Summary: Jesus’ presence often causes as much disturbance as peace.
A Disturbing Presence
John 8: 26-39
June 20, 2004
A pastor in a small church was greatly annoyed by one of his elderly members who fell asleep during his sermons every Sunday. After the service one day, the pastor said to the old man’s grandson who always sat with his grandfather, “If you can keep the old man awake, I’ll pay you a dollar a week.” This worked for two weeks; the aged man was very alert and listened to the sermons attentively. On the third Sunday, however, there he was, up to his old tricks again, sound asleep in the pew. After the service the pastor called the boy over and said, “I am disappointed in you. Didn’t I promise you a dollar a week to keep your grandfather awake?” “Yes,” replied the boy, “but Grandpa gives me five dollars not to disturb him.”
We are like Grandpa. We don’t like being disturbed. We enjoy living in an atmosphere of quiet contentment. We don’t want anyone or anything rocking our boat. We like stability in our lives. But one evening Jesus and his disciples encountered a very disturbing character in a somewhat disturbing place, and their boat was rocked as they stepped off of it to encounter the man in our Scripture today. And we are disturbed a little as we read the text and listen to the details of the encounter, and we get the impression that there is something entirely disturbing about the whole scene. There is definitely a disturbing presence in the air. Let’s look the encounter and see if we can identify the disturbing presence.
The Disturbing Man. This man Jesus and the disciples encountered was certainly disturbed. Yet we know the source of his disturbance. There was a disturbing presence that dominated his every thought and every action, so much so that it had ruined his life. The text says the man was demon-possessed, and that had left him homeless, naked and living in a graveyard. Separated from his family and community, the man lived in constant tension as he battled the demons.
And I am quite certain the man had caused no small disturbance in his family and community. The fact that he was living in the graveyard indicates that society had pushed him to the fringes. This man had likely been a disturbance more than once. The community had gone so far as to shackle him, but that did no good. He simply broke the shackles. To deal with the problem, they simply put him out of town. “Just put him out there and leave him alone” was their way of dealing with the man. The graveyard was an entirely appropriate place for the man to be as far as the community was concerned. The graveyard was the place where demons belonged, and as maniacal as the man was there was little doubt that he was demon-possessed. And the demons in this story disturb us, too.
What of this demon-possession thing? C. S. Lewis says there are two equal but opposite errors into which we can fall concerning the devil and demons. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe in their existence but to also feel an unhealthy interest in them. As Christians, we believe demons exist in our world, and actual cases of demon possession have been documented. To believe otherwise would be to place ourselves outside the realm of what Jesus believed in the conduct of his ministry, and it would, in fact, make us un-Biblical. But we equally don’t believe that every ailment, every malady, every sickness, every form of bondage is motivated by demon possession. We don’t believe there is a demon behind every tree and under every rock.
These demons manifested an evil and destructive presence in this man’s life, and therefore, in that community. I think a more appropriate focus for us here is to note the destructive nature of evil in our world, whether that evil is demonic in nature or not. These demons (and there were many of them inhabiting this man) had destroyed this man’s life. The demons continued their destructiveness in the pigs being herded nearby. Jesus allowed them to depart into the swine. Don’t try to make too much of the pigs in the story. That’s called majoring on the minors. The pigs symbolize the destructive nature of the demons inhabiting the man.
All of our lives are touched by destructiveness of evil. The destructive nature of evil in our world evidences a disturbing presence. Take drugs, for instance. One who comes to abuse drugs can experience those destructive forces. If they were only self-destructive that would be one thing. But they destroy families and friends and jobs, driving a wedge between the person and his/her family and the community. A young person in the bondage of substance abuse drops out of school. The beginning of a life destroyed. A family broken in their relationships or in their finances. A job lost. A child neglected or abused. A marriage broken. Though not necessarily demonic, it is inherently evil. And it is destructive. Evil is a very disturbing presence.