Meeting Jesus: The Gerasene Demoniac

Meeting Jesus: The Gerasene Demoniac
A Message on Mark 5:1-20
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Nov. 17, 2019
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Mark 5:1-20 (NRSV)

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

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Today’s scripture from the Gospel of Mark is somewhat troubling. It portrays a man in a very bad state: mental illness and/or demon possession.

Now in the United Methodist Church we don’t talk about demonic possession very much. And there are some United Methodists that don’t believe that it is real, that it’s only mental illness.

I’m not one of those. I believe that though it is rare, there is such a thing as being demon possessed. I believe that there is evil in this world, and I believe evil forces such as demons exist as well.

Part of the problem is how we define evil and demons. Just yesterday I read an article on Facebook about surgeons performing a double lung transplant on a 17-year-old young man whose lungs were destroyed by vaping. In the article Dr. Hassan Nemeh, the surgeon who led the team of doctors, said this: “What I saw in his lungs is like nothing I’ve seen before, and I’ve been doing lung transplants for 20 years. This is an evil I haven’t faced before.”

So is vaping an evil, a demon? Maybe. Is mental illness an evil, a demon? Maybe.

My personal opinion is that I think that mental illness and demonic possession are two different things. Demonic possession can disguise itself as mental illness, but certainly not all mental illness is demonic in origin.

Sometimes what we think are demons really are not. Back when we were in seminary there was one time when my roommate, the esteemed theologian and all around great guy Tommy Earl Burton, thought demons were after him. Here’s what happened.

One of our other roommates, Wade Lindstrom, had bought an electronic whoopee cushion. This was a modern electronic device, complete with a remote control, that… well… made flatulence noises, if you know what I mean. (If you don’t know what I mean, talk to me later and I’ll explain it.)

One night Wade, being the trickster he is, hid the sound-producing part of the machine under Tommy Earl’s bed. The idea was to wait awhile and then, when Tommy was lying on his bed, hit to remote to make it sound like Tommy Earl was… well… you know…

Well as it turned out Tommy stayed up late working on a paper. Wade forgot about the devise and went to bed and fell asleep. That was all fine and good except this electronic whoopee cushion had a program to remind you that it was on. After a certain amount of time it would make a sound, BRRRRRRP, to remind the owner that it was still on. It did this every 15 to 20 minutes.

Well Tommy Earl finally went to bed. He would just barely be asleep when the electronic whoopee cushion would go off with the reminder that it was on, “BRRRRRP.”

Tommy Earl, in a half-asleep and half-awake state, thought the sound was the sound of demons coming after him. He would wake up and start praying fervently, “Dear Lord Jesus, protect me from evil and remove these demons from my presence…” Then he would fall asleep and then, 15 to 20 minutes later, “BRRRRRRP,” the machine would go off again and the same thing would happen.

Apparently after about the fourth or fifth time this happened Tommy was praying out loud enough to awaken me. “OH DEAR LORD JESUS PLEASE RESCUE ME FROM THESE DEMONS TORMENTING ME!” I realized what was going on and told him, “It’s Wade’s electronic whoopee cushion making that noise. He put it under your bed.”

Tommy Earl got up, found the electronic whoopee cushion, picked it up, opened the door to Wade’s bedroom, and then threw it at Wade, who was asleep.

In the scripture we read today we find Jesus coming face to face with a man who wasn’t dealing with a pesky electronic whoopee cushion, but who was truly demon possessed. I have no doubt about this. The man didn’t live a normal life, but wandered among the tombs and exhibited bizarre behavior.

Now we need to remember that from a 1st Century Jewish perspective the man would have certainly been someone to stay away from. He was considered to be “unclean.” Simply coming in contact with a dead body made one unclean, and so you can see that living and sleeping among the tombs would make him very, VERY unclean, both physically and spiritually.

And the fact that he couldn’t be restrained by shackles and chains indicates that they had actually tried to do that, without success. And it also tells us that in that society, that’s how troubled people were treated: they were chained up.

So this unclean, crazy (literally), semi-naked man comes running up to Jesus as soon as Jesus gets out of the boat. If Jesus touches him, then Jesus will be unclean. And in reality, just being around him could make Jesus unclean. And besides, no self-respecting Jewish person of the day would in any way be associated with someone like the crazy, possessed man.

To quote a Monty Python movie, “Run away! Run away!”

But Jesus doesn’t. Instead Jesus heals the man, sending the demons to a herd of pigs that are nearby.

Now I find great theological significance in what happens here. The fact that there is a herd of pigs shows that in that area was a significant population of Gentiles. As you probably know, pigs are listed among the “unclean” animals in Leviticus and practicing Jews, and also Muslims, still today do not eat pork as a result. As Christians, we have the New Testament, specifically where Peter is told in Acts 10 to get up, kill, and eat. (And thank goodness for that, because I really love bacon!)

If the people in the area were all Jewish, then it would have been useless to raise pigs. It would be kind of like being an organist at a Church of Christ.

So there is a herd of pigs, considered by the Jews to be nasty, unclean, unreligious animals, and Jesus sends the demons into the pigs. But then something interesting happens.

The pigs, about 2,000 or them, rush down a “steep bank” and into the sea, where they drowned.

Here’s the deal: pigs are actually pretty good swimmers. They really are. There’s even a place in the Bahamas known for its swimming pigs. People go there just so they can swim with the pigs. Honestly. Here’s a photo to show you I’m not making this up.

So if pigs can swim then why did they drown? I think it is because of the demons. I think the demons tormented the pigs so much that they drowned themselves in an attempt to get rid of them.

Here’s something else that is significant. Verse 14, “The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country.” The people watching the pigs, which would have been Gentiles, of course, were witnesses to the miracle that Jesus performs. And they go and tell everyone about it, which would mean both Gentile and Jewish people. Gentiles start spreading the Good News about Jesus, and people came to see Jesus, and were astonished to see the demon-possessed man sitting calmly, fully clothed, and in his right mind.

It also brings to mind the parable of the Prodigal Son mentioned in Luke’s gospel. Do you remember what the son was doing after he left home and blew all his money and became destitute? He worked feeding pigs, and the pigs were eating better than he was.

We find that Jesus often pushes against the norms of society at the time. Well, he does more than push against. He often blows them away.

Humans are good at putting people in categories. It happened in the first century and still happens in our world today. We see it in the debates about immigration. One side sees peaceful, loving families trying to enter our country to escape poverty and political oppression. The other side sees criminals and drug cartel members coming and taking advantage of our country. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle, but good luck convincing either side of that.

In Jesus’ time there was a lot of “chosen ones” and “unchosen ones” in society. The Jewish people were the “chosen ones,” as God’s people selected to live in the land of milk and honey promised to Abraham and his relatives. Anyone not Jewish, in other words, Gentile, were not chosen by God. In the view of the Jews, the Gentiles were a lower form of human life. After all, they weren’t the “chosen ones.”

We saw a similar attitude in World War II with the German view of Jewish people. The Nazis considered the Jews to be sub-human, and we know that attitude lead to the deaths of 6 million plus people.

In the 1st Century Middle East, people with mental illness were also considered to be subhuman. They were certainly ostracized. Like those with leprosy, they were shunned, pushed to the edge of society, rejected, and physically and mentally abused. The Gerasene Demoniac was one of those people. And yet when he encountered Jesus, everything changed. He was given value, a purpose.

It’s interesting to note what happens after he meets Jesus. He wants to go with Jesus, to follow him, to become one of his disciples. Jesus tells him no. Instead, Jesus has something different in mind. Jesus tells him: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Why would Jesus do this? I think it’s because that’s where they man’s testimony would be the most effective. The people in his hometown will know and remember how he used to be. They know his history, how he has lived all these years. And, in knowing that, when they see him as “normal” it will have a greater impact for the kingdom that it would have with people who had NOT known him.

Sometimes in our lives as Christians we get fired up and want to to great big incredible things for Jesus Christ. We have in our minds what we want to do for Jesus and, if we are truthful with ourselves, sometimes our egos sneak their way into those plans. We want to do great things for the Kingdom, but we want the spotlight to shine on us as we do it. We want others to see just how good of a Christian we are. We are proclaiming, “Look at Jesus, but look at me, too!”

Ironically, the most effective things we can do for the Kingdom are usually the small, ordinary, everyday things we do. Instead of being in the spotlight and proclaiming the Kingdom as a narrative to satisfy our egos, the best thing we can do is to walk humbly with our God. We can, and should, do as Jesus tells the Gerasene Demoniac: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

I have used this illustration before but I’m going to repeat it today because it really applies to this message. There is a young boy walking along the seashore at low tide. Every now and then he comes across a starfish that got stranded on the beach by the receding tide. When he did, he would stop, pick up the starfish, and gently toss it back into the water.

A older man saw this and, after observing the young boy for several minutes, approached him. “Why are you tossing the starfish back into the ocean? There are thousands of them stranded on the beach. There’s no way you can help all of them. You can’t expect to make a difference with so many of them.”

The young boy didn’t say anything, but reached down and picked up a starfish, tossed it gently back in the water, then looked at the man and said, “I made a difference for that one.”

That’s the way we should be as Christians. We should bring the Kingdom of God to the earth one person at a time. We don’t have to have demons cast out of us or do big dramatic things in order to have an impact on this world, we simply need to bloom where we are planted.

This is a photo I took a while back. I don’t even remember where it was. I was fascinated by the scene, however, as these flowers were growing and blooming in the midst of hard pavement. The flowers bloomed where they were planted.

Likewise we should “bloom” where we are planted. We should show and share the love of Jesus Christ with the people we come into contact with on a daily or weekly basis. Little things for the Kingdom add up over time to become big things.

There is a challenge called the 365 day money challenge. It’s pretty simple. The first day you deopist a nickel, 5 cents, into your savings account. Then, you add $0.05 to your deposit on day two, making that deposit worth $0.10, bringing your total savings to $0.15.

On each subsequent day, you add a nickel to the previous day’s deposit. That means, on day 10, you deposit $0.50. On day 100, your deposit is $5.00. On the last day, number 365, your deposit is $18.40.

So $18.40 is the largest amount you will deposit. That’s as big as it gets. But all those small amounts add up at the end of the year. Any guesses how much you save if you start out with a nickel a day? The answer is $3,339.75. Now I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot of money to me!

Work for the Kingdom has the same kind of exponential multiplying affect. Little things we do for Jesus add up over time, building up lives one person at a time but having a profound effect on the Kingdom over time.

So my challenge to you this week is to do like Jesus commanded the Gerasene Demoniac: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Create an everlasting impact on the Kingdom not by the big things you do, but by the small, everyday things. Let people cut in front of you in traffic. Hold the door open for someone. Bite your tongue instead of saying negative comments about someone. Delete that snarky social media comment instead of posting it. Tip waitstaff the way you think Jesus would tip them. Live the way Jesus lived, and love the way Jesus loved.

And if you ever buy an electronic whoopee cushion and put it under your roommate’s bed, be sure and turn it off.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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