Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA
It seems to me, demon possession is not a topic we like to talk about seriously anymore. At least not in our culture, here in this Eastern part of the United States in 2019. Still, demons do capture our culture’s imagination. There certainly still are tons of scary movies about demons.
And, really, what is more captivating, too, than the story from Luke this morning, with demons that are cast out into a herd of pigs and who go and drown themselves in a lake! When the 4th, 5th, & 6th graders got to this story in the winter months here in Sunday School—you bet there were lots of imaginative drawings of pink piggies taking dramatic dives into blue crayon waters.
Still, demon possession is not something that is for real, right? Well, I know a Christian preacher from Nigeria for whom demon possession is very real. But not here, not today?
Even that word “demon” is complicated. In Greek there’s really nothing evil about it. Saying “demon” for us probably brings to mind monsters from hell and creepy images from movies like The Exorcist, with green pea soup spraying from that little girl’s mouth! But in Greco-Roman culture saying “demon”—or originally, daimonion—was a word that could mean divinity, or genius, or idea or inspiration, sort of.
Think about it this way: the common denominator is that a daimonion, a demon, is a power we cannot control alone. And speaking of uncontrollable force, it’s not for fun that this man in Luke—stripped naked by suffering, living in tombs, in the land of the dead, an exile from his people—it’s not an accident he says his name is “Legion.”
You know me, by now, and my fun facts, so here’s another one: legion is a Latin word that was only ever used for one thing. During the reign of Augustus in the Roman Empire it was a military body that consisted of 6,100 foot soldiers and 726 horsemen—6,826 people. Legion was a word for an unstoppable fighting force in the ancient world.
I can think of a few other kinds of unstoppable forces which Jesus made short work of in the surrounding chapters and verses of Luke. Things like death, sickness, the cruelties of social categories, the storming forces of nature. All these things bookend Jesus’ healing the man from Gerasene. These are all those seemingly unstoppable, uncontrollable forces in life.
I’ll go out on a limb here and make a bold assertion. All the characters that you will find in the Gospels—these books about Jesus—are “types.” They are “types” that we, ourselves, are. We are disciples. We are sick and need healing. We are dead and need life. And we, too, are possessed by many demons… And it’s actually much worse than the way the horror movies tell it, too. We’re not just individuals running amok.
For us, our demons show up in our brazen disloyalty to the needs of the poor, and our siblings of color, and in the foul impurity we wallow in that comes as foolish political division, name-calling and bickering. When, for example, there are real people, really addicted, really dying. When there are human beings of all kinds who could be so easily helped with our nation’s time and attention, instead we are distracted by arguments about celebrities and flags.
The prophet Isaiah has a very helpful angle for us this morning when it comes to the kind of demons, the kind of unstoppable forces, that the United States is possessed by. The prophet writes, “I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks; who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels; who say, ‘Keep to yourself, God, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.’”
These are old-fashioned metaphors for the kind of impurity and disloyalty I am talking about. For the kind of demonic possession, here, today. When our poor are blamed for being poor, when being “woke” or in-the-right all the time matters more than actually helping, when our histories of cruelty are forgotten and denied. When the glorification of self and the question, “Who am I?” is the only one we ask. This is the kind of impurity and disloyalty that Isaiah is talking about.
You might say, “Ah no! That’s the Old Testament god in Isaiah! That god is vengeful and mean. Who cares? We don’t need to take that god seriously.” God in Isaiah certainly does say, “I will repay; I will indeed repay into their laps.” But so does Isaiah also write, “Thus says the LORD: As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake.” That’s a proverb that means because wild grapes contain the power to become wine you shouldn’t get rid of them. And just so, God delights in the human race because God created us—there is the image of God in us.
So, the vengeance that God has in mind. The vengeful justice for us, who have the nerve to say to God, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.” What does that vengeance look like? It looks like Jesus nailed to a tree…
It’s funny how the words of the people from Isaiah, sound an awful lot like the demoniac in Luke. In Luke the Gerasene man says to Jesus, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” The people in Isaiah say, “Keep to yourself, God, do not come near me…” They both say this: Let me be. Let me remain the same. Let me stay stuck in my disloyalty to those in need, my impurity of believing I am always in-the-right, and my love of my own achievements and security. Jesus, of course, does not leave us alone. Jesus in the Gospels has power over all the forces we cannot control. Jesus is an agent of change.
And the outcome of Jesus’ encounter with our demons is always the same, too: Luke writes, “Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” Clothed and in your right mind—free from those Legions, those forces of cruelty and selfishness.
We have something that we hold on to, just like the man from Gerasene. We have faith. We have Jesus. Little Hannah who is going to be baptized this morning is going to find out very soon who and what this is. And we are reminded of our own trust in God’s promises as she does. As we heard Paul write today, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Like Hannah soon, it may not look so dramatic as pigs going off a cliff into the water, but in our baptism we have been clothed and put in our right mind. We have been healed. It’s a done deal. In our baptism we are given the gift to believe, to trust God, to know that those demonic forces aren’t actually in control!
There were many images, many “types” in this morning’s Scripture lessons. The man was possessed—we were possessed. The man is healed—we are healed. The man is clothed—we are clothed in Christ. The man is freed—we, too, are freed by the Holy Spirit, made children of God.
But there is still one more important image to learn from our Scripture lessons today. The man in Luke’s story wanted to stay with Jesus. He wants to linger in the pews, and stay cozy and warm with Jesus. Luke writes, “The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with Jesus; but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”
These demons linger in our world. But now we are the ones who must declare that they have no true power anymore. We are the ones who must tell what Jesus has done for us. Do as Jesus says: Go away. Proclaim throughout the city how much God has done for you.