OK, let’s admit it up front. Today’s Gospel reading is just plain weird. Weirder than weird. It was weird enough when Jesus stilled the storm with a word from a boat on the sea of Galilee. When they landed on the other side in the country of the Gerasenes opposite Galilee, things took a really weird turn. No sooner did Jesus’ feet hit the beach, then He was confronted by a man from the city who was possessed by demons. That’s right. Demons. Not just a single demon, which was what Jesus had been dealing with so far. But a literal “Legion” of demons, which is considerably more than a handful.
Now the story of this man is just as weird, if not downright creepy. For a long time, he ran around without any clothes on, which in the Gospels tends to be a sign that something isn’t going quite right. You’ll recall that the young men who greeted the women at Jesus’ open, empty tomb were clothed in white, while the young man who fled dark Gethsemane on the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest ran off naked. So while streaking may have been a funny college prank back in the 70s, it’s no laughing matter in the Gospel. The devils seems to have the upper hand here. And not just one, but a legion of them.
Moreover, the man did not live in a house, but among the tombs, with all the dead. Preoccupation with the dead seems to be a demonic thing. So that’s pretty creepy too. Luke adds that he was often kept under guard and was frequently bound with chains and fetters, which is the 1st century equivalent of being put in a straightjacket and restraints, but the demons were so strong they broke the restraints and drove him away from the city into the wilderness. The wilderness, as you recall from Jesus’ temptation, is the devil’s playground. Mark tells us that the man would cry out night and day and cut himself with sharp stones, which is probably why he was put in restraints in the first place.
Now our modern, scientific, skeptical minds are already spinning a bit here and wondering about this demon stuff. Today, we might consider the man deranged and put him on drugs or some such thing. But make no mistake about it. The demonic realm is real. It’s the opposite side of the angelic realm. There’s a whole spiritual realm that we confess with the “invisibles” and some of it isn’t good.
A colleague of mine once remarked that in lands where the devil is taken seriously, he shows himself even more seriously. Take Haiti as an example. There are weird stories always coming out of Haiti where voodoo is alive and well. In places where the devil isn’t taken very seriously, he shows himself even less serious. The Halloween kind of devil. Horns, tail, red suit. Comical. Funny. But either way, the devil and his demons are serious business and not to be played with. “On earth is not his equal,” ends the first stanza of A Mighty Fortress and it’s referring not to Jesus but to the devil. There is none on earth that can stand up to him.
The devils knew who Jesus was and shouted it as loud as they could. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” That’s about as good a confession as there is. And it comes from a demon. But you see, in the devil’s hands, even the truth becomes a lie. When the devil tempted Jesus, he quoted from the psalms to try to get Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple. You see, even the Bible in the hands of the devil will be used in service of the lie. He’s a liar and the father of all lies. His demons are liars too. They tell the truth. Jesus is the Son of the Most High God. But they tell it in a way that subverts His mission.
Jesus came to do battle with the devil on his own playground. He came to undo the works of the devil and his demons and to cast them into the eternal pit, which is what hell was prepared for by God. Not for people. For the devil and his demons. And the way in which the devil was going to be defeated was by Jesus dying on a cross and descending into Death. He stormed the prison to bind the devil and free the captives – you and me and the rest of humanity. The reason the demons are so interested in Jesus is that they want to head him off at the pass. Send Him down a glory detour. Make a celebrity out of Him and try to divert HIm from His appointed hour with the cross.
They even try to bind Jesus with the name of God. Now that’s a cute trick. They invoke God’s name against God! “I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” But Jesus has the upper hand here. He’s their Lord too, and they know it. He asks their name. That’s how you assert your dominion. They must respond. Legion. A Roman legion is four to six thousand soldiers. You can only imagine the horror.
They beg Jesus not to send them into the “abyss,” the hell hole where they belong. They know what Jesus is there for. They offer a large herd of pigs instead. “Let us enter them.” The story gets even weirder. With Jesus’ permission, the demons take over a herd of 2000 pigs who promptly throw themselves off a cliff into the sea. Now if you’re Jewish, you’re OK with this, because pigs were unclean, so it all makes sense. Unclean spirits, unclean pigs, over they go into the sea. Bye, bye. But this is Gentile country, and pork belly futures just took a steep jump not to mention the stench of rotting pig carcasses on the beach. So it’s little wonder the people ask Jesus to please pack His bags and leave.
The formerly demon possessed man is now sitting with Jesus. He’s clothed and in his right mind, and he wants to join Jesus’ followers. But Jesus said no, and sent him back to his own people as a living testimony to the mercy of God. And what a testimony it was! A demon possessed man who used to live among the tombs and cut himself now goes all around the ten cities of the Gentiles, proclaiming the good news. And 2000 pigs plummet to their death after being taken over by a legion of demons. Weird. Just plain weird.
The demonic realm is real, my friends. Don’t think for a moment it isn’t. You do so at your own peril. The devil prowls around like a lion, looking for someone to devour. It could be you. He is resistible as you stand firm in Jesus. He is defeated. Jesus is stronger than the devil and his hordes of demons. Whatever darkness plagues you; whatever way the devil seeks to have his way with you, you are safe in Jesus. Apart from Jesus, you don’t stand a chance. In fact, we are all by our human nature, in league with the devil. And just because he doesn’t show himself like this, his work is all around us. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes subtle. But it’s all around us.. A weird story like this, one that actually happened, serves as a reminder to all of us that the spiritual realm is both wonderful and terrifying and that there is no firewall to protect us save the death of Jesus, His blood, His baptism, His victory.
Jesus went to the tomb for us. He was scarred, wounded for us. It’s not our scars that heal, but His. It’s not our death that saves, but His. It’s not our word that conquers the devil, but His. What He did to that legion of demons that day in the Gerasenes is but a small picture of what He will do at the end, at His coming in power and glory and might, when He will make visible the victory that He won on the cross, and bind the devil and his demons forever and cast them into the lake of fire prepared for them.
We’re not there yet. We’re living in the in-between time, the now and not yet between Christ’s disappearing and His reappearing. And in that time, the Bible speaks of Satan’s “little season,” a time when the devil and his demons will be let loose on earth. Perhaps we are there already, or it is soon to come. I have no idea what that will be like. Probably weird. But then, things are already pretty weird.
There is nothing to fear for those who are in Christ Jesus. He’s got you covered. You baptized, covered with Christ, filled with His Spirit, safe in His death and life. His wounds are your healing; His cross is your victory; His righteousness is your clothing. Your sins are put far away from you, as far as the east is from the west. As far as that legion of demons from the poor man.
There is something more going on here too. Not weird but wondrous. The prophet Isaiah saw it and spoke of it. “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to found by those who did not seek me.” Those who sit in tombs and spend the night in secret places; who eat pig’s flesh and broth of tainted meat is in ther vessels. The gentiles. The outsiders to Israel. One of Jesus’ greatest and weirdest displays of divine power and authority was not even in Israel but across the sea. In Gentile territory.
Israel’s messiah is the world’s savior. Jesus’ victory over the darkness and death and the demonic is for all. He knows no boundaries in seeking the lost. He seeks those who do not even look for Him. And in the end, even the devil and his demons wind up serving HIm and HIs mission to save. Jesus would not let that man come to Israel with Him, as much as He wanted to. He might have made a great disciple. Much better than Judas! But his calling was to tell his own people, in his own place, the greatness and goodness of God’s mercy. Yours too. Jesus has freed you. Broken the chains that held you. Rescued you from the grave. Purchased and won you. Tell others what He has done, not only for you but also for them.
“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” In Word and Supper. Forgiveness, Body and Blood. Freedom and life. Much more than we would ever dare to ask of Him. Weirdly and wonderfully so.
In the name of Jesus,