Today’s sermon from Luke 8:29-36
When you grow up as a preacher’s kid, on the foreign mission field, no less, sometimes it’s hard to have friends. While they want hang out and learn the newest party dance, you’ve already made plans with your sister to play Sunday School and “big church.” GloWorm is placing membership that week and you really can’t put this off again.
You get to tag along to to home Bible studies and stay up way past bedtime, and sometimes you get to watch the movie the adults have gathered to watch and discuss together.My favorite of these movies was Brother Sun, Sister Moon; the story of St. Francis of Assissi.
My least favorite was a straight- from- the 70’s movie about the Gospel of Matthew. I’ll never forget the scene as long as I live.
A young man, possessed by a demon, would be seized and thrown into the fire and the man’s parents wanted Jesus to heal him. The depiction in the movie was disturbing and intense.
I couldn’t have been older than 7 or 8; old enough however, to be scared out of my ever loving mind! It was years before I went near a fireplace again.
Fortunately, this was a depiction of the demonic in the world of Jesus. Not so fortunately, however, although we don’t experience demons as they are described in the Bible, we are as surrounded – yes- even possessed by as many demons; forces which hold us captive and prevent us from becoming who God intends for us to be, as Jesus encountered back in his day.
One of the strongest of our present-day demons is fear; a multifaceted monster with a multitude, or, legion of ways it presents itself. For example, the fear of people who are different: people from another country, a different religious background, a different lifestyle, people who are wrapped in a different color of skin. The fear of people who are different can lead us to become reclusive and exclusionary, creating a cycle of suspicion, and mistrust, which leads to hate, which leads to violence.
The fear of change can cause us to silence good ideas. Our society’s fear of aging and death has created a death-denying, age-defying elitist club which isolates its elders creating the perfectly hostile environment for older adults to feel useless, cast aside and forgotten.
Sometimes this can cause older people to self-isolate because they feel they’ve got nothing left to offer. The fear of failure causes us to do nothing, and thus, fail. Fear, in its legion of forms, is universal, relentless, and powerful.
So powerful is fear, that it has the capacity to lock us into a perpetual state of despair; overtaking our lives and actions, even our identities over time until one day we are but shadows of our previous selves; hollow shells reminiscent of who we once were.
In a far away land called Garasa, there lived one such man: a skeleton of who he used to be. Listen in as he shares his story with us. “I wasn’t always like this,” he says, “I’m from the Decapolis. The home I used to live in was about the size of this chapel.
Ah, we used to have the best meals, my wife and I. Once a week, she would roast a goat in all these different spices. I can’t even recall their smells or their names. But, man, that dish was outstanding.
We married young, and couldn’t have children, and this was really hard on her. The toll it took on her finally took its toll on our marriage and she left. My parents stayed with me for a few months, but the emptiness I felt inside was too much for me.
Sometimes, late at night, I would get so sad and so afraid of what was happening to me, and of where my life was going, that I would take coals from the fire, still smoldering with an embery glow and hold them against my skin; just to feel some kind of relief from all my emotional pain- even if it had to be in exchange for physical pain.
I’ll never forget the day I let my grief consume me to the point of violence. I was feeling afraid that my life would be meaningless. I felt like I had already lost everything. My mother said something to me, and I raised my voice to her.
Before I knew what was happening, I had struck my mother. Some of the townspeople heard about it and deemed me a threat to society.” The man’s eyes mist and in the ocean of tears waiting to spill over, despite the violent convulsions that are threatening to bash this man’s body against the tombstones and the sound of clinging chains as they break; deep in the man’s eyes, we can almost see his humanity.
Every bruise tells a story of loneliness; every cut is a dissonant ode to despair, every chain link a reminder of his utter isolation. Even his very name, Legion, reminds him that he is nobody but a vehicle for fear and despair to wreak havoc on the world one life at a time, beginning with his own.
Across the way, toward Galilee, a boat bobs and floats under the misty morning. Peter, always the talker, just will not shut up about how they almost died mere hours ago, and Jesus calmed the storm just in time.
The boat docks on the shoreline and Jesus, the Jew, steps out of the boat leaving his chosen footprints in the Gentile sand. You’ve likely heard someone jokingly say “oh, I can’t eat that/ do that, whatever… it’s against my religion.”
Everything that is about to happen to Jesus is against his religion, beginning with entering a Gentile area and being greeted by this crazy-looking, shifty-eyed, nappy-haired, homeless, naked, violent, demon-possessed dude whose only friends are the corpses who live in the tombs he calls home. Not far from the tombs on one side is a desert wasteland, on the other, a pig farm.
Before Jesus can say anything, the man, or rather, the demon, shouts out: “Dear God, it’s Jesus. What are you going to do to me, Son of the Most High God?” You see, even demons have a weakness, and Jesus is it.
Knowing the name of a demon gives the exorcist control over it; and furthermore, when asked its name, a demon must respond.
So, in answer to the demon’s fearful cry, Jesus asks, “What is your name?”
In one of the saddest sentences in all of scripture, the demon-possessed man who has literally been stripped of everything including his name, growls: “Legion, for we are many.”
As if the day couldn’t get any more eventful, the demons begin to bargain with Jesus about their fate, pleading “Please don’t send us into the abyss!”
So, our clever Jesus, knowing demons can’t survive in water, commands the legion of demons out of the man and into the nearby heard of pigs, who upon possession, rush over the cliff into the lake and are drowned, demons and all.
The man, free of pain, fear, grief; for the first time in a long time sits up and looks at Jesus. As they lock eyes, the man feels something he hasn’t felt in years; something he would run out into the solitary places looking for: hope.
The text says the demon would drive the man to solitary places; but what if more than that, more than the demon puppet-mastering the man this way and that, what if the man was so upset every time he was seized by the demon – faced with his deepest darkest fears all alone in the tombs- what if the man was trying to get away from the demon, trying to find peace in solitude?
Even Jesus withdrew to solitary places to pray.
This man’s solitary confinement in the tombs and shackles is different from his solitude in the wild places where he would be driven looking for peace, community, and closeness to the heart of God. In this encounter with Jesus, the holy healer, he finds his hope in the love of Christ.
As the man looks down at his bruises and scars, he feels the redemption coursing through his veins. Because of the hope he has found in Christ’s loving act of breaking cultural and religious boundaries, and upsetting the social order of this community by killing all of their livestock just to see this man made whole; his bruises now tell the story of hope found, the chains which will no longer touch him tell of freedom in Christ.
The clothes he now wears, and the clarity of his thoughts are gateways back into the community he so desperately longed for.
One of the things about this passage that has always bothered me is the fact that we never learn the demon-possessed man’s real name, even after the demons have left him.
I wonder what he would have to say about that, if he were asked to choose his own new name.“Actually, I’m glad you asked,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “If I could choose my name, I would choose Ebenezer because it means stone of help.
When everything around me was darkness and I couldn’t even see God’s face anymore, I didn’t have anything to hold onto; anything to hold me in place. I lost everything, even my soul; my very own identity was lost to evil but I found hope in Christ, my solid rock, my stone of help.”
Edward Mote was born in Upper Thames St, London on January 21, 1797. He was not brought up in a godly home, and in fact his parents managed a pub, often neglecting young Edward. He would spend his Sundays playing in the streets and once said that as a child, he had no idea there was a God. From an unruly childhood, he grew to become a great writer and minister, composing one of the great hymns of our tradition.
As a young adult, Mote attended Tottenham Court Road Chapel where he would listen to the sermons of John Hyatt. He learned through this experience that Jesus Christ could take away all the fears of his life and give him the peace of heart and mind he had long desired.
He was baptized at 18 and apprenticed as a cabinet maker, then became the pastor of a church at age 55, where he served without missing a single Sunday for over 20 years.
One day, on his way to work in his cabinet making days, he decided he wanted to write a hymn because of all that God had done for him. Before he reached the front door of his business he had written the chorus:
On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. Though the verses to this hymn in our hymnal are beautiful and meaningful, the original first verse offers something to us in light of this story of liberation from the demons that plague us, that is just as beautiful as the beloved verses we know so well. The original first stanza reads:
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. ‘Midst all the hell I feel within, on his completed work I lean.
I think our new friend Ebenezer would resonate with those words. Either way, Edward Mote, Ebenezer, you and I know that the only freedom to be found from the grasp of the demons we face in our lives, whatever they may be, is in the love of Jesus Christ. We only find that hope when we are leaning on him.
After he was healed, Ebenezer asked Jesus if he could come with him. I would imagine that the city he used to live in would house some deeply painful memories that he wouldn’t be in a hurry to revisit.
But Jesus says “no,” and sends him back home. Back to community, back to restore his relationship with his mother, back to the place he once called home so that Ebenezer, filled with hope and glowing from his firsthand encounter with Christ’s redeeming love can tell everyone what God did for him and how they, too, can find their hope in the love of Christ.
This is what we are called to do as well. We say it every week – become the presence of Christ to the world around us. We do this by loving others as Jesus loved us and by not succumbing to fear.
Instead, even ‘midst all the hell we feel within, on Christ’s completed work we lean.
And Christ’s completed work in us is the hope we have in his love that radiates to the people around us.
Thanks be to God for hope and the love of Christ, our solid rock.