June 23, 2013 Naked and Nameless Luke 8:26-39
At various points during my growing up years, my family would take a trip ‘out east’ as we say…to visit my aunt and uncle in Akron Pennsylvania.
My Uncle in particular loves big cities, and so when we would travel ‘out east’ to visit them, he would often arrange for us to go to a big city like Philadelphia or New York to see the sights and take in some history.
It was great, he knew his way around and would plan the outing so that all we had to do was show up and soak it up. .
Well, one year he took us to New York City…I know we saw lots of interesting things and had a good time…but the thing that I remember the best about that trip was walking down a busy street …and we came upon a situation where maybe a dozen or so police officers in riot gear had formed a circle around a man who was…undone.
He looked to me like he could have been homeless, I don’t know. He was dirty, his hair was disheveled, and he had a wild look about him, almost like he was in a different world.
I couldn’t see him real clearly, because he was in the middle of this circle of police officers, and I was on the outside looking in as we walked past.
He was shouting at the police, and he would kind of lunge every now and then, like he was threatening them.
He had nothing, just the clothes he was wearing.
Meanwhile, the police surrounding him had helmets with face guards, thick protective vests, gloves, heavy boots, and even body length shields if I remember right.
They had surrounded this guy, they had effectively isolated him from the general public on the street.
I can only assume it didn’t take them real long to arrest him; after all, there was nowhere for the guy to go, and it was clear that the physical advantage was on the side of the city’s police force.
Now, as a midwestern kid who grew up in small town Iowa, this was a first, to say the least.
I wasn’t afraid, because it was clear the police had everything under control, and as long as I stayed outside of their circle, I’d be fine.
But I did feel sorry for the guy, because it was clear he wasn’t “in his right mind”. He was being controlled by forces that were beyond his control…both on the inside, and as the police demonstrated, on the outside as well.
I think about that situation every so often, especially when I read this story about the Gerasene man, who in a similar way, had come undone.
So let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Luke starts this story by simply noting that ‘they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes’, (Jeruhseens) which is opposite Galilee’.
We tend to think geography isn’t that important if it’s not in Holmes County, so we miss some pretty cool stuff when we skip that detail.
You might notice, if you were to find this story in the gospel of Matthew and in the gospel of Mark, and if you’d compare them, you might notice that Luke and Mark put this event in the country of the Gerasenes, while Matthew puts it in the country of the Gadarenes.
Another difference is that Matthew describes two ‘demoniacs’ not just one like Mark and Luke.
I don’t think such differences make the Bible any less trustworthy…I think it just reinforces that these were different people, with different memories, perspectives, and different points they wanted to make to the different audiences they were writing to.
Whether it was the Gadarenes or the Gerasenes, the region is the same.
Gadara and Gerasa were two cities relatively close to each other, on the Eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, in present day Jordan, or what was ancient Syria if that makes sense.
Anyways, this “region of the Gerasenes” was part of something called “the Decapolis”.
(don’t you wish you were Greek sometimes? so you could use cool names like that?)
The Decapolis was important in ancient times, because it consisted of ten ancient Greek cities that were located along strategic places up and down the main trade routes and military highways along the east side of the Jordan River.
It was not part of Israel, in fact, these cities were the creation of the descendants of Alexander the Great, as part of an effort to spread Greek culture and thought throughout the world…in other words, it was part of something called “Hellenization”.
This region, the region of the Gerasenes, was the northernmost part of “The Decapolis”, and the reason any of that is important, is because the way these cities functioned, they kind of set the stage for Rome to solidify its position in the region when its time came.
We don’t really have a basis to compare it to, because we live in an empire that is occupying foreign lands, not a land that’s been occupied by a foreign power.
So the region of the Gerasenes was part of a broader network; the Decapolis, which was like the stepping stone that the hated Roman empire had used to put Israel in its place and occupy their land.
OK…so Jesus and his disciples set sail to a country that is not their own, a country that is actually offensive to their religion and their culture. They sail through a wickedly violent storm that Jesus calms with a word, they arrive in this country, and when Jesus gets out of the boat, he’s met by a naked, nameless ‘demoniac’; that is, a man who had been possessed by demons.
And we’re not talking borderline stable, or someone who struggles with symbolic kinds of demons. It’s not that he just threw an occasional ‘fit’, or that he was simply misunderstood.
We’re talking breaking chains, living among the dead, wouldn’t keep his clothes on, threat to society and himself kind of possessed.
We’re talking scary…like the guy on the street I was talking about, only much stronger, without the cops…and without the street or other people around…just a lonely beach.
He had been kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by his demons into the wilderness.
And here’s where the story gets tricky…because whether we like it or not, we each of us is bound to and by the society we live in.
We learn early on that we have to play by the rules, or there will be consequences.
And I’m not talking religion; I’m just talking society.
For example, I know if I speed, I run the risk of getting a ticket.
I know if I steal, I could go to jail, or if I destroy property, I’ll be at the mercy of the court.
I know if I start to act violent and threatening to other people, I could get arrested.
So if I want to enjoy the benefits of living in Millersburg, I am bound to a certain code of conduct.
I’m bound to certain limits, simply because I share space with other people…and for the most part that’s a good thing.
But every now and then, we each of us, we break the bounds that society has set.
We rebel against the system itself, we transgress the chains imposed upon us and we head for the hills, not for freedom, but rather for the places where our demons can have their way with us.
Am I right?
I won’t expect you to acknowledge it here, but I have a suspicion that even though we’re Christian people, things like Pride, Lust, Greed, Vanity, Hatred, Cynicism, Consumption, Apathy, Self-Reliance and Fear: these are the names of a few powerful demons today.
Their names and their forms might be different than they were back then, but they are still Legion, for they are still many.
They still control us more than we might like to admit.
So Jesus shows up on the shores of a foreign country, crossing borders, calming storms, and when he arrives, he’s met by this naked guy and his demons.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when asked for his name, the demons define him? “Legion”, he says, and it’s clear it wasn’t he who was talking.
And just like happened with the storm the previous night, with a word from Jesus, the demons are gone, and this man’s restless, raging soul is filled with calm wonder.
The outer calm doesn’t last long, the people from the nearby city come to see what all the commotion is about, they grow afraid because of what they’re seeing, and they ask Jesus to please leave.
And that’s something else that’s interesting, isn’t it?
Jesus had accomplished with spiritual power in one meeting, what they had been seeking to do with chains and guards for who knows how long?!.
They were seeking, in vain, to subdue this man and his demons, to protect their world from his raging and his strength…they had tried, and failed, to contain him, to put him and keep him “in his place”.
And here Jesus comes, and with a word restores the man to full health.
There would be no more chains needed.
There would be no more guards needed.
It’s like resurrection had come; for this man was virtually dead to this city; but now he had life! He had been given a second chance!
But instead of celebrating what Jesus had done, their fear got the better of them and the people send Jesus away.
It’s too much for them to handle, because what Jesus is confronting isn’t just this man and his demons.
What he’s confronting is nothing short of their whole world!
See, one truth about our human condition is that nobody wants to do the work of making life worse for somebody else, so instead of that, we buy into systems that can function on our behalf.
In this example, the people didn’t have to ostracize this poor guy themselves; the system ostracized him on their behalf, just like the police “taking care” of the problem guy on the street in New York City!
They could feel sorry for this guy all day long…as long as they kept their distance from the tombs and let the guards and the chains try to do their job…as long as they stayed ‘outside’ the circle, so to speak.
But then here comes Jesus, speaking words that are more powerful than the demons, but also more powerful than the chains!
He speaks words that bring true freedom to this prisoner and restore him to fullness of life, and it’s too much for the rest to handle!
After all, they think, if this Jesus sticks around, if he’s capable of this, then there’s no telling what might happen next!
Please leave, Jesus…you’re too scary…we prefer the naked man possessed by demons who keeps breaking his chains and overpowering his guards!
So Jesus does what they ask. He leaves, and this man he had healed, he becomes something like a missionary, going throughout the Decapolis…throughout the foundations of the empire that was current back then, subverting the systems that kept people in their place by proclaiming the simple story of what this Jesus had done for him.
Do you see how that works?
Jesus heals him, and then he leaves him to carry out the mission.
Jesus doesn’t micro-manage.
He does the healing, he sends the man on his way, and then he turns around and leaves…and from what follows this story, there’s no evidence that Jesus lost any sleep over what this guy was doing in and around the Decapolis.
He’s more interested in setting people free than he is in controlling the outcomes of their ministries or their lives.
So there’s a lesson there that cuts both ways.
First, you’ve been entrusted with a ministry.
If you’re a Christian, if you profess Jesus Christ as Lord, if you’ve met him and found a notion of peace while sitting in his presence…then I trust, and you should too, that he has given you a ministry.
And if you don’t know what that is, then borrow the one he gave this guy; go home and start talking to the people you know about what God has done for you. Your co-workers, your family, your friends.
The rest will become clear. I’m convinced of that.
Secondly, when you find your ministry, and when you do it…when you join with God in setting others free from Legion…then let them go, and trust God to reveal himself to them.
It’s not up to you to make anybody change. Trust me; it’s hard enough to make myself change…much less anyone else.
Change is the work of the Holy Spirit.
But showing people that change is possible…that’s our job. That’s our calling, so to speak.
So may we go from here in the newness of life that we have been given. May we live our lives freed from our demons, living in and sharing the peace of Christ, which transcends understanding.