David A. Davis
March 22, 2020
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The discomfort pretty much comes as soon as Jesus steps out of the boat in Luke, chapter 8. The uneasiness that stirs in Luke’s reader. A sort of gnawing feeling as Jesus steps out on land and is immediately met by “a man of the city who had demons”. The man who wore no clothes for a long time. The man who “did not live in a house but in the tombs.” The man who “was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles.” The man wouldn’t break the shackles and chains and be driven into the wilds. For Luke’s readers, for those draw into the gospel’s witness to the life of Jesus, for the church, for you and for me, a kind of knot in the stomach starts to churn as soon as Jesus steps out of the boat.
Luke and his “telling of the events that have been fulfilled among us (1:1)”. It is one thing to linger with his extended telling of the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. It is one thing to walk slowly along the Emmaus Road with the Risen Christ and the two disciples. But lingering here among the tombs and demons, it is uncomfortable. This is the first and only time in Luke that Jesus ventures into the Gentile, unknown territory “opposite Galilee”. To put an exclamation point on the unknown, ritually and religiously unclean place, the man lived in the tombs among the dead. And the demons begged Jesus to let them enter a heard of pigs. Pigs and the dead, both unclean. Right after Jesus calms the sea, Luke brings Jesus to a most uncalm place. An uncomfortable place. In the telling of this story, only Luke uses words like “the wilds” and “the abyss”. It is as if Luke wants his reader to be uncomfortable too.
A certain degree of the uneasiness in Luke 8 comes when you and I reflect upon history’s portrayal of mental illness and the semantics of demons and evil. That connection between mental illness and the manifestation of evil is rooted deep in humanity’s past and the history of biblical interpretation hasn’t always been helpful in providing the necessary language to create distance from that past. But in the world by this New Testament text, it is a story that tells of Jesus going toe to toe with evil. Jesus up to his eyeballs in the abyss and the wilds. Just like the wilderness temptations at the hand of the devil in Luke 4. Just like Jesus enduring the betrayal and desertion of those he loved in Luke 22. Just like Jesus suffering the brutal torture and death in Luke 23. When Jesus steps out of the boat in Luke 8, he steps into a world that reeked of suffering and death. He stepped into humanity’s world. And in that world, Jesus confronts all that works against the ways and intentions of God, all that seeks to destroy the promise and the shape and the gift of God’s salvation made known to us in and through him. In and through this Jesus.
Luke and his discomforting account of the man from Geresene. And the discomfort and unease grow a bit, the knot tightens a bit with Luke’s portrayal of the people and their reaction. “When the swineherds saw what had happened”, Luke writes, “they went and told it in the city and in the country. 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.” It was not until then that they were afraid. Not when there was an unclothed man being tormented in the tombs. Not when a man ran off into the wild having smashed the chains and shackles that bound him. Not when they were told about the herd and the sea. It was then when the man sat dressed in clothes at the feet of Jesus. Luke tells us about the people, those who arrived from the city and the country. He tells about the people and how they were afraid. The people were filled with fear. Jesus takes on all that seeks to destroy, a force coming at him to the nth degree, and the people were afraid when they saw the man made whole.
It must be easier when you know what to hate, where to look, where to point. It must be easier when evil is contained somewhere, shackled and chained. Life has a clarity when you know where the threat lives, where the threat is, where the threat comes from. The people were afraid because Jesus removed the locus of evil from their town. He took away the centrality of darkness. The people are so afraid, “seized with great fear”, that they ask Jesus to leave. The demons begged Jesus not to be sent back into the abyss. The man made whole begged to stay with Jesus. The people asked Jesus to leave. So much fear that they turned their backs on the Savior in their midst. The people chose darkness rather than light. The people who walked in darkness turned away from that great light. The people begged “God with us” to head the other way.
The Gospel of Luke and the knot in your stomach. I don’t know about you, but the knot in my stomach this week, the discomfort, the uneasiness, for me it’s not just coming from my reading from the 8th chapter of Luke. In the span of few days, it feels like the world we live in changed. Our lives changed. Maybe like the change some can remember in World War II. Maybe like what some remember when President Kennedy was killed. Maybe like the change some remember during the Vietnam War, or 1968, or September 11, 2001. This maybe like all of that, maybe completely different. Regardless, our lives have changed. It feels like the world changed. When Jesus stepped out of that boat, he stepped in humanity’s world, this world. The same world. Jesus stepped out of the boat into a world of suffering and torment and terror and destruction and disease and virus and death. A world where no literary exclamation point is needed because the uncleanliness of it all speaks for itself. A world where fear and panic are real, predictions and statistics hard to fathom, and threats are far from contained. Jesus stepped out that boat right into your world and mine.
How many times have you heard me say it from your pulpit in our sanctuary? The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It is fear. Of course, fear and concern are real these days! That’s one of the reasons why the collective eye of the readers of Luke’s gospel is drawn to the people’s great fear. But they begged Jesus to leave. When Jesus, the Son of God, stepped into our world, when he burst forth from Mary’s womb, he came bearing our very flesh. A flesh that aches when surrounded by the darkness of this world. And as we linger there just outside the tombs with the man-made whole sitting at the feet of Jesus, Luke wants you to remember another tomb. Luke knows you know of another tomb in the gospel. That tomb is empty. For this Jesus, the Savior who steps into your world again and again, this Son of the Most High God has conquered death and plunged the depths of hell itself. He has forever broken the chains and the shackles of those powers and principalities. And for those of us who live in world so uncontained, in a land of deep darkness, on us, a light has shined.
And so today, this week, and next week, and the week after that, and the month after that, God’s people will dare to hope, and the people of God will not fear, as the Psalmist writes, “though the earth change, though the mountains shake (Ps 46)”. We will dare to pray for healing and wholeness and seek to love our neighbors as ourselves. We will continue to be the body of Christ for one another so we can be the body of Christ for the world. We will keep yearning to serve others and work for justice all with compassion and mercy and kindness, fully assured that the kingdom in heaven shall surely be coming on earth. A kingdom where “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more, and the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.” And the one who is on the throne, the one who stepped out of the boat into our world will lead us to springs of living water and wipe away every tear from our eye.
Until that day, here along the Way in this world where Jesus stepped out of the boat, you and I called to remember how much God has done for us. To remind one another how much Jesus has done for us. To let the world know with the very faithfulness of our lives.
The demons begged Jesus not to be sent back to the abyss. The man made whole begged to stay with Jesus. The people asked him to leave. As for us? As for you and me? Let’s beg Jesus to never, never, never leave.