A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C. Luke 8:26-39
When I was a small child I went to Safety Town. Did anyone else do that? Is that still a thing? Well, if you don’t know, safety town was a day camp where you learned about safety and what to do in certain situations. I think the thing that had the biggest impact on me was the day we pretended we were in a burning building and had to crawl out on our hands and knees.
Anyway, the point of safety town, of course, is to prepare children for things they might encounter in life.
And I think, similarly, Jesus is preparing his disciples in this story from Luke this morning. It’s not the only thing that’s going on in this passage. In fact, this is so rich I could probably preach five different sermons on it, but I will try to stick to one today.
Now there’s an important part of this gospel that’s easy to miss and it’s the geography. Jesus and his disciples are getting off a boat. That’s because they’ve just crossed the sea of Galilee. They ran into some rough seas on the way, but Jesus calmed that all down and now here they are.
The significance of the geography is that Jesus and the disciples are in Gentile territory for the first time in Luke’s gospel. They’ve just arrived when they encounter this man who has been possessed by demons. Just the fact that there’s a bunch of pigs and swineherds is a clue that they’re in Gentile country because good Jews wouldn’t want to go near a pig.
As the story goes on, we learn how bad things have gotten for this man possessed by demons. He is kept chained up and under guard because these demons have such control over him that he keeps breaking free and running off into the wilderness. When Jesus asks the man his name it is the demons who answer, saying “we are legion.”
Which, I should note, is the name for a Roman military division of about 5,000 soldiers. The name legion tell us that the man is possessed by numerous demons. But it’s not a coincidence that the demonic name is also a part of the Roman military. Here we are once again reminded of the evil present in the unjust, oppressive system of Roman military occupation.
Consider the situation again. This guy is kept locked up and doesn’t even have a name anymore. Completely defined by that which binds him. He is living amongst the tombs. His life is a sort of living death at this point.
And so, after some negotiations, Jesus heals the man. He casts the demons out into the pigs. And this man who was so close to death is returned to life. Not just physical life, he had that before, but Jesus restores him to the fullness of life, a life of meaning and purpose and a return to his community.
The man responds with gratitude and joy. He longs to join Jesus’ band of followers. Instead, though, Jesus sends him back to his hometown, to share the good news of what God has done for him.
The community, however, has a very different reaction. They are, above all, afraid, “seized with great fear.” It’s almost as if they had made their peace with keeping guard over this man. That was at least a situation they knew and could understand. They were comfortable with it. But Jesus has come and upset the status quo. He’s always doing that, have you noticed?
I mentioned that this was Jesus’ first foray into Gentile territory.
It’s as if, Jesus not only tells, but also shows the disciples how it is going to be when they take on this work themselves. Some persons who were nearly dead will find new life, will find joy and forgiveness and purpose. For there’s no such thing as a lost cause in the kingdom of God. Yet others will turn away. They will reject those sent out to proclaim the message. They will be more comfortable with the life they know, however difficult it is, than the potential for the change and hope that comes from the good news of God’s kingdom.
I think most of us contain this story inside ourselves. We all have our wounds, our broken places, parts of our life that are crying out for God’s healing touch. And yet, we can probably relate to these townsfolk as well. We might be afraid of what change and newness will bring. And rightly so. Following Jesus is no easy endeavor.
As Dorothy Sayers once said, “I believe it to be a great mistake to present Christianity as something charming and popular with no offense in it….We cannot blink at the fact that gentle Jesus meek and mild was so stiff in his opinions and so inflammatory in his language that he was thrown out of church, stoned, hunted from place to place, and finally gibbeted as a firebrand and a public danger. Whatever his peace was, it was not the peace of an amiable indifference.”
Jesus takes his disciples on a difficult journey, across the water, to visit with foreigners, who, for the most part are afraid and reject them, quickly sending Jesus and his disciples back across the lake. But we also see the power of Jesus, to heal and restore this nameless man. He makes this journey to show us and to show them, that he has come to seek out and to save the lost, the forgotten, the brokenhearted, the people of God. Jesus comes to proclaim that there is always hope for redemption and love in this world. And so we give thanks and pray:
Let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.