Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 23, 2019
Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Several years ago, when our three boys were much younger, we went camping at Lake Wenatchee. The boys were still too young to be of much help setting up camp, so my wife and I gave them squirt guns to play with to keep them busy while we set things up. A short while later they showed up back at our site, all three of them soaking wet. My wife suddenly thought to ask, “Where have you been filling up your squirt guns?” One of them pointed to campground bathroom nearby. Another of them gleefully blurted out that they had been using water from the toilets. You see, they had these long tube squirt guns that you filled by pulling the handle, and the campground toilets worked great for that! Of course, we were disgusted. Our boys were not only soaked in toilet water – but filthy campground bathroom toilet water.
I know this story sounds funny, but let me assure you that we were not laughing at the time. We were scared to death of what they might have contaminated themselves with. We were worried about bacteria, about giardia, about e-coli. And I told you this story not just because it is funny, but because I knew you would also react with disgust. I knew that behind your laughter you would be horrified by how filthy those boys made themselves. You germophobes are probably so disgusted that you won’t even pass the peace with them today!
And now, you see, I have brought you all into the concept of uncleanliness. You have experienced the disgust that comes from the idea of being contaminated by the unclean. And so you now have an idea of what it was like for the disciples in our gospel reading for today.
When the disciples’ boat made landfall on Gerasa, there was surely a measure of disgust. They were now in the land of the Gerasenes, which Luke describes as opposite of Galilee – opposite in more ways than one! This was a land of Gentiles. This was a region populated by non-Jews, part of the great unwashed, unclean world. This was a land of pig farmers, and pigs were profoundly unclean animals for Jewish people – they didn’t eat them, they didn’t touch them, they didn’t even come near them! As Jesus stepped out of the boat and placed his foot on the ground, the disciples probably cringed. What in the heck were they doing there? What were they doing in this filthy place, in this land of the spiritually unclean, this land of swine? Wasn’t Jesus afraid of getting them all contaminated? Wasn’t he afraid of the spiritual bacteria he might come into contact with?
And to make matters worse, the moment Jesus stepped onto this unclean land, he was met by someone who was undoubtably the most unclean citizen in the whole unclean town! This man lived not only among the pigs, but among the tombs – probably meaning the caves where bodies were left to decay until the dry bones were buried. This made him doubly unclean! You can almost hear the disciples groaning with disgust as this man approached the boat! This man also happened to be buck naked, which probably didn’t help things! Worst of all, this man had an unclean spirit. He was plagued by demons. At one point he had been shackled by his neighbors, but he had broken free and now ran wild.
We modern people are quick to assume that this man had a mental illness. That might be true, but I wonder sometimes if this assumption is fair to the biblical writers. It is true that they didn’t have the medical knowledge we have today, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong when describing these forces at work on people as demons, as unclean spirits. I also wonder sometimes if it is fair to those suffering from mental illnesses.
The truth is, we don’t know what exactly the nature of this man’s problems was, but I think we get a clue into his problems when Jesus asks him his name. The man tells Jesus his name is “Legion.” This was certainly not the name his mom and dad gave him! A legion is a Roman military unit of 6,000 soldiers. This man was describing a powerful force that had taken him over, a force so powerful that it has robbed him of his name. It has robbed him of own identity. He was describing a force that has many faces, many names. This was a man at war with himself. There was a war going on inside him.
Mental illness could well have been part of this legion. Many who suffer from such illnesses describe their experience in similar ways. But there are many other demonic forces at work in our world and in our lives as well. They are powerful, and they go by many names. They go by names like despair and depression, PTSD and addiction. They go by more spiritual names like sin. They have names like pride and greed and lust and envy. These demonic forces have thousands of names and thousands of faces, and they all have a way of taking over. They are at war in all of us in one way or another.
Whatever demons might have been plaguing this poor man, they immediately recognized Jesus. They knew who Jesus was. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God.” They knew Jesus’ power, for they begged Jesus not to send them back to the abyss, back to the hellhole from which they came. They begged Jesus to let them leave the man and enter into a large herd of swine grazing on the hillside. Jesus allowed it, and a moment later the herd rushed over the side of a steep bank and drowned in the lake. Animal rights activists would not have approved of Jesus’ tactics here! The pig farmers in town weren’t too happy about it either! Do you know what the market value for that many hogs would have been? It would have been worth a fortune!
But what happened here with the pigs being cast into the lake meant something. Remember back to the story of the Exodus, how God saved Israel from their bondage, from their slavery in Egypt? Remember how the Egyptian army was drowned in the sea? With the drowning of these demons, Jesus was bringing about a new exodus. Jesus has come to deliver people from an even bigger enemy, from an even more powerful legion! Jesus has come to set people free from their bondage to sin, death, and the devil. What Jesus did for this Gerasene man he would soon do for us all by following those pigs into death, by going into the abyss himself as he endured the cross, redeeming us at the great cost of his own life.
The Gerasene man gives us a glimpse, a foretaste of this salvation, this healing, this deliverance. Now restored, he sat at Jesus feet, finally at peace, fully clothed and in his right mind. He desperately wanted to go with Jesus, to join the other disciples in the boat, but Jesus had other plans in mind for him: “Return to your home,” Jesus told him, “and declare how much God has done for you.
When we discovered that our boys were drenched in filthy campground bathroom toilet water, we fought against our visceral reaction of disgust, pushing down our rising nausea and our fears of contamination. As much as we wanted to run away from them, as much as we wanted to just shove them into Lake Wenatchee to rinse off and hope for the best, our love for them instead drew us in close to help them. We quickly found some quarters and some soap and got them into the campground showers. We made sure they were washed clean and then we put them in new, clean clothes.
That’s what Jesus did for this unclean man. That’s why Jesus went to Gerasa. “What in the heck are we doing here in this filthy place?” the disciples wondered. That’s what Jesus was doing! Jesus went to cleanse and clothe this possessed Gentile from a town that was crawling with pigs as a sign of what he would eventually do for us all. Jesus went to the most unclean man in the most unclean place to show his disciples, and us, that he had come to bring about a new exodus, a new deliverance, a new salvation, that would extend to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. He came to set us all free from that legion of dark forces with many faces and many names.
Your uncleanness, your sins, your struggles, your demons, those powers at war within you – none of it can separate you from Jesus. He isn’t deterred by any of it. He doesn’t cringe. He doesn’t hang back. In fact, it is the very reason he came.
In your baptism, Christ has done for you what he did for the man in Gerasa. Jesus washed you clean, taking away every contamination, taking away all the uncleanliness that would separate you from God.
In your baptism, Jesus drowned those demons, those dark forces that threaten to take over your life. To be sure, unlike those pigs, our demons seem to know how to swim, right? They keep popping up, don’t they? They can tread water! They keep coming to the surface! But make no mistake about it, they are on their way into the abyss. In the meantime, our whole life is a daily return to the waters of baptism, where our old self with its demons is drowned so that God can raise up the new person we are in Christ.
In our baptism we are clothed. That’s what the Apostle Paul says in our reading from Galatians for today: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ.” In baptism, we have been given new, fresh, clean clothes. We have been clothed in Christ Jesus, clothed in his righteousness, clothed in his promises, clothed in his love.
And so, like the Gerasene man, we sit at Jesus’ feet today, receptive to his word and grateful for his work in us. As we receive his promises anew, we are restored once again.
And as Jesus said to the Gerasene man, so too does he say to us this morning: “Return to your homes, and declare how much God has done for you.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church