Friday, 17 June 2016

Sunday Sermon: Luke 8.26-39 Jesus and the Demon-Possessed Man

Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

It’s not every day in Cleckheaton that we come across a naked demon-possessed man living in the graveyard or in the crypt.  It might be interesting to speculate what our reactions would be, but Jesus does not seem to be disturbed or afraid of this man, with or without clothes. Actually, he attracts these kinds of people to himself—not the people who seem to have it together, but those whose lives may be torn apart.

I’m sure of told you before that as a general principle I try to imagine my way into Gospel stories. I try to see myself as an anonymous member of the crowd as I try to walk through the story. Who do I most identify with? Who do I sympathise with? Who irritates me? What if I stood here or over by him? What if I couldn’t hear properly because of the crowd? What if I didn’t actually trust this man Jesus? What if I was a disciple? What if I was a woman? What if I was a Pharisee?

I have to do this because I am almost always disappointed by the brevity of the gospel stories and their lack of background detail: they seem so clinical and succinct. I’d like to know some of the extraneous detail that brings the story alive more: what was the weather like? Were there children playing nearby? Were there cooking smells? And so on. I have this fantasy that there should be a runaway donkey somewhere in the mix.

Anyway, on this occasion I’m an ordinary bloke who just happens to see Jesus’ boat put into shore and, knowing that they’ve just survived a particularly bad storm, I go to investigate and to see if I can offer some help, but I’m not the first to arrive: a “local character” has beaten me to it and, as another local, I feel huge sympathy for these strangers that they’ve gone through this traumatic experience and now have to contend with the local scary-man.

Of course, to what extent can someone like me, a product of my own times truly enter into the experience, the sights, the sounds, the smells and, most importantly, the theological and social conventions of the first century? And this incident in the life of Jesus is a case in point. This is a difficult passage: what am I to make of this? Demon possession? Really? 

Demon possession: I don’t know about you but the rational me struggles with the idea. I remember hearing a sermon on “Powers and Principalities” from Ephesians and the preacher spoke with a real conviction of the realities of spiritual warfare. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms he quoted. There was a lot of shuffling in the congregation as he developed his sermon: a congregation who were not only unused to this line of theological thinking but were made deeply uncomfortable by hearing it. Spiritual warfare?

I don’t often think about spiritual forces of evil. Evil, yes, absolutely but I don’t tend to tie that in with a concept of war in the spiritual realm. My understanding of evil sits fairly and squarely within the doctrine of free will. Evil is what we do to each other and we don’t need any help with that from outside forces. Demons? It’s the stuff of Hammer Horror. I’m not prepared to dismiss it out of hand but it’s outside my experience and I need to look into it more - but the Jews of that day believed, without reservation, that human beings could be possessed by demons.

There is, of course, a body of thought which argues that there was no medical understanding of mental illness in the first century: no understanding of epilepsy, autism or a range of psychological disorders and I find that a very compelling argument. What modern medicine diagnoses fairly easily, the first century could only account for as demon possession and I don’t doubt that that’s true to a greater extent. But the point is: healing is healing. The man was healed. Does it really matter what his condition was? We know that it was acute and we know that Jesus healed him and maybe that’s the key element of this incident in the life of Jesus. However we understand exorcisms, those reported from the ancient world or from present day cultures unlike our own, something real is happening. People are being set free. Physical contortions and hugely dramatic moments will occur in many different therapies, whether the frame of thought is demonology or psychotherapy.

 Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often but most of us have been in situations where the demonic in its broadest sense has manifested itself in some outburst or disagreement within the church family and that can be very disturbing and distressing as people we have known and loved seem to act suddenly completely out of character - to say nothing of the stranger who may invade our space and cause mayhem because of their personal demons: we may not count alcoholism, drug addiction or appalling outbursts of violence, for instance, as demon possession in the first century sense but such people are just as surely bound by their addictions – as is Mick, the crack addict in “Rev”.

You may remember the TV series Rev. – a wonderfully affirming series about the struggles of an inner city vicar dealing with the rough end of ministry and a sometimes seemingly less than helpful diocesan structure.

I’ve thought a lot about Rev. this week and the poignant episode where Adam - and his rather more reluctant wife, Alex - almost succeed in getting Mick clean before he is overwhelmed again. Once again Adam, against all the advice of others tries to do the “right” thing by Mick and offer that unconditional love and support that might eventually lead Mick to healing, and those of us watching are rooting for Adam while probably secretly agreeing with the Archdeacon that Adam’s actions are probably not that wise. We want Adam to succeed because Adam is our Jesus in that situation dealing with his own domestic demoniac.

It was Jesus’s choice to go to the other side in the boat and by doing so he knows that he’s crossing boundaries—geographical, ethnic, and religious. He was entering foreign territory, the borderlands, the other side of the religious tracks; yet the scene is familiar to him because it is another storm and he knows how to handle those. 

So, the first person Jesus meets when he reaches “the other side of the lake,” is the demoniac. What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.

Well, as I stand there I now know who the leader of the group is: Jesus – and I’ve heard of him, even here in the middle of this Greek-speaking, Gentile area, news of this man has spread and now I am really interested in what’s going on.

The reaction to Jesus’ visit is swift and intense. The demons - and it turns out there are many, not one - realize immediately that they are in the presence of a power greater than their own.  A storm rages in this man’s life. He lives in the tombs; he’s a dead man walking, possessed by demons that drive him into the wilds. He’s a wild, howling thing who breaks physical chains, yet in a moment of clarity, this man recognises about Jesus what the disciples on the boat had not yet recognised: You are “Jesus, Son of the Most High God.” This naked, homeless, deeply troubled, foreign, outsider sees clearly who Jesus is. Yet, he’s unable to recognize his own sickness. Ironically, he begs Jesus not to torment him, when in fact he’s already tormented! He knew no other reality but tragedy. His demonic storm was his norm so much so that he didn’t want to be free or know what freedom is.

 I find this really interesting. How many people do we know today who live lives of chaos and trauma who really seem not to want to change? However dreadful the reality of their lives it is nevertheless their reality: they know it, it is familiar and change is threatening. The fear is real: can they cope with a changed life or will they, like Mick in Rev. slip back to old ways? Is it fear of failure or lack of self-esteem? “Can I do it? Am I strong enough? Will I let people down?” What we know often seems “safer” than the unknown.

So the healing, the calm, comes with a cost—a fear of a new reality. In Jesus’ presence we may see ourselves for who we really are which is why we want him to leave us alone. Without his calm healing, we can still hide behind the chaos which is our norm.  Maybe that’s why the others who witnessed this healing were afraid and asked Jesus to leave: the people can’t handle this new reality, this new creation - and the changes that have been made to the man - because it also impacts them. Healing has made them lose their sense of order while God is in the process of re-ordering it. In the presence of Christ, we may recognize the ways in which we are not well. The truth is costly.  Some don’t want God in their lives because that means they will have to change. We don’t want the way we live to be disrupted. Healing and salvation are scary because they mean a different way of life, a new order, a new reality, a new creation has arrived. Healing will cost us the way life is, so there are those who prefer for things to stay the same: not everyone wants to change or to be changed. Not everyone wants to be healed. It’s too costly.

But, of course, it isn’t just about healing of individuals: it’s about healing of societies too. Just in the last week we’ve seen dreadful acts at home and abroad. We saw the homophobic killing of fifty people in Orlando: in terms of healing and wholeness, a radical rethink is needed both in relation to gun laws and homophobia. Does that society wish to be healed? It remains to be seen whether this incident leads to radical change or business as usual.

And at home our own MP, Jo Cox, was brutally murdered in the street as she went about her constituency business. What are the issues we need to address here in order to show a desire for the healing of this community and wider British society? Do we need to consider the rhetoric of our referendum campaign? The public perception that MPs are a bunch of out-of-touch freeloaders? The paucity of our mental health provision? The fractured and divided nature of a society not at ease with itself? The echo-chamber of vitriol which characterises much of our tabloid newspapers and social media? The belief that if I disagree with someone it’s within my right to do what I like to diminish and dismiss them – even to the point of violence?

As with America, only time will tell.

I like the end of the healing story today. The man who was severely sick was healed and at the conclusion of the story, he was sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.

As Jesus was getting into the boat and was about to leave, the healed man approached him. The healed man wanted to get into the boat and go with Jesus, his healer. But Jesus said, “Go back to your home and tell others how God has healed you.” And the man did. Luke’s Gospel tells us that he went home to family and friends, proclaiming the good news of his inner healing to all.

There is still power today when we go back home to our family and friends and tell how Jesus has been the source of healing in our lives. We share our story of God’s healing powers in our own lives, healing our anxieties, healing our depressions, healing our relationships, healing our inner despair, healing our low self-esteem, healing our addictions. There is power when we tell the story of God’s healing in our own lives or the lives of our families.

At the heart of the story for today is its conclusion: a healed man shared with his friends and neighbours that Jesus had healed him. I don’t believe that the healed man knew how Jesus healed him – or cared much. That was not the issue. The issue is that a man believed that the Lord had been the source of his healing and he shared his deeply held conviction with others.

The witness of the Church is most powerful when people personally share with their family, friends and neighbours their deeply held conviction that God is the source of their inner healing.

So, as someone who placed himself in the centre of the action to better understand the story, I must do that too. It seems to me that this is a responsibility that we all share, particularly at this time in our traumatised community.