Pentecost 3 – June 23, 2019
Luke 8:26-39 Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe
“Then [Jesus and his disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”
It was nice to have some family time up in Northern Wisconsin last weekend. We had a Svanoe family reunion. There were cousins there from all over the Midwest, California and even a couple from Norway that came. Sunday morning, we had a family worship service sitting by the lakeshore. So even though I was on vacation, I still had to lead worship. But it was a blessed time. I had a chance to share some family stories with cousins who still hadn’t heard that both sets of great grandparents on my father’s side were first cousins who had married each other. It sure explained a lot why some of us seem a little strange, goofy, or just a bit off center. Our grandparents were just a bit strange and passed some of that on to us.
Strange! That’s what today’s gospel story is. Jesus and his disciples encountered a man said to be possessed by a thousand demons. I don’t want to discount the possibility of demon possession today, but in ancient times much of what was described as demon possession, we would describe today as some form of mental illness. Just think of the prevalence these days of depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, ADHD, bipolar disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, eating disorders, personality disorders, and the ultimate disorder- suicide. The National Institute of Health estimates that nearly one in five adults in the US live with a form of mental illness. In Jesus’ time, I imagine there was just as much if not more mental illness. Back then people didn’t know how to think about these things except to attribute them to the influence of demons.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that this man had a legion of demons. A Roman legion consisted of 6000 soldiers. This sick man had thousands of voices in his head. He was deeply disturbed. He was naked and homeless. He lived among the graves in the village cemetery. For a time, his arms and legs had been tied up in chains. In other words, this man had serious problems that the community just couldn’t cope with. When Jesus and his disciples landed on shore, they immediately were confronted by this crazed man. Jesus commanded the unclean spirits to come out of him. The story says that the unclean spirits entered a bunch of pigs, who ran down a steep bank in a frenzy and drowned in the lake. The herdsmen were astonished at what happened and ran to the village to tell what had happened. When the people from the village arrived, they found the man calm and peaceful and sitting at the feet of Jesus. The Bible says, “He was clothed in his right mind.” The villagers were afraid at this show of power and asked Jesus and the disciples to leave. The healed man begged Jesus that he might go with him. But Jesus said, “Go back to your home and your friends and tell them how much the Lord God has done for you.” So the healed man returned home, praising God throughout all the cities and telling how much God had done for him.
This is one of the strangest stories in the Bible. I can’t begin to understand all the details. But maybe this demon possessed man isn’t so hard to understand. Have you ever felt shunned by the world, all alone, friendless and helpless? Or have you ever felt out of control, at the mercy of impulses within that you have no strength to subdue. Have you ever struggled with addictive behaviors in your life? It may be drugs, sex, alcohol or nicotine. Some of you might battle over-powering desires to spend, to binge eat, or to purge the food you’ve eaten. The list of addictions could go on and on. And when those addictions get out of control they can tear apart our lives and our families. Some of you have stared into the pit of depression from which there seems to be no escape. Some of us have families that have been touched by mental illness. I would guess that most of us here today can find ourselves somewhere in the demoniac, lives devastated by powers beyond our control, lives filled with guilt that has imprisoned our spirits in torment and regret.
And so what did Jesus do? He didn’t shun the man or condemn him. Jesus asked the man, “What is your name?” The first step toward healing is by calling the demon’s name out loud. Are you familiar with the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous? People have applied those 12 steps to programs dealing with all kinds of compulsive behaviors. The first step is always to name out loud to others our problem. “We admitted we were powerless over our problems- that our lives had become unmanageable.” Name the demons that you struggle with. Don’t continue to hide the problem but bring it to the light. Confess it to another- a counselor, a pastor, a compassionate friend. Receive God’s forgiveness and strength. That’s where the healing begins.
There is one more thing I see in this story. Jesus told the man he had healed to stay in his village and tell what God had done for him. That is the call each of us is given in our baptism. “Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” We have been freed from the power of sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have nothing to boast of or brag about, except in what God has done for us. We are humbled by our powerlessness and even more humbled by the love and grace of God. Someone has said that evangelism is not something we go and do, but something we do as we go. In other words, we don’t have to travel to faraway places. Sharing God’s love is something we do every day as we go about our daily lives. Jesus told the healed man to “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” We can do that today in our homes, at work or school, those places where we live our lives everyday.
This is a strange story, but what is not strange is the love and power of Jesus Christ to heal and restore broken people. Jesus Christ can heal the demons that live in our heart. He can forgive sins and free us from guilt. He can fill our hearts with God’s unconditional love and grace. Thanks be to God.