Things have evened off in my family in recent days, just in time for me to get into sermon prep mode once again. The gospel text for this week is Luke 8:26-39 – the healing of the demon-possessed man of Gerasene. A man who was so beset by evil that he lived a solitary life, among the tombs outside of town, the local pigs and their keepers his only regular company. A life marked by isolation, confusion, nakedness and delusion. His presence outside the town appears to have given the people residing within that town some sense of control over the scary things in life – chain them up, hide them away in the ‘unclean,’ outside-the-pale places, put them under guard and thereby feel morally superior and physically and psychically immune to any threat they might carry. That’s what we still tend to do with those things that frighten us, don’t you think? Especially those things within ourselves that we find scary, unruly, unpredictable, unacceptable. We chain them up and try and bury them, yet they can still surprise us with their potential for harm.
That’s direction number one.
What must it be like to be inhabited by multitudes of evil forces? Modern western readers read this story from at least two very different points of view. Many cringe a little, put off by the very idea of demons, at least demons as they were understood in biblical times: malevolent spiritual entities which could, on occasion, ‘possess’ human beings. It is true that many non-religious people have been fascinated by the idea (hence the success of films like “The Exorcist,” and even, it might be argued, the interest in witchcraft and the occult in successful book series like “Harry Potter,” in this generation, and “The Oz” books in our parents’.) But I think it could be argued that the general intellectual zeitgeist of 21st century life would allow little room for belief in actual, literal demons. Too primiitive, too unsophisticated, too medieval, too weird. Most moderns (or post-moderns) are not comfortable with the whole idea of spiritual realities that invade our physical world.
But then there is that second point of view, one that causes me almost as much sadness as the first. Too many 21st century Christians give the idea of demons and demon possession more credence than the biblical record would warrant. There are teachers out there who would have us pray ‘against’ the demons in the corners of the hospital rooms we visit, who would too quickly lay blame for typical childhood misbehavior on the presence of a ‘spirit of evil’ possessing a child. Either extreme is unfortunate and unhelpful. Denying the presence of evil as a malevolent force at work in our world flies in the face of way too much evidence to the contrary – ask any homicide detective or forensic psychologist. But too quickly assigning every wrong-headed choice or misbegotten behavior to the work of the devil and his minions makes no space for human sinfulness or free will. Somewhere, there must be a happy medium (slight pun intended :>)
That’s direction number two.
What are the demons that possess us in this day and age? What are we afraid of and how do we choose to cope with those fears? The Gerasene was a frightening figure, prone to violence, living as an outcast, a perfect picture of the untamed, usually unnamed, beasts that dwell within the human psyche. This story reminds us, with very powerful imagery, that Jesus has authority – healing, releasing, freedom-giving authority – over all those things that frighten us, that can at times conrol us, that cause us grief and pain. But we must allow Jesus free access to those fears if they are to be released. The demoniac was right in Jesus’ face, recognizing his authority, bargaining with him and ultimately his demons were sent packing. The townspeople were so shaken by this demonstrastion of pwer and of health that they asked Jesus to leave them. I guess it depends on what you’re most afraid of – the evil we know or the authority we don’t quite understand and certainly can’t control.
That’s direction number three (or is it a restatement of direction number one???)
Pretty soon now, I’m going to have to choose where I’m headed. I’ll try and keep you posted.