A sermon preached by Intern Pastor Bob Schaefer
Fir-Conway Lutheran Church
The Third Sunday after Pentecost - June 23, 2001
Text: Luke 8.26-39
As [Jesus] 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. Then the demons came out of the man. 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. 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.
Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of the Lord Jesus. Amen.
I need to say right from the start that I did not want to talk to you about the Gospel text this morning. In fact, I did my best to avoid it. Luke's story of the Gerasene man possessed by many, many demons has always left me a touch uncomfortable.
In much of his ministry, Jesus is comfortable and familiar. He teaches--I can relate to that. I have taught and have been taught. Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God--a little more mysterious, perhaps, but don't we pray every Sunday for God's kingdom to come? I understand on some level the ways in which God's kingdom is present and unfolding around me, and so this aspect of Jesus' ministry, too, is comfortable to me. Jesus heals the sick--I know doctors and have visited a few in my time. They might not be as effective or as speedy as the Lord, but my experience with them gives me some insight into Jesus' role as the Great Physician. Jesus finally suffers himself, and dies--this, too is as comfortable as a favorite reading nook to me, if only because I've grown accustomed to living in the mystery of it. I leave and breathe by it... in the end, nothing Jesus did is closer to me than this.
Jesus casting out demons, though--this peculiar ministry of Jesus is completely outside of my own experience. It is foreign to me, as I suspect it is foreign to most of you. I read the story of the Gerasene demoniac, and I fear that there is nothing in my life's experience to which I can compare this astonishing tale. This one side of Jesus' ministry is not comfortable to me, and it is not familiar. Simply reading this story aloud today feels risky somehow. Really digging into it...well, perhaps I am more than just "a touch" uncomfortable with stories of Jesus performing exorcisms. My hunch is that most Lutherans probably share my aversion to this topic. We speak readily--even eloquently--about the evil that is within our own hearts or about the evil that can be institutionalized in a system, but we have a very hard time with the kind of evil Jesus confronts in the Gerasene man: a personal, active presence that crushes the human spirit. The demonic.
But this text won't leave us alone. It demands our attention. "Have you really never observed a wickedness that goes beyond simple human fallenness?" it asks. Then you are a witness to the demonic at work. "Have you never said, 'That man is haunted by his inner demons'?" Have you ever stopped to consider that perhaps your diagnosis is closer to the mark than you might first guess? Human sin has produced an endless fright show of perversities and atrocities, but there are some things that are so hateful--so repulsive--that we must feel the icy touch of the demonic in their presence.
In fact, the story of the Gerasene man plagued by demonic oppression starts to feel familiar, after all. In my college days I had a friend named Dana. The Internet was just beginning to become popular on college campuses, and Dana and I met in an online forum. She lived several states away... we never met face to face in the real world. But in the virtual one, we talked almost daily.
Dana was a sweet-natured girl; her kindness and quiet strength came across even in typed notes on a screen. She was my age, give or take a few years, and we shared many interests. Most importantly, Dana and I shared a faith in Christ. Our theological viewpoints differed--show me two Christians sitting at a bar, and I'll show you three different points of view--and so we passed many late nights tapping out a theological discourse on our keyboards.
As Dana came to know and trust me, she began to reveal details of her life to me--a little here, and a little there. As I gathered little pieces of her story, it became clear that a tapestry of evil had shrouded and shaped her life. Dana had been abused as a little girl by both her father and her brother, who had also been abused. She had been molested. She had been mentally and emotionally beaten down and broken. She wanted to hurt herself, to make the wounds her spirit had sustained visible on the outside. Frequently, she did hurt herself, much to my dismay. As we talked, it became clear that Dana longed to have her life either healed or ended--she didn't care much which.
I do not say that Dana was not possessed by a demon--when we are baptized, we are filled with God's spirit, and the Holy Spirit will not share its dwelling place in our heart with some filthy spirit. But Dana was tormented by such a swarm of terrors that it is not difficult to imagine the Gerasene Legion circling viciously about her, haunting her every step with an unholy terror. Fighting against an overwhelming urge to hurt herself, even unto death, Dana understood better than most what Paul meant when he wrote that "our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" [Ep 6.12].
Dana is not alone. Every day--publicly and privately, knowingly and unaware, with great hope and with great despair--individuals suck in a gasp of air and steel themselves for another day of struggling with unseen foes. For some, like Dana, their opponents prey on mental illness or histories of abuse. For others, the evil besetting them takes the shape of an act of terror or the "cleansing" of an entire race. Whatever the case, we need to recognize that their struggle is not simply with human evils. There is a greater foe at work, the same sort of foe who would drive a man out of his town and out of his mind, to the very edge of the land and to the very edge of existence, living in a tomb and living as a tomb. The kind of foe our Lord recognized immediately as the demonic.
The Gospel is the Good News from and about Jesus. What kind of good news can Dana, and all of us who struggle against "cosmic powers of this present darkness," take from Jesus' encounter with the Gerasene?
First of all, we should realize that Jesus finds this man, even in as remote and unlikely a place as the tombs of a pagan city on the far side of the lake from Galilee. Jesus has just been enjoying a tremendously successful tour of the Galilean countryside, being met by crowds in every village and city he sets foot in. These are Jews, God's chosen people, the ones anxiously awaiting the Messiah. On the other side of the lake, the Gerasenes live in impurity, worshipping their own gods and not caring one whit about the Messiah of Israel. Yet it is to the far side of the lake that Jesus heads, without a word of explanation, at the very pinnacle of his success in Galilee. By Jewish standards, this demoniac in the graveyard is about as unlikely candidate for divine mercy as you'd ever find. By Jesus' standards, he is as important as the teeming crowds of the faithful. We can rest assured that no one struggling with the demonic is beyond the love or beyond the power of Jesus to help. And this is good news.
Second, we learn that the evil spirits are in Jesus' power from the very moment he demands their name. From what we know about exorcism in the time of Jesus, once the exorcist knew the demon's name, he had power over that spirit and the work of casting it out could begin in earnest. A good friend of mine recently shared with me that often the only thing a person struggling with such darkness can do is to name the demon that is plaguing them. They are able to open their mouth and say to someone, "I am fighting an eating disorder." Or, "We are struggling against a regime of ethnic cleansing." Speaking out, as the Legion was forced to do, undermines the agenda of evil. The demonic thrives on anonymity. As long as it goes unnamed, it is free to terrorize its victims. As soon as its name has been uttered, however, the process of casting off its chains has begun. This, also, is good news.
Finally, we are reminded that God has a hold on each and every one of us. He has a plan, he tells us through the prophet Jeremiah: "Plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope" [Je 29.11]. After Jesus has healed the Gerasene man, he sends him back home to be God's witness among the Gerasenes--the first missionary to the Gentiles. The unnamed Gerasene missionary's journey was undoubtedly a long and dark one. Of all people, he was the least likely to be part of God's saving plan. He was the least likely to have a future and a hope. No one could ever have predicted what was in store for him that fateful day when he stumbled out of his tomb to challenge thirteen tired Galileans in a boat, landing on his shore. But God had a hold on him, a deeper hold than even the Legion had. Martin Luther once observed that there may indeed be a devil, but that he is "God's devil." He meant that no "cosmic power of this present darkness," to once again borrow Paul's language, is greater than God's plan for good. Even a Legion of "God's devils" could not keep this Gerasene from becoming Christ's apostle to his kinsfolk when the Lord finally called on him. And this, too, is good news.
And what is there for us to do, we who are made horribly uncomfortable by all this demon talk? We who struggle with our own fears and doubts about God's plan? What does our Lord ask of us in the face of such evils? It's as simple as this: Pile into the boat with Jesus. Let him choose the course; and wherever he brings us, that's where we start talking about his good news. Whether it's across a lake, or across the street, or across the pew, he'll get us where that good news is needed the most.
The one thing most deadly to dark, hidden powers is the presence of the Light. At our baptisms a candle was lit, and we were given one simple task: let your light shine. It's the same thing Jesus commands his Gerasene missionary--"Let even your light shine! Be my witness here! Let people know that here is hope and a future, and that they will find them both in me. This is my good news!"
When our Lord has brought us ashore, when he's led us across the street, when he's helped us reach our hand across the pew--when Jesus has brought us where we need to be--then we can be sure that the light of his good news will shine into the dark places. And when that light shines, then let all the rulers, all the authorities, all the cosmic powers of this present darkness, all the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places that prey on God's children--let them beware! The light has come. Darkness cannot remain. Alleluia! Amen.