Luke 8:26-39 (NRSV)
Then Jesus and his disciples 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 swine herdsmen 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.
There are some really juicy details that help this story come to life for me. First, remember that this story takes place just after Jesus has calmed the storm on Galilee. So, Jesus’ identity as someone who controls even the weather has just been established. Jesus is ALL – POWERFUL!
And now they’re on the other side of the lake. A.K.A. Gentile territory; Unclean territory. So, Jesus is willing to cross into unfamiliar, unclean territory in order to bring about healing and new life for beloved Children of God in need, whether they’re good Jews or not. This already says a lot about Jesus, and the story has only just begun, right?!
Now, Jesus has barely stepped foot onto dry land when this nasty, naked, demon-possessed man approaches him. We don’t even know his name because when Jesus asks him his name, the demon responds instead, saying, “We are Legion.”
To get the full picture of the situation, you need to know that “Legion” was the name designated for a Roman army battle force of four to six thousand soldiers, so this demon was as powerful over this man as four to six thousand Roman soldiers would be. The poor man stood no chance against them. He was completely controlled by his demons.
But the people in town were used to him and apparently weren’t afraid of the man when he was possessed by demons - they were used to him in the same way we grow accustomed to our neighbors on the streets who ask for money. They knew what to expect from him and how to handle him.
When the demons took over, they chained him up and cast him out to the wilds, where demons allegedly liked to roam in those days. They forced him to live outside of town in the tombs, among the dead – how symbolic, right? Just like we cast out law-breakers into the wilds of jail or prison, away from good townsfolk.
But - when Jesus healed the man with demons, the townspeople were afraid of him. They were afraid of him not when his demons were in control; They were afraid of him when he was in his right mind. Perhaps because they didn’t know what to expect anymore; because Jesus had turned the man’s world and therefore his community’s expectations upside down. Or maybe they just wanted to get rid of Jesus before he ruined their livelihood next… Afterall, some poor family just lost their herd of pigs. Whatever the base of their fear, what stands out is that when the demoniac was changed back into a normal person, the people were afraid!
It must have been devastating for the man’s family to watch his demise. It must have been horrendous to feel they had to kick him out of their home and leave him at the mercy of the city. Then, to watch him be chained up, spat on and tormented by law-abiding citizens. But the family has found a way to deal with it and they’re dealing.
Does this story sound at all familiar? Do you know anyone who was once a life full of possibility and potential, who veered off-track somehow, and is now struggling to find sure footing again? Sadly, I know too many examples of this pattern.
I am from a small town in Mississippi. There’s not much for teenagers to do for fun in small-town-Mississippi. In high school, on the weekends, we would ride around town, go to a field party or a bridge party – yes, that’s where we parked on a bridge down a gravel road, and we partied… And by party, I pretty much mean stand around vehicles, listen to music and drink beer.
And no, not everyone drank beer. And no, not everyone stuck to just beer. There was hard stuff too. And drugs, apparently, though the drugs weren’t nearly as obvious as the alcohol. But with the passing of each semester of school, we would find out about another friend who had been seduced into escaping his own world for that of the drug world. I had no idea at the time how closely we were dancing with demons.
Then I went to Ole Miss. And I watched friend after friend hand themselves over to the ideal of an Ole Miss sorority girl or a fraternity party animal. I was surprised at how quickly my friends learned to play their new roles.
Freshman year alone, I picked up a friend from a fraternity house, drunk, crying and scared after her “friend” convinced her to snort Ritalin; I escorted another to the hospital to have her stomach pumped; I walked alongside another after an unfortunate encounter with a fraternity guy who was supposedly a really smart, nice guy until he became an Ecstasy user and dealer. But these examples pale in comparison to the demons I watched destroying healthy self-image and healthy eating habits of my beautiful friends along the way. I realized that year just how closely we were dancing with demons.
I wish I could say college was the last I have seen of demons, but it’s not. It was apparently just the beginning. As I entered the next phase of life, I began to see demons occupying my friends and destroying marriages, steering good people into the quest for wealth, above all else, pushing them to consume at all costs, and to seek selfish rewards instead of the good of their family and community.
Demons are real. And they come in many forms. They are alive and at work today just like they were two thousand years ago when this story took place. They’re out there, taking captive good people and completely changing their identity from “Beloved Child of God,” the name we were all given at our baptism, and replacing it instead with “Alcoholic” “Drug Addict” “Cheater” “Depressed” and “Crazy.”
You’ve encountered these demons too, right? Or maybe you’ve met the demons that tell you you’re not good enough. You’re too old. Too young. Not good looking enough. Not smart enough. Just plain not enough. These demons are very real, too. And much sneakier than the obvious demons of alcoholism or drug addiction. We are barraged by these identity demons on a daily basis in the form of commercials and advertisements that tell us we NEED more products in order to be happy.
Demons are real. And they come in many forms.
But however they manifest, they have one thing in common. They come in and chain you up and steal your identity as a child of God and replace it instead with the false notion that you are less than a Child of God, worthy of God’s full grace.
And so again today, Jesus comes to us, and just like in the story, Jesus asks, “What is your name?”
And our response? Is beloved Child of God!
You see, the author of Luke is going to great story-telling lengths in this section of the gospel – in chapters 7 and 8 – to show us to just what great lengths Jesus will go to offer restoration; true identity; true grace to EVERY KIND OF PERSON – even people who society thinks unworthy, and to reclaim them as Children of God!
First, he healed the important Roman Centurion’s servant. This one you might expect, right, as the Centurion would have been a prominent figure in their community. But then Jesus heals the widow’s son in Nain, a small, remote town outside of Nazareth. The widow would have likely become a street beggar if her son’s life hadn’t been restored. Jesus is really reaching out to the desperate here.
And then, he’s at Simon’s house having dinner when a “Sinful Woman” comes in and praises him for restoring her life. She pours out expensive perfume on his feet and bathes them with her tears. We don’t know what her sin was, but according to Jewish law – and we were in a Jewish household – she was about as unclean as they come. There would have been NO WAY she would have been allowed in the door, much less at the table, but here she is, and Jesus accepts her and changes her identity from “Sinful woman” to “Forgiven.”
And now the story of the Gerasene Demoniac.
“What is your name?” I can imagine Jesus asking him just before he got back on the boat to go home to the Jewish side of the shore… “Beloved Child of God!” I can hear the now restored man saying.
Friends, this story is about a case of stolen identity – As Christians, our identity comes first and foremost from God. At the moment of our baptism, we are claimed as God’s own child and renamed “Beloved Child of God”.
Part of the good news of the gospel this morning is that God goes to the edges of the earth to unbind the hostage; to reclaim God’s precious people; to set their identity straight– for the unnamed man with a Legion of Demons and for each of us as well. The reality is that we aren’t strong enough to wrestle with demons. But Jesus is. And he has proven that he will travel across the lake into unclean territory to do so.
We are weak, but he is strong.
But that’s not all of the gospel, because our identity isn’t just restored so that we might have a full and happy life. Yes, I believe God wants that for us, but we are also called to witness to what God has done for us – like the man in the story – so that others can come to know this amazing, freeing love of God that even re-shapes our very identity.
As forgiven Beloved Children of God, we have the opportunity – no, if we are Jesus’ disciples, we are commanded by Jesus - to share that love with others as well. Because that’s how the gospel spreads. That’s how grace; how fresh new life begins in our own communities.
And because our world lives under a constant, daily barrage of identity theft, we need to hear this message time and time again. You are enough. You are Beloved. You are a Child of God!
Friends, Demons are real. And they come in many forms.
But so is Jesus. And he's calling your name even now.
In the name of the One who claimed us at birth and is in the business of reclaiming us even now.