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Sermon for June 19, 2022 – Proper 7

Speaking of Life 4030 | The Myth of Isolation

We’ve all experienced moments of loneliness, anxiety, or darkness and doubt, believing we are alone in our journey. The prophet Elijah felt the same way and thought he was the only prophet left. Even when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, God reminds us that he will never leave us.

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 4030 | The Myth of Isolation
Greg Williams

Have you ever participated in a large, multi-day event that was spiritually exhilarating and yet physically exhausting? In July 2021 we held the GCI Denominational Celebration as an online event. This was the first time we ever did a virtual gathering of this magnitude, and the post-celebration comments were extremely positive and grateful, yet the on-site staff were still physically and mentally recovering weeks later.

The Old Testament story of Elijah has similar elements. Having demonstrated the power of God, having laid low the prophets of Baal, having revealed God’s supremacy beyond all doubt, and having those who witnessed the sacrifice at Mount Carmel turn and repent, Elijah is exhausted. Then when the death threats of Jezebel come, he feels alone, flees, turns inward, and becomes deeply depressed.

Elijah cannot see a way out. The salvation of Israel seems beyond hope and despite an amazing day of victory evil appears to have once again gained the upper hand.

God’s response to Elijah’s fatigue, despair, and loneliness is one of compassion and encouragement.

 God provides Elijah with food and drink to gird him for the journey of revelation ahead of him – which lasted for 40 days. At the end of this journey, Elijah finds himself in a cave, where God meets him and asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Let’s listen to his response:

“I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
1 Kings 19:14 (ESV)

“I only am left.” This is the falsehood Elijah tells himself. Have you ever told yourself this — have you ever convinced yourself that no one understands you, no one can help you? In our darker moments, many of us have been there.

Yet in his compassion, God reveals to Elijah the truth; he is not alone. God tells Elijah to go to Mount Horeb, where he witnesses the power of God over nature and then hears God speak to him in a low whisper. He helps Elijah wrestle with his thoughts and fears and then he reveals to Elijah that there are 7,000 who have remained pure throughout this time of apostasy in Israel.

God then goes further and sends Elijah on his way, knowing that he will encounter a companion – Elisha – whose faith and faithfulness match his own. God delivered Elijah out of loneliness and despair through the powerful reminder that he was with Elijah.

The next time you have a crisis of faith, a moment of weakness, a feeling of despair and loneliness, remember you are in the company of the great cloud of witnesses, where the greatest prophets (after Jesus) once trod. Just as God never forsook them, he will never forsake you.

God always comes to us in strength and in our dark nights of the soul – always without condemnation, always filled with love and grace. He is always there to deliver you out of the darkness, and into his eternal light.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 42, 43 • 1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a • Galatians 3:23-29 • Luke 8:26-39

The theme of this week is God the deliverer. In Psalm 22, the psalmist tells us of the Lord who sees and cares for the afflicted and saves them from their afflictions. In 1 Kings 19, we encounter Elijah, wracked by guilt and despair after fearing for his life, yet God speaks to him in the still voice, girding him for the work ahead. Paul reassures us in Galatians that we have been freed from the law and delivered to become heirs in Christ of God’s promises. Finally in Luke 8, our sermon passage for today, Jesus delivers a man from subjection by evil spirits, freeing him to declare the Good News and showing us that no situation is beyond Jesus’ saving power.

Delivered with a Purpose

Luke 8:26-39 (NIV)

“We are Legion.”

There are few lines from the Bible that have inspired more stories and creations. The concept of a horde of demons trapped inside a single person has led to stories in all manner of fiction, whether that be in the horror genre, science fiction, or fantasy. You can encounter it in movies, books, comics, and computer games. In almost every case, the implications of this passage are misunderstood and underappreciated.

In Mass Effect, a hit computer game trilogy, an artificial intelligence construct made up of a myriad of sentient programs decides to call itself Legion, picking it out of all human literature to best describe itself. In comics, Charles Xavier’s son, who suffers from multiple personality disorder, chooses Legion as his superhero moniker. We could go on listing all the characters in popular culture that identify with the Legion identity, but it would take a while because, they are many. While the stories and characters inspired by Jesus’ encounter with the demons of Gerasa can be compelling, the unfortunate truth is that most fail to appreciate the scope of the story of deliverance being told in the passage.

The focus is usually entirely upon the demons and Jesus’ interactions with them, but to appreciate what Jesus does here, we need to start before we even learn the name the demons go by.

The Shackled Ghoul

They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. (Luke 8:26-29)

Jesus is greeted by this individual upon his stepping ashore from a boat. This is a telling piece of information, especially as we are informed about some of the other details of this man’s life. We are told that he was naked, not living in a home, nor in the wild, but in the tombs. The character that is described has ghoulish features, bringing to mind characters like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings. To add to his macabre appearance, he had chains hanging from him. His appearance and lifestyle alone taunt our imaginations to create visuals that accompany the narrative.

Perhaps you’ve travelled by plane, train, or bus and arrived in another country anticipating being met by someone. The arrivals terminal is usually a bustling place, filled with colorful characters and happy reunions. Imagine stepping off the bus or plane finding yourself being accosted by a sinewy naked man covered in chains? It certainly has the making of a memorable story, assuming you survive the encounter.

Few other people in Luke’s Gospel are given as much description. Rarely do we find out details about their living situations, their legal troubles, or their state of undress. While you could argue that it was the unique image of this man that led to his state being recounted here, it is important to consider that Luke is always intentional about what he includes in his Gospel account – few words are written without purpose and intent. To understand why Luke included this, we need to remember one key detail about this individual.

He was a real person.

For many years this poor broken individual had lived deprived of the basic needs of life. He suffered from exposure and lived in gravesites. He had been assaulted and restrained, yet even when he broke free the chains, they remained attached to him. No doubt he suffered from sores where the bindings had worn against his skin. The man that accosted Jesus on the Gerasene shore was one of God’s children, living in pain, suffering alone, and enduring an existence like no other. If ever there was a soul in need of salvation and deliverance – this was the one.

When we read the stories shared in the Gospels, it is all to easy to distance ourselves from those involved, to think of them as characters in one of Jesus’ many parables as opposed to living and breathing human beings. We do not know what led to this encounter. Did Jesus direct the boat to land near the man? Did the man know Jesus was coming? Had he witnessed the calming storm? Had some small part of him that still had control led him to seek out deliverance?

What we do know is what happened next. Jesus immediately began to cast the demons out of the man and in response they begged for mercy. The man who could not be subdued, collapses in the presence of Jesus. The man who could not be bound is paralyzed by the grace of God as he finds himself freed of his spiritual bindings.

A rose by any other name

Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss. (Luke 8:30-31)

What value is there in knowing the name of a demon? This is the question that should pop into our mind when we read this section. As we already discussed, the reply given by the man on behalf of the demon has inspired countless forms of literature and art, but mostly for the wrong reasons. Often characters declare the refrain “We are legion, we are many” to harken toward a group’s communal strength and ability to overcome adversity. In this account the strength of the demonic forces in the man is the primary focus. Their presence has given him superhuman strength and sustained him in circumstances where others would have withered.

In fact, their communal strength is also emphasized by the military implications of their name. A legion was not just a high number, it was a military unit composed of 5,200 elite infantry, plus supporting troops! The Roman legions were famous. They were not the sum of Rome’s military, but the elite heavy infantry. In BC 107 Gaius Marius had instituted reforms that meant that legions became permanent until formally disbanded due to losses in combat or political restructuring – much like modern-day regiments of armies. This meant that legions in the time of Jesus could date back a hundred years with storied histories of conquest and military campaigns.

By declaring themselves legion, the demons of Gerasene were making a statement about their nature beyond just numbers: they were indeed powerful and dangerous. An elite cadre of fallen angels filled with malice, hatred, and spite. This is important for us to note, not because we need to know to be able to fight such forces ourselves, but because of what Jesus’ utter disregard for that power and danger tells us.

The Indisputable Authority and Power of Jesus

A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. (Luke 8:32-33)

Note the tone that the demons strike when they speak to Jesus. From the moment they encountered Jesus they are desperate; their tone is one of capitulation, not conflict. The mighty legion of the abyss, the elite of Satan’s fallen angels numbering in their thousands, are utterly and completely powerless before the Son of God. Jesus does not need to wrestle with them, there is no back and forth, he need not summon his strength nor call for aid. Though the devil had tried to tempt him with power and authority following Jesus’ time in the desert, we see here the true scope of his power and authority. It is absolute.

We must remember that there is no dualistic battle between good and evil in Christian doctrine. No Yin and Yang, no ebb and flow, no push and pull. God is not bound by Newton’s third law – there is no equal and opposite reaction to his goodness. As we are told in John 1 – the darkness has not overcome the light, nor is that even a possibility.

This is the reason Luke included all the details about the man’s condition. It was to demonstrate the full power of Jesus’ deliverance – there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus. It was also to demonstrate the destructive impact of the demons upon the man’s life. The demon’s swift end in the herd of pigs serves to demonstrate to us the end consequences of rebellion against God. Just as following Jesus brings life and deliverance, so living in opposition to him brings death and destruction. His goodness permeates through us, sustaining us, and its absence leads to suffocation and despair.

The destruction wrought by the demons to both the man and the pigs also demonstrates to us the full extent of the machinations of “powers and authorities” of this world. They have lost the war and they know it. Legion snaps and surrenders the moment they lay eyes upon Jesus; we must assume that Satan and his forces are under no illusions of victory. They are bitter and resentful, lashing out and causing harm, not to win battles, but just to hurt those whom God loves.

Delivered with Purpose

When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left. The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him. (Luke 8:34-39)

We are told in Mark 5:16 the full reason for the people’s rejection of Jesus. He’s bad for business. Though they are fearful of his power – though they have witnessed a miracle of unprecedented scale – their own comfort and security remain as barriers to the message of deliverance that Jesus brings. The message here is powerful, a man bound by an army of demons finds salvation seemingly without effort, yet sometimes we refuse to acknowledge Jesus’ goodness because we are caught up in our own greed and fears.

Keep in mind the full impact of what has happened here. We have the ghoulish figure we described before – a man naked, bruised, chained and wild for several years. Yet now he sits calmly, fully clothed, and presumably unchained. The fear the people feel at this sight is probably two-fold – like the fear you have when presented with a tame animal that by all rights should be wild. To the people of this area, this man was probably thought of as being akin to a bear, wolf or lion. Yet now he sits at Jesus’ feet, and here you get the second source of fear – who is this man who tamed the wild man of Gerasa and controlled the spirits within him.

While many people reject Jesus, this man has embraced deliverance and salvation. He seeks to follow Jesus. When out of his mind he begged Jesus to leave him alone. Now in his right mind he begs Jesus to be with him. Yet Jesus has other plans for him. He was not saved to keep the message of his deliverance to himself, but to share it. Not only does the man do so, but he does so with passion. Note the parallel drawn in the last verse of our passage. Jesus tells the man:

“Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him. (Luke 8:39)

We too have been delivered with purpose. The deliverance of the man from Gerasa shows us how complete the power of Jesus is. It reminds us that there is no part of our lives that cannot be overcome by his love and grace. Even if you were to be overtaken by a legion of demons, he will seek you out, he will lift you up, and he will deliver you from every one of your demons – no matter what they may be.

The Spirit of Truth w/ Jenny Richards W3

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June 19 – Proper 7
Luke 8:26-39 “Hog Wild”

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Program Transcript

The Spirit of Truth w/ Jenny Richards W3

Anthony: Let’s move on to our next passage, which is Luke 8:26-39. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 7 in Ordinary Time, which is June the 19th.

And the passage reads:

26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Jenny, there are faith traditions which emphasize the activity of evil spirits, demons, and a Christian’s ability to cast out those spirits. Help us to understand a way of thinking about demons from a Christ-centered perspective.

Jenny: I feel like in answering this question, I’m going to sound like a little bit of a broken record. But I’ll probably just start by saying that there is a lot that I don’t understand about these kinds of ministries.

But what I do know in relation to trying to bring a Christ-centered perspective to those and being faithful to that kind of perspective, ss that we need to not be dualist in how we view the activity of evil spirits and demons, and what’s going on in relation to those issues. And we need to not disconnect who Jesus is from what he does in approaching it.

So, that is seen in this passage for me quite powerfully. Jesus didn’t have some special power to zap demons. It’s just that the demons can’t stand in the presence of Jesus. The thing that struck me in this passage is that it’s all about who Jesus is. Not some abstracted power that Christians are supposed to wield as a form of spiritual discipline.

As I said, I don’t pretend to know much about these kinds of ministries, but they can’t be approached from a dualistic mindset that treats Satan or demonic power as the equal opposite of Jesus. And in the same way, the name of Jesus is not a weapon that we wield that is disconnected from who Jesus is as the Son of the Father. We’re not about seeking after spiritual power is an end in its own right or as a sign of some kind of spiritual hierarchy among Christians.

The other huge thing for me in this passage is that as much as these kinds of issues are often framed with language of warfare or battles, I don’t see a fight here. The demons knew who Jesus was and they knew that the whole thing was over. They started in verse 31, I think it was, from the point of begging him not to cast. There was no fight. It was just, okay, Jesus, what’s going to happen next because it was quite clearly that Jesus, because of who he was, would be the one who determined what happened to them.

Anthony: That’s good. I liked the way you framed it. It’s not a battle. It’s clear who the victor is.

Jenny: It’s really not. And what we do is in Jesus’ name. Absolutely. But we don’t use his name as the kind of weapon that’s thrown out there. That would be to disconnect his name from who he is. The reason that his name is so significant is because of who he is. We can’t separate those things.

Anthony: Because of the mysteriousness of the unclean spirits in this story, it becomes easy to overlook the fact that Jesus healed a man who had been possessed and deeply burdened by those Spirits. What does this tell us about the God revealed in Jesus?

Jenny: I think for me, this shows the tender heart of the Father that’s full of compassion for us. And he cares far more about us than about our theology because this man didn’t have his theology right! He couldn’t recognize even recognized Jesus. He didn’t ask Jesus for help. They certainly couldn’t show that he had enough faith to deserve healing. All of that kind of thinking smacks of contract, doesn’t it?

Especially when we remember that faith itself is a gift of the Spirit and not something that we muster up in ourselves disconnected from the work of the Spirit in our hearts. So here we see that just in the fact of this healing, we see that God cares deeply about our brokenness and doesn’t shy away from trauma.

Healing is a thing, and it’s deeply important to Jesus. This man was dressed, and he was in his right mind. In going through the passage, those were the two things that really stood out to me. So being dressed and in his right mind, his dignity was restored. Also, he wasn’t chained or under guard anymore. So, his freedom was restored.

We so often forget that Jesus didn’t come for those who don’t need a doctor, even though he says that I’ve come for those who were sick. And it also tells us in this passage, this kind of deliverance is a Trinitarian act because at the end, Jesus says, go and tell what God has done. Not go and tell what I have done.

Anthony: I can’t help but think how beautiful is it that we have the ongoing Incarnation of Jesus. We might look at this passage and go, wow, I want Jesus to understand my situation just like he did this man’s situation. But we have a high priest who understands, who didn’t unzip himself, take off his skin suit, but remains in it.

It’s not like it was some sort of wet clothing that he couldn’t wait to remove from who he is, but he’s maintained it as the true man who is for us!

Jenny: I agree. And I think there’s something so profound about (and this is a whole conversation), but what I will say is there is something that is so profound about what we can understand about our suffering and our trauma and the brokenness that we experience as human beings, for whatever reason, and the tenderness that Jesus deals with us in those things is because when we take the Incarnation seriously, we understand that Jesus is in us through the Spirit. He is in us. And if we are understanding being not just in that dualistic way, but in an onto-relational way, then Jesus is experiencing my life with me.

So, everything that happens to me is also happening to Jesus. And pastorally—and this harks back to so much of my thesis, so I won’t get started on it now—but pastorally, the difference when we meet people in our brokenness and we say he can empathize with us in our weakness, he understands our full humanity, and because he is now with you and in you, he is experiencing that with you when you are not alone in it, and he understands completely what’s going on for you—more so than you do yourself. Pastorally, there is something beautiful in that reality.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life:

  • Most of us have experienced the rollercoaster of going from a spiritual high to having our exuberance dashed by life’s hardships, much like Elijah. Share one such experience. How did you end up getting back on track?
  • God’s response to Elijah’s despondency is one of compassion and patience. How can we reflect this attitude in the various spheres of our own life: family, work, friends etc?

From the Sermon

  • The man filled with demons in this passage is described in vivid detail as a ghoulish person, with unholy strength and a wild disposition, yet once Jesus delivers him, he is calm, clothed, and attentive. In what ways has Jesus transformed you that reflect this dramatic transformation?
  • Jesus demonstrates that there is nothing he cannot deliver us from. Do you believe this? Are there struggles or sins in your life that you need to apply this truth to?

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