St Michael’s 28th June 2009
Reading – Mark 5:1-20
I suppose it all started when I was young. I was the kid who never listened in the synagogue when Old Rabbi Solomon was going on and on. I was the one who made smart jokes and rude noises when others were trying to learn their Scriptures. Even from a very early age, people said I was going to be trouble, and how right they were! As soon I could, I skipped Scripture class, and I wasn’t interested in learning a trade either. I wanted fun, I wanted adventure, and I would do anything I could to get it. At first it was harmless stuff, but gradually, it got worse and worse. I started stealing and cheating and lying, and then, when that wasn’t enough, I started hurting other people and doing bad things to them. One day a cheeky chap who wasn’t paying attention in class, the next an angry teenager who was the terror of the village. And the funny thing was, the more wrong things I did, the less control I found I had. I used to get so angry – I don’t know why – and when the red mist came down, I did all kinds of things I’m ashamed of now. But at the time I hardly knew what I was doing. And of course the worse things got, the less and less friends I ended up having. I was thrown out of my parents’ house, thrown out of the village, and everywhere I tried to stay, people saw me coming and closed the shutters. There’s no doubt about it. I was bad news, and no-one wanted anything to do with me.
That’s why in the end, when no-one could handle me any more, I wound up living in the local cemetery, among the tombs. After all, there was no-one there who could tell me what to do, how to behave, when to get up, when to go to bed. I could just do what I pleased day and night, and go for long walks on the hills when the fancy took me. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t happy at all. I was on my own, free to do whatever I wanted. And it was quite literally hell. Sometimes people from the village used to hear me crying and tried to tie me up with chains. But I broke loose every time. I really was that crazy.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re probably thinking you’re glad you’re nothing like this, that you’ve never messed up your life big time in the way I did. But you know, the more I think about it, the more I reckon there’s a little bit of darkness in each and every one of us, things we’ve said maybe, that we shouldn’t have said to others, or times when, perhaps without even knowing it, we’ve hurt other people by things we’ve done, or not done. And that’s not counting the times when we’ve ignored what God has been saying to us, or deliberately gone against His commands.
Of course at that time I didn’t use to think much about God at all. If anyone did try to talk to me about the Lord, I would just laugh at them or beat them up, or sometimes both. Yet, even then, when I was out on the hillside, ranting and raving, there were times – just occasionally – when, maybe, I looked at the stars or saw the sun rise and felt there might just be a God who cared for me and loved me. But then a little voice inside me would tell me I wasn’t good enough, that I had done too many wrong things, that God couldn’t possibly interested in me. Do any of you ever feel like that? Well, I know now that’s a lie, that when God comes calling, there’s nothing to stop you responding. How do I know that? Ah, that’s the next part of the story, and I’ll come to that in a while…
First of all, however, I need to explain one or two things about the local cemetery. It was by a lake, and used to be a popular spot for fishermen to draw up their boats – at least until I turned up on the scene. After all, nobody wanted a crazy man ranting and raving at them as soon as they touched the shore, so soon they tended to go elsewhere. And that suited me just fine. I wanted my own company, and that was exactly what I got. Unless the weather was particularly bad, the boats sailed by to further on round the lake, and I used to watch until they were well out of sight.
But on that particular day there was nothing rough about the weather. True, there had been a major storm the night before, but it had unexpectedly died down, and all now was calm. Indeed, as far as I can remember it was a perfectly ordinary day weather-wise, and already several of the local fishing fleet had passed by to land their catch somewhere else. But there was this one boat which I could see was sailing directly towards the landing point. I kept expecting it to suddenly turn off to the right or the left, but no it just kept going. And of course I was having none of that. This was my patch and visitors were definitely not welcome. So I leapt down from the rocks and ran as fast as I could towards the beach shouting at the top of my head, “Go away, go away” – well. at least that’s the polite version of what I said.
But did anyone take any notice of me? Strangely enough, not a bit. There were a few nervous glances from some of the crew, but the man in charge stepped out of the boat as if nothing in the world could possibly trouble Him. And I guess in a sense that was true. As I drew nearer, foaming at the mouth, swearing and doing goodness knows what, He simply fixed me with His gaze and said, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit”.
And the really weird thing was, part of me already knew who this man was. I began screaming, What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me! And I found myself no longer running, no longer swearing, but down on my knees before this Jesus I suddenly recognised as Lord and Saviour.
Oh yes, I should also have mentioned there was a pig farm next to the cemetery. Well, the local religious people saw both places as unclean so it made sense to have them next door, and I had got used to having pigs running around me. But what happened next I still can’t explain properly even to this day. There was this violent struggle going on inside of me. Part of me wanted Jesus in my life as Lord and Saviour. Part of me wished He would be as far away from me as possible. I was emotionally, spiritually torn in two. The whole of me was shaking and crying. And then suddenly the whole weight was lifted and I was filled with a massive sense of peace and calm. At least until the point when I realised the whole herd from next door’s farm was rushing past me at a rate of knots and rushing headlong into the water. You should have heard the trampling of feet, and the squeals, and the pushing and shoving. It was absolute bedlam. But in the midst of it all, standing above me was this man Jesus, totally at ease with Himself, but filled with such a look of authority I could have no doubt. Here indeed was the Son of the Most High God with all power and might and majesty, who for reasons I could not explain had chosen to come into my life and set me free.
Well, that might have been the end of the story there and then. I guess you’ve heard plenty of other stories of what Jesus did at that time, how He went round miraculously healing people and how they left everything and followed Him. But my story’s rather different. Because even as Jesus gently reach down and picked me off the ground, we could hear the angry shouts and curses off in the distance. No, these weren’t more crazy people, but the swineherds and the villagers who had heard from the swineherds what had happened to the pigs, and who were visibly upset at what had happened. I don’t know what they were planning to do, but they certainly didn’t appreciate having their life disrupted in this way.
And then a funny thing happened. Because as they drew closer, they suddenly realised who it was standing next to Jesus. It was the man formerly known as Legion, the crazy guy they had all grown up with, the one who lived half-naked, ranting and raving in the cemetery. Except here I was, dressed in a cloak someone had thrown my shoulders, at peace and in my right mind. And I half-expected them to throw their arms around me, to welcome me back, and invite Jesus into their homes. But no, they wanted nothing more to do with either Him or me. They were the ones who began to shout, “Go away, go away” and when Jesus just remained standing there they all turned their backs and returned, grumbling and muttering as they went.
Does that surprise you? Well, I’ve since learnt there are plenty of people like that – people who have discovered that Jesus of Galilee isn’t just a good man or wise teacher, but the very Son of God with all power and authority and might, and they’ve decided they don’t want anything more to do with Him. After all, the idea Jesus could change your life, could ask you to give up everything for His sake, well it’s a bit scary, a bit threatening isn’t it? Far better, or they so think, to tell Jesus to go away, to turn their backs on His love and power and goodness. Because we’re happy as we are, thank you very much. Or are we?
As I watched those people go, I thought about many of their life-stories. Some of them, I knew were struggling with all kinds of illnesses and difficulties. Others had problems with their family, or issues in their work. Others were simply wondering if anyone really cared for them and loved them. Yet here they were as a group deciding they wanted nothing to do with Jesus, the one person who could make a real difference to all their situations.
Well, I at least was grateful for Jesus saving me. But what was I supposed to do now? The people I had grown up with had sloped back to the village, angry and resentful at what Jesus had done. And Jesus Himself, it seemed, was getting ready to get back into the boat and head off into the distance once again. So where did that leave me? I begged Jesus to take me with Him, to give me a new existence and a fresh start away from this place where I had stayed all my life. But Jesus said “no”. Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you. Go home? To my parents whom I have lied to and cheated? To my brothers and sisters I have hurt and bullied? To my aunts and uncles I have stolen from? How could I possibly do that?
But at the same time I knew that Jesus was right. Because even if they weren’t going to listen, even if they were still afraid and unwilling to take Jesus into their life, my story was the story they needed to hear. And I knew I had nothing really to be afraid of, because I had this sense the Spirit of Jesus would still be with me, strengthening me, upholding me, giving me the right words to say.
So as Jesus sailed away, back to the place He had come from, I wrapped up my cloak and set off back into town, aware that it was up to me to share the good news. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Some people – in fact, quite a lot of people – say I’m still crazy. But I know there’s nothing greater than sharing the story of what Jesus has done in my life, and seeing what Jesus can do in the lives of others. Because Jesus really does have all the power, all the authority to change lives for good. And who knows? If you haven’t met Him already, you might just find that one day you too will experience His healing touch, and discover that He really does have the power to save….
The apostle Paul was another crazy man, who went round arresting and imprisoning as many Christians as he could find. Until one day the Lord Jesus met with him too. And that was when he discovered that the love of God for him was infinite, unbreakable, and stronger than any other power. See how he reflects on that power of God’s love in Romans 8:28-39, our second reading for today …