March 8, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
The third in a series of eight.
One of the scariest movies I ever saw was “The Exorcist”. It was about a 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon. It was fiction. It didn’t really happen. So even though the movie was quite disturbing, it was possible to dismiss it as make-believe.
But then a few years later came the book, People of the Lie. It was not fiction. It was written by a psychotherapist named Scott Peck about his actual experiences with the demon-possessed. It was even creepier than the movie because it could not be dismissed as make-believe. The stories in this book really happened.
And of course we are living in times when a typical news broadcast tells of people doing unbelievably monstrous things. Cutting off heads. Burning people alive. Filming it all and sending out the videos to prove how devoted these people are to their faith. To show that there is nothing they will not do to please their idea of God. Scott Peck has a chapter on group evil. On how demons can possess a number of people at the same time. It’s hard for me to explain what is going on in our world in any other way.
Jesus was never intimidated by demons. In fact, Jesus was able to see right past the demons into the heart of the person who had the misfortune of being possessed. We’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Luke, noticing how Jesus had a special love and concern for those who everybody else considered a nobody. Today we look at this unusual category of a nobody — somebody who is possessed by a demon.
In the ancient world demons were everywhere. Whenever there was something bad going on that couldn’t be explained in any other way, the convenient explanation was a demon. Epilepsy, for example, was caused by a demon. Mental illness was caused by a demon. Sometimes in the modern world we conclude that since much of what used to be explained by demons now has a scientific name, therefore there is no longer such a thing as demons. I would be careful about jumping to that conclusion.
There is a dark, twisted side to the human psyche. I don’t think that’s news to anyone here. We see it in other people. We see it in ourselves. Something is not right. Even after we have taken into account what can go wrong with the physical and the psychological dimensions of our humanity, something is still not right. Something we can’t explain in the modern world any better than they were able to explain it in the ancient world. So the concern Jesus had for the demon-possessed is not just a concern for people living in the past. It is a concern for people living in the present. It is a concern for us.
Jesus was an exorcist. He cast demons out of those who were possessed. He did it all the time. Today’s scripture is but one of many examples we could have used. It’s a strange story. It’s going to be a strange sermon. Fair warning. But I think it’s a very important passage of scripture, especially for today.
Jesus is in Capernaum. He spent a lot of time in Capernaum. He said, “Let us go to the other side of the lake.” So he got into a boat with his disciples and they started across the Sea of Galilee. It would have taken them about four hours to get to their destination in the best of conditions, but the conditions on this day were far from the best. There was a terrible storm at sea. Everyone was scared to death. Everyone except Jesus. Why wasn’t Jesus scared? He was sound asleep. They had to wake him up. Then he calmed the storm. And then he said to his disciples, “Where is your faith?”
I want you to see on the map the journey Jesus made with his disciples. He starts in Capernaum and he ends up in Kursi. What’s important is that he starts on the Jewish side of the lake and then he crosses over into foreign territory. These people raised swine. In Jewish eyes, that meant you were swine. So Jesus travelled four hours by boat through a storm to go to people no respectable Jew would have anything to do with.
The description of what Jesus saw when he reached land is bizarre, to say the least. He got out of the boat at a cemetery. He was greeted by a homeless man who lived in that cemetery. He lived “among the tombs.” We are told this is a man who hadn’t worn clothes in a long time. He was stark-naked and he was stark-raving mad. He had been held with chains and fetters to protect himself and others. But he had broken loose. His demons gave him this superhuman power to break steel and these same demons then drove him into this cemetery where he now lived. Can you picture the look in this man’s eyes? A look of evil. Desperation. Terror. A “nobody’s home” look. This is like a scene out of one of those zombie movies. But this man was not the living dead. He was a living outcast. He was a nobody — Jesus’ favorite kind of people!
There are several things to notice here. First, the name “Legion”. To the best of our knowledge, Luke wrote this about AD 80. Ten years earlier, in AD 70, Rome had gone to war against the Jews. Their temple had been destroyed, never to be rebuilt. A million Jews had been killed. The invading army had been four Roman legions. Each legion consisted of 5,600 soldiers. That’s an invading force of 22,400. It was no contest. The Jews were massacred. The orders were to teach them a lesson they would never forget. These legions had done demonic work.
Ten years later the memory was still vivid. Everyone knew someone who had been killed. Hence the name Luke gives the demon. It was not a single demon. It was a demonic army. “Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ and he said, ‘Legion’, for many demons had entered him.”
Knowing the name was important. Nameless demons were thought to have power. But the one who knows the demon’s name has power over that demon. So why would “Legion” voluntarily give up his name? Because Jesus did the asking. “Legion” was powerless to resist Jesus.
This is the main point in the story. The power of Jesus is infinitely greater than the power of the demonic. We see this in the surrender of the name. We see this earlier when the demons recognize Jesus and cry out with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech you, do not torment me”. The demons are scared to death of Jesus. And then later, after Jesus gets the name “Legion” out of them, “they begged him not to command them to go back into the abyss.” Again, in the presence of Jesus, demons quake with fear.
What’s this “abyss” they are so afraid of? It was thought to be a deep pit under the earth where the demons lived. It was kind of a prison for demons. In the ancient world they knew that under the crust of the earth there was water. They knew if you dig a well deep enough you tap into this water. And they figured that if you were to dig deeper still, eventually you would get to fire. They had seen volcanoes so they knew there had to be fire deep under the earth. This fire, they concluded, came from the abyss. In the Sea of Galilee the water was so deep they figured it must be a passageway leading directly into the abyss.
So here’s what happens. The demons beg Jesus not to send them back into the abyss. Even the demons are afraid of hell. So they negotiate. They knew Jesus was going to cast them out of this man anyway so they begged him to at least cast them into the herd of pigs that was grazing nearby. They figured once Jesus was gone there would be nothing to prevent them from leaving the pigs and taking up residence in that poor man once again. But of course Jesus knew what demon-possessed pigs would do. And that’s exactly what they did do. They ran straight into the Sea of Galilee and drowned and, since the Sea of Galilee is a portal to the abyss, the demons end up right back where they belong. Pretty cool, huh?
But the main thing to notice here is how good demons are at negotiating. They are expert salespeople. Like any good salesperson, if they can just get you to talk to them, eventually they are going to get you to buy. They couldn’t pull a fast one on Jesus, but since we’re not Jesus, we’d better always be on our toes.
Maybe you’ve had a demon talk to you. You are struggling to free yourself from some addiction and the demon says, “Just this once won’t hurt.” Or you are feeling overwhelmed and depressed and the demon says, “Your situation really is hopeless. There might be hope for other people, but not for you.” Or you are struggling in your marriage and this other person shows up. The demon says, “You deserve to be happy. No one will know.”
How do you know if it’s a demon’s voice you’re hearing? Here are some things to look for: (1) Is it offering you short-term pleasure in exchange for long-term pain? (2) Is it sucking the life out of you? Is it making you less, not more, than you were before? (3) Is it self-destructive? Could it cut your life short and keep God’s plan for you from unfolding? (4) Does it fill you with fear and anxiety? (5) Is it encouraging you to hold onto hate and bitterness? A “yes” to any of these and you’d better watch out.
Demons can be persuasive. Without Jesus we are easily persuaded. But remember this if you remember nothing else. Demons quake in fear before Jesus. In this story, Jesus doesn’t even have to speak a word and the demons are already trembling in fear. Here’s the key: You belong to Jesus. That’s what your baptism means. You belong to Jesus. Remember that next time you think the demonic might be trying to mess with you.
I shared a story at the Ash Wednesday service. A strange story. A woman kept having nightmares but they weren’t just nightmares. They were real. She knew they were real. And they were terrifying. She would wake up from a dead sleep with an overwhelming conviction that someone had entered her bedroom. She would look around the darkened room and see a face in the corner staring at her. She would scream. She would look again and the face would be gone.
This happened every night. Her husband was getting tired of this. He told her it was just a bad dream. She tried to wake him so he could see the face for himself, but it always went away before he could see it. She was starting to think she was losing her mind.
Then one night she felt this presence pulling her by the feet. Pulling her out of her bed. And this time instead of screaming, she yelled as loud as she could: “I belong to Jesus Christ! Leave me alone in his name!!” Whoever or whatever was in her room left at that instant, never to come back again.
I’m not sure what to do with that. I’m pretty sure things like this don’t happen often. When I talk about the demonic I’m never sure if I’m making too much of it and scaring people or making too little of it and not giving sufficient warning. I can tell you this with confidence. In every story about demons in the New Testament, Jesus is infinitely more powerful.
So the demons are cast out and end up back in the abyss. The pigs give their lives for a good cause. The pigs’ owners are none too pleased. They run back to Kursi and tell their story. They bring a crowd back to that cemetery to see for themselves. And what do they see? This wild man who had to be tied down with chains, who had the demonic power to escape, who had been stark-naked and stark-raving mad, this very same man is now “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”
One would think the townspeople would have been duly impressed. One would think Jesus would have just added quite a few to the number of his followers. Not so. Just the opposite. They asked him to leave. They were pretty sore about those drowned pigs.
The story ends with the man who had been set free from the legion of demons begging Jesus to let him go with him. But Jesus said, “No”. He said, “I don’t want you to go with me. I want you to go back to your people. Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
Luke wrote two books. Luke and Acts. Luke tells the story of Jesus. Acts tells the story of the church. Much of Acts is the story of Paul. Paul was the first missionary to the Gentiles. Paul took the Gospel to anyone who would listen. Paul believed that Jesus came for everyone, not just for the Jews.
It’s very interesting. Right here in the eighth chapter of Luke, long before Luke introduces us to Paul, we meet the real first missionary to the Gentiles. There was someone before Paul. It was this man who had been stark-naked and stark-raving mad, this man who was an outcast and worse than a nobody. This is the man Jesus sent to share the Good News with foreigners. This is the man Jesus sent to share the Good News with those who kept swine and who were swine as far as respectable Jews were concerned.
Jesus said to him, “You are not a nobody. You are a somebody. And I have work for you to do.”
Lord Jesus, we belong to you. We are yours. And therefore we have nothing to fear. We are protected under your shield. No power can stand against us because no power can stand against you. And Jesus, as we read this story about how you cast out demons long ago, we dare to believe that you will cast out demons even today. You know the names of our demons. That means you hold power over them. That means their power over us is ended. Deliver us from that which enslaves us. Heal us, forgive us, and set us free. In the all-powerful name of Jesus, Amen.