Jesus arrived by boat in the region of the Gerasenes, opposite Galilee. Gentile country. Outsiders to Israel. He came to seek and to save the lost, even if the lost were not the lost of Israel. His greeting party was a naked man who was possessed by a literal “legion” of demons. He was homeless. He lived in the caves where the tombs were. The townspeople had seized him and put him in shackles, but he broke them and fled to the wilderness. He came to greet Jesus.
The demons feared Jesus. They knew who He was. The Son of the Most High God. They knew why He had come. To cast them into the abyss. The lake of fire. The place of eternal damnation. They tried to bargain, cut a deal. Not the abyss, but those pigs. And Jesus obliged, at least for a moment. He allowed them to take possession of a herd of pigs, which promptly threw themselves off a cliff into the lake. It was a picture of the ultimate judgment, a little visual of what was to come. The herdsmen lost a herd of pigs. Pork belly futures went up in the region of the Gerasenes. The man was once again in his right mind. And he was clothed.
There’s no other way to put it. This is a very disturbing story. Little wonder the locals asked Jesus to leave. That’s more than enough melodrama for one day. “Please go back to your home, Jesus. We don’t need that kind of thing here. It’s bad for the economy and for tourism.”
In many ways, this story is out of our realm, way out of our context. Yes, we have homeless people wandering the streets. Some of them may wander naked from time to time. We still put people in straightjackets, or the pharmaceutical equivalent, and try to keep them isolated from what we call “civilized society” for their own safety and the safety of others. Ours don’t live in the wilderness with the howling jackals and wolves or in the tombs, but they do huddle in the viaducts, underpasses, and dry river beds. And they aren’t necessarily demon possessed. Some have mental illnesses. Some are psychologically broken. Some are just down on their luck.
One can only imagine this man’s tortured life of madness and isolation. The Scriptures never explain how these people come to be possessed by unclean spirits, they just are when Jesus shows up. The spirits have no body so they need to possess a body if they are going to engage this world. We don’t know how long this man was afflicted. It just says “a long time.” And it’s not as though he came to Jesus to be healed. The demons drove the man to Jesus for a confrontation. In a sense, the man is incidental to the story. One minute he’s naked and isolated, a raving madman in the tombs. The next, he’s clothed and hanging at the feet of Jesus and wanting to join the disciples. It’s all just too weird.
There are two temptations to this story that confront us. The one is to take it too lightly. To pass this story off as something of the superstitious and primitive mindset of the people of Jesus’ day who knew nothing of psychology and mental illness and simply attributed everything to the demons. Even Luther sounds out of step with our age when he says, “Though devils all the world should fill.” Do we actually believe that devils fill the world? Luther did. Do we believe that unclean spirits can still inhabit people and drive them to insanity? Or are we content with a more scientific explanation for things? A chemical imbalance in the brain. A bad childhood. A broken psyche. Should we take a pill or seek an exorcist? We laugh (or shudder) at the YouTube exorcisms, the scenes of people rolling in the aisles babbling gibberish. But are we content with the simple cause and effect of our skeptical and material age that simply denies the spiritual realm entirely? Can we completely explain how a man can bring guns into a nightclub full of people and mercilessly gun them down in cold blood? Or the same scenario in a grammar school? Or a movie theater? Or whatever venue comes to mind lately? Can we simply pass these things off as a matter of mental illness, bad religion, and the lack of gun control? Or is there something darker, more sinister lying under the surface?
Our skeptical age is blind to the spiritual and even diminishes if not denies it. And yet the presence of evil is unmistakable, and the influence of the Evil One is hard to ignore, no matter how sophisticated we think we are. Maybe that’s the reason our culture is so fascinated by movies of the exorcism and the demonic. We “know” it’s not real but we’re not as sure as we think we are. And so we push on that fear, just enough to get us to scream at a zombie movie or a good ghost story, so we can remind each other that it was “just a movie” and it “isn’t real.” Those people from the Gerasenes would remind us otherwise.
The other temptation is to take this all too seriously, as though there was a devil hiding under every rock, and every instance of bad and weird is a case of the demonic. That’s giving the devil more than his due. He’s not God. He’s not omnipresent, omnipotent, or omniscient. He can’t create anything. In fact, he can do nothing but lie. Even when he speaks a truth it’s in service of the lie. He is a liar and the father of all lies. And to take him too seriously is to play into his very hand, which is to distract you from Jesus, from His cross, from His Word and sacrament, and drive you to something else, especially yourself.
The Scriptures teach us that the devil and the demonic realm are real. They are the “powers, rulers, and principalities of this present age,” the evil behind all evil, the spiritual forces of chaos and destruction that drive our sordid headlines and the little local evils that aren’t newsworthy. There’s a real spiritual world of evil lurking out there, with all the subtlety of a serpent, all the deceptive piety of an angel of light, all the stalking zeal of a hungry lion. Here we need to trust the Word over our own senses and sensibilities.
The Scriptures remind us that our humanity’s dowfall began with a serpentine seduction, a whispered hiss of a lie that said “you can be like God.” But it doesn’t end there. The Scriptures end with a dragon and the twin beasts of politics and religion under his control demanding allegiance and false worship, persecuting the children of God, torturing the disciples of the Lamb, seeking to destroy the city of God with the arrogance and power of man.
And yet in the middle is the victory and the judgment. Jesus goes to the wilderness, to the place of the demons and the wild things. He goes to be tempted, to confront the Evil One and the power of the Lie for us. He allows Himself to be the target of the whole demonic realm, and He tramples it underfoot like walking on the chaotic waters. He treads on the back of Leviathan, Rahab, and Behemoth. He stares evil in the face and the Lion of Judah roars with heavenly good and glory. He takes the snakebite, the venom of Sin which is the Law that poisons the sinner to death. His heel is bruised by the serpent, but in the end, it’s the serpent’s head that’s crushed. Jesus goes to His death on a cross, a death that takes up sin, death, and hell itself. He dies, and the whole demonic realm shudders in defeat.
That’s what the pigs are all about. Jesus casts the unclean into the unclean. (Pigs were ritually unclean in Israel. Not so today, do don’t worry about the ribs on the Father’s Day BBQ. You’re fine, thanks to Jesus, for whom all food is “kosher.”) He casts the unclean spirit into a herd of unclean pigs and tosses them into the Deep, the Abyss, the Lake, here of water, but in the end, of fire. It’s a picture, a visual parable of what Jesus is up to and the final destiny of the world of unclean spirits.
Remember those words from Luther’s hymn: “He’s judged. The deed is done. One little word can fell him.” In ourselves, we are powerless against the spiritual forces at work in this world. But in Christ, we are empowerd by Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and devil. He’s judged. The lie is exposed. His work is destroyed. One little word out of the mouth of a little one of faith can put him to flight.
So what do we do with the guy plagued by a legion of demons? We know what the text says, we know to what it refers, but how do we apply it to ourselves? I think the best way is to see ourselves in that poor man, isolated, living among the tombs, naked, lost, afraid. That’s Adam in his sin. That’s you and me. Oh, we may not be plagued by demons but we all have ours, in a manner of speaking. We all have that propensity to do evil. We all have Sin that isolates us, that leaves us spiritually naked and ashamed before God, that isolates us from God and from community. We have all, in a sense, lost our right mind. Maybe we’re not pathological or sociopathic, but do we really know where the boundary line is that keeps us on one side and that man with the demons on the other side?
This story draws us to Baptism, to the lake where Jesus drowned our demons, exorcised our evil, washed away our sin. Where He clothed us with His garments, wrapped us in His righteousness, put a right mind and a right spirit within us, made us new creatures in Him. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come.” Yes, we still have to contend with old Adam, with the “old evil foe,” with Sin and Death and even devil. We still have to pray, “deliver us from evil and from the Evil One.” But it really is finished. There may yet be border skirmishes, but the fight is over, the battle is won. Christ has died, has risen, has ascended, and you in Him have done the same. Let a legion of demons assail you! They can harm us none.
What Jesus said to that man in the Gospel, He says to us here today. “Go home. Go and tell everyone how much God has done for you.” Because what He has done for you, He has done for all. And they need to hear about it.
In the name of Jesus,