The Gerasene Demoniac


A sermon preached on June 13th, 2010 based upon Luke 8:26 – 29

Two distinctly contrasting figures are presented in this powerfully evocative little story;  one full of death, the other  of life.

On the one hand, there is this tortured soul, the “Gerasene demoniac,” who identifies himself by the name “Legion”, because he is pushed and pulled in thousands of different directions, at war with himself by all the demons holding him bondage.   He is torn apart by a violence within that could easily become a violence without, and so he is excluded from the company of others, living alone in the graveyard.

In extreme contrast, the story presents us with a second figure sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus, at peace in his right mind — nowhere he’d rather be — centered, free.    Although he has nothing to his name, he is absolutely content.

It is striking that although the two figures are polar opposites, they come from the life story of one man.    It is possible to think of our lives as being lived out on a continuum between the extremes represented by these two figures; the man at peace — the man at war within himself.  

If we are honest with our selves, we know there have been moments — frightening moments looking back — when our experience was not so different from the Gerasene demoniac, when we were churned up inside by a toxic combination of fear and anger and despair, taking us far from “our right mind” —  not the person we know ourselves to be.  There have been times when we felt terribly alone, unfit for human contact — times when, looking back the concept of “possession” made sense, because we were “possessed” by a desire for vengeance, or a lust, or a fear that at that moment held us in its grip, making us capable of doing things that afterwards we would deeply regret.  

If we remember such times, in all likelihood we will feel some empathy for others in the throes of such possession, thinking to ourselves, “there but for the grace of God, go I.”

 Hopefully though we can also remember other times — perhaps sitting in church provides a setting for such an experience — when we felt content, free, at peace, with an awareness that our contentment had little to do with things such as the state of our bank account.  At such moments we were able to see our life from a whole different angle – one that allowed us to be at peace.  We felt focused, centered; knowing who we were, what values we cherished.  Of such times we might describe ourselves as having been in possession of ourselves, or as Jesus put it elsewhere, having lost ourselves, and yet found ourselves.  

 If we think of life as a continuum between these two states of mind, we further recognize that most of us spend the vast majority of our time somewhere in between.   Not so distraught that we could do serious violence to ourselves or others, but neither truly at peace, in possession of ourselves.  And further, we recognize that there is something in this world that drives people towards the possession-end of the spectrum.
If we belong to Jesus we will seek to embody a peaceful presence rather than an anxious, violent presence in the storms of this world.  If we are following Jesus, our being will witness to serenity and calm to the Gerasene demoniacs of this world.

Our inner state impacts others around us.   When we are inwardly agitated, regardless of the words we speak or the actions we take, we will be an agitation to others.   In contrast, when our inner being is at peace, our bearing will have a positive impact on others, even if we are at the moment doing nothing. 

 In order to come into our right mind, we first need to acknowledge our inner demons.   Demons are those forces that take possession of our lives, leading us to forget who we are and whose we are.  If we are walking with Jesus, we will be motivated by love rather than by fear.  One way to uncover our demons is to contemplate the question, “What am I afraid of?”  Oftentimes, if we look beneath anger and violence, what we find is fear.   

 Commonly, our fears cluster around certain themes.  We worry about our health, and the possibility that we might get sick and die.  Asking the holy spirit to be present, it is good to remind ourselves that whether we live or if we die, we are in the Lord’s hands.  We are motivated to get healthy because of our love of life rather than our fear of death.  

We fear for the safety of our loved ones.  For those of us who are parents, it is easy to be driven to distraction by our fears of the dangers with which the world threatens our children.   Again, we need to remind ourselves of the truth we proclaimed when our children were baptized:  that whether they live, or if they die, they are in the Lord’s hands.  It isn’t easy to let go of these fears, of course, but it is possible to begin moving from parenting out of fear to parenting out of love, empowering our children to live the abundant lives God intends for them.

Another place where our fears cluster is around money. Am I going to be able to pay my bills?   Will I be able to keep my job, my home?    It is striking in our Gospel story the hold money can have on people.   One commentator I read this week pointed out that on one level the story is a parable of what was taking place in Jesus’ day, with the possessed man representing the nation Israel.   The possessed man gives his name as being “Legion”, referencing a Roman army of six thousand soldiers. Israel has been rendered unclean by the presence of the Roman soldiers.   How do they respond?  They can fight with violence against the domination of the Romans, but this only ends up pulling their chains tighter, and leads to hatred possessing their souls.  They can accommodate the Romans, but in doing so they lose their identity as God’s people.   

A peculiar and troubling aspect of the story is the fate of the herd of two thousand pigs into whom Jesus casts the man’s demons, leading them to jump off a cliff to their destruction.   Most of us find the fact of their death disturbing.  On the symbolic level of the story, one must ask, why is there such a large pig business in the region at all?  The Jews, as we know, did not eat pigs, because the law declared them unclean.  The reason for raising pigs is to make money by selling it to the Romans to provide the protein by which their recruits could enforce the will of Caesar.   The pig farms are profiting off the Romans, in a similar way to how the religious authorities profited off the poor in their conspiracy with the Romans.  

With the death of the pigs the swine herders run to tell the townspeople, who in term hurry out to where Jesus is.  They find the man who had previously suffered such terrible bondage, clothed, and in his right mind, sitting peacefully at the feet of Jesus.  

The blessing of the man’s liberation from his demonic suffering doesn’t seem to matter to the townspeople.  All they care about is the fact that their money is threatened.  The beg Jesus to leave the region, lest he bring about further loss of profits.  

It is remarkable that the man sitting at Jesus’ feet is content, free from fear, despite the fact that he owns nothing in this world except, apparently, the cloak with which Jesus has just clothed him.  In marked contrast, the townspeople with homes and presumably other financial resources are full of fear.  
Money takes possession of our souls.  Jesus pointed to this fact when he said that we can’t love God and money, we will end up loving one and hating the other.  The whole tragedy of what is happening in the gulf coast with the oil spill speaks to the hold money has on us as a society.   Our dependency on oil and the creature comforts we have become accustomed to consumes us in such a way that we overlook the threat to God’s creation posed by the oil rigs and our gas guzzling cars.

In the end, the story expresses hope for demon possessed people everywhere.   When we yield our center to God, we return to our right mind.   Underneath the story is an understanding of the nature of freedom.   We tend to think of freedom as consisting merely in freedom from some sort of bondage.   But we were designed by God to be free for something.   Serenity is found when we are free for God.   Without our spiritual center, something else will take possession of our souls.  

At the end of the story, the newly freed man seems to grasp this issue.   He has experienced freedom from the inner conflict that has been tearing him apart, and he rightfully understands Jesus as the source of this freedom.  A new fear arises; if I don’t have Jesus with me, will I fall back into the same chaos I knew before?    He asks Jesus to let him go with him, but Jesus instead instructs him to stay in his homeland and share with people all that the Lord has done for him.   He realizes he needs to be for Jesus in order to maintain his serenity, but he doesn’t yet realize that he can be for Jesus and his kingdom without being physically in his presence.  This is good news for all of us, since the option of being physically present to Jesus doesn’t exist for us.   We can, however, be for Jesus in the contexts that we already find ourselves.

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