March 15, 2020

                                                                              Rev. John Watts

                                                                              Nampa First UMC

 

WHAT IS YOUR NAME?

Mark 5:1-2, 9-13

The third in a series of seven.

 

Last week we asked the question, “Who is this man?”  The question came from the passage about the storm at sea.  Jesus had commanded the wind to stop blowing and the waves to stop surging. There was a great calm.  That’s when his disciples asked: “Who is this man?  Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41)

Who is Jesus?  As we go through the four gospels, we find Jesus portrayed in different ways.  We find quite a few answers to that question, “Who is this man?”  Let’s see if we can list a few.

There is Jesus the Good Shepherd.  There are many paintings that depict him in that way.  But there is also Jesus who is not a shepherd, but one of the sheep.  The Lamb of God.  There is baby Jesus in the manger.  Jesus the crucified.  Jesus the risen Lord.  Jesus the teacher.  Friend of sinners.  Healer.  The one who was tempted as we are tempted.  The one who got angry and used a whip and turned over tables in the Temple.

We could go on, there are so many.  But here’s one you probably didn’t think of.  You just heard the scripture, but I doubt if you made the connection.  How about Jesus the exorcist?

We read from chapter 5.  Actually this image of Jesus as an exorcist shows up in the first chapter of Mark.  It’s one of the first things Jesus did.  He was baptized, tempted, called his first disciples, and was teaching in Capernaum.  He had barely started his sermon when there was a rude interruption:

Just then a man with an evil spirit in him came into the meeting room and screamed: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Are you here to destroy us?  I know you are God’s holy messenger!”  Jesus commanded the spirit: “Be quiet and come out of the man!”  The evil spirit shook the man hard, gave a loud scream and came out of him.  The people were all so amazed that they started saying to each other, “What is this?  Some kind of new teaching?  This man has authority to give orders to evil spirits, and they obey him!” (Mark 1:23-27)

So what do you think of this idea that Jesus was an exorcist?  I’ll tell you what I think of it.  I don’t like it.  Here’s why.  If Jesus is an exorcist it means there are powers in the world I can’t control.  It means there are forces stronger than I am.  Bigger than I am.  Things I can’t do a thing about.  That’s a scary thought!

Each of the four gospels has a different way of seeing Jesus.  In Matthew, he is a teacher.   In Luke, he is human.  In John, he is God.  In Mark, he is an exorcist.  Do you like that?  Me either.  But there is a reason.

In the first sermon in this series we talked about what was going on in the Roman Empire when Mark wrote his gospel.  It was a terrifying time.  There was that fire in Rome that was blamed on the Christians.  We think that may have been when and why Paul and Peter were put to death.  Followers of Jesus were suffering horribly in those days.  Some ghastly examples are recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus:

[Christians] were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed, were burned to serve as lamps at night.

And there was another fire in Jerusalem.  The Jews had rebelled and four Roman legions were dispatched to teach them a lesson they would never forget.  Each legion had 6,000 men so that makes 24,000 Roman soldiers.  It was no contest.

The lesson was clear.  Make the emperor mad and you will pay dearly.  And it made the emperor very mad indeed when these Christians said Jesus – not the emperor, but Jesus – was King of kings and Lord of lords.

So here is Mark, guardian of Peter’s recollections of Jesus, using his notes to compose a readable narrative.  It’s good news, wonderfully good news.  The contrast with the bad news of that terrible time in history could not have been starker.

Demonic powers were everywhere.  The ultimate demonic power was Rome.   More powerful by far than anything or anyone.  With one single exception.  Jesus alone had the power to go up against the demons and win.  Jesus the exorcist.

So Mark starts writing.  During those 40 days in the wilderness the devil has no power over Jesus.   The screamin’ demon who tries to stop his sermon is no match.  Sick people are healed.  A storm at sea is calmed.  Jesus is more powerful than any and all these powerful forces that were so feared.  But as we started reading today, as the fifth chapter of Mark begins, Jesus has not yet confronted their biggest fear.  And what was that?  Fear of Rome, the ultimate demonic power.

Here is the setting.  Jesus wakes up from his nap.   He calms the raging storm on the Sea of Galilee.  They continue their journey, west to east, and they reach land in the “territory of the Gerasenes.”  Since they left in the evening, it is still night when they arrive.  They can hardly see a thing when suddenly standing in front of them is someone who looks like one of the actors in our Halloween haunted house.

Here is Mark’s description:

This man had an evil spirit in him and lived among the graves.  Nobody could keep him tied with chains any more; many times his feet and hands had been tied, but every time he broke the chains and smashed the irons on his feet.  He was too strong for anyone to stop him!  Day and night he wandered among the graves and through the hills, screaming and cutting himself with stones (5:3-5).

Another screamin’ demon.  Maybe even a zombie.  It says he wandered around “day and night.”  Remember, this is night.  It would have been a scary scene in broad daylight.  It was way scarier in the dark.

Had they been able to see, this is what they would have seen right in front of them.  These caves were used to bury people.  They were also where this pathetic creature slept, if he ever did sleep.  It’s the middle of the night now and he sure isn’t asleep.  Day and night, he spreads terror wherever he goes.  He could not be bound, not even with chains.  They’d tried that.  He kept breaking free.  “He was too strong for anyone to stop him.” 

But get this:  When he saw Jesus, he fell on his knees.  He knew he had finally met someone strong enough to stop him.  And Jesus had a question for him: “What is your name?”

There’s a saying: “If you can name it, you can tame it.”  Can you give a name to the thing you are afraid of?  If you can, you have a chance.  Nameless fears are the scariest and the hardest to overcome.  But if you have a name for it, it begins to lose its power.

“What is your name?”

Did Jesus really think he would get an answer?  He did get an answer.  A strange answer.  A strange name.  “My name is Legion, for we are many” (5:9).

Jesus had already amply demonstrated his power.  Over the devil, over sickness, over the wind and the waves.  All these things his disciples feared were no match for Jesus.  But he had not yet confronted their biggest fear.  Fear of the ultimate demonic power.  The Roman Empire.

“What is your name?”  “My name is Legion.”  Isn’t that interesting!  They were terrified of the Roman Legion.  Six thousand killing machines working together as one.  This terrifying creature is named Legion.  Rather, the demons that possessed this poor, innocent man are named Legion.  They are many.  They don’t even try to fight Jesus.  That would be wasted effort.  They beg Jesus to cast them out of this man and into a large herd of pigs.  A strange request, but Jesus complies.  And all 2,000 of these pigs stampede right off a cliff and into the Sea of Galilee.  They all drown.  Because you see, pigs don’t fly.  And pigs don’t walk on water either.

The point is that Jesus has overcome their greatest fear.  Jesus is greater than Legion.  Jesus the exorcist.

What is your Legion?  What holds power over you?  Too much power.  Because your fear has made it bigger than it needs to be.  But still it is big.  Still it is powerful.  Still it is scary.  Whatever your Legion might be, Jesus is greater.  How would it make you feel to see your Legion go over a cliff, gone forever?

I love the way the story ends.  Remember, there is a man living inside this hideous creature.  Once the demons are gone, the man is set free.  He is no longer a monster.  He is himself again.  And so the people of the nearby town:

          . . . came to Jesus and saw the man who used to have the legion of demons in him; he was sitting there, clothed and in his right mind – and they were afraid (5:15).

This man begs Jesus to let him be a disciple.  But Jesus won’t let him.  That sounds mean, but Jesus had a reason.  Instead he told him,

          “Go back home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how kind he has been to you!”  So the man left and went all through the Decapolis telling what Jesus 

           had done for him; and all who heard it were filled with wonder (5:19-20).

Jesus strategically assigned this man a mission.  He is to be a missionary to the Gentiles living on his side of the Sea of Galilee.  He had quite a testimony to give!  It is very possible that the Good News of Jesus spread in this part of the world because of him.  Now that we’ve heard his story, let’s take a look as this story on the screen.

(YouTube:  “Legion”)

By the way this ends, we can see that Jesus, not only set this man free from his bondage but also he helped this man use his freedom for something good – to share the good news of Jesus with others.  That’s what Jesus does.  He overcomes our deepest fears and he also redeems our deepest fears.   We’re not just set free.  We are set free in order that we can help others find Jesus so they too can be set free.

Jesus has calmed a raging storm at sea.  Jesus has calmed a raging storm in a human heart.  “And all who heard it” – you and me, included – “were [are] filled with wonder.”

Jesus was an exorcist.  I wish he didn’t have to be.  I wish we lived in a world where exorcisms weren’t necessary.  I wish nice people like us could solve the world’s problems by just being nicer.  I wish it weren’t so that so much of what we care about most is out of our control.  I wish.  I wish.  I wish.

But it’s a good thing Jesus is an exorcist, because this world is not the way we wish it were.  We are not always in charge.  There are things we cannot control, problems we cannot solve, burdens we cannot carry, bondages we cannot free ourselves from, sorrows we cannot put behind us, diseases we cannot heal, dying we cannot escape.  You can fool yourself into believing this isn’t so.  You can believe in yourself so much you don’t think you need to believe in God.  But eventually the hard reality of life hits you upside the head.  It knocks you down, or possesses you, or wounds you, or cripples you.  Or worse, it does these things to someone you really love and you can’t do a thing about it.

I’m going to say something and some of you are going to misunderstand me, but I’m going to say it anyway.  There are people who will tell you that prayer will solve all your problems.  It won’t.  There are people who will tell you that faith can move every mountain.  It can’t.  There are people who will tell you that right thinking and right living always results in happiness.  It doesn’t.

Here is one of the cruelest things I have observed among Christian people.  Someone is going through a really hard time and gets the message from someone who means well: “If you only had more faith . . . if you only prayed harder . . . if you only had done this or done that, you would not be in this predicament.”  That’s false.  And that’s cruel.  Sometimes bad things happen to good people for no good reason at all.  It’s a rough world out there.  Mark’s gospel is realistic about that.  There is plenty of bad news to go around.  In ancient times and in modern times.  Nothing much has really changed.  Except for one thing.  Jesus has come into this world.  And Jesus is stronger than any and every evil.  That’s the good news that Mark wants us to hear.  Something more powerful than evil has entered the world and has never left the world.  His name is Jesus.

A mother had to be away from her children for a few days.  As she tucked her four-year-old into bed, she asked him if he would like to ask God to protect her on her journey.  Here is what he prayed: “Dear God, if buffaloes or bears or other mean animals come near mommy, can you handle it?  If you can’t, just call on Jesus.”

Not a bad prayer for the next time you face something scary!  And remember, whatever you are facing, Jesus is stronger.

 

We thank you God that in this big and frightening world, you have sent Jesus to be on our side.  We pray for those who are on the point of being overwhelmed by what they are facing in life right now.  May they know they are not alone.  May they know Jesus who loves them with a love that is stronger than their fears.  May we know this Jesus and get to know him better, so that we can know this faith and know how to share this faith with others.  We ask it in the name that makes demons run away –  the strong name of Jesus.  Amen.