Though Hordes of Devils Fill the Land…

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5th Sunday after Pentecost; Year C, June 22, 2013
Isaiah 65.1-9; Galatians 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

Grace and peace to you from the One who has power over evil in the world, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sometimes there are stories in Scripture after we read them we need to step back and attempt to take it all in. Right now is one of those times. I really appreciate and love our Gospel reading today, yet I remember the first time I was introduced to it. I was a teenager in confirmation and my pastor decided to show us a 10-15 minute video depicting the story of the man who lived among the tombs and was possessed with demons. I still have the vivid picture in my mind of a man crouching in a tree with drool dripping down his chin. I was terrified and very bothered by this image.

Of course, the story doesn’t stop there. The video showed the demons being cast out into the pigs and then all of them running off a cliff into the sea and drowning. I felt sorry for the pigs and wondered why they had to be sacrificed during the whole encounter. The clip ended with a gentle looking, clear-eyed, transformed man sitting at the feet of Jesus.

After the video was over I sat in silence, almost dumfounded, trying to take it all in. I wondered how the story fit in my life. I had no compartment for it. It seemed so out there and far from my experience of reality. At the same time, I have to admit, I liked the video, mainly because it brought the story to life for me and I have never forgotten it.

Let’s take a look at the story again in your bulletin. First, a word about the country of the Gerasenes. It is important for us to understand the significance of Jesus willingly traveling to this region and hauling his disciples along with him. This was a region known as “the other side,” or, “the other side of the tracks, “ so to speak, especially for Jews and people like Jesus and his entourage. Many occupying Romans lived in this territory, and the economic society of the Gerasenes revolved around this fact. Herds of swine would never be found roaming around Jerusalem. Only Gentiles ate animals as unclean as pigs.

Jesus hardly steps out of the boat when he is met by a man possessed with demons. This man, barely a shadow of himself, living among the dead, with no more dignity or identity, meets Jesus naked. He falls at Jesus feet and in a voice not his own he shouts, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God.” Demons always know exactly who Jesus is and know his power.

The parenthesis in verse 29 say a lot about the man’s suffering. Not only was he tormented by demons, he also suffered seizers and the people of his community were so afraid of him, they bound him with chains and shackles and had people guard him around the clock. He was so far removed from his community he only found company among the dead. Never could he taste release from captivity or restoration to his community until the fateful day when Jesus stepped off the boat and entered his life from the other side.

So Jesus, unafraid, asks the demons their name. “Legion,” they reply. The text explains to us that their name is legion because they are numerous. The man has all but disappeared in the midst of what keeps him bound. What the text doesn’t say flat out is that Legion is also a reference to the occupation of the Romans. A Roman legion consisted of about 4-6000 soldiers. Jesus casting out of “Legion” is not only a message to Satan himself that there’s a new kid on the block, but also a political statement to the Roman oppressors in the land.

The most confusing part of the text are verses 32-33. Why the pigs? Why does Jesus give the demons what they ask for? The interesting piece of this section lies in the word “abyss,” exactly where the demons did not want to go. In ancient tradition, evil spirits could not survive in the abyss, or better know as water, essentially the primordial waters of chaos. In Revelation (Chp. 20), the abyss becomes Satan’s eternal prison. In the end, the demons drown and are no more. Perhaps one way of looking at the death of so many pigs is that Jesus understood that the man’s life was worth it.

The last section of our story communicates the community’s reaction. The swineherds witness the whole thing and run off to tell everyone they can. They all come. Can you imagine the swineherds story? “You know the man we all fear who is possessed by demons who always breaks the chains we keep him in…well, some stranger came across the sea today and healed him. Come and see for yourself.” The word in verse 36 that gets translated “had been healed,” also can be “had been saved.” It has the meaning of being released from captivity or what binds people.

Instead of rejoicing and being thankful for the healing of their community member the people respond with great fear and ask Jesus to leave them and their country. This Jesus has upset their economic structure by doing away with all the pigs and disrupted what they had come to know as reality. They had learned to deal with the possessed man and they got used to his place among the dead. As long as they didn’t have to really deal with him, life could go on as normal for most.

The people’s reaction to Jesus communicates to us that not everyone is accepting of the Gospel, the healing, and the upending of what we understand as possible when Jesus shows up. Some would choose the world they have created for themselves over the transformation and new life Jesus offers.

So how is this crazy story relevant in our lives today? Because Scripture is the living Word of God, stories in the Bible are supposed to speak to us and have meaning in our lives.

Many of us are keenly aware of the presence and power of evil in this world. Sometimes we can’t quite name it, but we know it is not from God or the goodness of creation.

You may or may not know someone who struggles with possession, but my guess is that you do know people, or even yourself, who struggle with captivity in some way, or are bound by something. Perhaps the strongest example in our faith community is addiction. If you have not suffered from its grasp on you personally, you probably know a family member or friend who has lost themselves in it. They are no longer who they once were and there is an evil power that is greater than them that has taken over their lives.

Other examples of what have the potential to keep us captive are things like: fear of death, obsession with money, worry, inability to forgive or receive forgiveness, working too much, illness or disease, hate that leads to war, and the ways we misunderstand and label people. Our primary captivity is sin, the ways we turn from God and rely on our own self in life. This is not too far from the people of the city asking Jesus to leave them. In our confession of sin we say, “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”

Even Paul in his letter to the Romans (7.19) wrestles with this concept: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Pastor David Lose has said: “Odd as it may sound, we often prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not.” I have had a person tell me before that they were scared of their life without drugs because they didn’t know how to function without them.

So where does this leave us? I believe it leaves us where the possessed man found himself…at the feet of Jesus. If we cannot free ourselves, then we need God to help and save us. This story communicates a number of things and I will just name three:

1. One thing is evil cannot and will not prevail in the face of Jesus. The story tells us that the demons are afraid of Jesus and they must obey his command. Jesus has the last word over them and they are destroyed and no longer have power over the man’s life or anyone else’s.

2. Another is that a man who was once greatly feared, violent, unpredictable, naked, alone, and living among the dead, finds healing and new life in Jesus. His life is totally changed and he becomes the first missionary to his community who has rejected him, witnessing to all that God has done for him.

3. Lastly, the most important thing this story communicates is that there is nowhere Christ has not been or will not go to be with you, to heal you, and to free you from whatever holds you captive. Jesus is not afraid of your stuff or your baggage and he is stepping out in front of you as the One who has the power to transform your life for the better.

I’d like to conclude today by a verse from Martin Luther’s hymn A Mighty Fortress is our God:

Though hordes of devils fill the land
All threatening to devour us,
We tremble not, unmoved we stand;
They cannot overpower us.
This world’s prince may rage,
In fierce war engage.
He is doomed to fail;
God’s judgment must prevail!
One little word subdues him.