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I am in no way one to equate or mistake mental illness for demonic possession. At the same time, I am in no way one to disbelieve in demons and demonic forces. Keep these two things in mind as I tell you a story from a couple of years ago.
I was sitting in my office and Jennifer told me that a woman had come to the side door. She was requesting one of the grocery cards that we had given out the previous Wednesday. The woman was in some distress, living on the street with what appeared to be all her possessions in a shopping bag carrier. After receiving the card, the woman became agitated. She started to shriek at me. I was dressed in black. She began to say things like how evil I was, that I was The Punisher (a Marvel comic character). I had my back against the church wall and slowly slid down it until I was sitting against the wall. I wanted to appear as least threatening as possible. The woman was pacing back and forth on the porch berating me. I wondered what to do. Would this be a call 911 type of situation? As I listened to the woman’s cries I began to think “What she’s saying isn’t true. I’m not The Punisher. I’m not evil. This woman is actively lying right now.” What to do?
I began to pray. Out loud. I kept my eyes open. I began to pray aloud and ask Jesus to help this woman. Over and over again. She began to move away. As I continued to pray for her she moved down the steps, still shouting. Her shouts grew fainter and finally stopped as she walked away down the church drive with her grocery bag carrier behind her. I continued to sit for a few minutes, wondering what just happened.
You can consider what you think happened. I don’t think we can fully know. There’s no happy ending to the story particularly, or any ending at all really. It’s simply something that happened.
It did get me thinking though about things that we are unable to control. I’m not sure where you stand on demons. You may be thinking “How are we going to be talking about a story like this in 2018?” You may be thinking “There must be a rational explanation for this.” You may be thinking “We should leave talk of demons for people in less enlightened areas of the world – we’re far beyond that here.” To that, I would ask “Are we?” How are we doing in our enlightenment? As someone has said about our tendency to numb ourselves in various ways – “We are the most in-debt…obese…addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is… that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.”
Throughout these weeks we’re considering what kind of Messiah Jesus is. We’re considering what it means to follow such a Messiah. As we come to our story today, Mark has just described how Jesus stilled a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has shown mastery over the wind and the waves – the elements themselves – to bring peace. We come to this scene on the eastern side of the Galilee. This is the gentile side. Nothing is kosher here. For the first time Jesus is going to show his power in a non-Jewish setting – show that this deliverance he is bringing is for everyone. This scene might have happened at night. It might be even worse if it happened in the day. It’s like a scene from a horror film really. You have Jesus stepping out of the boat. It is a place of death. A place of caves in a nearby hillside being used for tombs. A place of disorder. The Manhattan Detention Complex has for hundreds of years been known as The Tombs. A place of overcrowding, violence, disorder.
Jesus is met immediately by a man whom Mark describes as having an unclean spirit. This man is in the grips of something (a lot of somethings as we’ll find out) from which is unable to extricate himself. This spirit has made him an outcast. It has made him live in a place of death. It has made him a danger to others. It had made him a danger to himself. It is relentless, this spirit. It causes him to howl night and day. It causes him to hurt himself. Self-harm. It has distorted the image of God in which this man has been created.
This man was in the grip of something that he could not control, could not extricate himself from. Is it any wonder that we often use the term “demons” when we speak of addiction. Johnny Cash had his demons. This is what you hear. This is what Johnny Cash said himself. In the late 50’s and early 60’s, he cultivated a drug habit – uppers and downers. It affected his marriage. His career. He described it like this – “Over a period of time, you get to realising that amphetamines are slowly burning you up… then you get paranoid, you think everybody is out to do you in. You don’t trust anybody – even the ones who love you the most.” He talked about his demons – “I’d talk to the demons and they’d talk back to me – and I could hear them. I mean they’d say, ‘Go on, John, take 20 more milligrams of Dexedrine, you’ll be alright.’”
How does this story of Mark 5 speak to us today? All around us are people who are in the grip of something they cannot control. Something that makes us harm ourselves. Something that makes us outcasts, a stranger to those who love us. Something that makes us stick needles in our arms that might kill us because the contents of the syringe are laced with fentanyl. Something that makes us cut ourselves with razor blades. Something that makes us drink things and eat things in such quantity that we harm ourselves. Something that makes us cry out.
The thing is, these cries are heard. Jesus appears on the beach. Jesus appears to show what one writer describes as this truth – “There is no human disorder, anywhere, anytime that Jesus cannot heal.” The man rushes at Jesus and just as he reaches him, the man falls to the ground prostrate. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” In other words “Mind your own business – Son of the Most High God!”
Which is funny really. This is Jesus’ business. Bringing life, restoring order, restoring the marred image of God in us – this is Jesus’ business.
The question had come in Isaiah 49:24 – “Can the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?” The answer comes in the next verse – “But thus says the LORD; Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued; for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children.”
The answer is standing there on the beach. This is our Messiah friends. This is our Messiah.
“I adjure you by God, do not torment me,” comes the shout. Which is ironic because all demons have on their mind is torment and destruction. Jesus says “What is your name?” They say that knowing the name in a situation gives one the upper hand, this is why the man had used the phrase “Son of the Most High God” at the beginning of the exchange. I like to think too though that this was part of Jesus’ reclaiming this man’s identity as a beloved child of God. The answer comes back “My name is Legion; for we are many.” The concept of the Roman Legion was well familiar back then of course, and we’re not entirely unfamiliar with it. A group of thousands of Roman soldiers. What did they tend to do? They tended to lay waste. This is what Legions were created for. The other part of this “we are many” thing might be the fact that our demons rarely operate solo. Addictions rarely come from nowhere. They usually come from a place of pain, of hurt. This man’s demons are many.
But not too many for Jesus. They start to bargain with Jesus. Do not send us out of the country. This is their area of operations after all. “Send us into the swine,” they ask, “let us enter them.” They do their destructive work with this herd of pigs. The pigs are drowned in the sea.
“The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what had happened.” We then have this beautiful picture of a transformed life painted by Mark. “They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed, and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion…” He is sitting. No more wandering about night and day. He is at rest. He is clothed. He’s been given a new set of clothes. He is in his right mind. He’s seated. Clothed. Restored.
He’s been brought to life out of a place of death.
This is what Jesus does. This is what the Messiah brings.
The question for us is, what are we going to do with him?
The choice is starkly laid out in the story. The people of the region react with fear. They actually want Jesus to leave. This deliverance stuff is not for them. It’s been suggested that there are economic concerns. Mark doesn’t spell it out but it’s possible. This deliverance stuff is great but look at what it cost us! A whole herd of pigs. It may be that the idea that Mark is trying to convey is that for some, we’re afraid of what asking Jesus to deliver us might entail. We’re afraid of what Jesus might demand of us. We’re comfortable enough in our lives and we don’t want people to think that we’re fanatical about this Christ following stuff. We like to add it into our lives the way we add in a good diet and exercise. Let’s not get too crazy here.
It’s the erstwhile demoniac who provides the answer here. “As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him.” Let me be one of your disciples. Let me stay with you. Let me be with you. Of course, as we know it’s not up to us what Jesus calls us to. Jesus says “No you can’t.” Instead stay here in this region. The Decapolis. The ten cities. Stay in this highly Greek region and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you. In this way, the man becomes the first missionary to the Gentiles in Mark’s Gospel.
I wonder if you know what it’s like to face your demons. To talk to your demons even. It’s a call on all our lives really. To respond like this man. As one writer describes the reaction like this – “The desire of the man to accompany Jesus is the response of gratitude, and indicates that Jesus is not some strange divine-man who is to be feared. He is the one who bestows healing that is redemptive, and who calls forth the devotion of those who have received his benefactions.” This invitation to respond to Jesus’ healing saving work is on all of us. The invitation to respond in gratitude. To respond in faith that this Messiah is the one who brings life. To tell of what Jesus has done for us.
What has Jesus done for us? Perhaps you would say he’s given you peace in the midst of uncertainty. Perhaps you would say he’s given you peace with a sense of his unfailing love when you felt you weren’t good enough for such love. Perhaps you would he’s given you consolation when you were inconsolable. Comfort when you thought you were beyond being comforted. Perhaps you would say he’s given you an ability to love, to forgive, an inability to hold onto a grudge. You might say he’s given you an assurance of God’s faithfulness – that when God makes a promise God keeps it and that his mercies are indeed new morning by morning. You might say he’s put a song in your heart, a song that goes “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Perhaps he’s given you a sense of his “withness” - a strong, palpable sense of his presence with you. Alongside you, holding you up, dragging you along maybe.
Let us think on these things friends. Let us give thanks to God for them and celebrate them as we come to this table. In Christ, God gives us rest, clothes us, and puts us in our right minds. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!