In the Presence of God
Reflections on Luke 8:26-39: The Healing of a Demon-possessed Man
Michael Barrett, June 30, 2019
Let Us Pray
A Thousand Glad Answers by Walter Brueggeman
You speak words of promise, and we answer.
A thousand times we answer, in a thousand tongues —-
We answer in hymns of praise,
We answer in songs of thanksgiving,
We answer in lyrics of gladness, we answer in candor about hurt,
We answer in abrasive anger, we answer in deep abandonment.
We answer and draw close to you.
And in answering we are changed: given freedom, come to truth, bound in obedience.
We answer and we are yours, all yours,
Not our own, yours,
And glad that we belong to our faithful savior.
This morning’s tale of the healing of a demon-possessed man is one of a sequence of four stories Luke relates in chapter 8 of his good news. Each one of these stories appears in every one of the synoptic gospels. Each of the four accounts reveals a great deal about the presence of God and the mission of His Son. Each testifies to that reality that God is deeply involved in our life and death dramas. That alone is a theology very different from most other faiths.
In today’s reading, after calming that raging storm on the Sea of Galilee and before raising back to life Jairus’s dead daughter and stanching the bleeding of a hemorrhaging women Jesus and some of his disciples make landfall on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This is Jesus’ first excursion directly into gentile territory.
There are at least four major themes in this reading that reflect on the nature of God’s presence among us. Especially, God’s healing presence.
- Jesus comes to heal us.
- Nothing is beyond the healing power of Jesus.
- Jesus’ healing is holistic and systemic.
- Jesus’ healing encompasses challenge.
Jesus Comes to Us
They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee.
God strives to meet us where we are. Jesus comes to help we who need healing. Jesus initiates the process. It is in God’s nature to heal us and there are simply no abysmal depths nor critical distresses nor distances too far, that are beyond the grace of God’s to transverse. Whenever we need healing, Jesus is already there.
Jesus comes to Gerasene. The very countryside of Gerasene is hostile, gentile and Greek territory. It is crawling with brutal Roman centurions. It is unclean by all the Jewish purity standards of the time. It might be like one of us scheduling a walking tour of the Rochina slums in Rio de Janeiro or going on a sightseeing tour through the shanties in Ciudad Neza in Mexico City. Yet here Jesus lands, intentionally, with complete courage, confidence and conviction. Jesus comes not due to being blown off course, this is where his ship happens to ground, but because this is where healing is most desperately needed. Jesus always intended to come to Gerasene.
Nothing is Beyond the Healing Power of Jesus
When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town.
Perhaps, the poor disciples, after enduring that raging storm, were hoping that they might enjoy a little shore leave, some ‘r and r.’ But no, immediately, a frenetic, crazed mad man blindsides them, accosting them with incoherent shouts, and finally, then, commences to thrash and writhe at the feet of Jesus.
The poor man is clearly completely insane – he’s stark naked, he’s filthy, and he’s homeless. In fact, he’s living in the most impure of locations, in a cemetery, dwelling among tombs—an area so impure that Jews whitewashed their cemeteries in order that the pious would not accidentally touch a tomb and be made impure.
His community has sought to isolate the man by incarceration with chains and shackles, yet with the strength of demon possession, those bonds are broken and the demoniac flees to the desolate wilds. We learn how the man’s community treats him and how completely they fail. How does Jesus treat this ill man so so differently? How might Jesus also treat us with compassion, understanding, and healing?
Jesus, of course, recognizes the enemy instantly. Jesus knows that the person and the demons are not the same entity. Jesus attacks evil and not the man. The demons are having a malicious field day with this miserable soul. And, we might wonder at their delight in this particular form of torture. And, ask why Jesus travels so far to put an end to this one person’s torment.
Why? Because. ‘Humans are made in the image of God.’ How much of God’s image is left in the person we see before us? He seems the very opposite God’s intended design. He epitomizes the destruction of the child of God he was made to be. He scarcely appears human at all. What delight it is for demons to distort and destroy the image of God whenever, wherever they can. It is all and everything that is made in God’s image that they attack. And Jesus responds to that attack. Then and now and forever.
The man cannot even speak. Instead, a demon screams out, ‘what do you want with me Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you don’t torture me.’ Incidentally, that ‘Son of the Most High God,” is not a compliment.
In the first century, it is accepted that calling a person by their name or title, ensures, the caller some power over that person.
Isn’t it interesting that the only participants in this story that know Jesus for exactly who he is, are the demons? The demons recognize him at once. They know what he can do. They know who is in charge. They know that Jesus’ power is beyond all comprehension. They know that their ability to counter Jesus is worse than negligible even though there is a host of them present.
‘What is your name? ‘ ‘Legion.’ This pitiful person cannot even remember his own name. His self-identity is lost. Legion – interestingly, a Latin (Roman) term, not Hebrew, Aramaic, nor Greek – Legion is a military designation indicating 5600-6000 infantry plus 120 officers and horsemen. A legion is not only a great number, but also an entity that is efficiently organized and very strong. Its main purposes are conquest and subjugation. The fear of the demons overtakes them and they attempt evasion – ‘don’t send us back to Satan, but let us go into those pigs over there. ‘
Evasion. Not profession; not submission; not obedience to God. Only evasion from God. One of the important lessons to remember here is that it is not just enough to ‘know’ about Jesus – the demons know Jesus better than any of the others present. The lesson is that one has to be transformed in the process of that recognition – one has to start, then, striving to do things the way Jesus does things and listening to his teachings and matching our deeds with his words.
What about now? My friends, Jesus is still and already here to help us with our own 21st-century demons. Who me? Demons? Yes, demons slyly disguised as vocational worry, financial trouble, broken relationships, depression, alienation, loneliness, addiction, injustice, insecurity, physical illness ranging from simple colds, flu or asthmas, to the worse cancers, dementia, and Parkinson’s, emotional illness ranging from low self esteem, temper tantrums, and anxiety up to the worst, suicidal thoughts nervous breakdown, or emotional paralysis. LEGION!
Do we have demons? Most of us probably have at least one or two lurking about, but we’re usually pretty good at keeping them quiet, at least most of the time. And beyond us – all the others — have you ever had an encounter with some seemingly deranged homeless person? Have you ever felt then, as I, that you were transported back in time to the frontline of Gerasene?
Jesus issues the command to ‘come out of ‘ and the man is restored. Jesus triumphs over evil, justice, and goodness prevail, the man is delivered, the unclean herd is destroyed, and the demons get exactly what they ask for, although in the end, they are disembodied. The lesson here being that evil when it gets it own way is ultimately self-destructive.
Everybody gets what they want right? Okay, how many of you are still thinking about those innocent ill-fated pigs that just happen to be happily grazing on the nearby hillside – when all of a sudden [poof] they’re full of the devil – and reminiscent of the earlier demoniacs behavior – they go insane and stampede over the cliffs and down into the Sea of Galilee and drown. Why Jesus? Why? Okay – he liked sheep, but did he despise pigs or detest little fruitless fig trees?
Maybe this incident serves instead, as an object lesson about the need for sacrifice. Maybe God’s reign requires some very hard choices and incredibly difficult sacrifices. Maybe to Jesus, the soul of one person is worth more than all the pigs in the world. Certainly, to him, all of our souls were worth his one life.
Jesus’ Healing is Holistic and Systemic
They found the man . . . sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind.
The healing of Jesus is completely transformative. Jesus’ healing is systemic – from the inside out. Jesus’ healing is holistic. That is the true presence of God’s healing – our identity as a child of God is restored – our whole being is healed not just the part that we have identified as troubled. Jesus heals the person.
Let’s go down today’s before and after checklist: 1) demons once present, now destroyed (spiritual healing), 2) once naked, now clothed (restoration to status, warmth and protection; the physical necessities of life), 3) once living alone in the tombs, now returning to home (the healing of relationships) 4] once thrashing and shouting, now quiet and sitting and listening [peaceful, focused, becoming a disciple], and 5] once out of control, now of right mind (restoration of dignity, discipline, intelligence, and the best use of body and mind). Holistic healing to once more be a child of God.
Jesus’ Healing Encompasses Challenge
The transformative healing of Jesus requires more than just ‘knowing’ Jesus. As evident from today’s reading, life in Jesus is no longer business as usual – it requires deliberate commitment, it calls for drastic change, and it involves dramatic concessions. This morning we witness two different reactions to Jesus’ healing miracle.
They were afraid, then all the people asked Jesus to leave them because they were overcome with fear.
At first, the witnessing people are amazed and excited and rush about, relating the story far and wide, but then the spiritual implications begin to sink in (How did Jesus treat the demoniac? How did I treat him? What’s this mean for the comfort of my spirituality, what will be asked next of me?), then arises the anxiety of economic implication (he sacrificed my pigs this time, what else? How much? How often?).
As usual, fear leads to caution, caution leads to reserve, reserve leads to mistrust, and mistrust leads to rejection. Too much change, too fast, too scary. Aren’t we better off with the troubles we know and accept, than engaging new changes that are not known and may be too risky?
These people made the choice to prefer hogs to healing, property to people, selfishness to salvation, and the humdrum to the heavenly. They asked Jesus to leave.
So he got into the boat and left.
My sisters and brothers did you notice how Jesus exercises his power and authority over the demons freely; but, chooses not to exercise that power and authority over people, over us. He honors the request of the Gerasenes. We can disinvite Jesus. We can tell Jesus to leave us alone. We can send him away. We can even tell him that we’d rather live like a beast. He may honor that request. At some point, he may get back in the boat and leave.
The man begged to go with Him, but Jesus sent him away saying, ‘return home and tell how much God has done for you.’ So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.
How many times have we heard, ‘follow me,’ ‘come follow me,’ and ‘follow me,’ again? But, today, ‘return home.’ Some need eye-witnessed demonstrations of God’s presence. Others need to hear someone’s personal testimony of God’s presence.
Often, the most helpful thing we may do is to tell another what God is doing in our life. Our telling, personally of God’s healing, mercy, forgiveness, and unconditional love.
Sometimes, the next most helpful thing is for us to listen to another speak what they hope God will do in their life. How we hear is shaped by our own experience of one having been touched by God. Bonhoeffer says, ‘we should listen with the ears of God, that we may speak the word of God. Most often that Word of God is about forgiveness, acceptance, and love.’
If that healed man had gone with Jesus, he might have become an outstanding disciple. But, then the Gerasenes would have quickly reverted to their old ways, the status quo. But by remaining, that healed man becomes a missionary, a constant reminder to all, of what the presence of Jesus means.
Today and in the many sometimes ahead, my friends, please reflect and revisit verse 39 – ‘return home and tell how much GOD has done for you. So the man went away and told all over town how much JESUS had done for him.’
God/Jesus – Jesus /God. Did you catch the subtle change? What Jesus does is what God does. If you want to tell what God does, tell what Jesus does.
We answer and draw close to you?
And in answering we are changed: given freedom, brought to truth, bound in obedience.
We answer and are yours, all yours, not on our own, yours, and glad we belong to our faithful savior.