Today’s sermon is available here: Delivered from Dark Powers
Sometimes, the Gospel lesson bamboozles us. And perhaps that’s the first thing to say today’s Gospel. It meant a great deal to early Christians—it’s in Matthew, Mark and Luke. But what on earth did it mean? What on earth—if anything—does it mean twenty centuries later?
The largest barrier is the most obvious. This is an exorcism story. We can make sense of healing miracles—even if we don’t believe in them, we can make sense of them—because there are analogies that can be made with the healing arts our world. Part of Jesus’ mission is to enact the kingdom of God through healing. We can make sense of the nature miracles—walking on water, multiplying food, and rebuking the storm. Again, even if we don’t believe the stories, we can make sense of the notion that Jesus reveals his identity as God’s unique messenger by enacting the uniquely divine power to master nature with his speech. Jesus speaks and nature obeys.
But demons? They don’t fit our modern world. In 2014, a row erupted in the Church of England over a decision to implement a trial baptism rite that invited parents and sponsors (and adult candidates for baptism) to “reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises” in place of the traditional words, “reject the devil and all rebellion against God.” When queried, Archbishop Welby insisted this was not so much about not believing in the devil anymore as it was an attempt to make baptism relevant to families for whom the notion of the devil doesn’t fit.
To make it fit, we’ll say this poor man is a paranoid schizophrenic. He is ill. We really know what was going on. Did you know that the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates thought a great deal like us? He believed mental illness to be naturally caused. Luke, himself a Gentile and physician, certainly knew this. He may well have believed it. And yet, Luke chose to portray this man as a victim of the war in which Jesus is on the front lines proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Why?
The second element that provokes a question in me has to do with a much more mundane part of the story. David Lyle Jeffrey puts it plainly: this “was not a good day for the hog farmers.” Having been seized by the demons, the farmers’ livelihood runs off a precipice and into the sea. They are understandably upset and spread what is, for them, very bad news, throughout the countryside. The crowd increases. They come to the tombs to see what has happened. They find the man clothed, in his right mind, and sitting at the feet of Jesus. And the result? The crowd is more afraid of Jesus than they were of the demon possessed man! Fear seized them and they asked Jesus to leave them. Why did they ask him to leave?
Finally, perhaps most poignantly, we have the reactions of the healed man and Jesus. The healed man—clothed. Right mind. Open to learning. He seems ideal as a disciple, doesn’t he? And he wants to be one. Let me follow you! He’s begging Jesus to allow him to join the disciples. And Jesus, says, “No. Return to your own house and tell the great things God has done for you.” Again, why?
Let’s go back to the first question. Why does Luke tell this story as he does? It fits with Luke’s theme about marginal places and people. This man is an outcast. He lives among the dead. They’re the only ones who’ll have him. The man has been cut off from life. He has to “live” if it can be called that, among the dead. The demons have left him alive, but robbed him of life. Jesus goes into the wilderness, Jesus goes into the land of the dead, Jesus goes to confront the demons and heal this man. Jesus goes to the margins to win a war. Jesus comes to plunder the kingdom of darkness. He comes to rescue those who have been enslaved. He comes to deliver those who are at the mercy of dark powers. Jesus is indeed moved with compassion, as we read two weeks ago. But he is moved with compassion for people who are alive, but robbed of life. Jesus does not come to make the grumpy nice. He comes to raise the dead.
Luke also shows the irrationality and end of the dark powers that enslave. They rob the man of his reason. The powers are drawn to Jesus and resist him at the same time. They know who he is. They beg him not to send them into the abyss—abyssos, the depths of the sea. So he sends them into the swineherd and then the swineherd runs off a cliff and into, wait for it, the depths of the sea. Do you see the irony here? They are undone by their own absence of reason. They will fail against the victorious Son of God and their goal is to make their end the end of as many human beings as possible. And if they can’t take a human being, they’ll make do with pigs. The powers are unified in their opposition to Jesus, they are of one mind, but they are beyond reason. They are disordered. They are unclean. They are doomed.
Now, why is the community more afraid of Jesus than of the powers? Simply because the presence of Jesus overturns “the way we do things.” His presence may force a change in livelihood. It may upset our living arrangements. It may well make life more difficult in many ways. The farmers were robbed of their living. The community was going to have to make welcome a man who may well have terrorized them for some time. This was not going to be easy. Maybe it would be better if Jesus were just to go away. This is honest unbelief. The people had seen the power of the Gospel and they want nothing to do with it. It is too much to handle. Too much would have to change. And this is the strange human dilemma: we are, so many times, so comfortable in our chains that we will refuse the life of the Gospel, the life of Jesus, because it will cause too much change.
Finally, why does Jesus refuse the man? Precisely because Jesus will not give up on these people who have asked him to go. Jesus will go. But he will leave his apostle. Go to your own house. Go and tell. This man, now clothed and in his right mind, back at home will become an evangelist. Luke tells us he proclaimed the Good news. The powers have been defeated. And we know because the Gospel is still being preached.
Now, it’s time for Scott and Mia (with their sponsors) to make the story of the demonized man their own. “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness?” You will be asked that question and the Gospel lesson for today reminds us just how deadly serious a question it is. There is something desperately wrong in our world. Something that is bigger than merely human evil. Something that enslaves us. Something that harms us. Something that will kill us. We need to be rescued. We need to renounce it.
“Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior? Do you promise to obey him as your Lord” You’ll be asked that question, too. But again, hear it as a deadly serious question. Jesus does not come to make you nice. He comes to give you life. And that life is unsettling. It will force uncomfortable decisions. It will unsettle the way things are. If you take the question seriously, you will never be able to say “that’s just the way we do it” again.
Why? Because, now clothed in his righteousness and having had your minds renewed by the Holy Spirit, you will be sent to tell the good news of what God has done for you. You will never be the same again.