The village is a small one, perhaps seventy-five adults and a few dozen children nestled in the wooded hills of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. The villagers are peasant farmers and herders, descendants of adventurers who had immigrated to northern England from Germany, Holland, and Denmark two centuries earlier. Their now legendary great-great-great-great grandfathers were the warriors whose swords and spears had won their land from its previous tenants, Celtic peasants and their cultured overlords, in the dying days of the Roman Empire. The villagers live in a hard world where food is scarce, disease is rampant, and nature is unpredictable. Dark magic and evil spirits could strike any time, making a difficult situation even worse. There are few people in the settlement over the age of fifty, and most of the children born here will never see their fifth birthday. As far as anyone knows, that is how it has always been. They worship the traditional Teutonic gods, of course, offering the customary sacrifices from their herds, crops and beer kegs, but the gods of their ancestors seem content with things just the way they are. Nothing much ever changes here.
But on this particular day some 1,370 years ago, something very different is about to happen. Important visitors are coming: King Oswald of Northumbria and a band of his mounted warriors. But curiously, today the king is not riding a horse alongside his fighting men. Instead Oswald is following behind on foot, accompanying five odd-looking men in black robes, with shaven heads and outlandish speech. These foreigners, it turns out, are here to speak to the villagers about some new God unknown to their forefathers. And King Oswald is travelling with them, not as their master but as a translator and a worshipper of this new Deity.
Soon the leader of the black-robed strangers stands up in the midst of the huts and begins to talk. He tells them that his name is Aidan, and he is a messenger of the God who made the heavens and the earth, the only true God there is. The villagers are mystified by this announcement, but they become openly hostile when the foreigner drops the next bombshell. They are all prisoners, Aidan tells them, of the very evil spirits they have hitherto worshipped as the “gods” of their fathers! Lost in error, they are sinking in a quagmire of disease, death and decay as a result. Aidan might never have spoken another word had the villagers not restrained themselves out of respect for the king…and out of fear of his soldiers!
Then Aidan shares his “Good News” with them: They can be freed from their bondage to these unclean spirits. Indeed the creator God has already taken steps to free them, having sent His only-begotten Son into the world of men that the Prince of Heaven might surrender His own Life as a ransom for their’s. The death of this beloved divine Son means that they need no longer be enslaved to darkness. But even more amazingly, Aidan tells them that this Child of the Most High God, Jesus the Christ, has risen alive from the grave and now reigns over all things, having subdued the demons of Hell and trampled down Death under His feet, so that now all those who trust in Jesus as their Savior will inherit eternal life in His heavenly Kingdom, free from suffering forever.
It is unlikely that many of the villagers would have immediately accepted Aidan’s offer of baptism into the new faith. It was, after all, a very strange story from a far away land. And accepting baptism would no doubt have deeply offended their traditional gods. One could only imagine how they might respond to followers of this new Christ! But then Aidan throws down the gauntlet: Was anyone there, oppressed by a demon or a physical illness, willing to trust in Christ to free them from their bondage? If so, step forward now and see the Spirit of the Father and His Son at work!
After considerable hesitation a lame man hobbles forward. What did he have to lose? If the ancestral gods wanted to finish him off, so be it! Aidan steps closer, lays his hands upon the man’s head and prays in the name of his Lord. At once the old man’s leg grows stronger and more flexible. Soon he is walking about normally for the entire village to see and marvel at! Within minutes a demon-possessed girl has been healed and is speaking in her right mind for the first time in years, and a baby tormented by a fever has noticeably improved through the prayers of the strangers in black. That was enough for many of the villagers. They had spilled thousands of gallons of blood on the altars of the old gods and received nothing meaningful in return. But the God of Aidan--this Jesus Christ--actually does something! He is obviously real and He cares about them! By the end of the afternoon twenty-three villagers had professed faith in Aidan’s God and His Christ, turning their backs on the idols of their forefathers and submitting to the waters of Baptism.
The story I have just told is a dramatization, but it closely mirrors the earliest accounts of St. Aidan’s ministry in the north of England between 635 and 650 A.D. Village after village accepted Christ as a group following miraculous healings and exorcisms at the hands of these travelling missionaries. Very similar stories were told about the missions of Augustine of Canterbury in the south of England, as well as those of St. Martin in Gaul and St. Boniface in Germany. “Deeds of power” in name of the risen Christ were, in fact, an essential component in the conversion of northwestern Europe in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. But such stories are not limited to the Church of long ago. The rapid growth of Christianity in Asia and Africa in recent decades has produced strikingly similar stories. Just this month, for example, Gospel for Asia reported the recent founding of a sizable new church in a previously un-evangelized Burmese village following the exorcism of a demon-possessed girl and the healing of several sick people. Aidan and his monks would feel right at home in the mission fields of India or the Philippines today.
Of course, these astonishingly similar stories across many centuries and continents reflect the work of the same Redeemer God, the One who came in the flesh that we might “have life, and have it abundantly.” Today our Lord Jesus reminds us that He is the shepherd who calls His sheep by name and leads them to life-sustaining pastures. There are others who have no legitimate claim on Christ’s flock—“robbers and bandits” like Hades and Satan—who would, if they were able, lead the Lord’s precious lambs astray. But the voice of their Master is like none other to Christ’s sheep. It is a voice of power that can shatter the fetters of sickness and death, a voice of protection and comfort laying low the vaunted minions of Hell. Our Northumbrian villagers knew the comfort of “the rod and the staff” of the Good Shepherd, and they followed Him out of the sheepfold of this fallen world into the verdant pastures of everlasting life.
But the message of Aidan and the other great missionaries is no bogus “health and prosperity Gospel.” Aidan never promised his listeners that they would be unfailingly prosperous, or that they would never again experience hardships if they became followers of Christ. In fact, these new converts frequently experienced persecution at the hands of their pagan neighbors. And all those healed and restored under Aidan’s hands eventually found their way to the grave just as the rest of us do. Faith is not an instant “cure-all” for every affliction. Even the much-loved 23rd Psalm reminds us that the souls of the Lord’s sheep still need “reviving” from time to time. There are still be those who trouble the people of God, even in His Church, and “the shadow of death” has not yet been completely dispelled from the face of the earth. Rather the message of Aidan—and of the Lord he served so faithfully—was one of liberation from the grip of fear and expectation of abundant life in the power of the Spirit.
The miracles those villagers responded to long ago were merely down-payments toward a far great reward, reminders of “the goodness and mercy” of God that follow us all the days of our lives and restore our souls. Through these tangible, if infrequent, deeds of Christ’s power on earth we momentarily “see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Yet these glimpses of the new Heaven and the new Earth are not ends in themselves. They are reaffirmations of the promise that we, too, will lie down in green pastures beside still waters and the Good Shepherd will anoint us with the healing balm of his Love. May God give us the grace, as He did to our forerunners in faith, to embrace and ever hold fast this blessed hope of new and unending life in Him. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.(The description of Aidan's visit to a Northumbrian village was inspired by Paul Cavill's discussion of the saint's mission work in Anglo-Saxon Christianity [Zondervan: 1999], an excellent little book that I commend to my readers very highly.)