Luke 8. 26-39 | Jesus heals a man under demonic possession
If that story sounded dramatic and strange, then you heard it right! A big part of being a Christian is simply listening to the stories about Jesus and learning to see God through him. When our picture of God can be painted by so many competing imposters, so much of a life of faith is relentlessly concentrating on Jesus and allowing him to shape our vision of God and of ourselves – which are often surprising visions.
I heard a story once of a young boy who came home from Sunday school one day and was walking around his house while periodically pounding his chest with his fist. After about an hour of this his mother got worried and asked him what he was doing. The boy said that the Sunday school teacher had told him that Jesus was living in his heart, and so he thought it would be fun to try and knock Jesus over.
Well the Jesus we meet in Luke chapter eight doesn’t seem like the kind of character who can be easily knocked over. We don’t meet a plush-toy version of Jesus, but a figure full of authority. And when he turns up and God’s power works through him people are left with more questions than answers, namely, “who is this guy?” Jesus is doing the stuff people expect only God can do, so it’s only natural that they’re stunned, sometimes even frightened.
It’s important to hear this story in connection to the others which surround it. Jesus has just exercised calm control over natural powers, the wind and waves, and now he’s demonstrating calm control over evil powers, in this case what Luke calls “an unclean spirit”. So this sequence is about as theatrical as they come and you’ll notice that Luke has a flair for painting dramatic scenes. If the Gospel of Luke were to be taken seriously enough to be turned into a block-buster movie it would demand a monstrous budget. Wild storms, vast landscapes, thousands of people. This story is as big and as bold as they come.
And yet, Luke’s gospel is also as intimate and as human as they come. That’s what we find in this story too; big and bold, yet intimate and human in the best sense of the word.
Wrong side of the tracks (“they arrived at the region of the Gerasenes”)
Probably the first thing we should note in this story is that Jesus has gone where he shouldn’t – Jesus has crossed to the wrong the wrong side of the tracks. I was traveling once and stopped in a new city just for one night. As we were settling in our host was kind enough to take out a map and point out where the shops and restaurants were. But then he took the pen and drew a line along a particular street and said, “Now you really shouldn’t go past this street into this neighbourhood. You don’t need to go there, and you don’t want to go there.” Well in reading the Gospel of Luke it doesn’t seem as though anyone ever did that for Jesus, because he’s always venturing into territory others deem unsafe, unclean or even immoral. Jesus is no respecter of the lines we draw on our maps – he’s quite confident that the whole world is God’s world and that all people are God’s people to whom he has been sent. So after crossing the lake Jesus ends up in a spot that nice Jewish boys and girls didn’t go because of ethnic and religious difference, a place that today is still divided and defined by difference.
So Jesus is on the wrong side of the tracks, which is a reoccurring theme in Luke’s gospel. If you’re familiar with the stories just think of the grubby shepherds at Jesus’ birth or Zacchaeus the corrupt tax collector. Luke gives us story after story about places and characters that upon first impression we might assume God would rather keep at arm’s length. This is a Gospel for the Outsiders, and it always asks us desperately important questions. We’re asked first if we see ourselves as too grimy or lost for God to bring us home. And it asks us if we assume that others are unwanted by God. Then it invites us to trust that God is on the hunt for us all, that we are all wanted and welcome by our Creator, even if nobody else wants us.
We don’t really know why Jesus ended up on the other side of the lake. Did he cross for a bit of rest? Did he go there to rescue the man living in the tombs? Did he go there for concern for the whole region? We don’t know. What matters is that no part of town is too sketchy for Jesus, no darkness is too disturbing for him. As we hear early on in Luke’s gospel, Jesus comes to “give light to those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.” (Luke 1.79)
No storm thrown at Jesus can drown him (“Jesus had already commanded…”)
Now if Jesus’ disciples were a little nervous about crossing to the wrong side of the tracks, their nerves were validated by what happens next. No sooner had Jesus stepped foot on dry land than a man under demonic possession comes shrieking out of a cemetery. It’s tempting to want to explain and sanitize this story, but evil powers coming out to face Jesus head-on happens throughout the gospels. And we know that evil power is still at work around us today as we experience evil in various forms. The evil power at work in this story is particularly nasty as this poor man has been tormented for years. We’re told that he wandered around, breaking free from the horrendous conditions he was restrained in in order to keep the rest of the community safe.
Whatever questions we have about evil or demonic power, whatever curiosities we might carry, just imagine this man and his suffering, and let cold curiosity take a back seat to compassion for a moment. This man lives in the dark, in the literal shadow of death in a cemetery. Imagine his body, his scars, his hair length, his smell, Luke even tells us he’s naked. And then imagine how Jesus changes his life in an instant. No sooner do we hear Jesus’ interaction with the evil spirit, than Luke tells us Jesus has already ordered it to let the man go. Here is Jesus – a traveling light. Darkness is simply dispelled at his presence, and the only thing this spirit can do is to ask Jesus’ permission as to where to go next. It ends up in a herd of pigs and death follows evil as it always does.
For all the questions we might have around this story, it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees. That evil is at work in the world in many forms and ruining many lives is evident everywhere. The point Luke is making here is that when it’s Jesus verses evil, light verses darkness, Jesus always comes out on top – in fact it’s never even a contest. No storm thrown at Jesus can drown him.
So if we have fear about evil power in any form we should always come back to the fact that Jesus has total jurisdiction in God’s world. There’s no tug of war. Perfect love casts out call fear. Jesus brings peace earlier to the waves and now to the abused body of a tormented man. So quite quickly the story turns from demonic dramatics to the man sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully clothed and at peace, just like the waves and wind were calmed at Jesus command.
That may be something for us to hear today. No storm thrown at Jesus drowns him; external or internal; international or intimate; no storm out there or in here.
A life of faith then is trusting the one who is bringing the world into rest and calm, you and me included. We’re not fully there yet – as we look out at a world still bathed in darkness and chaos awaiting the full measure of light and peace. But total peace is where we’re headed which is the great hope of the gospel. Stories like this one were the first hopeful signs of what is still unfolding in our world through our lives as we turn up to be God’s body language in the chaos and evil we’re faced with today.
No storm thrown at Jesus can drown him. No storm thrown at us, bearers of Jesus’ light, filled with Jesus’ Spirit, can ultimately drown us either. Whatever evil or chaos we might face this week, out there or in here, we can be comforted by that truth. Light in the end always evicts darkness. In John’s gospel we hear, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never consume it.” (John 1.5)
Now that said, as dismal as darkness can be, some people would rather put up with it than have Jesus move in and disrupt the status quo. There may be something in that for us too. Are there times Jesus’ presence becomes inconvenient because his light will disrupt the darkness we’ve gotten used to in our hearts or our communities? Is there a danger of becoming comfortable with the darkness others are sitting in? It has to be said that there is an economic reality to this story in the loss of the heard of pigs and the villagers being displeased with Jesus. Are some in this story more concerned about the financial downside of Jesus’ presence than the freedom for the man living in the cemetery? It’s an important question to ask, because a life of faith is about welcoming God’s light not just for ourselves, but also for the communities in which we live, including our global community.
We’ve been hearing recently about more refugees setting out in rafts trying to find safety but drowning on the way. That’s darkness. Does it bother us? We’ve been hearing statistics of overdose increases in Vancouver’s downtown east side. That’s darkness. Does it bother us? We know about the famine in Yemen. That’s darkness. Does it bother us? There are still dozens of First Nation’s communities in Canada without clean drinking water. That’s darkness. Does it bother us? We could go on and on.
Luke’s gospel is pretty clear that as Jesus’ followers we should never be comfortable with darkness, especially when we see the oppression of those on the fringes of our society, even those on what we might think of as the wrong side of the tracks, because Jesus doesn’t care about the lines we draw. The whole world is God’s world.
Traveling Light (“tell them what God did for you”)
But now we’re getting nearer the heart of the story. Once the dust settles, we see a man sitting at Jesus’ feet, deeply changed and at peace. Naturally he asks Jesus if he can stay with him and go where Jesus goes, and I think I would too. But wouldn’t you know it, Jesus has the nerve to tell him he can’t come with!
You’ll notice in the gospels that Jesus seems to tell people to go as much if not more than he tells people to “follow him”. And this doesn’t mean they aren’t cared for, just that they are commissioned. This man’s role isn’t to follow Jesus elsewhere, but is to go and bear witness to the total freedom he has received – the blessing of God where he lives! So total is his salvation, that Jesus feels fully confident to send the man back to his community to share the news that God’s light has broken into the world through his very life. “Go tell them what God did for you.”
Next Jesus leaves the village because they’ve asked him to go. Jesus isn’t like the oppressive Roman legions or evil powers at work – if you tell Jesus to go, he won’t force himself on you. But, he is quite confident that God isn’t vacating the premises. God’s Spirit and light is now in this man, and he’s sent to share his story.
And here’s crucial moment in the story – like Jesus, this man has become traveling light.
You have to wonder if Luke’s note that the man was “fully clothed” isn’t a wonderful picture of what happens to us when Jesus’ sets us free. Jesus makes us fully clothed, totally outfitted to be traveling light, a walking witness to God’s kindness and restorative power. Despite all the dramatics, personally, I imagine this moment between Jesus and this man as one of the most tender in the gospels. I imagine this man asking Jesus if he could come with, and Jesus not responding coldly, but putting his hands on the man’s face and staring deeply into his eyes, saying, “Share your story! Go back to live with and love those you couldn’t live with and love for so long. This is your freedom.”
The story ends with Jesus and his disciples getting back in the boat and the man heading off into the town that he’d been locked out of for ages – he’s become traveling light.
My Name is Light
In some ways this man stands for us all. Like in other moments in Luke’s gospel, the question of someone’s name is so central to the story – this is the case here too, though it’s subtle. This man is no longer defined and controlled by darkness, named “legion” of evil, he’s got a new name and a new freedom. He came to Jesus full of chaos, living in death, now he goes full of peace and life.
As you’ve noticed by now I share a name with the Gospel of Luke, which at times is a little awkward and confusing. But a few years back I learned that the root of the name Luke is in the word light. Part of my story has been learning to own my name. I might not feel all that bright, all that sunny all the time, in fact some days things can feel pretty dark. But as a follower of Jesus, as God’s child, I am given my real name and real freedom. That name isn’t just the one my parents’ gave me – just like the man in this story, because of Jesus my name is light.
And the same goes for anyone who’s put their trust in Jesus – as darkness is evicted we are all of us named light. “You are the light of the world” says Jesus, “let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.14-16)
Christians are like flashlights. Lights that do something about the darkness in the world faced by refugees, by the homeless, by the people in desperate places like Yemen, or the person next door. Lights that do something about the darkness faced by all the lonely and hopeless people we bump into day in and day out.
This community has a long history of being traveling light, which continues in initiatives like Helping Hands that again we get a chance to join in with this year. That’s who we are – traveling light.
“Go and tell them everything God has done for you.” As we move into the end of this year may we hear those words from Christ and bring a light to those sitting in darkness under the shadow of death at every turn.
So however you’re wired or gifted – off you go this week, light up the dark.