1 Kings 19:1-15, Psalm 42, 43, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
t had been a nice afternoon sailing expedition. Jesus and the guys had gotten into the boat and just let the winds and the currents take them wherever they would. There had been a lot of leaning back, letting their fingers drag through the water and listening to the cries of the sea birds circling overhead. And then there had been all of these stimulating discussions about the nature of God and the meaning of faith. It had been heavenly.
And then they had made landfall, had pulled the boat up on the shore in the country of the Gerasenes and instantly their peaceful afternoon came to a crashing halt. Did you notice that? No sooner had Jesus put one foot on the land than a crazy man came running up shouting at the top of his lungs: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!”
Except he wasn’t crazy, was he? It says that he was possessed by demons and I always wonder how we are supposed to deal with something like that as modern readers. I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually go around in this life assuming that everyone who acts a little bit different is obviously possessed by demons. In fact, I never think that way, not even when people behave in extremely strange ways or have particular disorders or mental health issues. We have learned that there are better ways to talk about such people and better ways to help them then just to write them off as being possessed by supernatural forces.
But people in Jesus’ time did talk like that. They just assumed that demonic activity lay behind a huge variety of behaviours. Where we would look at someone and say, he is depressed, they would look at the same person and say he has a demon. More than anything else, it was a way of speaking – a way of seeing the world unfolding in the midst of competing spiritual forces.
But, I wonder, how would we as modern folks, interpret the actions of the strange and clearly troubled individual? What would we say he was dealing with? I know you’re not supposed to diagnose somebody’s psychological problems from a distance, but let’s just try. He is hanging around the local graveyard. That tells me that we may have somebody who is dealing with issues of grief. Has he lost someone – perhaps a wife or a child – under particularly tragic circumstances? Has this left him in a state where he just doesn’t feel like he can leave the graveyard and get on with his life?
I’ll tell you one thing about him, he is certainly a very angry individual. He lashes out at Jesus just as soon as he appears on the scene. If he is grieving about a death that has occurred; is there somebody that he blames? What is the monumental force of injustice at work in his world that he would blame for such tragedy? Or to put it better, what is the hatred that so fills him that it has taken on his entire identity? Well, that is a question that he himself answers. When Jesus asks him what his name is, he says it is Legion.
Now I know that the gospel writer explains that name by saying that he had many demons just like there are many men in a legion. And that is true enough, but I don’t think it can be the whole explanation. You see, that word, legionreally stands out in this story – stands out in the midst of the entire gospel in fact. You see, the gospels were entirely written in Greek with only a few Aramaic words here and there (Aramaic being the language that Jesus actually spoke). But legion is not a Greek word and it is not an Aramaic word. It is a Latin word – one of the very few Latin words you will find in the Bible. What’s more, it is a Latin military term and the word that was most commonly used to talk about the Roman troops who occupied that part of the world.
So, do you think it is possible that the thing that pushed this man over the edge and into his particular brand of demonic madness might just have had something to do with the Roman occupation of Palestine? Did he hold the legions responsible for a death? I suspect so. In a very real sense, the legion washis demon. They had entered and defiled his land trampling it down just like those unclean pigs in the nearby farm (who were by the way, no doubt being raised to be sold to the legions; there wouldn’t have been much of a Jewish market, after all).
Now, I know that a lot of the time we treat stories like this one – stories of demon possession and exorcism – as belonging to a particular time and place that don’t have much to do with modern life. I have even heard people argue that the time of Jesus was a time of extraordinary demonic activity, perhaps precisely because the incarnation of God had appeared upon the earth and the demons were trying to fight back. That is the reason that is often given for why we have so many stories of demon possession in the New Testament but that we don’t see that today. But I don’t buy that. I think that the forces of evil are just as active in the world today as they have ever been, but we just don’t talk about them in the same way today as they did then. There are some very good reasons why we don’t talk that way, very helpful reasons, but there are some things about evil and the way it works that just don’t change. Only our language has changed.
So, I am wondering, is there some way we could tell the story of the Gerasene demoniac and the disciples’ encounter with him that would sound familiar in our modern context? I don’t find it all that hard to imagine…
The church has spent a long and lazy afternoon in our boat, drifting along and letting the winds and the currents of our theology and our speculations about the meanings of certain Bible passages take us where they will. And we’ve been leaning back, letting our fingers drag through the water and listening to the cries of the sea birds circling overhead as we enjoy all of the stimulating discussions about the nature of God and the meaning of faith.
But, sooner or later, the church has to make landfall, has to make contact with the troubled people of the world. And no sooner does that happen, no sooner do we set a single foot upon the shore of the internet or of social media or some other cultural interchange than someone comes running up shouting aloud their madness. And the madness that you hear these days, it is all over the place, but it is still like the madness of that man who had been pushed over the edge by the legions that occupied his land.
Somebody comes running up yelling at us, “Haven’t you heard that Justin Trudeau is the love child of Fidel Castro and Maggie? Isn’t that all the proof you need to know that he’s going to lead us into a socialist hellscape?” And then there’s somebody else over there who is waving around a theory that he says proves that Andrew Scheer has a secret plan to take the entire country back in the late 1950s. Somebody else is screaming about how the very worst and most despicable things that Doug Ford is doing, he was actually forced to do because of Kathleen Wynne, and then, of course, there’s this other guy who immediately points out that everything that is less than optimal in our country is all directly caused by the carbon tax. There seems to be a growing number of people for whom their demon is called “Carbon Tax.”
I don’t know if you’ve gone there, if you spent much time clicking around in internet forums and subreddits, but that’s kind of what it’s like out there these days. It’s not just a localized disturbance in a place called the country of the Gerasenes, it’s everywhere. You just have to put your foot out of the boat and it comes running up to you screaming. It is a madness and it’s so pervasive. It is not just one demon; they are legion.
Now please understand what I’m saying here, I don’t have any problem with people debating questions of politics or policy. I understand when people have problems with particular leaders or parties. Discussion about those sorts of things is healthy and good. But that’s not really what I’m hearing out there these days. I’m hearing madness, and it’s a madness that seems to be possessing a lot of people. And I think it’s a problem because it is the kind of madness that might well prevent us from having the substantive discussions and disagreements that we actually need to deal with these days.
But the good news of our story this morning from the Gospel of Luke is that we have a saviour who is not afraid to stand up to the power of evil in this world and has the power to break the demons that infect our discourse. I have to believe that that is still just a true today as it was back in the time of Jesus.
So the question is, what can we do to confront the madness of our modern society? In the story in the gospel, the people of the local village did try certain things to deal with the madness. They tried to constrain the man. “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.” Containment, in other words is not going to be the solution. We are not going to banish the madness from our present political discourse, for example, by giving up on cherished freedoms like freedom of speech or freedom of association.
Jesus did not seek to confine or punish that man in the tombs, but he did offer him a new freedom and a new way of seeing the world. There is another passage in the gospels in which Jesus speaks about the approach he took to casting out demons. “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Matthew 12:43-45)
What Jesus seems to be saying there is that it’s not enough to take the evil or the demon out of the person. That just leaves a void. If you tell people that they can’t post ridiculous fake stories on Facebook or Twitter, that will accomplish nothing. It will just leave a void that will be filled by the next ridiculously bad idea that comes along. No, Jesus is saying, you need to replace the negative behaviour with something positive. You need to give somebody a newer and better way of looking at the world.
I think we have that; I think we can offer that. I think we can change the conversation and I’m feeling that that will be something that is more and more necessary.
What we talk about here in our little boat, ideas like how you should not hate your enemies but love them and pray for them, ideas like the amazing grace of God and the power of new life in Christ, ideas like the one that you should welcome the stranger and the refugee and treat them with honour. These are all things that don’t simply confront the madness of our modern world, but offer an alternate to them. That alternate, I still believe, is the last best hope for what the world, our country and our community can be. That is a whole lot better than some nasty and likely untrue stories shared on social media. Will you be part of changing the conversation? I think that being part of that is becoming essential to being true followers of Christ in our modern world.