Jesus has come to redeem us from our oppression under and participation in the evil of a fallen world and to give us the calling of following in his footsteps.
I have a friend whom I see from time to time. He’s involved in the life of a church, though I’ve never really talked to him about that much. He is a historian of religion. I think he feels trapped up in the ivory tower of academia. He knows that I’m a minister, so whenever he sees me, he asks me, “How are things going down in the trenches of the Christian struggle?” I usually try to think of some clever and witty reply. I usually can’t. But the last time he asked me that, I had to say simply, “I’ve been seeing a lot of casualties this week.” It had just been one of those weeks when a lot of broken and wounded people had come across my path. There is a very real sense in which we all, Christians and non- Christians alike, live our lives out in the trenches of a war. There are casualties. Human lives get ground up in the warfare.
Let’s think together for a little while about the demon possessed man whom Jesus attends to in this passage. We don’t even know his name. We know only the name the demons take for themselves. I find myself almost seeing him as a sort of wild animal which Jesus domesticates. But he’s not a wild animal. He’s a human being, just like me, just like you.
Where does he come from? You say Mark tells us that he came to meet Jesus from among the tombs where he lived. No, I mean before that. He didn’t just spring up suddenly full grown, mad, and uncontrollable among the tombs. He was born into someone’s family. He is someone’s son, someone’s brother. Maybe even someone’s husband, someone’s father. Someone’s friend and companion. His parents raised him up. They nurtured and cared for him. They fed him and clothed him. They nursed him when he was sick. They beamed with pride when, as a child, he showed promise. They had hopes and dreams for him, as all parents have for their children. He had hopes and dreams for himself — hopes and dreams for a life of fulfillment and satisfaction. We don’t know, of course, but very likely he grew into a strong young man and married a pretty young woman whom he loved dearly and who loved him. Again, we don’t know, but he may very well have had children, little ones who were his pride and joy, for whom he had great hopes and dreams. He wasn’t a monster. He was a human being whose life had gone suddenly and terribly wrong.
We know that he came from the town near where he was now living. Luke tells us that. The people around there knew him. They’d known him since he was a child. They’d been his friend. Some had been his childhood friends. They had long, fond memories of their childhood together. Others had known him later, perhaps they’d worked with him, or their children had played with his children, or they’d been neighbors. All these people living around here had known him, and they remembered the time when he’d suddenly begun to act strangely. He’d become surly and unpredictable. He’d begun to take on unexplainable and offensive behaviors. With fear and sadness they watched him become chaotic in his thoughts and actions. He was dangerous and self-destructive. His friends and family tried to bind him both for his own safety and for theirs, but he was uncontrollable. He broke free every time.
And in the midst of it all, he had lost himself. He found his own identity being overwhelmed by a multitude of other voices and wills, pulling at him, tearing at him, driving him in all different directions at once. The son and brother, husband and father whom he had once been was lost in the chaotic, tumultuous Legion of demons struggling for dominance in his heart and mind, like maggots writhing and surging under the skin of a long dead carcass.
This is the being that Jesus meets on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Covered with self-inflicted gashes and wounds. Filthy and naked. Wild and frightening. Running at Jesus and screaming, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” The demons knew Jesus, and he terrified them. “I beg you, don’t torment me,” they shrieked. This was a confrontation of power. Like cockroaches fleeing the light, the demons climb over each other trying to avoid Jesus.
Why does Jesus drive the demons into the pigs? There has been scholarly debate over that question since this story was first told. The explanation that I like best is that Jesus did it for the benefit of the man himself. It was a visual demonstration to him that he was now free, that that chaotic multitude of voices and wills that had tormented him for so long was now gone and he was free of them forever. He saw them go, with his own eyes he saw them leave. He was free.
He was, of course, not the only one who saw it — saw this visible, concrete evidence of the miracle of power that Jesus accomplished there. When the people from the town heard what had happened, they came running. They found the man not charging around wild but rather sitting with Jesus, no longer naked but rather clothed, no longer mad but now in his right mind. And they were terrified by the sight. They were more frightened by Jesus than by that wild demon-possessed man. Here was a man of tremendous power, power enough to dispossess this multitude of demons from their home and drive them away. That kind of power is terrifying. These people were Gentiles, that’s who lived in the country of the Gerasenes. They didn’t have Isaiah and the prophets to help them to recognize Jesus. To them he was just a terrible, holy, frightening power, and they wanted him far away from them. They asked him to go.
As he was about to go, the man who had been demon-possessed wanted to go with him. Jesus battle with the demons had taken place inside his heart and mind. He knew Jesus in a way that his neighbors did not. He had experience Jesus’ power as not only holy but also as loving and redeeming. The powerful spiritual warrior who had routed the demonic mob that had invested his being was not just a cold, indifferent power. He had experienced this invasion by Jesus as a conquering flood of warm, compassionate, caring love. He had received back his life from this man, Jesus. There was no fear of Jesus in his heart. There was only gratitude and joy and love. It was the inevitable and unavoidable response of his heart toward Jesus, gratitude, joy, and love.
But Jesus won’t let him come with him. Instead, he says, “Go back home. Go back to those people there who have asked me to leave. And tell them what God has done for you.” This man loves Jesus so much. He is so grateful to him that he’s willing to do whatever Jesus wants him to. We’re told, “The man went all over the town proclaiming what Jesus had done for him.” What a story he had to tell! The mental/spiritual fog had begun to clear, and he felt the warmth and light of Jesus’ powerful love reaching into the deep places of his soul, rooting out every last one of the demonic maggots, and sweeping them out and away, leaving cleanness, freshness, health, and clarity in his soul.
What we see here in this event in a very dramatic presentation of the purpose of Jesus’ ministry and of the aim of the gospel. Jesus comes to confront evil and drive it out of God’s good creation. The gospel of Jesus Christ is about the fact that God has not been willing to leave his fallen creation in its broken, corrupted, and degraded state. In Jesus, God has come to drive out the evil and to heal the corrupting and degrading effect that evil has had on the world and on us. And that’s what Jesus is doing very openly in this story.
It is a story about spiritual violence. There is no ferocity like the ferocity with which Jesus attacks demons. You can see it here. Jesus had no more than stepped out of the boat. There had been no conversation with the demon-possessed man. No period of study or debate as to what should be done about this raving wild-man running down the shore. Like an overwhelming amphibious assault, the first word’s out of Jesus’ mouth strike the demons to their knees before him. It is a visceral, like the response we might have to squash a cockroach that we see scurrying across our kitchen counter, like the gut instinct we might have to grab a broom and try to kill a rat we find sitting on our kitchen stove. We wouldn’t stop to think, to ponder what should be done. We would know instantly that the vermin should be destroyed. So, here, Jesus charges out of the boat and up the shore to crush the spiritual vermin that have possessed and horribly degraded this man, this bearer of the image of God.
The best way to think of demons is as spiritual vermin, though vermin who are much stronger than any human being. The are a personal expression of abject evil. Jesus is very clear about that. There is no room for sentimentality or mercy with regard to these knots of pure, unadulterated evil. Demons are a vortex of evil intentions and power — pure malicious, malevolent power, bent on wreaking degradation and defilement of everything about God’s good creation but most especially of God’s human creation. Demons are the spawn of the Fall.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has come to drive out and destroy all evil from God’s fallen creation and to heal and restore it from all the degradation and defilement that has been wreaked upon by evil — the evil of demonic forces, the evil of human sin. He has come to set us and all creation free, to heal us, purify us, and reconcile us to God.
Jesus came in off the sea to save and heal that wretched, degraded man. A loser in the eyes of the world. And so also he comes to us, broken and battered as we are, casualties of the war, and he does his loving and redeeming work in our lives. Probably none of us has been where this man in our story today has been. But most of us know what it is to be broken. You know what it is to sorrow, to be in pain, to be wounded, injured. You know what it is to be disgusted by you own sin. To be frightened, disappointed, even desperate. In fact some of us here today may even know what it is to have nearly lost ourselves. Jesus comes, drives away the demons of our lives, and restores us, heals us. Then he sends us out again.
The man in our story recognizes what has been done for him and by whom. With that recognition comes a warm, emotional response of joy, pleasure, gratitude. Out of that emotional response comes a driving force to act on that gratitude, to praise and please the one who is the object of our gratitude. It’s not enough to be generally thankful. We have to be specifically thankful. We need to know specifically what we are thankful for and to whom that thankfulness is directed. And it’s not enough to settle back and luxuriate in our warm, fuzzy sense of well-being and gratitude. We need to act on our thankfulness. Our gratitude should motivate us to action, to commitment to the one who has been so good to us.
Know what God has done for you. Gratitude for our redemption in Christ is not passive. It’s an activity. It’s a thing you do. Live out your gratitude. Go and tell people what God has done for you, so that they too may be set free.
And act! Our calling in this life is to move with the same love and compassion as Jesus – love and compassion for the broken one, the weak ones, the vulnerable ones all around us. The widows and orphans. The poor and anyone in need. The stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee. The people of Jesus Christ are not placed here to grasp after power or to impose our will on others. We are commissioned by Jesus to impose his love and gentleness, his kindness and restoration, his compassion on those are broken and degraded by the powers of this fallen world. For the love of Jesus, let’s go out and pour our lives into the the “losers” of this world. And in that way we will show the world how much Jesus has done for us.
© 2018 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.