Our Gospel this morning is a crazy story. It has stampeding pigs drowning in a lake, a crazy naked guy, demons negotiating with Jesus, and finally a city full of people asking Jesus to leave. If listening to all this makes you feel all over the place, you are not alone.
Things get weird right from the beginning. Jesus has just traveled by boat to a city called Gerasenes. As soon as he steps off the boat, Jesus is confronted by a crazy man wearing no clothes.
Think about how strange this would be from Jesus’ perspective. Imagine if you took a ferry to a seaside city and as soon as you got off the boat, some naked stranger started yelling at you on the dock. That would be weird.
Then things get more serious, this naked man confronting Jesus was not some random streaker. The Gospel writer tells us that this naked man was possessed by demons. These demons were so strong and violent that the people of the city tried to keep the man bound in shackles and chains. The demons, however, were able to break through the restraints and drove this sick man into the wilderness to live among the tombs outside the city.
So, if you were Jesus, and had this crazy naked guy yelling at you, what would you do? Would you get back on the boat and sail back home? Would you throw up your hands and say I just can’t deal with this today?
Jesus doesn’t do either of these things. Jesus heals. Jesus is a healer. Jesus heals no matter how crazy the situation is. This naked demon possessed man is no exception.
How does Jesus do it? How does he heal this crazy guy and save the day? First, Jesus starts with a radically simple act. He talks to the man. Jesus asks the man a very simple question. What is your name? This is simultaneously simple and profound. Notice Jesus does not start the conversation by asking the men hey what is wrong with you or where are your clothes? No, Jesus starts the healing process by first acknowledging the man beneath the demons, not the other way around. Jesus is establishing a connection with this sick man in order to heal him.
All too often we make the mistake of doing the opposite of what Jesus did with this sick man. We identify someone first and foremost with their demons. As soon as we do so, all we see are their demons. We see only the things that they do wrong. We become blind to the person beneath those demons and, more importantly, we forget that that person is sick and hurt. They are sick and hurt and probably crying out for help. Like the sick naked man, these cries for help may not be verbal, they may take the form of self-destruction, isolation, and instability. These are all symptoms of a greater illness that needs healing.
All too often we also make the same mistake with ourselves. We identify ourselves solely with our demons, with our shortcomings, with the wrongs we’ve done in the past. We obsess over these negative parts of our lives and lose sight of who we really are beneath our shortcomings. It is really easy to be hard on ourselves. It is so easy and so tempting to pay attention only to the demons inside of ourselves and forget about all the good we have done and are. Through Jesus’ radically simple act of asking the man what his name was, Jesus reminds us that we are not our demons.
We are not our demons, but this does not mean that demons do not have to be dealt with. Demons do not go away by themselves. There is absolutely work to be done. Jesus knows this and after acknowledging the humanity of this demon possessed man, Jesus moves on and deals directly with the man’s demons. This is important. Jesus does not ignore that something is wrong here. Jesus is not pretending that everything is ok. These demons are real. The pain they are causing to the man and everyone around him is real. They need to be dealt with.
We are told by the Gospel writer that these demons begged Jesus not to be cast into the abyss. This demonstrates the raw healing power of Jesus. Even these awful demons knew they were at the mercy of Jesus. Jesus instead gives the demons permission to leave the man and enter a large herd of swine that were feeding on a hillside. As soon as these demons entered the herd of swine, the swine all stampeded down a hill, fell into a lake and drowned.
If that part of the story leaves you feeling distressed, again you are not alone. A herd of swine drowning themselves in a stampede is a nasty image, but in dealing with demons, things are going to get nasty. It is not going to be pretty.
Think of the times in your own life when you have confronted your own demons. Was it ever clean? Was it ever quick? Was it ever easy? If your experience has been anything like mine, the answer is no, absolutely not. Like the herd of swine stampeding downhill to their death, dealing with demons is chaotic, messy, and loud.
We need all the help we can get when dealing with our own demons. Jesus is right there with us in our fight. Jesus is right there with us no matter how crazy we think we have gotten or how out of control our lives have become. No situation is beyond the power of Jesus’ healing. We may think that the circumstances of our life are so unique and crazy that healing is not possible. Jesus’ actions assure us that this is not true. Healing is always possible.
The Gospel writer tells us that when the demons left the naked man, he was soon sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. The man went from naked and crazy to fully dressed and sane. That’s the power of Jesus for you.
Personally, I find this one of the most beautiful images in the Gospels. This once crazy man, who was a danger to himself and others, now sitting still, full of peace, next to the Son of God. I try to imagine how this man felt, finally healed, and looking forward to the rest of life.
You’ve probably experienced something like that in your own life. That feeling of calm after a storm. It’s like a benevolent hangover. It’s one of the best feelings in the world, but it does not come cheaply.
The healing of our own personal demons takes work, grace, and time. There will be tears, there will be frustration, and there will be setbacks; but there will also be glory. Glory that is full of joy and genuine love. Glory in knowing we are going to get through this and come out the other side stronger than ever. That is the hope of Jesus Christ the Son of God who came here to heal this crazy world. Amen.
1 Kings 1:19-15a
Rising global tensions and almost striking Iran. Mass deportations planned. Tragic accidents. Migrants fleeing. Children held by our government in despicable conditions. Political clashes, lies, illness and personal loss. With a week like this, with a life like this, remember Elijah.
Elijah ran for dear life into the wilderness. Queen Jezebel was trying to kill him. In a cave on the mountain, God compassionately asks: What are you doing here, Elijah? What brings you here? What is on your heart? Elijah is honest: I’ve done my best for you, but the people refuse. The rulers destroyed everything. They killed all my companions, and now they’re trying to kill me.
Have you been there? Been zealous. But now run down. Run after. Alone and afraid. Ready for it all to end? Have you at the same time longed to be seen, to be heard, to be loved? How have you reached out to receive it? Perhaps you have invested time and travel, even a great distance, to be with a safe, trustworthy person, with whom you can be honest.