Summary: Jesus' encounter with the Gerasene demoniac is a terrifying scene. This sermon applies the circumstances of the demoniac's transformation to contemporary individuals and even groups.
We began the message series last week with a look at the Apostle Peter’s transformation from failure to faith. I used the line “transformation can be a terrifying thing,” because in one transformative moment, Peter went from faith to failure while walking on the water. In a great moment of faith, Peter became terrified of drowning. Even though Jesus was present, Peter was afraid. Peter discovered that transformation can, indeed, be terrifying.
In today’s Gospel reading, we find an episode that is a bit terrifying, too. I mean demons, graveyards and dead pigs. If not terrifying, then certainly disturbing images that challenge our 21st century sensibilities. Could it be because 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, Jesus and his disciples encountered a terrifying character in a somewhat terrifying place. The encounter reads like something right out of a Stephen King novel. There is definitely a terrifying presence in the air.
We first encounter a terrifying man. Don’t we remember Linda Blair’s head spinning around in The Exorcist? Put that scene in your mind as you contemplate this passage. This guy was terrifying. There was a terrifying 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 he was left homeless, naked and living in a graveyard. Separated from his family and community, the man lived in constant tension as he battled his demons.
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 are terrifying, 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 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 simply symbolize the destructive nature of the demons inhabiting the man.
Each of our lives are touched by the destructiveness of evil. The destructive nature of evil in our world evidences a terrifying presence. Take drugs, for instance. A person who abuses drugs can experience those destructive forces. If they were only self-destructive to the person abusing the drugs that would be one thing, but they destroy families, 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. A family is broken in their relationships or in their finances. A job lost. A child is neglected or abused. A marriage is broken. The damage done to a person and a family doesn’t even include the costs to the community on the criminal justice system to deal with the issue. Though not necessarily demonic, it is inherently evil, and it is destructive. Evil is a very terrifying thing.
Then Jesus comes along, and he doesn’t hesitate in disturbing the status quo of that community. I might even suggest that Jesus is the most terrifying presence in this encounter. Jesus wasted no time in disturbing these demons who had tortured the man for so long. Jesus recognized the evil and demanded to know their names. They were “Legion.” But what is the significance of that? A legion was a group of Roman soldiers numbering as many as 6,000. The Palestinians would have been very familiar with a Roman legion, and the very name of the demons exhibited the depth of torment this man was under. But these demons were forced to bow before the power of Jesus as he appeared. Isn’t that what Paul said to the Philippian Christians? “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10).