I was tempted to start this week’s sermon the way I began my sermon last Sunday. I figured you wouldn’t notice, as I was at Knaphill and this is Walton. The only people who would notice were those who read this on my blog.
I was going to talk about a woman called Nancy Duarte, who is a world authority on how speakers might craft the best visual presentations. She talks about the need to find something in your message that will resonate with your hearers, so that there is empathy between speaker and audience (or congregation).
But for a lot of contemporary Christians, there are difficulties finding that resonance or empathy with today’s Gospel reading. Some get worried by the references to demons. Others are troubled by what happens to the pigs. A few will know there are issues around the reference to ‘the country of the Gerasenes’ (verses 26, 37) and whether it extended to the border of the Sea of Galilee.
Nevertheless, I want to ask you to stay with me as we explore this story. Whatever problems some of you might have with the account, I believe Jesus has much to teach us here about the way we share in his mission in the world today.
In fact, let’s take up that theme at the outset: this passage is first and foremost about mission.
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. (Verse 26)
Then? What has just happened? Jesus and his disciples have just crossed the Sea of Galilee to the ‘other’ side, the Gentile side. They have survived a terrible storm, which threatened their lives, but which didn’t bother Jesus, who commanded it to stop. This is a deliberate journey. It is an utterly intentional act that he leads the disciples away from the safety and familiarity of the Jewish side of Galilee to the Gentile side. Jesus is leading his disciples out of their comfort zone.
And that is something we need him to do with us if we are to be on mission with him. How often do we want to stay in our familiar surroundings? How often do we describe outreach as ‘getting more people to join us’? We would rather it were all done on our territory, on our premises. But Jesus will not let us get away with that. If we just want to get people to join us, we are doing little more than recruiting people to our religious club. We have lost the vision of calling people to make their allegiance to the kingdom of God.
Yes, that will put us in uncomfortable circumstances. I was dwelling on that a few weeks ago when I went to the barber’s. As I waited my turn with one of the two guys in there, a student was having his hair cut by one of them. I heard him speaking disparagingly about a posh but attractive woman he had met at a social gathering. Without a trace of shame, the young man said, “It wasn’t as though I wanted a relationship with her, I only wanted to go to bed with her.” You can add your own stories, and some of you encounter these vastly different values every day. Yes, we can feel nervous when we come across them, because we are aware that our convictions will be laughed at, but it’s no good retreating from the challenge.
Make no mistake, there are forces that will want to prevent us from making our journey to the Gentile shore. The storm that rose threatened to derail Jesus and his disciples would probably have been seen by first century Jews as a demonic manifestation. The sea was a symbol of fear and for a storm to rise up there was more than a meteorological phenomenon. This was opposition to Jesus’ journey.
We face opposition, too. Yes, there are secular groups that want to obliterate all reference to God from the public discourse, not least the National Secular Society, an organisation that refuses to divulge how many members it has, but probably has no more than seven thousand.
But we have opposition within ourselves. We prefer our comforts. We want to avoid the difficult road. But you know what? We’ve tried that, and look around! It’s not working.
Friends, if there were one priority I could set for every church today, it would be to give mission the priority Jesus did, and to stop us running all our lives and our spare time around church activities. Things need to be cut. Certain high priorities at present need to be put far lower down our lists. We need to be in ‘Gentile territory’ with the love of God.
The second thing to notice – and you’ll say I’m just stating the blindingly obvious here – is that Jesus’ mission is about confrontation with evil. But before you ask why on earth the circuit is paying me a stipend to say such things, please notice that the confrontation with evil is more complex than it first appears.
Let’s begin with the problematic issue of the demons. It’s easy to assume, because we feel so superior as modern educated people, that the ‘primitive’ authors of the biblical books were mistakenly attributing what we would call mental illness to demonic activity. However, why do we make that assumption? Is it because we have already decided we are embarrassed by what is often called the ‘supernatural’? Or maybe we do so, because we know of Christians who have been irresponsible in their easy labelling of anything disturbing as being ‘of the devil’, sometimes causing pastoral damage by doing so. This has certainly happened.
But ultimately do we not as Christians have to deal with the fact that Jesus recognised the existence of the demonic? Were we then to say that Jesus only did so because he was a child of his time, then have we not come close to denying that he is Lord? It is one thing to say that Jesus limited himself in his incarnation, but it is quite another to say that he was wrong.
So I conclude that there is a spiritual dimension to evil that needs to be faced – and faced not with fear but with faith. I think it fair to say that the demonic is real but rare. In twenty years of ministry, I can only point with certainty to one case – although there may have been others. Indeed, the late John Wimber, whose famed healing ministry included a deliverance element, said he could count on the fingers of his hands the number of times he had encountered a demon.
However, I said that the confrontation with evil was more complex than first appears. The effect of Jesus’ ministry is not only the expulsion of the demons from the afflicted man. That is one of at least four effects Jesus has in this story. A second is that he has an effect upon the local economy when he allows the demons to enter the herd of pigs. Whatever we make of that action, the local farmers will not have been pleased. Even if we say that to a Jew the pigs were unclean (which isn’t an easy justification, because Jesus declared all foods clean), we are still left with an economic effect of Jesus’ battle with evil.
It isn’t the only time something like this happens in the New Testament. In Acts 16, Paul casts a demon out of a slave girl, and the girl’s owner is enraged that he has lost his income stream. In Ephesus, the craftsmen who make idols for people to worship become angry with Paul and his entourage who promote the worship of a different deity, one who prohibits images. Gospel preaching and deliverance ministry not only have a positive effect on those who are blessed, but a negative effect on those whose economic self-interest is dependent upon sin and exploitation.
As well as the exorcism and the social effect, there is a third effect of the confrontation with evil, and it is a positive one: the man’s relationship with society is healed. No longer does he have to be ostracised as a graveyard-inhabiting madman in chains, the only people he sees being those engaged to guard him (verse 29). Now, instead of being naked he is clothed, and instead of being afflicted he is in his right mind (verse 35). The Gospel heals his relationship with society. It heals social brokenness. Relationships are restored. Ostracism and exclusion are dissolved.
The fourth Gospel effect in Jesus’ confrontation with evil is that the healed man becomes a disciple. No longer is he subject to other powers, he is now free to follow Jesus. And so much so that he wants to leave his home and go on the road with Jesus (verse 38), although Jesus has a different task for him, a missional one among his own people of proclaiming what God has done (verse 39).
This all reminds us, then, that the mission to which we are called will be a fully rounded one. Some Christians talk as if you can pick a preference: the Gospel is about conversion, or it is about supernatural healings, or it is about reconciliation, or it is about social justice. However, there is no ‘or’ about it. The Gospel affects all areas of life, and we need to share it with that in mind. Jesus cannot be limited to a small compartment of our lives: he comes to reign in every area of life. This is the Gospel of the kingdom of God: that God seeks to act as king in every sphere. This is what we proclaim, and this is what we are to live.
Naturally, there are no guarantees here. People are not computers that can be programmed to provide a guaranteed response. Hence, when the townspeople become fearful and ask Jesus to leave them (verses 35, 37). And perhaps the frightening thing for such people is that Jesus honours their terrible request to go away.
But, but, but! If Jesus had not taken the missional initiative and confronted evil, that man would never have found healing and faith. It is because Jesus went away from the familiarity of Jewish Galilee to Gentile Galilee that the man was blessed and became a disciple.
I ask you to draw a contrast between where we are in many churches now and where we might be. Mostly, we wait for people to come to us. We follow Einstein’s definition of insanity: we keep doing the same thing, but we expect a different result. We ought to have got the message by now: doing the same old same old over and over as we do a credible impersonation of a heritage industry rather than a living organism will not get us any other result than the current one of decline and aging.
I hold out to you instead a vision of a church that is prepared to cross the stormy waters from safety to vulnerability. A church that is not interested in self-preservation but in overflowing with the Good News of God’s kingdom in every area of life, expressed in word and deed. A church that in doing so is willing to risk the negative responses of those who will tell her to go away for the sake of those who will drink the message of the kingdom as life-giving water, as the afflicted man in this story did.
Friends, if you compare where we are now with where we could be, which future do you want? The present scenario is sometimes expressed in terms that I find uncomfortable: I hear some of our older members in some churches saying, “As long as this church sees me out, that’s all I care about.” In other words, as long as the congregation doesn’t die before they do, that’s enough. I find that depressing and distressing.
We have a better alternative. Yes, it’s a bit scary, but it’s the way of life. It’s the way of Jesus.
We have two choices before us. I pray we choose the way of life.
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.
The famous words from C S Lewis’ introduction to The Screwtape Letters, and words well worth bearing in mind as we read today’s Lectionary Gospel reading about Jesus and the man infested with a legion of demons. For those who get obsessed with demons, Lewis reminds us not to put them in the limelight; for those who say you can’t believe in them, the story reminds us that if we call Jesus ‘Lord’, then we cannot say he was wrong about this.
Either way, the important factor in considering this story is to see Jesus as the central character. This whole account revolves around Jesus. So I want us to reflect on this famous Gospel story by relating everyone and everything to Jesus.
Firstly, Jesus and the demons. Let’s tackle the most difficult part of the story first, but it is one that tells us a lot about how we may regard evil in the light of Christian faith. What the demons do to the man is characteristic of evil in general. In what ways?
The man is ‘of the city’ yet he lives ‘not … in a house but in the tombs’ (verse 27). At very least, this illustrates the social breakdown caused by evil. Sin and evil break up societies and families. Given that it was highly unusual for adults not to marry (Jesus was quite an exception), there may well be a fractured family as a result of the demonic activity. Think of the similar way in which drug abuse shatters families, and you have a comparison with what has happened here.
He wears ‘no clothes’ (verse 27) – again, he is an outcast from society. Such is the force of evil that his behaviour means he cannot fit in anymore. Moreover,
To stay overnight among tombs is a mark of madness in Jewish tradition.
Furthermore, this evil brought by the demons results in the man having unusual strength, such that normal human constraints cannot contain it:
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. (Verse 29)
Family and social breakdown; madness; and human inability to contain the strength of evil. No wonder this man was isolated. Imagine the fear in the city. The only way to protect people from him was to ensure he kept at a safe distance. It’s rather like the way we cry for dangerous criminals to be locked up for life, or we protest when proposals are made to house mentally ill people in the community. A naked man meets naked fear.
But Jesus is not afraid. Not one bit. Why is he not afraid of the damaging evil caused by the demons? Simple. He knows he carries divine authority. He has the right as Son of God to command the expulsion of evil spirits. Good and evil are not equal and opposite powers. God reigns, evil must ultimately submit.
He also knows that in his hands lie the ultimate defeat of evil in every form. Not that he will do so in the conventional form of aggressive, violent warfare, but rather by suffering and passivity. He will conquer the principalities and powers of evil by his death on the Cross, and by being raised from the dead.
What does this mean for us? It gives us confidence and faith in the presence of wickedness in any form. Even if it does not submit to Christ now, one day it will. We may even be part of conquering it, as we act in the name of Jesus – that is, with his authority. However, he may call us to conquer evil through our own suffering.
Secondly, let us consider Jesus and the man. As I’ve already said, such was the state of this man that ordinary society had ostracised him. So much is he at an arm’s distance that you wonder how he even obtains the basic necessities of life, such as food and drink. Perhaps he scavenges like an animal. Maybe he uses society’s fear of him to terrify people into giving him what he wants, rather like a bank robber with a gun. Either way, his contact with the rest of humanity is minimal. No-one can change him for the better, so people take what steps they can to protect themselves from him. They warn their children not to go near him. The local equivalent of the Daily Mail runs a campaign against him. Every action can be summed up in one word: fear.
But fear and impotence are not in Jesus’ repertoire. Love means he approaches the man and commands the demons to leave, whereas fear has made others retreat and put up barriers. He knows he has what the man needs in order to be healed and restored. He does not need to put the man in permanent quarantine. Rather, when he has exercised his divine authority, the local people come and find the man
sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. (Verse 35)
In the face of powerful evil, Jesus brings healing. The madness is gone. The man is sitting at Jesus’ feet – the posture of a disciple. And we see the discipleship in the man’s desire to ‘be with [Jesus]’ (verse 38), which Jesus redirects into another expression of discipleship:
“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. (Verse 39)
What do we learn from Jesus here? Surely that we have nothing to fear from evil and everything to gain for the kingdom of God if we face evil with the love of God and the authority of Jesus Christ. If we refuse to run away from evil in the way the world does, but instead remember that evil, even demonised people are still people who need the love of God in Christ, then situations and people can be transformed.
I am not suggesting that we all rush to become exorcists – most churches rightly put policies and restrictions around that, because there are too many loose cannons around who fancy themselves as spiritual superheroes and who cause great damage. However, every one of us at some time or another still comes face to face with manifestations of evil in one form or another. Those are the times to believe that Jesus has given us authority to act in his Name, and if we do so from a heart of Christian love, empowered by the Holy Spirit, then healing will come, and even new disciples for Christ.
More than that, when society is troubled by fear and reduced to reactions and policies based on fear, it’s time for Christians to be confident about the power of the Gospel. And by that I don’t just mean the message of forgiveness, I also mean what follows on from that, with changed lives. Jesus Christ is the world’s hope in the face of evil. Let’s not be shy or embarrassed about that.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus and the local people. What Jesus does here should be good news, shouldn’t it? But fearful people are confirmed in their fear, even when faced with the evidence of Jesus’ saving power. When the herdsmen see the man ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’, we read, ‘they were afraid’ (verse 35). When they give an eyewitness account of what they saw happen (verse 36), the local population comes to a consensus:
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. (Verse 37)
All they can see is that Jesus is the culprit in the destruction of their pig herd. His salvation of the man has had a detrimental economic effect upon them. And admittedly we find his willingness to let the demons enter the pigs difficult to understand. All we might guess is that Jesus acknowledges that the time for the final judgement against evil is not yet. But we are not the people suffering economic loss here. So no wonder they don’t want him around.
Yet maybe that is the choice with which Jesus faces them. To accept his ways will sometimes mean we are less well-off financially. Being his disciple involves sacrifice, especially for the well-being of others. You know I won’t have anything to do with the ‘Jesus wants you rich’ brigade, but there is a subtle variation that seduces many Christians. It’s more along the lines of ‘Jesus wants you comfortable’. We have similar lifestyle aspirations to people who have little interest in God and faith. Christianity becomes the ‘redemption and lift’ phenomenon that Wesley and others observed, where converts give up certain habits and practices, and the money saved leads to a higher standard of living – at least, in economic terms.
We know our nation is in for a bout of protracted hardship as we begin to reduce our massive national debt. We shall get a flavour of that this coming week with the Emergency Budget. I wish hardship on nobody, especially on the poorest and most vulnerable. But times of financial deprivation are occasions when Jesus may well ask us how serious we are about following him. Will we do that, even if we feel the pinch? Even if our Christian ethics prohibit some personal economic short-cuts that would alleviate the difficulties for us? Even if strictures for us meant benefits for others?
The thing is, we have incredibly good news in Jesus Christ to celebrate and to share. It gives us confidence of victory over evil. It makes new the most broken in society. But it comes with a challenge and a cost. Because as Jesus makes all things new, he will conflict with vested interests. It is then a gospel matter whether we send him away in fear or embrace him and pay the price.
Which will we do?
 John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p407.
It has famously been said that women can’t read maps and men won’t ask for directions. Which means that if men are from Mars and women are from Venus, we’re all going to have trouble getting home!
Maps and directions: geography. I don’t know whether the word ‘geography’ brings bad memories back to you, in the way that ‘Maths’ or ‘PE’ do to some. I was OK at Geography, and got my O-Level, but I never really shone at it. Sadly, most of what I remember from school Geography lessons consists of the cruel tricks played by pupils on our teacher, who was blind.
On the other hand, Mark [our four-year-old] is already fascinated. He writes his own little books at home, which are full of references to the River Nile, the longest river in the world. I think I just need a sat-nav!
So why am I wittering on about Geography? Because it is important in the Gospels, and it has a particular rôle to play in this story. I’m going to use some geographical features of the reading to structure these thoughts. I think they’ll show this story has a slightly different meaning from the one we often take it to mean.
The Other Side
‘Let us go across to the other side,’ says Jesus (verse 35). Where is the other side? At this point, Jesus and his followers are on the western side of Lake Galilee, among villages where the people are good faithful Jews. ‘The other side’ is very different. You can get an idea if you know where Jesus and the disciples land in the story that immediately follows this one. They encounter the Gerasene demoniac, who lives among people who are pig farmers. Not exactly kosher Jews! Not only is the demoniac unclean, so are the general population. This whole area to the east of Galilee was one where Jewish people generally mixed and compromised their faith with alien influences from Greek culture.
Jesus is saying to his friends, “We can’t just stay among the people like us, those with whom we feel comfortable. We must move into other territory to advance the kingdom of God.”
And Jesus says the same to his twenty-first century friends. We too cannot stay just among the people we are comfortable with, because they are like us. We cannot spend all our time in church activities. If we are the community formed by God’s kingdom, then we have to leave our familiar places and go to our ‘other side’, wherever that may be. Insulation is not guaranteed in the life of faith.
Jesus calls us, then, not to spend every second of our lives on church matters. He calls us to mix with people not like us at all, with the intention of sharing God’s love in word and deed. They may not dress like us. They may have strange haircuts. They may hold beliefs we find dreadful. Their moral and ethical values may be far from ours, perhaps quite contrary. But Jesus died for each and every one of these people. We cannot stay in a church castle, protected by a moat and with the drawbridge up.
For Debbie and me, while we enjoy the company of those we mix with in the children’s primary school community, and while the great majority of the parents care deeply for their children and want only the best for them and others, we are also aware at other times that our values and beliefs are very different. We only know of one other Christian family represented in Rebekah’s class, and to date we know of none in Mark’s. But that’s good: it means we are in a missional context! It means we mix with people who don’t share our values about sexuality, with mothers whose children are all by different fathers. It means having to do with people who are heavily involved with questionable New Age and occult practices.
So while we share some things in common as fellow parents, obviously there are certain things that mark us out as different and leave us decidedly uneasy about the lifestyles of these friends. Yet this is our ‘other side’ at times. It is where God has led us and placed us as ‘the church dispersed’.
I believe each of us needs to know the ‘other side’ to which we are called. If we know our ‘other side’, all well and good. If not, then we need to listen, because Jesus is calling us into the boat with him and taking us somewhere beyond our usual boundaries on mission with him.
Here’s the next geographical feature, the storm on the lake. One commentator says:
The Sea of Galilee, surrounded by high mountains, is like a basin. Sudden violent storms on the sea are well known. Violent winds from the southwest enter the basin from the southern cleft and create a situation in which storm and calm succeed one another rapidly. Since the wind is nearly always stronger in the afternoon than in the morning or evening, fishing was done at night. But when a storm arises in the evening, it is all the more dangerous.
The storm was a natural, unsurprising event, yet a terrifying and life-threatening one. So it is that when we head for our ‘other side’ storms will blow up against us. The other day I was talking to a minister friend in another denomination. He said he had been at his church eight years, and was dedicated to seeing it transformed from a private religious club to a missionary agency. But he said that process was a painful one. Some people just didn’t want to be thrust out of their comfort zones and stirred up opposition.
Similarly, it’s not surprising when the Church moves into the public arena, that atheists and secularists complain, especially if we happen to be moving onto some of their cherished territory. They say that religion should be kept as a private matter. Some even try to use laws against Christians. Some Christians believe we’re seeing signs of that in some legislation in our nation today.
And it’s interesting to see how Jesus responds to the storm when he is woken from his peaceful slumber. Listen to the language of verse 39:
‘He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.’
Does rebuking the wind and telling the sea to be still sound familiar? Jesus is addressing this storm, this natural event, as if it were demonic. Rebukes and commands to be quiet are the language he used when expelling demons.
We should not be surprised if storms whip up in our lives, often consisting of natural but frightening events, when we decide to cross with Jesus to our ‘other side’ and engage in mission. We are joining battle against an enemy when we do so. He will not take it lying down. He will use church people, non-Christians and social events in attempts to discourage and intimidate us. To paraphrase the late John Wimber, our boat is not a cruise liner; it is a battleship. We can expect storms of opposition. But we must not cower in their face.
The storm is a natural event, as I said, but the language Jesus uses to still it (the stilling of such storms also being known as natural events in those days) suggests this natural event has been whipped up by demonic forces opposed to his mission with the disciples to a region of compromised allegiance to God.
Jesus stills such a storm. He commands it to be calm. Jesus acts with the cosmic authority that is his. This is a kingdom of God action. He brings the storm under the reign and purposes of God. The kingdom is at work here, not simply to make the disciples’ lives easier, but so that the kingdom may advance when Jesus and the disciples land on ‘the other side’.
Jesus has himself been calm,
sleeping in the stern upon the pillow that was customarily kept under the coxswain’s seat for those who were not involved in the actual sailing or fishing.
In other words, Jesus commands the storm to be calm as he himself is calm. He brings the storm into line with his own person and character. That is what it means to bring something or someone under the kingdom of God. Jesus brings people and circumstances into his orbit, influence and likeness.
And when you put it like that, you see why his rebuke doesn’t stop with the storm. It extends to the disciples:
He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ (Verse 40)
As the calm Jesus makes the storm calm, so he seeks calm in his disciples. Prior to this incident they have sat as privileged insiders with Jesus. He has told parable after parable, leaving them as enigmatic stories for the crowds, but he has explained them to this inner circle.
Yet they still don’t get it.
‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ they ask in verse 41.
And as Jesus sovereignly deals with the storms that oppose our early sorties into mission, so he commands calm in our lives. For he calls us to understand more of who he is in the face of the forces arrayed against us, and thus trust him.
My problem is I’m all to like those first disciples. In a difficult situation, faith tells me Jesus is in control and reason tells me my worst fears won’t materialise. But my body doesn’t listen. My pulse and blood pressure increase. I end up getting value for money from the National Health Service.
Like those earliest followers, I am on a long journey to the calm Jesus wants me to have. Maybe it’s not enough simply to have accepted intellectually that God is in control of events. I need to feed my mind with that truth. I need to meditate upon it. I need to share with other people of faith.
In short, I need to ensure I am on a journey of increasing faith. Jesus is calling me – and all of us – over to another side where we shall be his witnesses. Getting there will mean negotiating the storms of opposition, and for that we would do well to have the serenity that comes from trusting that Christ is ruling over all that happens, whether good or bad.
One of the early Christian symbols for the Church was a boat. You can see ancient drawings where the Church is represented as a boat. That idea is taken from this passage. When the Early Church set out on her task of Christian witness, she frequently encountered the storms of persecution for her faith. But they knew Jesus was asleep in the stern with them, and all would be under his sovereign care.
And perhaps you see now why I said at the beginning that we might end up with a slightly different application of this story from normal. We have often taken this story as an example of how Jesus will calm all sorts of storms in our lives, and I don’t want to deny he does that. Yet the primary application in the passage seems to be connected with mission. Jesus has a specific interest in conquering the fierce opposition to his church’s engagement with mission, and in calming his followers through a growing faith.
Knowing that, are we ready to venture across to our ‘other side’?
 William L Lane, The Gospel Of Mark, p 175.
 Ibid., p 175f.