“A Night with a Demoniac”
Luke 8: 26-39
October 6, 2002
During my Boy Scout days, one of our favorite things to do was to sit out beside the campfire at night and tell scary stories. Well, if there was ever a scary story to fit the bill of a scary story, this story would be it. Let us not discount the possibility that this story could have, and probably did, happen at night, and if it was at night, oh what a story it is.
Jesus and his disciples have arrived in Gentile territory, near a place called Gerasene. When they pull up on the bank, it is dark outside, the only light coming from their torches. Suddenly, out from the tombs comes a screaming, howling image of man, a man unclothed, a man with wounds and scars, a man who was possessed by demons.
Can you image seeing such a sight? Can you imagine the fear in the disciples? What one of you here wouldn't have run? Yet, there was one person who didn't run that night…Jesus. Even when confronted by the demon possessed man, Jesus did not run away. He stayed with the man, spoke to him, and released the man from the captivity of the legion of demons.
In some respects, the stories we find throughout the Gospels about demon possessions and exorcisms are very strange to our twenty-first century ears. At first hearing and first thought we are likely to regard such stories merely as evidences of ancient superstitions, which we have long since outgrown. After all, modern sciences, especially in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy, have helped us to understand a great deal about the human mind and human emotions.
In our day, we have become far more accustomed to attributing calamities and disorders to the forces of nature or to internal mental or emotional problems than to demonic possessions. We use scientific terms such as paranoia, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, or compulsive behavior. The remedy now is not exorcism, but counseling and medication. We now understand much more clearly that people like the possessed man in our story suffer not from demonic forces but from severe psychological illnesses.
Yet, we must be cautious not to dismiss to quickly the diagnosis of the first century writers, because they are not only describing more vividly and more graphically what is wrong with people, but they are more closely describing the felt realities of these “possessed” people. Modern science has only given new names to ancient demons.
Even people today who are suffering from mental and/or emotional illnesses will describe themselves as feeling like they are possessed, possessed by a power or powers that have taken control of their bodies. Their true self is unable to assert itself. It is buried deep into the mental or emotional recesses of the human mind. They no longer have a single identity, they no longer have a name, they are no longer individual people, but they feel as if there is a legion of competing forces battling within them.
The good news of this story, as other stories of demon possessions and exorcisms, is that no matter what we may be feeling inside and out, Jesus is not afraid. No matter what we may confront him with, no matter what we may be going through, no matter how much we feel like we are going crazy and losing control of our very selves, no matter what mental or emotional problems we may have, Jesus is not afraid. Jesus will never run away from us, for Jesus sees in all of us who we really are - real human beings, human beings who are in desperate need of his saving power, the saving power of Jesus' liberating, freeing word, the word that destroys even the greatest imaginable assembly of demonic powers and restores us to wholeness.
But if this is all that our text today tells us then we have missed a crucial aspect of this story. You see this story tells us much more than just about a man who is healed by the power of Jesus. This story tells us about a people who are threatened by the very power that saves, a people who value their possessions more than a person’s life, a people who resent having their comfortable and familiar way of life disturbed and upset by the presence of the one who has come to liberate and free those who are oppressed and socially discarded.
When Jesus and his disciples arrived in the country of the Gerasenes that night, they found a man who’s home was not a building but a cave of limestone rock carved out by the wind and rain used as tombs for the dead. They found a man who had no identity, no name, nor any clothing, a man who spent all night yelling and crying out, but who’s cries of anguish fell on deaf ears. They found a man who had been discarded by his society.
You may have even seen him yourself or heard of him. He has no name, no identity. His homes are the streets and alleyways. He sleeps in trash containers or cardboard boxes, if he is lucky enough to find ones suitable for sleeping. His only food is what he can scrounge up. People say he is not quite right in the head. Some say he is crazy, some call him deranged, others lunatic or psycho.
People don’t want him in their town. They close their windows at night when they hear his crying. They walk on the other side of the street not daring to look in his direction. They are embarrassed by him. He is a nuisance, an eye sore. He gives the city a bad reputation, so he is removed for the Olympics, major sporting events, national and international conventions, and political rallies. He is given a one way ticket out of town on Amtrak or Greyhound. Or he is bound up with chains and fetters, handcuffs and straightjackets and then carted off and imprisoned in insane asylums or state mental hospitals.
Not much has changed since the first century. Our society still treats those who have mental and emotional problems, who are poor, oppressed, and marginalized as a social disease, as a plague on our American way of life, as a sickness that must be eradicated. But Jesus says, "NO!…I will not treat them as outcasts, as plagues, as social diseases. I will treat them has who they are – real human beings who are in need of compassion, love, grace, and mercy. And by my word, by the power of my very word I will liberate them from their oppression. I will free them from the power of sin and evil and restore them to wholeness.”
It is truly good news that our Lord Jesus Christ does not run from those who need him most, those who are in desperate need of peace of mind, inner security, and unconditional love, the things that only Christ can give. But to the Gerasenes this is not good news.
It is a tragic and bewildering irony that when the people found the demon possessed man sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion, they were afraid. One would have thought that they would have been filled with joy, but they regarded it with terror.
There are other occasions where people have had fear at the sight of Jesus’ awesome power. Luke 7:16 tells us that people were seized with fear when Jesus raised the son of the widow of Nain and 8:25 tells us that when Jesus calmed the storms his disciples were afraid, but in these cases, fear turns to joy and marvel. The people of Nain began to glorify God, and the disciples marveled at Jesus mighty authority, but what about the Gerasenes…they asked him to leave.
One would have thought that they would have urged Jesus to stay with them and exercise still further his amazing power; but they urged him to get out of their district. The fear of what Jesus had done did not turn into joy, wonder and praise, but dismay, anger, and disgust. Why? Why did these people react the way they did? Because they valued their possessions and way of life more than the life and soul of the demon possessed man. Their very economic security was destroyed and their way of life was threatened to save this man, and they wanted no part of it.
Their routine and familiarity of life had been disturbed and upset, and they wanted the disturbing element removed as quickly as possible. They had managed for all these years with this man by continually exiling him to the rock tombs. They had been able to cover up the social disease. They had been able to shield their eyes, cover their ears, and close their mouths to the demon possessed man, just as our society does with the slums and ghettos, with the poor, mentally and emotionally ill, with the crime, gangs, sex, and violence, with the moral and ethical decay this country and world are experiencing. They wanted no part in any of it, and neither does our society.
Let us never forget that Jesus threatens the status quo, he threatens the existing order and custom, he threatens the social structure, and he exposes people for who they really are. Jesus has come to disrupt our individualistic ways of life. He has come to destroy what keeps us from seeing the human being in others. He has come to remind us that as part of our faith, as part of our witness to the gospel, we are to work in this world to bring comfort to the suffering, freedom to the oppressed, and peace to all.
So, as we come to the table today to take communion, let us remember all of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are eating and drinking with us today. Let us remember that we are not alone in our work of faith and discipleship, that we are not alone in helping to bring about comfort, freedom, and peace to the people of this world through Christ.
Our text concludes with Jesus departing from the land of the Gerasenes and from his night with the demoniac, but his departure does not mean the end of the story for us. In fact, it is only the beginning, for Jesus says to the to the man, “Return to your home, and declare what great things God has done for you”. Let us remember that it is through Holy Communion, through the body and blood of Christ, that all of us, all of us all over the world, who have been made whole by the power of God's word, have been called to do the same thing, to go tell others the good news of the Gospel, to go tell others, not just how much God has done, but how much God has done for us. Amen.