Jesus arrived by boat in the region of the Gerasenes, opposite Galilee. It was country. The goyim, the uncircumcized. Outsiders to Israel. He came to seek and to save the lost, even the lost outside the house Israel. Waiting on the shore to meet Him was homeless and naked man possessed by a “legion” of demons, living among the dead in the catacombs. The local authorities had seized him and bound him in shackles and chains, but he always managed to escape and flee back to the wilderness.
The demons feared Jesus. They knew who He was – the Son of the Most High God. They had a bead on Him. They knew why He had come – to cast them into the abyss, Gehenna, the eternal of fire, the place of eternal imprisonment for disobedient spirits. Spirit cannot be saved because they cannot die and rise. All they can do is bargain, lie, and try to cut a deal. They ask to be cast into a herd of pigs instead of the abyss. Jesus obliges. He allows them to take possession of a herd of pigs, which promptly throw themselves off a cliff into the sea. It was a picture of the ultimate judgment, a little visual of what was yet to come for these spirits when they would be cast into the Lake of Fire. The Garasene pig farmers just lost a herd of pigs. Pork belly futures skyrocketed, the price of bacon shot through the roof. And the homeless man who live naked among the dead was once again in his right mind, clothed among the living.
It’s a weird and disturbing story, the stuff of horror movies and Steven King novels. Little wonder the locals asked Jesus to leave. That’s more than enough melodrama for a lifetime. “Please go back to Galilee, Jesus. We don’t need that kind of thing here. It’s bad for our economy and for tourism. Leave us alone. Please.”
One can only imagine this man’s tortured life of madness and isolation. The Scriptures never explain how people come to be possessed by unclean spirits. They just are. It doesn’t seem to be their fault or anyone’s fault. It’s more like catching a spiritual virus. 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 – a pawn; a victim. One minute he’s naked and isolated, a raving homeless madman in the catacombs. The next, he’s clothed and sitting at the feet of Jesus, wanting to join the band of disciples.
There are two temptations that confront us in the Gospel. The one is to take the story too lightly, to pass this story off as something of the superstitious and primitive imaginations of the people of Jesus’ day who knew nothing of psychology and mental illness and simply attributed everything to the demons, powers, principalities, rulers of the darkness and the air. Even our own Luther, a learned man of the Renaissance, sounds a bit strange to our ears 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 take hold of people and drive them to insanity? Or are we content with a more scientific explanation for things? A chemical imbalance in the brain, bad childhood, a broken psyche. Should we take a pill or seek out 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 mindset of our skeptical and material age that denies the spiritual realm entirely? Can we completely explain how a man can walk into his place of work and gun down his coworkers? Or a troubled teenager at his school? Or a move theater? Can we simply pass these things off as mental illness, toxic masculinity, and the lack of adequate gun control? Or is there something darker, more sinister lying under the surface of our headlines?
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 horror movies. We know it’s not real but we’re not as sure of that as we think we are. And so we push on that fear button just enough to get us to scream at a Zombie movie, so we can remind each other that it was “just a movie” and it “isn’t real.” A kind of desensitization to the demonic. The residents of the Gerasenes across the sea of Galilee would beg to differ with us.
The other temptation is to take this too seriously, as though the devil really is hiding under every rock, and every instance of bad and weird is a case of the demonic. That’s giving the devil more than the due he deserves. He’s not God. He’s not omnipresent, omnipotent, or omniscent. He can’t create anything. In fact, he can’t do nothing but lie and use good against God for evil ends. Even when he speaks a truth, it’s in service of the lie. He is a liar and the father of all lies, a murderer who wants to steal life from the Lord of the living and rob us of eternal life and drag us into the Abyss along him.
To take him too seriously is to play into his hand, which is to distract you from Jesus, from His cross, from His Word and sacrament, and drive you to something else, some other ground of confidence than Jesus crucified and risen. That’s why Luther in his struggles with demons would mock the devil, throw ink bottles at him, and even pass gas in his general direction. To take him too seriously is just as bad as taking him too lightly.
The Scriptures teach us that the devil and the demonic realm are quite real. We should trust what God has revealed to us. These are the “powers, rulers, and principalities of this present age,” the evil forces behind the evil we see at work in the world, the spiritual forces of chaos and destruction that drive our sordid headlines, our pride in perversion, our consumptive greed and gluttony, and all the little local evils that aren’t necessarily newsworthy. There’s a real spiritual world of evil, with all the subtlety of a serpent, all the deceptive glory of an angel of light, all the stalking zeal of a hungry lion. Here we need to trust the Word beyond our own sense and sensibility.
The Scriptures remind us that our humanity’s dowfall began with a serpant’s hissing seduction, a whispered, lisping lie that said you can be like God by disobeying God, by taking matters into your own hands and being the masters of your own destiny. The Bible begins with a serpent in a garden, but it ends with a dragon and the twin beasts of Political and Religious power 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. The early Christians saw it in Rome and Ephesus. We see it today in government and religion as they turn against Christ and His followers. Yet we tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us.
That demonized homeless man is Adam, naked and afraid, cast out from his garden home to wander the wilderness among the dead, held captive the forces of darkness. He is humanity in its darkness and delusions. Jesus goes out into that wilderness, to the place of the demons and the wild things. He crosses the sea of His Baptism to enter our wilderness, to confront our legion of demons, to be tempted as we are tempted. He allows Himself to be the target of the whole demonic realm and tramples it underfoot just as we walked on the chaotic, churning waves.
He treads on the back of those ancient sea monsters Leviathan, Rahab, and Behemoth. The Lion of Judah stares evil in the face and roars with heavenly goodness and glory. He plants His foot on the head of the ancient serpent and allows His heel to be bitten, absorbing the toxic venom of Sin and the Law that drive the sinner to death. His heel is bruised by the serpent, but in the end, it’s the serpent’s head that crushed under the weight of His goodness and mercy and life. Jesus goes to His death on a cross, a death that takes up Sin and Death and casts it along with the devil’s legions, into the Abyss. He descends to the dead to raise the banner of His victory, and the whole demonic realm shudders in defeat.
That’s what the incident with the Garasene pigs is all about. Jesus casts the unclean into the unclean. He casts the unclean spirit into a herd of unclean pigs and tosses them into the Deep, the Abyss. It’s a picture, a visual parable, of what Jesus is doing in His mission to die and rise to save the world.
“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. We can’t even get a bead on them because we can’t see them. We can only treat the symptoms with drugs and straightjackets. Only Christ can fight this fight for us. He’s judged. The deed is done. The lie is exposed. His work is destroyed. One little word of truth out of the mouth of a little one of faith can blow him over.
You and I are that poor man too. Oh, we may not be plagued by demons to the extent he was, 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 afraid before God, that isolates us from God and from community. We all have lost our right mind. Maybe we’re not pathological or sociopathic, but do we really know where that boundary line is that keeps us on this side and that man with the demons on the other side?
The Gospel draws us back to Baptism, to that salvation Sea where Jesus drowns our demons, exorcises our evil, washes away our sin, where He clothes us with His seamless garment, wraps us in His righteousness, puts a right mind and a right spirit within us, makes 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, Death, and even devil, and with the world that adores them and takes pride in its own degradation. We still have to pray, “deliver us from evil and from the Evil One.” But the word of the cross reminds us “it is finished” and indeed it is. Finished. The fight is over, the war is won. Light has dawned. Peace as broken out. Christ has died, has risen, has ascended, and you in Him have done the same. Let a legion of demons assail us! 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.” The man wants to go with Jesus and be His disciple. He wants to go back to Galilee and live as a Gentile among the Jews and be with His Savior. But Jesus has other plans for him. “No, you stay here. Stay with your people. Live with the people who saw you naked, insane, demonized. Live with those people who hid their children from you, who told stories of your insanity behind your back, who called the police on you and had you bound in chains for your own safety. Live with those pig farmers who lost their herd of pigs. Live with them as their neighbor now clothed in and his right mind. Go home to your family and your community and tell them how much God has done for you. They don’t want me around, but they have you. And where you are, there I am too.”
That’s what you do when Jesus rescues you from the darkness of your demons. You return home in right mind and spirit, and you declare the praises of Him who brought you out of darkness into His marvelous light.
Go. Tell everyone what God has done for you.