June 23, 2013 Luke 8: 26-39
Rev. Catherine Purves
A few months ago I received, I think, three phone calls asking if I could perform an exorcism. I was understandably surprised by this request. When I finally asked one of the desperate callers why he had telephoned me he said that he had done a Google search for exorcists and my name popped up. That was not especially reassuring. Why would the Google-world of internet wisdom think that I was an exorcist? Then it dawned on me. I had once preached a sermon entitled The Exorcist. Since the sermon was posted on our website, the whole world had access to it, and my name was right there under the title. I hesitated a bit over today’s sermon title in which the word ‘demons’ appears. I hope this doesn’t initiate another round of ‘exorcist-needed’ phone calls. Let me insert right here that I have never knowingly or intentionally or successfully performed an exorcism to my knowledge. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I underestimate the power of demons or our need to deal with them.
It seems to me that modern folks tend to make one of two mistakes. They either overestimate the strength and devilish intentions of demons, or they dismiss the whole possibility of demons and the power of evil. As Christians, a more balanced approach is what is needed. It is frankly naïve and completely unbiblical to claim that demonic forces are not abroad in the world. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we believe that troops of little devils are out there, gleefully making things run amok. It does mean, however, that Christians acknowledge the power of sin and recognize that we are fallen creatures, subject to temptation and easily lured toward evil, and evil is addictive. It does mean that we know that lives can be ruined by malevolent forces that separate us from God and render us powerless. It does mean that we acknowledge that these forces afflict not only individuals, but groups, organizations, governments, and whole nations. These destructive, demonic forces are powerful, and we dare not underestimate them.
But neither should we overestimate their control or think of them as unassailable. Again, if we are going to try to adopt a biblical perspective on the power of evil and the demonic, we must accept that the promises of Scripture are absolutely consistent. From Genesis through Revelation, the Bible insists that God is more powerful than any demon or any evil and destructive force in the world. It is never a fair fight when evil pits itself against God and God’s will. It does look like God has evil on a very long leash, so that it can claim apparent, and quite frightening, partial victories. But there is no question about who is really in control. God always wins. And the final and complete defeat of evil is assured. That means that Christians don’t need to fear evil or the demonic forces that are abroad in the world, in individuals, or in social systems. While we cannot defeat them alone, they cannot defeat us when we are in Christ.
This balanced approach to dealing with demons is evident in our reading from Luke’s Gospel. This is a long and detailed account, far longer than most healing stories. The particulars, it seems, were very important to Luke. We are given the whole history of the demon-possessed man. We learn of his strange behavior – that he insisted on tearing off his clothes and that he lived among the tombs. It appears he was violent (since his neighbors tried to keep him chained), but he also possessed an almost super-human strength and could break out of his shackles and escape into the wilderness. To say he was a very disturbed man is an understatement. His life was being destroyed. Whether we call that a demon or a mental illness, it was certainly a very powerful negative force that had taken over the man’s life.
Some commentaries see even more going on in this passage. Obviously, Jesus was confronted by an individual who was “possessed,” but the demoniac was also part of a society and a community that acted very strangely when Jesus healed him. You would expect them to be pleased and to celebrate the miraculous exorcism and the demise of so many demons. Instead Luke tells us “they were seized with great fear,” and they asked Jesus to leave their country. Did they not want the demoniac to be cured? Could it be that he was a kind of scapegoat? Did he bear the frustrations and angers of the entire community?
Several books that I read about this passage suggested this. They questioned whether it was simply a coincidence that the man called himself “Legion” when the land was cruelly occupied by a Roman legion of 5,000-6,000 armed soldiers. Was the community doing to the man what they would like to have done to the Roman legion, chained and controlled it, punished it, despised it? They couldn’t act out their own violence against Rome, but they could take it out on the demoniac. And he accepted that terrible role of scapegoat in his community, internalizing their violence and aggression, becoming the ‘legion’ that they hated. Why else would the people of that country have been afraid because of what Jesus had done? Why else would they have asked him to leave their community?
That may sound far-fetched to you. It is easier just to deal with the man with the obvious demon, rather than seeking and discovering the hidden demonic forces that held the whole community captive. In some ways, having one individual to blame does “excuse” everyone else. But can we really only blame Hitler for the extermination of the Jews? Were there not collective forces of evil at work then that enabled even Christians to look the other way, Christians who would later try to place all of the responsibility on the one demon-possessed leader of the nation? The tentacles of evil are long. They not only entwine themselves in the lives of vulnerable individuals, but they burrow down into the fabric of families and communities, societies and nations.
And we dare not assume that this is only something that afflicts other nations. Consider the corporate evils of slavery in this country, the near extermination of Native Americans, modern-day racism, the vicious power of corporate greed, and our national tolerance of gun violence, even against children. I can’t remember a president who was more demonized than Barak Obama. He is blamed for everything, and has become a scapegoat, a target for the anger and frustration of so many people. Meanwhile, our society is possessed by consumerism, addictions of all kinds, systemic poverty, dysfunctional families, and a pervasive atmosphere of violence. When are we going to start dealing with those demons?
When Jesus stepped ashore in the country of the Gerasenes, he was faced with all of that. It was a country in the grips of systemic evil and an individual who had internalized the evil and violence of his community. It was a seemingly uncontrollable force: a Legion of demons, a land overrun by the legion of an invading army, and anger, resentment, frustration, and fear plagued the hearts and minds of everyone. Who could tackle all of that destructive power? Luke wants us to see and to know that all of that demonic power was no match for Jesus. Even when the forces of evil thought they were negotiating their escape into a herd of pigs (and how Luke’s Jewish readers would have appreciated that irony), even then, Jesus had the upper hand, and they were swept down the steep bank into the lake, and they were destroyed.
The possessed man was found clothed and in his right mind, and this made his neighbors fearful. But the cycle of evil had been broken by Jesus. They had lost their scapegoat. And the final piece of the puzzle was slotted into place when Jesus told the healed demoniac that he must stay in his own country and bear witness to how much Jesus had done for him. He was to be the hope for the future healing of his whole community, because he would bear a message of hope: Jesus was stronger than their demons.
This is how demons are dealt with – personal demons and societal demons. They must be named. And the power of Christ himself must be brought to bear for healing. We can do this with courage, because no evil force can win the final victory, no matter how deeply rooted or entwined its tentacles. Jesus Christ is in control. He is Lord. And like the Gerasene demoniac, we too are to be agents of healing and hope in this land where demons roam. “Return to your home,” Jesus said, “and declare how much God has done for you.” Let others see that the demons can be dealt with, through the power of Jesus Christ. The battle is won. Like the Gerasene demoniac, we must now proclaim Christ’s victory.