January 26, 2020
This week I have found myself thinking about how identity drives society; how we’re compelled to create a sense of self, a persona we can comfortably use in public, one to overcome our own feelings of insecurity, of obscurity, of inferiority. Along with this I listened to a broadcast about the search for Jacob Wetterling, whom you may remember was abducted and killed in a small Minnesota town in 1989.
Identity in this case was in the forefront, to identify a suspect, to speak to witnesses, hopefully to create a sketch, which is always an ill-fated process because witness testimony is so subjective. In small town crimes like this, often the naming or arrest of a subject often results in comments such as, “He seemed like such a nice guy,” or “I went to school with him. I can’t believe he’s involved in this.”
That’s how we identify people, don’t we? Good or bad, undeserving of respect or attention, worthy of high esteem, a great guy, or a suspicious loner. When youth are engaged in crime, the words used to describe or accuse them can determine the rest of their lives. I viewed a program on minors sentenced to life, facing a reputation as convicts, criminals, and bad people. But how do we know for sure? Is there no room for repentance?
The focus of our gospel today is the physical, emotional, and spiritual well being of one nameless man, said to be possessed by demons. He was violent, tormented, lacking a support system, and living among the dead. He was prone to violence against himself and had been unsuccessfully restrained by people from the community. They had left him in his misery, alone, unclothed, and vulnerable.
That’s how we identify people, don’t we?
In twenty centuries, we have not improved our ability to help disturbed people. We still constrain and isolate. As they are so often mentioned in scripture, we are surely meant to consider the demon possessed as a societal reality, in Jesus’ time, anyway. Many biblical scholars would say he was crazy. We try not to use the C word in my family; when you’ve been down that road you tend to censor your words and your attitude.
However he came to the state he was in, this man had an identity crisis. He was, as they say, not in his right mind. He wasn’t even in his own mind, not alone; according to him, it was crowded in there. When Jesus asked for his name, he responded with the word for a Roman regiment of soldiers – Legion. This spokesman for the demons wanted an explanation of why Jesus was there, and what He wanted from him.
Evil addressing holiness, asking questions and making demands. Seems unthinkable to us, like something out of science fiction or fantasy literature. The truth is that Jesus has no trouble going head to head with the enemy. He did so at the dawning of His earthly ministry when the Spirit of holiness pushed Him out into the wilderness to take a 40-day retreat with no food and no water and no shortage of torment from the devil himself.
Jesus defeated the devil’s tricks with the word of God. Makes sense, seeing as He is the Word of God made flesh. When confronting this multitude of demons in their use of a helpless man for nothing more than office space, Jesus tried more than once to deal with this situation, yet the demons went toe to toe. When Jesus demanded they vacate at once, the demons countered with their demand to know what business Jesus had with them.
When Jesus demanded they vacate at once, the demons countered with their demand to know what business Jesus had with them.
It was then that Jesus asked for the demons to identify themselves, which is when the name of Legion was given. The final act was when Jesus ordered the demons to leave and they begged not to be sent away from that country, but to be allowed to occupy a large herd of pigs who were kept in that area. Jesus agreed, the demons left the man and entered into the pigs, who suddenly, swiftly ran down a steep hill and drowned in the sea. Admittedly, this is a weird detail, but don’t get hung up on it. Forget about the pigs; they aren’t the focal point, just a means to an end.
Losing all their livestock upset the swine herders greatly, and when they ran to tell the owners, there was even more chaos and commotion from those who came back with them to view the scenario. Again, the focus was on this poor, tormented man. He was sitting near Jesus, completely dressed, and completely lucid. His appearance brought fear to the townspeople. Yeah, you heard that right.
Once he was healed, delivered, exorcised – if you believe in that sort of thing – he was more frightening to others than when he was naked and unrestrainable, cutting himself with rocks, screaming uncontrollably. It’s strange to me, maybe it strikes you as odd too. There’s no accounting for human reactions. He was happy, that’s all that mattered to Jesus at that moment. Though the man was keen to become a follower, he was told to go back home and tell everyone what God had done for him.
He was sitting near Jesus, completely dressed, and completely lucid.
To go home was more than just a command. It was an acknowledgement of his return to normalcy, to life. It said that he was going to be alright. Poet Walt Whitman wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” May the Lord bless those who can’t go home again; the incarcerated, the addicted, the abandoned.
The gospel shows us one man among many, suffering great physical and emotional trauma, desperate for help. Jesus came to offer us healing and wholeness, and life after death. Though He didn’t answer the demons’ question “What do you and I have to do with each other, son of the Highest God?”, Jesus responded the way only He can, with restoration.
He wanted to free him, to make him whole again, to give him his life back. But does Jesus only give us our lives back, leaving us to go on and do whatever makes us happy? He never leaves us, but accompanies us on every path, at each decision, throughout all our days. We should be as enthusiastically eager to follow Him anywhere as the demon-possessed man had been.
Whenever I encounter Jesus healing in the gospel, I can’t help but wonder about the rest of the story. Did Lazarus go on the local news and tell of his time in the tomb? Did the woman accused of adultery find her true love, marry, and become a mother of four? Whatever became of that one grateful man healed of leprosy? Did Jesus ever hear from the other nine?
It’s not just these accounts I think about, it’s also the hardened heart of a man who blamed God for letting his wife die; or the woman whose chronic unforgiveness keeps her from truly living. These people know Jesus, but maybe they don’t know the Jesus I know, or you know; which is not to say we don’t all have our bad days when our faith is less recognizable, when they may not know we are Christians by our love.
We’re all works in progress, so don’t be too hard on yourself, but also don’t forget to allow the progress to happen. I was recently given a copy of a page from a daily devotion for January 18. Here’s a part of what it says, “What’s the problem that I’m fretting about? It’s the fact that so many of us have a huge dark hole in the middle of our gospel. Sure, we have a pretty good understanding of the gospel past, the forgiveness we have received through the sacrifice of Jesus, and a fairly clear understanding of salvation future, the eternity that we will spend with Jesus, but have we really understood well the benefits of the work of Christ in the here and now?
The Bible powerfully declares that Jesus didn’t just die for your past or your future, but for all the things that you face right here, right now. We need to study, examine, teach, preach, counsel, and encourage one another with the nowism of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
God delivers us from imaginary dangers as well as real – sometimes the imaginary is harder to face. The reaction from the people in the village where the possessed man was set free is very typical of the treatment of others in modern society. “Oh no, you’ve disturbed my peace, my way of life; what are you going to do about it?” Those people valued the pigs more than people, and they feared what other destruction Jesus might cause so they insisted He leave that place.
A pastor once said that Christ is a kind of plague to the human race in the minds of some people. There is something in all of us that cries out at times, “Why don’t you leave me alone?” We are tormented because His presence makes us fully aware of our misery and bondage, and partly because it threatens to take away from us those ills and obsessions that we cling to.
Let me just draw your attention back to the details of this passage. This reading is a kind of filling in a sandwich made of the bread of travel, trauma, and transformation. We should always pay attention to the comings and goings of Jesus as the gospel writers described them. Just prior to this event, Jesus and the disciples were out on the sea of Galilee when a storm came up. The disciples were freaking out, but Jesus slept right through it.
They had to wake Him up to ask Him if he cared whether or not they died. He got up and scolded the wind and the waves, then He focused His energy on asking them why they were afraid. After all, He was in the boat with them. Then, they step out of the boat and boom – they are met with the reality of this uncontrollable, demented man. So, they went from chaos and stress right into more chaos and stress, but that wasn’t the end.
They took the boat back to where they had been, where a large crowd was waiting for them. Well, waiting for Jesus, anyway. An important man in the synagogue came up and fell down at the feet of Jesus. He began begging Jesus to come back to his home with him because his young daughter was dying. Off they went, the crowd following close behind, so close there was barely room to change your mind.
It was then a woman who had suffered a dozen years with a bleeding condition slipped up to Jesus and touched the hem of His clothes. She experienced immediate healing, which did not go unnoticed by Jesus. He looked around and asked for the one who touched Him to identify themselves. The woman came forward, afraid, falling before Him. He reacted graciously, declaring her faith had made her whole.
No sooner had the words left His mouth than a messenger came from the house where the young girl had just died. Jesus countered this news, telling her father not to believe it. He singled out Peter, James and John and they continued on to the house, where Jesus went inside, dismissed the mourners, and stood with the parents and His three close disciples around the bed, taking the child’s hand and calling her back to life.
On the first Sunday of the month I mentioned the gospel of Mark is fast moving. Now you can see for yourself, Jesus moved from chaos to crisis and back again, putting out fires along the way.