Evil Contained

Luke 8:22-39
David A. Davis
February 25, 2024
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The fear comes even before Jesus steps out of the boat in the 8th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. The disciples are overwhelmed with fear and amazement after Jesus “rebuked the wind and the raging waves.” Though eight chapters into the gospel where healings and cleansing and teaching abound, Jesus calming the storm leaves the disciples afraid. Maybe that’s why none of them got out of the boat on the other side. It is only Jesus himself who steps out on the Gentile land across the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum. The description of the unnamed man’s reaction to the arrival of Jesus also oozes fear. “The man of the city who had demons.” The man falls down at the feet of Jesus begging the Son of the Most High God not to torment him. Luke never reports that the man was overwhelmed with fear but it sure sounds like it.

There on the other side Jesus steps out of the boat into the world that reeked of torment, suffering, and death. A placed where the forces of darkness, the powers that work against the ways of God, forces and powers run amok there among the tombs. The demon infested pigs were not the only ones headed for the abyss. Jesus himself stepped out on the edge of the abyss to a one-on-one conversation with the tormented soul there in that place for the dead. The man tormented by an unclean spirit multiplied by a factor of several thousand (as in legion). Forces so powerful that sometimes the shackle and chains would be broken and the man would be driven even further “into the wild”.  Fewer terms, fewer metaphors are fraught with more meaning in both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament than the wild; the wilderness. The man was sent to the same wilderness, the same abyss as Jesus was when the Spirit led him out to a place to be tempted by the devil. Jesus stepped out of the boat into a world he already knew.

The gospel’s lingering on the details here, it may not stoke fear in the reader, but it certainly foments discomfort. Or at the very least, it raises lots and lots of questions that have few easy answers. The magnitude of the man’s suffering is not the end of fear in the passage either. After Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come of the man and after Jesus humanizes him by asking his name, the demons beg Jesus to let them enter a herd of pigs. The demons rush down the bank and drown themselves in the Sea of Galilee. The calmed sea now all stirred up again. The pigs die in an abyss after all. Demons can’t avoid the abyss. Demons demon. Rushing to get as far away as possible from the ways of God.

When the man now no longer tormented man is clothed and in his right mind sitting at the feet of Jesus, that’s when fear rises again; great fear. The farmers tending the herd of pigs saw everything that happened both to the man and to their pigs. They went to tell everyone in the country and in the city. Everyone. They came to see for themselves. The people saw the healed man and were afraid. The people heard the details of the story an all the people, everyone, was seized “with great fear”.  If Luke had made reference to the anger of the swineherds or mention of the economic disruption to the entire community, maybe we could convince ourselves that the people were angry rather than afraid. Their great fear didn’t come until they saw the man sitting at the feet of Jesus clothed and in in his right mind.

Jesus takes on the powers of darkness, empire, suffering, evil, and death, power exhibited  to the nth degree. Jesus goes toe to toe with all that is at work in the world against what God intends, against the kingdom now fulfilled in him, and the people were afraid. Was their great fear because of the power Jesus unleashed in calling out the demons from the man or did their create fear come from seeing the wholeness and health of the man the world tortured with chains and shackles. Of course, the answer is yes.

It is easier when you know where to point, where to look, what to hate. It is easier when the forces of darkness are contained somewhere, in something, in someone. There is clarity in life when there is a clear enemy. The people were afraid because Jesus took away their scapegoat. Jesus brought healing to the one they believe to be the face of death. Jesus took away the focus of their fear kept in the tombs where darkness and death belong. With the man sitting there at the feet of Jesus whole, the man being set free, the people started wondering where to look. The people were so afraid they begged Jesus, Son of the Most High God to leave. The people were so afraid they turned their backs on the Savior in their midst. The chose darkness rather than light. The people who walked in darkness turned away from the great light. The people begged “God With Us” to head the other way.

This gospel story so full of fear, that great fear that comes from all the people near the end, it may not stoke fear in the reader, but it certainly foments discomfort. The man begged Jesus to allow him to stay with him, to go him. The man made whole wanted to get back in the boat with Jesus. But Jesus sent him: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Professor Barreto suggests that Jesus sent the man home to embody healing, to bring healing, to witness to good and wholeness and healing right in his own community so broken by fear and torn by the forces of darkness. To perhaps make a difference for the sake of the gospel among those whose actions and fear were far from “neighboring’. Those who seemed far from doing likewise. As is often the case in the gospel stories of Jesus, the Son of the Most High, the reader never knows how that went for the man, or for the Gerasenes, of for all the people once Jesus headed back on the boat.

Jesus stepped out of the boat into a world that reeked of torment, suffering, and death. A world full of the forces of darkness and power that works against the ways of God. A world where the forces that work to squelch the kingdom way are far from contained. Where so many demonize, label, and fear those who are different in an effort to know there to look and what to hate. A world where no explanation point is needed because the examples and descriptions are stacked up like the details of this gospel story that are so discomforting and raise so many questions. A world where further details need not be listed. Jesus stepped out of that boat right into your world and mine. Jesus stepped out of that boat into your world and mine.

I have been watching the PBS documentary written and narrated by Henry Louis Gates. His first documentary not long ago was on the Black Church. The current one is on Gospel music. This week’s episode ended with an anthem familiar to us here at Nassau Church; Richard Smallwood’s Total Praise. One of the consistent themes that comes up as he and others discuss the history of Gospel music is the inseparable relationship between preaching and gospel music in the Black Church. Gates and others tell of the despair and loss of hope in the church after Dr. King was assassinated. Through preaching and gospel music the church refused to give in the powers of darkness and evil forces of racism. Not only were people able to cling to hope, they dared to rejoice and give thanks for the promise of God’s present and ultimate victory. In their sermons, preachers like Gardner Taylor and Shirley Cesar and others elevated the conclusions of their sermons to another level when it came to taking worshippers to an experience of praise, hope, and yes, joy.

Henry Mitchell was the dean of the teaching of African American preaching. He called that kind of conclusion to a sermon “celebration”. He taught that every sermon should end in celebration. Mitchell wrote this: “Celebration is not to be mistaken for exhortation, even though it may actually bring the same result. The concluding  “challenge”  so often heard is not as great a motivator as being glad about God’s will and work in the same area of the Kingdom. The more people rejoice about the goodness and faithfulness of God, the more they establish that joyous quality,,,[in[ their inner livs, regardless of outer chaos. Preaching’s accentuation of the positive Good News should help hearers be liberated….as well empower them to seek by faith and work to liberate the oppressed.”

Jesus stepped out of that board into the outer chaos of your world and mine. That’s the Good News, isn’t it? Good News. That’s the gospel! Jesus the Son of the Most High God stepped into this world. From the ark of Mary’s womb, he came bearing our flesh. A flesh that aches when surrounded by the powers and principalities. A flesh that cries out for light amid the present darkness. A flesh that craves the present and ultimate victory of God. It is the Good News. For as you and I draw near to the man set free, now released from all the trappings of death and captivity, another tomb comes into view. Another tomb comes into view for the followers of Jesus. That tomb is empty. He sets us free from death too. For this Jesus, the Savior who steps into our world again and again, this Son of God has conquered death and plunged the depths of the abyss itself. He has forever broken the shackles and chain of those powers that work against the ways of God. And for those of us who live in a world of evil uncontained, who walk in a land of deep darkness, on them, on us, a light has shined.

And so God’s people will dare to hope, and the people will not fear, though the “earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, for God is our refuge and strength” (Psalm 46). God’s people dare to pray endlessly for peace for one day the “people shall beat their swords into plowshares and nations shall not lift up sword against nation”. One day God’s people “will learn war no more”. (Isaiah). God’s people will work for justice and mercy and compassion knowing 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”. This “God with Us’ will guide them to springs of living water, and God will “wipe away ever tear from their eyes” (Rev )

Until that day, here along the Way where Jesus steps out of the boat again and again in this world of outer chaos, you and I are called to go home and to tell anyone you can find how much God has done for us.