New Community

Luke 8:26–39 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. 30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 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.

There’s a part of me that’s really disappointed with how this miracle turned out. How’s that for honest? Deep down, I really wanted a fairy tale ending. Badly. I wanted to watch Jesus and his new disciple sail off into the horizon together. I don’t care if that’s too cliché, too fairy tale-ish, or shows I’m a hopeless romantic. I’m telling you that’s what I wanted. But it’s not what I got. In fact, what we get from this miracle is the last thing you’d expect. Shouldn’t we be able to expect more from the outcome of an exorcism that is included in all three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke? And shouldn’t we be able to expect a more dramatic ending to a miracle that is arguably one of Jesus’ most dramatic of all? And shouldn’t we be able to expect that Jesus would answer more readily the begging prayer of the former demoniac over the prayer of the demons? You’d think so. But what happens instead? Here the demoniac pleads and begs to sail off into the sunset with Jesus. All he wants is to be with Jesus. And he’s told in no uncertain terms to depart and go home. Meanwhile the demons beg and plead not to be sent to the Abyss and Jesus grants their request. And the outcome is that we don’t get our fairy tale ending where Jesus sails off into the horizon with his new disciple.

And I suppose if you look at this at a very shallow level, you could even think that Jesus does it to give this guy a taste of his own alienating medicine. I mean there’s a reason why this guy was there the second Jesus made the shore. And it wasn’t to hold a tea party. The Gospels make it pretty clear why the demoniac was there. He was like a mythic troll under a bridge. He was there to make sure nobody got past or through his land. Matthew’s probably clearest on this point. Talking about the demon possessed guys who lived there he says, “They were so violent that no one could pass that way.” (Matt. 8:28) The demoniac was there to stop any happy economic growth or familial warmth from ever happening on his watch. This was understandably painful for the local community. It’s why they had tried to desperately to stop his behavior. It’s actually pretty brutal to read about. He says: “Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.” (v. 29) So the locals tried to stop the alienation that this guy was causing, but the menace had such supernatural and Samsonesque kind of strength that chains were silly putty to him.

It’s understandable though. The power I mean. During the exorcism it became scarily evident how much demonic power was involved. In fact, after Jesus first commands the demon to come out a conversation happens that if it’s anything, it’s scary. Jesus asks the being(s) inhabiting the guy, “What is your name?” (v. 30) And he hisses back, “Legion.” (v. 30) And everybody back then knew that a legion was made up of 3,000 - 6,000 barbaric and cruel soldiers. Not really the kind of power that you’d want running rampant inside you. And as if that weren’t enough to notice about this situation, it’s even more scary to think about the fact that angels and demons in the Scriptures hardly ever get named. I mean for good angels you have Gabriel and you have Michael. That’s it. And for bad angels you have the various names for Satan and this name here. My point is that hanging out with a group of named demons suggests an immense, immense kind of demonic power way up the satanic power structure –  the kind that turns chains into silly putty and turns a person’s mind to mush.

Oh, and just to keep this guy permanently under its power, Legion tried to ensure nobody would ever take pity on the guy. They made him the most X rated kind of person ever. They had him running around stark naked. Can you imagine the poor mothers? You see a wild looking, naked guy running at break neck speed through a cemetery and you quick cover the eyes of your kids and say, “Don’t look over there.” I mean there was no lonelier man on the face of the earth. These demons – lest the poor guy find healing in community – made sure of that. In fact, that’s Luke’s most heartbreaking, poignant, and pointed words about this man. “For a long time this man had not… lived in a home, but had lived in the tombs.” (v. 27) So he’s a societal menace, mad looking, naked guy, who is off cuddling with skeletons for company. To put it bluntly, the only community that the demons allowed the demoniac was the company of dead people and, “solitary places.” (v. 29) Which – quite obviously – is no company at all. What Luke is pointing out to us in great detail is that he no roof for his head, no wife to hug him, and no community of Jesus loving people to take care of him. Luke is showing us that the demon possessed man was made homeless in every way – he had no physical or spiritual home.

Call it strategic separation. Call it being exiled from home. Call it being separated from the herd or the community. Call it whatever you want to call it, but understand it for what it is. How many times have we all watched the Nature Channel and seen this happen? I can hear it now. The soft British sounding voice starts talking. The camera zooms and you hear the voice say, “Out on the African savannah, the lion slinks through the tall grass. She spots one of the Water Buffalo. She angles around the side to isolate the maimed cow.” And suddenly in a burst of violence you see the lion leap at the cow separating her from her herd. She runs. She tries to escape, but alone and apart from her community she quickly tires and the lion overcomes her. Do you see my point? In a fallen world, strategic separation is the easiest and quickest path to death. And so it shouldn’t surprise us to find out it’s consistent demonic strategy to separate people from home and church. That’s why Satan loves church splits so much and why Christian marriages can experience so much pressure.

And you know when he pounces the quickest? When we’re at our weakest points. Like after a long week. Or in the midst of a great sadness or tragedy. I’ve seen it in myself and others many times. We become self-destructive. We withdraw from real gospel-centered relationships and put up the flashing sign on our foreheads, “Everything’s ok,” when it’s really not. And we imagine that if I let people in on my darkness, they’ll judge me or look down on me. And so anxiety doesn’t get medicated with the gospel. It gets medicated with a bottle or pills the doctor didn’t prescribe, or maybe with some form of lust. And those with grief convince themselves they need to work through it by themselves. They say, “I wouldn’t want to bring anyone else down with my sadness.” And so they tend to stay that way – sad and lonely. I mean if there’s one way this happens, there’s at least 100. I was just reading a blog that became pretty popular recently that described how this happened to a pastor’s wife. She decided she had to stop going to church. And why? She thought people couldn’t accept her brokenness at her church. It seemed to her that people there were somehow better or had everything together. So she cordoned herself off from the people she needed the most. And that’s exactly what Satan wants. He wants us all dead and dying inside saying, “I’m totally a lost cause. Nothing will ever help.”

And I’d agree with you if I didn’t have this miracle. I mean this demonic strategy was foolproof. They had him naked. They had him being a societal menace. They had him occupied with demonic forces thousands strong. It was a foolproof. Nothing was ever gonna get this guy safely back to God’s church especially since he was a Gentile and had never been there in the first place. Nothing except Jesus. And then came the exorcism. Wow were there a lot of fireworks. A lot. You hear Legion praying to Jesus, which is fascinating all by itself. You see pigs get tossed into the lake. But the grand finale of the miracle – the most spectacular part of the exorcism – was this scene that couldn’t be more idyllic and perfect and telling. Look at how Luke lovingly paints the portrait, “When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind.” (v. 35) He wasn’t off cuddling skeletons anymore. He was sitting calmly at Jesus’ feet. He wasn’t off making mother’s groan and scaring kids with his X rated streaking. He was dressed. He wasn’t seized anymore with thousands of demons who named themselves after a wicked, barbaric and violent group of Roman soldiers. He was in his right mind. Jesus had reversed every part of the Legion’s scheme. Almost.

Almost. There was just one part missing. And interestingly, the former demoniac wasn’t really sure he wanted it. In fact, he prayed to avoid it. Hard. Luke actually uses the term, “begged,” (v. 38) for what he was doing. But Jesus says, “No,” to him. And I think it’s worth exploring the fact that in two other cases right in this story Jesus had said, “yes,” to other prayers that had come before him. He had said, “yes,” to the prayers of demons not to give them a direct pass to the Abyss. And he had also said, “yes,” to the prayers of the townspeople who had asked him to leave. In fact, the only being in the whole account who actually seems to have a solid and God-pleasing request for Jesus is the only one who is denied. “Jesus, can I please go with you? All I want to do is be with you. Can I please?” “But Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” (v. 38–39) And why? Clearly, Jesus is totally into granting requests even for people who didn’t love him at all. So it couldn’t be that Jesus was being vindictive or unmerciful to this man. Clearly, Jesus thought the very best thing for this guy to do was to go home and do church. He was to tell people how much God has done for us in Jesus.

I’ll bet he really didn’t want to. Can you imagine trying to share the gospel with people who just a while ago had seen you streaking? Can you imagine what kind of baggage he had to deal with when he talked to the guy who had was guarded him and currently was sporting a black eye as a result? Can you imagine? It’s not the easiest thing to do to go home and do church in the place where the people know your secrets and can unpack your baggage without your help. But apparently it’s exactly where Jesus wants us. Jesus wants us doing church with the people who really know us. He wants us there and nowhere else. Not even sailing off into the horizon with him. He especially wants the pastor who knows your darkness and understands your scars – emotional and otherwise – to tell you that you’re loved and forgiven. He especially wants the lady sitting ahead of you who knows about your parenting failures, your insecurities, and your woes to show you the same grace that’s been shown her. He wants the folks who know about your divorce and your bad night of drinking to greet you with the same smile the next week in church. He wants those currently confident sharing God’s promises with the anxious, sad, or broken. And sometimes he finds it helpful for people to switch those roles. That’s what he wants. And at this point he wants us doing that even more than he wants us sailing off into the sunset with him. Jesus wants us home. Doing church.

And there’s good reason why. Then Satan can’t get us. Oh, he’ll try. He’ll try to tell you your grief won’t ever end. And then someone will put their arms around you who has hurt before too and they’ll whisper, “God’s with you.” And it’ll drive the demon away. He’ll try to tell you that you should keep your depression and anxiety to yourself. And then you’ll hear something in the sermon that the Spirit uses to give you confidence and faith for another day of living. He’ll try to tell you that you’re not good enough for the church. He’ll say you’re just too broken. And then you’ll find out that everybody else here is too. That, in fact, that’s why we’re here. Because we all need peace from Jesus. We aren’t any good by ourselves. And you’ll find yourself home. You won’t be alienated. You won’t be exiled. The wolf won’t be able to cut you off from the sheep and the shepherd. You’ll be home. In fact, I was totally wrong. This is the fairy tale ending. There’s nothing better this side of heaven than coming home to the place where you tell each other the great things God has done for you in Christ. Nothing. The truth is that for now Jesus thinks its even better for us than sailing off into the horizon with him. That’s his new purpose for us. He’s given us this church and its mission: to give grace and receive grace, to forgive and to be forgiven, to hold another up when they’re broken and to be held up when it’s you. All by telling each other the great things God has done for us in Christ. For right now, that’s our fairy tale. And I couldn’t be happier with the ending. Amen.

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