The Exorcist

Scripture (Luke 8:26-39) can be found here.

We all have our demons.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard.

And when we press the question… interrogate it, challenge it, we find the word, “demon,” can mean many things.

For one, it may mean a history of addiction.

For another, a childhood that was the stuff of nightmares.

For still another, a diagnosis that is not easily discussed in what we used to call “polite company,” which really means, something we’ve been taught to be ashamed of.

And for still another, an experience… something that was survived, though, maybe, just barely. The memory of the Towers collapsing, just behind you. The tour of duty that ended, but left scars on the heart, the faces of those who never came home. The car accident that killed everyone else, or, the one you loved. The suicide that tore your life in two.

We all have our demons. And, as I understand it, that tends to mean: some event or situation that has a grip on us, that will not let us go, and that seems to steer the course of our lives.

Jesus travels to Gerasa, the land of the Gerasenes, known as Jerash in modern-day Jordan. Today it’s a city just a little larger than Binghamton, with a population somewhere around 50,000. For Jesus this meant he had traveled out of Judea and into Gentile territory.

The moment he arrived, Jesus is met by a man who is possessed by demons; he lives among the tombs.

We can’t guess the nature of this man’s demons.

We can’t imagine we understand why he lived, naked and homeless, among the graves of his people, for years and years.

But this man’s demons have a voice. They have a name. And they have a story to tell us, even if only by hints.

Jesus is the exorcist. This is, by now, familiar territory to him. He’s a healer. He knows what to do. He rebukes the demons—tells them in no uncertain terms to leave this man alone. But instead of departing quietly, they call out to Jesus.

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?

I beg you, do not torment me.”

The demons recognize Jesus. They know who he is, the stuff he’s made of. And what they see in him terrifies them.

What is it that frightens them? Is it the awesome power of the Most High God? Could be. That would make sense.

But then, Jesus asks a question: “What is your name?” And the answer is chilling.

My name is Legion, it says.

For residents of any part of the Roman Empire at this point in history, the word “legion” meant exactly one thing: a unit of between 3,000 and 6,000 men in the Roman army, for centuries, the most highly trained, disciplined killers in the world.

My name is Legion, say the demons, which reveals that what haunts, occupies, taunts and tortures this man is no single demon, but many, many demons.

Now, we can begin to imagine what has a hold on this man.

Now, we can try to envision a history… to understand, even just a little bit, why his demons have him chained, literally, to a place of death.

This legion is terrified of Jesus, terrified enough to beg for mercy.

In fact, Jesus gives the demons exactly what they ask for. They ask to be sent into a herd of pigs. That’s the mercy they want. And what they do next reveals—at least, to me—what it is they are so terrified of. The demon-possessed pigs rush over a cliff and into a lake. The demons choose annihilation rather than another moment in Jesus’ presence, so, it stands to reason that they weren’t afraid of Jesus annihilating them. Jesus is no Rambo. Jesus is not the Terminator. Those ideas of Jesus are utterly unbiblical, born of a whackadoodle interpretation of the Book of Revelation that has made a lot of people a lot of money.

What those demons feared was the experience of looking into the eyes of Jesus and beholding his compassion. The experience of being with Jesus, and realizing that they were in the presence of pure love. Because, once you’ve experienced that? Those things that have a grip on you, begin to release their grip, ever so slightly. In the presence of the love and compassion of God, you know that your demons can’t be the whole truth of what God has planned for you.

When word spreads about the demons and the pigs and the cliff and all the rest of it, the people come for the show, but all they find is Jesus, and a vaguely familiar man sitting next to him who looks pretty calm, and who, by the way, does have his clothes on. He’s in his right mind, the text tells us. He’s sane, he’s sober, his chains are gone. He has experienced what Luke, elsewhere in this gospel describes this way:

In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness, and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. ~Luke 1:78-79

And what’s the people’s response? Well, interestingly enough, it’s pretty much the same as the demons. Except, instead of running away themselves, they send Jesus away—they chase him out of town. He terrifies them.

There is possibly nothing as terrifying as having to change your mind.

But really, what have you got to lose? Only those pesky demons.

I’ll close with a poem by one of my favorites, Steve Garnaas-Holmes. It’s called, “Frightful Miracle.”

From madness and anguish, self-harm and shame,

from rejection and exile to life among the dead,

from a legion of demons not of his own choosing,

Jesus restores a beloved.

And you? In the graveyard outside your village,

unwhole and frightful, poorly chained,

a wordless voice cries out. Listen... Draw near...

The people are afraid.

Of what? Change? Damage to their profit?

A threat to their settled way of thinking?

The subjection of their values to God's?

Proximity to such uncontained, uncontrollable power?

The thin, porous boundary between sanity and insanity?—

the possibility that if the man is now like them,

they could be like him?

Yes, at least.

Maybe our fear itself is the demon, the chains, the exile.

When the grace of God tears apart your awful world

and wrenches it into health, what frightens you?

If Jesus were to heal your enemy what would you fear?

If Jesus were to expose your demons

and fling them into the primordial abyss

what would you be afraid of?

You are already afraid. Let the Healer come close,

and name the demon, and reach out a hand...

We all have our demons. Let the Healer come close, and name the demon, and reach out a hand.

Thanks be to God. Amen.