that in being sick such folk were uniquely cursed by God, and therefore actually deserved their fate. And people reached this conclusion of themselves, too.
Where did Jesus find the demoniac described in Mark 5––about whom we read this morning––;
the Gerasene demoniac, possessed by demons who collectively described themselves as “Legion”?? In a graveyard, among tombs. And in that graveyard he was utterly, utterly alone.
In the ancient world cemeteries, were not “beautiful” and “green,” full of well-tended gravestones and gentle-hearted mourners. Quite simply, in the ancient world no one hung out a graveyard. No one!!! No one went to visit the graves of loved ones; no one left flowers;
no one went to meditate on life and death, or consider the state of his soul. And no doubt no one came to this graveyard if they could help it; Not with a madman of this kind holding court with the devil.
This man had been chained there, Mark tell us, for years; but each and every time he had been confined, he broke loose, as if possessed of an unearthly power. Moreover, he would cry out, and cut himself with stones.
This is not unlike what the formerly unbelieving M. Scott Peck encountered when he saw not one, but a number of real-live demoniacs in the context of real-live exorcisms:
“The spirit I witnessed at each exorcism,” he writes, “was clearly, utterly, and totally,
dedicated to opposing human life and growth. It told both patients to kill themselves.
When asked in one exorcism why it was the Antichrist, it answered, “Because Christ taught people to love each other.” When further questioned as to why human love was so distasteful,
it replied, “I want people to work in business so that there will be war.” Queried more, it simply said to the exorcist, “I want to kill you.” There was absolutely nothing creative or constructive about it; it was purely destructive.”
Strangely, the demoniac, on seeing Jesus, shouts out at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Son of the Most High God was a Messianic title.
It was a clear announcement of who Jesus was. Just how did this man know who Jesus was?
And what possessed him to say, or should I say, scream it?
The demons possessed him, they knew who Jesus was. They knew he was the Christ, which means, the “Anointed One;” anointed with the power of God. They had known who he was from the beginning of time. “Even demons believe,” wrote James, “and shudder in that knowledge.”
And no wonder . . .
However, war is not without its acts of aggression. And so the man screamed. By tearing aside the veil of humility that clothed Jesus, and screaming out his real title, the demons hoped to manipulate him; to frighten him; to put him off balance. For demons knew––as ancient people also did––that there is extraordinary power in one’s name.
Instead, Jesus them for their name. “Legion,” they reply, in one of the most chilling moments
in the New Testament, “for we are many.” How ironic, that the man should be possessed by a “multitudinous” legion of demons, yet be so utterly, utterly alone.
Once Jesus has their name, they know that they are finished. Absolutely finished. Doomed in fact. Such is the power of God. Power to restore broken lives. Power to resist evil. Power to put the devil’s tail right between his legs, and send him packing…
And dare I say it, the power to end loneliness, and restore community . . . For the demoniac had encountered the real Minister for Loneliness: the Lord Jesus.
And as for the hapless demons, well, having encountered the Lord Jesus, they beg to translated into a herd of pigs, feeding nearby. I have to say I have always felt sorry for the pigs in this story, whom the demons drive off the cliff, to their deaths.
By this time the whole village is in an uproar, as you can imagine, from the all the commotion and shouting, and the sound of 2,000 pigs, 2,000 Wilburs leaping into the ocean. Not even Charlotte could have saved them, for the days of the Messiah had come. They rush to the graveyard to see the man they had so feared; the man they had ostracized in every possible way,
dressed, and in his right mind.
Jesus not only cleansed this man from tip to toe, expelling every last demon, but he restored the man to his family, and to his community . . .
Needless to say the power of Jesus to do this shocked them, and many were afraid.
They were not about to let the man back home. But that didn’t matter! Why?
The man had been given a whole new family: the family of the believing.
Is it any wonder that he wants to go with Jesus, straightaway? But the Lord says,
“[No, my friend] . . . Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you,
and how he has had mercy on you.” The Lord, in fact, set this lonely man back into his family,
and his community.
And the Lord, in fact, is still doing this. In fact, the Lord Jesus, the Minister of Loneliness,
is gathering an army, a vast army, to fight this epidemic. It’s called, the church.
As Rick Warren has said, “Church is not a place you go to, it’s a family you belong to.”
And as Eugene Peterson once wrote, “No Christian is an only child.”
Have you received your draft papers yet? If not, they are, as it were, in the mail. God only sets the lonely in families, even if it means searching for them to the ends of the earth, like a shepherd searches for his sheep, until they are found. It’s not easy work, but there’s nothing like it, on the entire face of the planet.
I confessed to you last year, how when I need to shed a tear, a good tear, I sometimes watch an animal rescue video on the Internet. There is, for example, a wonderful couple from Los Angeles named Eldad and Audrey Hagar, Jewish folk, who have dedicated themselves to the rescue of animals . . . They’ve even written a charming little e-book about their work entitled Our Lives Have Gone to the Dogs.
The first dog they ever rescued was a Pit Bull named Spotty.” “Spotty was our first. He was a Pit Bull who suffered abuse no animal should endure. He was a “guard dog,” (‘so-called’)
kept in a dirt yard without shelter from the heat, or from the cold. He had dug a hole to protect himself from the elements as best he could. Sometimes they fed him; sometimes they remembered to refill his filthy water bowl. But Spotty was skinny; malnourished; sunburned,
and his ears were riddled with flea bites.
His owners had never adjusted his collar since the time they procured him as a puppy,
and by the time he had grown up it had actually become embedded in his neck. He not only had fleas, but ticks, and various internal parasites. And as for his teeth, well, they were broken
from trying to chew himself to freedom.”
Eldad and Audrey met Spotty a week after he had been rescued. They loved him; they bathed him; they walked him; they soothed him with kind words. Within days, Spotty began to come again––to life. Rather than cowering in the corner of his cage when visited, the moment the same was opened, Spotty came bounding out to kiss them all over. “It was if to reassure us,” they write, “that he was going to be okay.”
The problem with abused animals, of course, is not that they are beyond help or rehabilitation,
––that is, most of them––the problem is that having been abused, they won’t let anyone near them, to help them! They simply run away (and away, and away), out of fear.
And so in order to be helped, They have to be captured . . . And most of the time, this is a very involved process; a process of which Eldad is a master. He is a master of figuring out what will work––whether getting closer by dribs and drabs, and then nabbing them gently; or swooping in suddenly, at a precisely-judged moment; or throwing up a barrier; or luring them into a cage,
the door to which he springs shut at precisely the right moment.
Whatever the case, his principal tool is not coercion but love. Eldad actually woos the frightened animals, with love. He throws out one crumb of food after another, and since most of the animals are starving, they will snap up said crumbs, generally, but only hesitantly, or at a distance, at first…. For the longest time it’s “two steps forward and one step back.” Sometimes this is a process that takes hours upon hours, until they are captured; until the moment he can take them into his arms, and they can begin to trust again.
It reminds me of the Songs of Songs at verse 4:9: “You have captured my heart, my treasure, my bride. You hold it hostage with one glance of your eyes, with a single jewel of your necklace.”
And once he physically captures the dog, with love, nine times out of ten the animal calms right down almost immediately––it’s astonishing to watch––and melt into his arms, or into the arms of his wife, Audrey.
Animals know when they are being loved. In spite of sometimes the most terrifying abuse,
most animals know when they have at last found someone who can be trusted . . . Someone who ‘loves,’ and who loves them. And when the animal gets rescued, where do they go? To what animal rescue people call his or her “forever home.”
Are you feeling terribly, terribly alone? Let Jesus sweep into your life, and heal those broken places. Let him. He’s been searching for you for a long time. And then join the family of God.
God has very important work for you to do in finding the lonely, and setting them into families,
even the family of God. Very important work.