Saturday, June 18, 2016

Get Out of Town, Please!

Luke 8:26-39
Ordinary 12
June 19, 2016
William G. Carter

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 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. And they were afraid.Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; 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.

This is one of the wildest moments in the Bible.

Jesus gets out of the boat, steps out on the land of Gentiles. For a first century Jew, that’s unclean land. A wild man confronts him, yelling at the top of his lungs and not wearing any clothes. Luke says he is overwhelmed by an unclean spirit. Not only that, the loud, naked, wild man lives in a cemetery. For a Jew, that’s unclean soil. To summarize the scene, Jesus goes to an unclean land, meets a man with an unclean spirit who lives in an unclean place.

And what does he do? He throws the unclean spirit out of the man and into a large herd of unclean pigs, and the pigs dash down the hill, plunge into the water, and destroy themselves.

It’s a wild story, and it’s always been one of my favorites. I have stood on the spot where it happened. My dad and I were on a tour. Because Jesus touched down on Gentile land and healed a man that all the Jews could see was a Gentile (he was naked, after all), it was a sign of the days when all Gentiles would be invited into the word and work of Christ.

Dad and I stood among the ruins of an old Christian church, built there 500 years after the event. The building has been an affirmation that Jesus is stronger than the forces of destruction. It stood there for a hundred years, until the Persian army came along and tore it down. Dad and I wondered out loud what kind of demons had gotten into them.

There is so much destruction. A large herd of pigs is lost. Perhaps it was not much of a loss for the twelve disciples, all of them Jewish, who had nothing to do with unclean pigs. But that herd was the livelihood for the herders who raised them. Now those herders had nothing. All their money was wrapped up in that herd, and it’s gone.

Jesus didn’t have to destroy the herd. He could have ignored the demons’ request and sent them back down to the bottomless pit of hell where they belonged. “Don’t send us back to the abyss,” they howled. He didn’t have to honor what they wanted. These are the evil forces, after all. They got into that poor man and drove him off the edge of sanity.

When this story is told over in the Gospel of Mark, there is a description of how the man had become self-abusive. “He hit himself with stones and howled all night” (Mark 5:5). It terrified the neighbors.

When this story is told over in the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew says, it was “two men,” not one (Matthew 8:28). Well, it might as well have been. Clearly this tortured man was beside himself. Can you hear it? “Beside himself” – that’s the ancient way of describing illnesses like schizophrenia. A person is torn in two.

As Luke tells the story, he says the people in town did what they could. They would sneak up behind him and wrap him with chains, but he was so wild he would break the chains. They would catch him again and keep him under armed guard, but he broke loose and ran away. It scared all the townspeople and they let him lurk around the cemetery. The first-century diagnosis was “he had a demon.”  When the man speaks, he says the Roman Legion had gotten into his head, infected his spirit, and damaged his life.

Call it what you will, but Jesus is stronger. With his words alone, he sends the toxic energy out of him. That is his ministry: he speaks on behalf of God and makes people well. It doesn’t matter that this man is considered “unclean” by the ancient religion, for he is still worthy of well-being. It doesn’t matter that the man lives in a foreign land or hides behind the tombstones, for the Lord wishes him to have the fullness of life.

And as far as those pigs? I can’t say for sure, but let me say it this way. Sometimes there is a great cost involved in getting well. If you’ve had significant surgery, have you seen how expensive it is? Or do you know what thirty days of drug and alcohol treatment can cost? Or if the family has been to spend a lot of time with a therapist, there are major demands on all your emotional resources just to get to the other side. It can take time, money, and a lot of emotional capital to change and to begin feeling healthy again. That’s what I think about those pigs.

We see it in the great stories of good versus evil. There is always some cost for good to win. Harry Potter takes on Voldemort. They cast lightning at one another as the castle crumbles around them. I recently watched the latest installment of Star Wars for the second time. In the climactic battle scene at the end, the good person is dueling with the evil person. Their light sabers cut down a lot of trees, and then the planet blows up. Call it “the high cost of health care.”

But at the end of the story, even when the man is healed, even when he is freshly clothed, in his right mind, and sitting with Jesus, there is a sad and pathetic message from the people of the town. They come to Jesus, they see the wild man now settled, they hear the story of what has happened – and they ask Jesus to get out of town. “Please leave,” they say with a single voice.

It’s really sad. They had come to tolerate a wild man out there, scaring every new group of mourners who went to bury their dead. But now they are really unsettled when that same man is healed and restored.

It’s worth reflecting on this. Why did they want Jesus to go away?

Certainly there was the money lost by the pig farmers. They faced a huge economic loss, to say nothing of a good portion of the food supply for that Gentile town. If Jesus is going to stick around and heal somebody else, what’s he going to destroy next? And considering that the herd of swine was very, very large – in one account, there were two thousand pigs[1] - we can guess those farmers were probably pretty well off. That suggests they had some influence in that region. “Jesus, get out of town. You’re not good for business!”

This comes up in other places. In the book of Acts, some of the first Christian missionaries were making a difference. They were preaching Jesus as the love of God and the life of the world, and people started to listen and believe. The Gospel was especially effective in the enormous city of Ephesus. Paul preached about Jesus for two years and many people came to faith. It so effective that they burned up their books of magic spells and incantations. There was a movement of people believing in Jesus (Acts 19).

Problem is, Ephesus was also a tourist town. They had the temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the world. It was surrounded by gift shops that were run by silversmiths, and all of them started losing money because of the Gospel! People started believing in Jesus, and they didn’t need the magic books, the pagan temple, and the silver knick-knacks any more. So what did the silver smiths do? They stirred up a riot against the Christian preachers. Whenever the Gospel confronts idolatry, it shakes up the local economy.

Remember that big herd of pigs? They cost a lot of money! We can’t have any more healings like that. It would hurt us in the pocketbook. Certainly that was part of the conversation.

At the heart of the response, Luke says there was fear. Great fear, or in the Greek phrase, “mega phobia.” The people were afraid. They may have been scared of the wild man, or more specifically, scared of the illness inside of him. But now they are downright terrified of the power of Jesus to make the man well. They want him to leave, because God has come way too close.

When Jesus first meets the wild man, remember what the illness that inhabits has to say? “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” See, the illness wants to call all the shots, because the illness knows that the Son of the Most High God is stronger, holier, healthier, and kinder than the parasitic hold that it has on its host. The illness calls it “torment,” but for Jesus it is healing and restoration. Christ comes to make people well.

Does he ask permission before he starts to heal? Not in this case. He simply goes to work, for the work of the God of Life is to give abundant life to those who are infected, inflicted, and shackled by something they cannot control. True healing is disruptive. The sick man cannot howl and whine any more. He will have to put on some clothes. He will have to grow up, give up his status as the wild man, and move away from the tombs and back among the “normal” people.

Meanwhile the so-called “normal” people aren’t so sure that they want him healthy and back among them. It might make them look not so normal. One thing’s for sure, they sure don’t want Jesus the Healer to stick around any longer. Get out of town, please.

We read the Bible, but it is the Bible that reads us. We read how Jesus comes to heal and restore in every corner of our lives – today, it’s a healing most likely of a man with a troubled mind and emotions. Christ comes to heal. We read that. But what the Bible reads in us is the stronger aversion to the only One who can heal us and what we would have to change to get well.

If the world really wanted to be healthy, it would have made that decision long ago. Somebody would have gotten rid of potato chips, cigarettes, and other addictive substances. All those things would be sent back into the abyss. And every week or two, we hear about some tormented soul that shoots up a building full of innocent people with a weapon that should only be in the hands of the military. We lock our doors, pray for mercy, and murmur, “I’m thankful it didn’t happen here.”

You know, we really don’t have to live like that. We don’t have to be fearful, held captive, immobilized by a “mega phobia.” We could live with freedom. We could live with grace. We could make decisions every day that create life, that enhance life, that declare that Jesus is more important than pigs, or money, or beating ourselves with stones, or living among the tombstones. We don’t have to push him away or ask him to get out of our town. We could say, “Lord, stay among us, and make the rest of us well one at a time.” Because that is what he wishes to do. It is the will of God to make us well.

That day in the land of the Gerasenes, it was the townspeople’s fear that pushed Jesus back into the boat and back across the sea. But that’s not the end of the story.

Did you hear what he did?  The man who was healed wanted to get in the boat and go with him, but Jesus said, “No, stay here. Tell these people what God has done for you.” Tell them about the change in your health, about the change in your perspective. Stay right in the middle of them. Go right into the center of the community. Tell everybody you meet that it is God’s great desire that we live by health, freedom, and faith.

You know why he did that? Because the one thing they will not be able to dispute is the presence of someone who has come back from the tombs, and lives to tell about it.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Mark 5:13

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