Our story from Luke this week might seem out of place in our discussions of kingship and sovereignty over the last few weeks. After all, Jesus is engaged in spiritual warfare in the story rather than instructing His people how to live economically, politically, and whatever other ways we might like to consider. Yet the story speaks directly to one of the big problems of kingship. It will, of course, take me a moment to get us to the point where we can see how the passage speaks to us at Advent in the 21st Century, but God-willing and inspired, I shall!
Why does this story come now in Luke’s narrative? Those of us who have studied Luke’s Gospel understand that this is the fifth exorcism in his Gospel. There are, however, some significant differences that make the story worthy of our consideration today. (1) This is the first exorcism that occurs outside the boundaries of Israel. To us, nearly all of us Gentiles, such an idea is barely worthy of notice. To 1st Century Palestine Jews hoping to encounter the Messiah, such a story would be unimaginable. The Messiah was coming for God’s chosen people, Israel. Anything that the Messiah would do would be for the benefit of Israel, or so they thought. We all know that Jesus came first for the Jews, but then we also know that the Jews were meant to be a blessing to the world. Jesus is simply fulfilling God’s plan for the Jews, right? Exorcising demons is a theological and supernatural act. Jesus, we might say, has come to free the Gentiles from the minions of the enemy as much as He has the Jews, His chosen people.
(2) This exorcism is the first multiple-possession in Scriptures. In Roman terms, a legion meant somewhere north of 5000 soldiers, once one considered all the scouts, messengers, and auxiliary troops. Is it possible that the demons who confront Jesus in this story were claiming to be more than 5000 strong? It certainly is possible. Given the time and the emphasis on the legions, I think it wrong to dismiss the idea. What is important, though, is Jesus’ ability to deal with multiple demons as easily as He can with one, as in the other encounters. Most of us would be terrified were a single demon to confront us. Jesus is confronted by multiple, perhaps more than 5000, and is nonplussed. In fact, in the power dynamics of this encounter, it is the demons who are terrified. The demon-possessed man falls prostrate before Jesus. The demons beg Jesus not to torment them. The demons beg Jesus not to order them into the Abyss.
It is a curious word, is it not, “order”? Such is Jesus’ power over the demons that, were He to order them into the Abyss, they would have to obey His command. Those of us who have seen movies or heard account of exorcisms understand that it is a battle for us to cast one out in Jesus’ Name. But here, multiple demons beg Jesus not to order them, such is His command over them.
(3) This account of Jesus’ encounter with Legion is important because it dwells on the responses of those who hear or see or are affected by Jesus’ miracle. The exorcised man is dressed, of sound mind, and sitting at the feet of Jesus at the end of the story. In fact, the man asks Jesus for permission to follow Him and is denied! Contrast that with the crazed, chain-breaking supernatural strength, and hanging out in the tombs at the beginning of the story. The townsfolk have a different response, do they not? They want Jesus to leave. Clearly, they are afraid of His power, so they ask. But they do not want Him in the village for any longer than is absolutely necessary! Ah, we are all like Augustine, are we not? “Lord save me, just not today!”
(4) The exorcism of Legion comes within the overarching story of Jesus demonstrating His power and authority over nature, the supernatural, disease, and even death. We might say in modern language that Jesus is proving who He is. Who else but God’s Anointed can calm the weather, cast out multiple demons, heal the sick, and raise the dead? Who else, indeed!
(5) Finally, the story is unique because it is the only miracle in Luke in which other creatures besides humans are involved. I know there has been a great deal written and taught about the presence of the pigs over the centuries. Some have suggested that the pigs represent the apostate life of the people of Gerasene. Since they were not Jews, however, it would be hard to consider them apostate. Others have suggested that the pigs, grazing in the area of tombs, simply illustrate the uncleanliness of the human heart. Perhaps that is part of it. I think the more likely rason for their presence is that they demonstrate to us, in graphic detail, the chaos and destruction inflicted upon humanity by God’s enemy and his minions. We in the modern western world scoff at the idea demons and their influence. But Luke’s narrative serves as an important reminder that, although the demons are unseen, they are dangerous and life-taking.
So, what does all this have to do with the idea of kingship? How does this story fit in with God’s idea of His Anointed ruling for our benefit? In many ways, the answers are obvious. We live on this side in history of the Empty Tomb, so we know that Jesus is who He said He was. He is the Son of God, the Messiah. All authority belongs to Him. That claim, of course, is not just salvific. It is a claim that transcends politics, that transcends, economics, that transcends philosophy, that transcends individuality, and transcends even our sins which served to separate us from full communion with God. We might like to think that God is happy when we give Him 90 minutes on a Sunday, as if we important people are doing Him a favor by giving up some of our time to worship Him, but is that all that our salvation is worth? Were our lives really only worth 90 minutes of our time each week? Of course not, our lives are everything to us, and that is precisely what we are expected to offer Him in thanksgiving for what He has done for us!
We may not like to admit it, but each one of us is like the man possessed in Gerasene. Most of us are slaves to our appetites and cravings. Our addictions might even be socially acceptable like gluttony or alcoholism, but they are there. They plague us. What’s worse, misery likes company. Often, so long as those appetites are acceptable, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, and even our family will try to console us with the statements “it’s not so bad” or “everybody does it.” We know it is wrong, yet those around us will often try hard not to make us feel bad about those wrong things we are doing. Think I am wrong? What are society’s teachings about drugs or alcohol now? What are society’s teaching on casual sex now? What is society’s teaching on marriage and divorce? What is society’s teaching about any law that we break? Truth and moral uprightness have become a major casualty of the currents winds and passions of society. If you have a sin that seems unacceptable today, just work the press and social media to demonstrate that you are normal. And, here’s where we ought to feel most uncomfortable, how is the Church much different from the society it is called to serve or to invite? Ouch is right.
What happens in the story is indicative, I think, of society when the collective encounters the Risen Christ. There are many lessons in this pericope, but watch the crowd. The demoniac has been relegated to the tombs. At times he has been chained there. Society has shunted him off to the side, unable to help him. Jesus comes along and cures the demoniac. How should the community respond? Presumably, since he lived in that area, he had family and friends. Should not they be overjoyed at his cure? Should they not give thanks that he seems of right mind, that he is clothed, and that is studying at the feet of a rabbi, in this case THE Rabbi? This itinerant teacher just commanded a legion of demons to leave, and they did! Talk about a cause for celebration! Yet the crowds, the community, responds in fear. When told of the story of the healing, the people of the surrounding country were seized with great fear. They asked the Healer, the King, to leave. Can you imagine?
Of course we can imagine! The modern world responds in much the same way to the power and authority of God. Ever been asked what you think God would think about a behavior, an activity, or an idea? What happened when you shared that idea? More likely than not, there was scoffing and marginalizing. Ever stick your nose into someone else’s business uninvited with what you think is good biblical advice? How did that go over? Again and again we see the reminder from John 1 played out into the world. He came into His own, yet His people did not know Him. Humanity loves the darkness far more than the Light!
It is a fearful thing to ponder the authority and power of Jesus. If Jesus is who He says He is, He is the singular focal point of the cosmos. He is the singular focal point of history. He is the singular focal point of authority. Of wisdom. Of love. If He is who He says He is, that means we are doing a lot of things wrong. How many of us put Him first in our lives? How many of us love our neighbors as ourselves? How many of us live a life to encourage others into a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ? All the time? And if we fail at the “important” big Two commandments, how many more times do we fail at the little things He teaches? What happens when we fail kings? It is no wonder many are terrified at His claim and power and authority.
Of course, if Jesus is who He says He is, He is also the Good Shepherd. He is the ruler who lays down His life for His sheep. He has come to save, not condemn. He came not to terrify, but to call. But that saving act on His part requires an assent on ours. We yield to His authority. We call Him Lord. We make a conscious decision to do our best to follow Him. In baptismal language, we die to self so that we can live to glorify Him in our lives. And so begins a King and subject relationship unlike any in the rest of the world. His disciples make seemingly strange claims like “In serving Him is perfect freedom.” But His disciples understand that He wants what is best for us. And, unlike even good kings, who may try their best, Jesus knows what we need. Best of all, nothing can separate us from Him, once we have chosen Him.
Our King can send us to the edges of the world, into spiritual or physical battles, into common or uncommon ministries around us, and we can go confident that we will share in His glory for all eternity. Such is His authority that even death itself, just like a horde of demons, must bow to His commands. That authority, that power, just as the power and authority to cast aside a legion of demons, gives people pause. That kind of power and that kind of authority is terrifying because it reminds us how strong the One wielding it is and how impotent we truly are. And make no mistake. One day, all will stand before Jesus. Either they will have acknowledged Him as King and will be admitted into the kingdom He has prepared for us, or they will have refused “to bend the knee”and be cast out like the demons. I do not think it much of a surprise that the villagers respond to the presence of Jesus much like that of the demons. Both know His power and authority; neither are willing to yield.
Brothers and sisters, we live in an age that thinks kings are all like George Martin’s humanity on Game of Thrones or even worse. Part of our message, though, is that there are kings and then there is the King. The King came to save, not condemn. The King came to show us the path to the Father. The King died and lived and ascended that you and I and all who call upon His name might also live forever. More amazingly, the King came and worked healing in your life, my life, and the lives of all who gather to worship Him, that we might be made fit ambassadors for Him, heralds of His Gospel, and proclaimers of His release. Put much shorter, you and I and all who claim Christ as Lord and King are like the demoniac of Gerasene, now finally free, in right mind, at the foot of the Teacher, and equipped to proclaim His transformative work in us to those whom we know and meet in our own lives!