St Michael’s 11th June 2017
Readings – Luke 8:26-39; Revelation 1:1-8
I wonder how many of you know the Chronicles of Narnia? Over the years these apparently simple children’s tales have become one of my all-time favourites and, as you may know, at the very centre of these stories is the mysterious figure of Aslan. Aslan is a lion, but not just any lion. He is a brave, kind, good lion, with the power to defeat evil and save all who call on His name. But Aslan is no pet. There is something fierce and rather mysterious about the figure of Aslan. He comes and goes as He pleases. His roar shakes kingdoms and inspires terror. As Mr Beaver says in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, “He’s wild, you know. Not a tame lion”.
Now I was thinking about this quote about Aslan as I came to our gospel reading this morning. You see, I suspect one of our issues with the Bible is that too often we try and turn Jesus into a rather tame and rather comfortable Jesus. We have our favourite passages which rightly we treasure, but the danger can be, we sometimes gloss over the rather more mysterious aspects of who Jesus is.
That is why this morning I want to look at the story of the healing of the man called Legion. Because the more you go into it, the more questions it raises. What was Jesus doing allowing demons to go into a herd of pigs? What about the livelihood of the pig-owners? What happened to the demons when the pigs drowned? There are some deep mysteries in this passage which I cannot fully answer, and it is an unsettling reminder that Jesus is rather greater and more awesome than we so often like to imagine.
Yet we can at least take away three important points from our story this morning:
First of all, there is no place where Jesus is not Lord.
One of the greatest mysteries of the passage is exactly where Jesus travelled to on the other side of Lake Galilee. Some manuscripts say the region of the Gerasenes, others the Gadarenes, others the Gergesenes. All we can say in confidence is that it was a Gentile area beginning with G. And the fact it was a Gentile area is significant. Over on the Judean side of the lake it would have been forbidden to keep pigs. Pigs were judged unclean according to the Law of Moses, and indeed no respectable Jewish person would have come anywhere near a pig.
But there are other ways in which the area was unclean. The area seems to have been a remote, hilly area. It was the place where someone tormented by evil spirits could easily roam. Verse 27 tells us that such a person lived in the tombs that were there – and again if you know the Law of Moses – contact with a dead body also made you unclean. Everything in this passage indicates this was not a place of blessing. Unclean animals, demon-possessed individuals, dead bodies – it’s quite a stark description.
So what on earth was Jesus doing there? Well, this to me is a massive reminder there is no place where Jesus is not Lord. Sometimes when we see a rundown street, or come across a particularly desolate piece of countryside we might use the expression that the whole area is “God-forsaken”. It might appear that way to us, but the central claim of the Christian faith is that Jesus is Lord of all. It may be that no-one there has recognised that fact yet, but Jesus isn’t just Lord of nice neighbourhoods, and picture postcard scenery. He is Lord everywhere.
Secondly, there is no person whom Jesus cannot reach.
We would love to know more about the person called Legion. We are told He was called Legion because many demons had gone into Him. What we do not know is when these demons invaded his life. One line of thought which cannot be proven, but I find suggestive, is that maybe some encounter with Roman soldiers led to his breakdown and so also inspired the name Legion. Whether that is true or not, we simply don’t know. But I do know that living among us there are many, many people who are haunted by the aftermath of past conflicts, whether as a result of what they have done, or what others have done to them.
And such people are incredibly hard to reach. We are told that this person had been bound by chains and kept under guard, but here was more than a case of mental illness. Some demonic power had gotten hold of him, and he kept escaping. He had taken up residence among the tombs, perhaps fascinated by all things to do with death. He had abandoned any attempt to live in society, no longer wearing clothes or living in a house. This was a deeply, deeply disturbed individual.
Yet somehow Jesus found him. As soon as Jesus stepped ashore, this man fell at His feet and the many voices in his head screamed, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Have you come to torture me?” It’s an utterly terrifying encounter, and yet if nothing else it is a reminder that Jesus has the power to change even the most broken and the most challenging individual. Because when the forces of evil encounter that power, they do not need to know who Jesus is. They already know and they cry out in terror.
Now we may wonder why we don’t see more evidence of Jesus’ power today but maybe it is part of Jesus’ providence and mercy that we are shielded from the full force of His awesome majesty. Yet should we have any doubts whether Jesus is still able to defeat evil in this way, the book of Revelation gives us a definite answer that, yes, He is. He is as our first reading puts it: The faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth (Rev 1:5). One day he will come on the clouds and every eye will see him, even those who pierced Him (Rev 1:7) and when He returns, every person will bow the knee, if not fall at His feet, in wonder, worship or indeed utter terror.
And because Jesus is the one who has all the power that means that:
Thirdly, there is no limit to what Jesus can do.
Let’s return now to our gospel reading and consider what happens next. Here is Jesus commanding the demons to come out of the man. They cry out in terror before the Son of God. And according to verse 31 they beg Him repeatedly not to send them into the Abyss. So what happens next? Well, this is where the story gets extremely strange. The demons beg Jesus to enter a nearby herd of pigs, and Jesus gives them permission. The pigs stampede down the hillside into the lake and are promptly drowned. I can only imagine what an awful and terrible scene it must have been, and it raises all those questions I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon, such as: why does Jesus give the demons permission to enter the pigs? Why were such a lot of pigs allowed to drown? How did the pig-owners survive?
I don’t have definitive answers, but my take on the passage is this: what we are dealing with here is not only the healing of a single person, but also the cleansing of an entire area. Wherever this Gentile place beginning with G was located, it had a bad history. There was a legacy of demon-possession, of death, of general uncleanness. You just knew if you went there, something was wrong, even if you couldn’t put your finger on it. So what Jesus is doing here is challenging and indeed defeating whatever spiritual forces are claiming to have authority over this place. That is why Jesus is concerned not only to heal this demon-possessed individual but also to make a public demonstration of His power.
And even if we don’t fully understand the details, I believe Jesus’ actions convey an incredibly important message. You see, if the Kingdom of God means anything, it means far more than just the miraculous transformation of individuals. It means the transformation of communities, of Jesus coming in all His power to bring life, to bring wholeness, to bring hope where previously there was despair. Here through the cleansing of the man called Legion and the overthrow of the demons is a foretaste of what Jesus longs to do in every community, even in our very own – to make it plain that He is king and that He is the one who reigns over all.
But not everyone will necessarily welcome the coming of Jesus in this way. Interestingly, if you read the passage carefully, the local inhabitants were not concerned so much with the loss of the pigs or the threat of unemployment. They were scared out of their wits by seeing the man formerly known as Legion, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind. You might have thought they would have welcomed Jesus dealing with the local neighbourhood menace, but no: they understand all too clearly that if Jesus has this much power, what else might He want to change? And as is often the case with so many people, the last thing people want to do is allow Jesus to change them. Yes, it’s OK for Jesus to change other people, and do miracles in their lives, but touch and transform me? Thank you for the offer. But I’m fine. Honest.
So as we read in verse 37: Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. And because Jesus is such a gracious God, He leaves. Not only because He does not want to force Himself on anybody, but also as a sign of His judgement on such unbelief and hardness of heart. Indeed we hear nothing more of this region anywhere else in the Bible. It simply disappears from the pages of Scripture.
What, then, about the man formerly known as Legion? Quite understandably he wants to go with Jesus. Jesus has healed him and he knows he owes everything to Him. But no, Jesus has a particular task for him: “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” And what is so remarkable about this man is that he does exactly as Jesus says: So the man went away and told all over the town how much Jesus had done for him – presumably the very same town which had only just begged Jesus to leave. I can only imagine how tough the days and the weeks ahead must have been for this individual. He must have encountered so much fear, and hostility, and hatred. But because he recognised Jesus as his Lord and Saviour, he went, he obeyed and he told.
And this is where, finally, the passage speaks to us.
Recently we have as a church taken part in the national campaign called “Thy Kingdom Come. Some of us took a Pop-Up prayer station around various parts of the parish, asking people if they wanted prayer. Why did we go? First and foremost, because we believe Jesus is Lord over Stoke and Devonport and He wants us to bring His transformation and His blessing to our local community.
Now there are many ways in which a church can and should get involved in the local community. We should be involved in acts of love and compassion and mercy, in reaching out to the poor, the needy and the broken with practical acts of generosity. But we must never, ever forget that our primary objective as a church is to declare the Lordship of Christ. That’s why we have gone out prayer walking asking the Lord to show us His vision for our streets and our neighbourhoods. It’s why we have prayed with people in the name of Jesus so they might come to understand the power of that name. It’s why in our hearts we have blessed those who have walked on past or refused to engage with us. For we recognise Jesus isn’t just king in some abstract, global sense. He is king right here, where we live, in the parish of St Michael’s and St Barnabas, here in June 2017.
Yet we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that somehow Thy Kingdom Come has been our mission or our outreach for the year. Yes, it has been a special season of drawing close to the Lord, but we must also recognise that the ongoing task of making Jesus known goes on through our ordinary, daily lives. So just as Jesus commanded the man formerly known as Legion to Return home and tell how much God has done for you so He also commands us to go, to return home and tell what God has done for us.
And it’s so important that like that man Legion we actually do what Jesus asks of us. After the service last week, I had this really interesting conversation with someone in the congregation. They could see the evidence for God the Father. They could understand the evidence for God the Son. But where was the evidence for the Holy Spirit to be found today? The short answer is, or at least ought to be, in our lives as they are transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. Yes, we may or may not have had a dramatic conversion. We may or may not be called to be an upfront evangelist. But if we have encountered Jesus as the Son of the Most High God in any way at all, He calls us to bear witness to that encounter in the way we live our everyday lives.
That doesn’t mean that our witness will necessarily be easy. Next week we’ll be starting our sermon series on Revelation properly, and we will see just how much it may cost us to be called a follower of Jesus. But we carry on because we believe there is no place where Jesus is not Lord; there is no person whom Jesus cannot reach, and there is no limit to what Jesus can do. He is as Revelation 1:5 puts it: the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. And He is the one, who as the next verse puts it, has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father. So let’s go out this morning, telling the story of what Jesus has done for us, so that like this obscure place in Galilee beginning with G, Jesus is seen to reign in Devonport and Stoke in all His power. For His name’s sake. Amen.