Sunday, June 23, 2013

Power Over Evil: Jesus Brings Freedom!

[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Luke 8:26-39
Someone has said that in our Gospel lesson for today, with its account of Jesus casting a legion of demons into a herd of pigs, we have the first recorded instance of deviled ham.*

Corny joke aside, this is an important text for us to explore. So, let’s do so right now. Please pull out a pew Bible and turn to Luke 8:26-39.

The incident that comprises today’s lesson is the middle one of three in which Jesus demonstrates that He is more than just a good man or a great teacher.

In Luke 8:22-25, just before our lesson, Jesus imposes His power on a raging sea to bring calm to it.

In Luke 8:40-56, Jesus gives life to a little girl who has died and healing to a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, demonstrating Jesus’ power over death and disease.

These are signs that Jesus has the same power as God and is God. As He says in John’s Gospel, “I and the Father are one.”

In the middle of those passages comes today’s lesson.

Verse 26 says: “Then they [Jesus and the disciples] sailed to the country of the Gadarenes, which is opposite Galilee.”

There’s some dispute among Bible scholars over exactly where Jesus and the disciples landed here. But there’s no dispute over two things.

First, they sailed to this place after Jesus calmed a raging sea, prompting the disciples to ask, “Who can this be? For He commands even the winds and water, and they obey Him?” The answer might have been clear to the disciples even as they asked this question.

There's a reason I say that. Turn to Genesis 1:1-2, please. The start of the first of two creation accounts given at the opening of Genesis says: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” God then imposed peace and order on the waters of chaos, just as Jesus did that during that storm on the Sea of Galilee. Life, the whole universe, came into being when God calmed the waters in Genesis.

So, as their boat lands on the shores of the Gadarenes, it’s beginning to dawn on the disciples that their rabbi is God in the flesh

The second thing about which there’s no dispute among students of the New Testament is that, wherever the “country of the Gadarenes” was, it was Gentile territory, populated mostly by non-Jews. That’s important later in the text.

Verses 27 to 29 say: “And when [Jesus] stepped out on the land, there met Him a certain man from the city who had demons for a long time. And he wore no clothes, nor did he live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out, fell down before Him, and with a loud voice said, ‘What have I to do with you, 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 it had often seized him, and he was kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles; and he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the wilderness.”

Sin, you know, is a condition of isolation from God and isolation from others. It’s a turning in on oneself that leads to hopelessness.

When Adam and Eve fell into sin, they first tried to isolate themselves from God and then isolated themselves from each other by blaming one another for turning away from God and away from God’s will.

This man in the Gadarene tombs was in the grips of evil so badly that, even though he had a home and a family in the city, the demon that had control of him drove him to live in the tombs, among the silent dead, isolated. That’s what sin and evil can cause to happen in people’s lives. Their personalities are infected by a rage from hell itself.

One of the few times I have ever feared for my life came when I was in the presence of a person who had been subjected to physical and sexual abuse as a child and suffered from multiple addictions. In his adult years, his entire family became dependent on him in ways that were entirely unfair. In time, the hopelessness of his circumstances, along with having no real understanding of or relationship with Jesus Christ, had given an opening to the demonic in his life.

Once, at about 2:00 in the morning, I was called to the hospital ER where this man had been taken after sharing very specific suicidal fantasies with family and friends. Six of us were with him when the attending physician announced that would have to be kept overnight for observation. This man was slight of build and I was younger than I am today. Under ordinary circumstances, I'm sure that I could have taken him. But when the raging evil inside this basically sensitive man was detonated by that doctor's announcement, I was uncertain whether all six of us could subdue him. When he was in a rage, he was terrifying, not human!

Sin is isolating and when a spiritually defenseless person--a person who doesn't trust in Jesus Christ--allows it take root in their lives, it fills them with a life-negating, love-denying rage.

The demon (we’ll soon find out demons) in the man Jesus encounters on the shores of Galilee immediately recognizes his enemy: The One Who had gone toe to toe and defeated Satan in the wilderness,  Jesus. The demon calls Jesus “Son of the Most High God,” meaning the very embodiment of God, God in human flesh.

Now look at verse 30, please. “Jesus asked him, saying, ‘What is your name?’” The demon says its name is Legion, “because many demons had entered him.” Legion, of course, was the name for a unit of the Roman army consisting of 6000 soldiers.

This name not only tells us that this  possessed man was shackled by an army of evil, but also that human beings are the spoils of war that Satan tries to steal from God.

You see, Satan knows how much God loves us. (If Satan ever wondered how desperately God loves us, this doubts were eternally erased by the cross on which God the Son was sacrificed for our sins and by the empty tomb through which He opens eternity to all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus as their only Savior and Lord!) So, the devil wants to take us from God. He knows how much it hurts God when human beings walk away from Him and His will for our lives. But Jesus has come into this world so that all who believe in Him are out of the reach of Satan. As Jesus says of those who believe in Him in John 10:28: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” 

When they saw Jesus, the demons begged Jesus not to send them back to the abyss, the place of eternal death. Look at verse 32: “Now a herd of many swine was feeding there on the mountain. So [the demons] begged [Jesus] that He would permit them to enter [the swine].”

You know pigs aren’t kosher. Jews considered pigs to be unclean. Jesus is here clearly among Gentiles.

But even in this wilderness, Jesus has as much control over evil as He had when He confronted Satan’s temptations in the wilderness of Judea.

And even Gentiles, like you and me, can receive His grace and know God. Jesus permitted the demons to enter the swine herd and then, verse 33 says, the herd stampeded to their deaths in the sea below. The swineherds saw what happened and ran into town to tell others.

It’s probably not reading too much into the text to guess that they were mad. They (or the people they may have worked for) had money invested in these pigs. Now they were all dead.

Soon, the folks from town show up. Verse 35 says, they “found the man from whom the demons had departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus [the posture of a disciple learning from his new teacher], clothed and in his right mind.”

You’d expect them to be happy, wouldn’t you? They knew this trouble-making man and the problems he had caused. He wouldn't be causing trouble any more. But verse 35 says, “they were afraid.”

Should that surprise us? No. There are many people who would like to trust in Christ, to have a warm personal relationship with Him, to have His help and guidance in their lives, to live in the freedom of forgiven sin and in the hope of eternity with God. But they’re afraid that if they give Jesus an inch of their lives, He’ll take it over completely. And they’re right! The Lord Who gave His all on the cross and rose bodily from the dead, wants to save us body, soul, mind, and spirit. But if we aren’t willing to give our whole selves to Christ, our whole selves will die apart from Christ.

The townspeople were afraid that if Jesus could change the life of a man possessed by multiple demons, He could change their lives as well...and they preferred their favorite sins to living for Jesus. In honesty, aren’t there times when you and I feel the same way?

Verse 36 says that the crowds knew that Jesus had been the means by which the man had been “healed.” The word translated as healed is, in the original Greek in which Luke wrote, esothe, coming from the verb sozo, also meaning saved. The man wasn’t just healed, he was saved by Jesus, saved, as The Small Catechism puts it “from sin, death, and the devil.” Saving people, setting them free from sin and its consequences, is what Jesus said He came into the world to do when He read the words from Isaiah in his hometown synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord...has anointed proclaim liberty to the set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

Folks, whatever oppresses you today--sins, anxious thoughts, tenacious temptations, grudge-holding resentments, horrible grief, or doubts about God’s grace, Jesus Christ can set you free of them.

If He can cast a legion of demons from a man and give him back his right mind, He can free you and let you live with a mind filled with joy and thankfulness!

The Gadarenes asked Jesus to leave. But when we pray, like children, that Jesus will come into our hearts, He will do so and remain there as we continue to turn to Him each day for life, forgiveness, and help.

Our lesson ends strangely. After the Gadarenes asked Jesus to leave, He got into a boat to do just that. Jesus will not stay where He isn’t welcome. That's as true today as it was when He walked on the earth.

But when the man from whom He had cast out the demons begged Jesus to let him go with Jesus, Jesus “sent him away.” Jesus says (verse 39): “Return to your own house, and tell what great things God has done for you.”

Following Jesus can sometimes mean that we’re to go to unknown places among unknown people to share the Gospel.

But for most Christians most of the time, following Jesus means staying right where we are among people we already know and sharing the truth of new life for all who repent and believe in the crucified Jesus Christ.

And following Jesus in the town in which we were raised, among people who have known us for a long time, is probably harder than going somewhere we think we’ll be safe with Jesus. Every time the man freed from demons started to talk about what Jesus had done for him, there would have been someone who could say, “I knew you when...”

But if and when that happened, the man would have a ready defense: “I’m not talking about how great or good I am. I’m nothing. I was once so spiritually vacant that a legion of demons filled me. I’m talking about Jesus, the One Who cast out those demons and saved me to live with God forever.”

That’s why after Jesus told him to stay, verse 39 says of the man, “And he went his way and proclaimed throughout the whole city what great things Jesus [the One he knew was God] had done for him.”

You know what? We never learn this man’s real name. And it doesn’t matter because far more important than knowing his name is learning and taking to heart his life’s story:
  • Knowing that Christ can save anyone, no matter how deeply given over to evil and sin they may be.
  • And knowing that once Christ has saved us, whatever our jobs or stations in life may be, we all have a single mission, to tell others what great things God has done for us through the Savior Jesus Who died and rose to set us free to live with God for all eternity.
Through this one man, Jesus began the Church among the Gentiles. What might Jesus do through us when we tell others the great things He’s done for us?

*You can blame this groaner on Pastor Brian Stoffregen. Ann urged its inclusion. But I alone can be blamed for the decision to share it.