Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

After the demons leave

Message preached June 23, 2013
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Luke 8:26-39

Order of Worship

listen to this in mp3 format

             I remember one Saturday night my sophomore year of college, when the horror film, Night of the Living Dead, was showing in the campus theater. I’m not a big fan of this kind of motion picture, but I went anyway along with some of my friends. Filmed in black and white, this cult movie begins in a graveyard where dead people come alive and, like zombies, go in search of live flesh. I’m not sure which was worse, the gore on the screen or the screams of the audience. To be honest, I have no idea how the movie ends. I decided back then that I’d had enough part-way through and walked out.

             It’s funny what scares us in life. The story of the Gerasene demoniac itself begins in a graveyard. A lunatic figure racing naked among all those dead people, accompanied by the sound of clanking chains, might be a frightening thought. Add eerie music and you might have another cult classic. But that’s not the scary part of the story as we’ve received it. No, the element of fear comes later.

             As I said, it’s funny what frightens us in life. Take the boat ride Jesus and his disciples undertook on their way to this graveyard. When they began it, on the other side of that big lake called the Sea of Galilee, the weather was mild, so much so that Jesus took a nap. While he slept, a sudden windstorm swept across the lake. The waves began to fill the boat with water as it was tossed to and fro. Still, Jesus slept. Realizing the danger, his disciples finally woke him. “We’re perishing,” they said. With a yawn, he told the wind and the waves to quiet down ... and the sea became calm as glass. It’s only at this point in the story that it says the disciples “were afraid.” They were afraid of and amazed at this One who “commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

             Indeed, it’s funny what scares us in life. When they exited the boat on the other side of the lake, the first person Jesus and his disciples met was a crazy man. I suppose we could compare this scene with another horror film, The Exorcist, for here is a person possessed by many demons. However, unlike that scary movie from the past, this scene is - in many ways - as calm as the Sea of Galilee after Jesus stilled the storm. No beds rise into the air. No heads turn all the way around. No cursing and vomiting. No holy water sprinkled.

             Jesus simply tells the demons to leave the man. Almost like how he, with a yawn, calmed the sea. Then the man (or is it the demons?) shouts, “What are you here for? What do you want of me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” How interesting that our Lord is recognized at first sight. “What is your name?” Jesus asks the man. “Legion,” comes the reply. Like a large military force, a legion, these demons have encamped themselves within this man.

             What happens next is a bit humorous, really. Legion apparently recognizes that their days of plaguing this man are over, and they ask Jesus not to send them off into the nothingness of the abyss. A herd of pigs are on the hillside nearby, and they ask to enter these. “Whatever,” Jesus says. He gives his permission. Sort of like asking the teacher if you can go to the bathroom. Only, once in that herd of swine, Legion races down into the sea and drowns. Sort of strange but, when you think of it, there’s a lot of crazy group behavior out there nowadays that isn’t all that different.

             Anyway, here comes the scary part, according to the story as we’ve received it. The townspeople then arrive. They’ve known this once crazy, now sane man since his birth, witnessed his wild episodes, tried to chain him down to keep him from hurting himself - to no avail. Then, they see him set free from those demons that have plagued his life for too long. You’d think they’d be overjoyed. He’s been healed, made whole. But no, scripture says that they are, instead, “seized with great fear.” They ask Jesus to leave, and he does.

             As I said, it’s funny what frightens us in life. I’ve often wondered what those people were so afraid of.  I know some of what frightens me, and I’m not talking scary movies here. I know some of the demons with which I have struggled. Nothing like what that man faced, for sure. I’ve never been driven to run naked and wild through a graveyard. But I have done some pretty stupid stuff in the course of my life for a legion of foolish reasons.

             Is it a demon within that nudges my pride to continue a course of action long after I’ve realized how “dumb” it is? How easily we can get stuck in attitudes that we know, deep down, aren’t doing us any good - but we keep up with it. Is there a demon behind that? Loneliness, insecurity, frustration, anxiety, fear, guilt, anger drive us into some strange territory. I know that’s been true in my life.

             Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that I have no control over my behavior, that “the devil made me do it,” when I’ve succumbed to one of these legion of things. It’s just that “demons” are more a part of our modern existence than what we think. I’m not making a case for searching out demons everywhere, just for openness and honesty in admitting the demons that plague us still.

             I wonder if those Gerasene folks were frightened by the prospect of having to face into their own demons now that their resident lunatic was no longer a crazy man. Forgive me for using these terms, (“lunatic,” “crazy man”) for we have fought long and hard to bring mental illness out of the shadows and change how the rest of us think about it. That’s precisely the point in this story. No doubt these people cared enough about that possessed man that they tried to restrain him to keep him from hurting himself and others. He was some mother’s son. On the other hand, they probably were weary of having to deal with him. Furthermore, in focusing upon his troubles, they had little energy to deal with their own.

             Sort of like a supposed “problem” child in a family. Things may not be doing too well between mother and father, but as long as the identified “problem” person exists, they can attend to this “problem” child without having to face into what’s happening between them as a couple, the demons that plague their marriage. When the “problem” finally leaves home, the marriage continues - the demons remain - a frightening prospect for some.

             Or like someone who has come to terms with an addiction. Often there are a legion of other factors involved, not just a chemical imbalance in the brain, that has led to a dependency problem. When, finally, this person becomes able to start walking away from addiction (a life-long process, believe me), loved ones need to adjust. It is a joyful time, yes, but also fearful. What does it mean to live without this “problem” being front and center? Guess we have to pay attention to our own demons now, some of which may have to do with forgiving and forgetting  past hurts. Is it a demon that nudges us to continue nursing our wounds, instead of exposing them to the air of God’s healing presence?

             As I think about those Gerasene folks, who were “seized with a great fear” when they saw their “son” no longer possessed by that Legion of demons, I wonder if they weren’t afraid of living on after the demons left. Were they frightened of facing into their own demons? Or, more to the point, were they afraid of living without demons, period? Are we afraid of living without our demons? After all, isn’t that what makes us - “us”?  We have a hard time envisioning a different way of living. Isn’t that what Jesus came to proclaim - another way of living?

             With parables left and right, Jesus sought to open the door of the human heart to God’s kingdom. He came knocking, knowing the door will be opened. He came seeking us, knowing he would find us. He came asking, knowing that his open arms would receive us. He still comes, across the sea of history to the here and now, to where we are. As he, himself, was laid to rest in a graveyard long ago, then opened it wide when he rose from death, so we now are empowered to rise - not only from death on that last day - but also from that which tries to hold us down, be it “demons” or sins or .....  In Christ Jesus, graveyards are no longer scary places.

             I love how this story of the Gerasene demoniac ends. As Jesus and his disciples are casting off for the other side of the lake, having been asked to leave by the townsfolk, this man begs to go with him. But Jesus instead encourages him to go home and tell what God has done for him. And that’s just what he did. After the demons leave, you can’t help but tell of God’s goodness and mercy.   

©2013. 2001 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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