David A. Davis
November 11, 2018
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The calm didn’t last long. The dead calm of the sea as Jesus and the disciples came ashore on the other side. Calm probably never lasts long enough. Nothing could be less calm than the scene described here in Mark as Jesus stepped out of the boat. “Immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.” No, the calming of the sea didn’t last long or long enough. The magnitude of the man’s suffering confronts Jesus right away as his feet hit the shore. A magnitude of suffering that the reader is not allowed to miss either. Here, even by chapter 5, Mark’s reader has learned to expect brevity, and an affinity for less words than the other gospels. But not here, not on the shore just after the calm. The reader has to linger for a while with Jesus and the tormented soul, linger there in the seaside burial ground, linger in the arena of unspeakable suffering and in the presence of evil and surrounded by death. The very description of the man puts an exclamation point on his suffering. It doesn’t read “a man met Jesus who had an unclean spirit and lived in the tombs.” Not the sentence is front-loaded with his torment. “A man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.”
Jesus’ encounters with demons in Mark are typically short, terse, brusque, curt. As in Mark chapter one: “and Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons,” as in Mark chapter three: “Whenever the unclean spirits saw Jesus, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God’”. But here, the expanded description of the man and his demons is haunting in its detail, specific on the impact on others in the community, and downright frightening in its portrayal of how the man was living. It’s pretty clear that in describing what confronted Jesus right after the calm, in describing the depth of pain and anguish that hit Jesus smack in the face when he stepped off the boat, that the gospel writer intends to confront the reader as well with all that suffering.
A few days ago a person walked into the office asking to see a pastor. After some introductions out at the reception desk, I invited the visitor into my office. I recognized the person having seen them around town at various spots. “Father, can I tell you something about me and God?” I said “yes, of course”. “I’m really mad at God these days.” I could have said, “well, join the club” but I just continued to listen. “I’m an alcoholic, and when I drink, I get vulgar, and I am not nice to people. I’ve been homeless for 20 years and I’ve battled mental illness since I was a teenager.” I kept listening. Though this person from around town never told me specifically what made the anger at God come, I figured the anger was sort of about everything. “You know, God has big shoulders” I said, “God can take your anger. The bible is full of people who express their anger, their frustration at God. Full of people who shake a fist at God.” The person started to shed some tears “Father, that’s the nicest thing to hear. You’ve made my day. I’m going to remember that, ‘God has big shoulders.’” I asked what more we could do, if a hot meal would help. “No, no, you given me all I need today.”
We talked a bit more. Shared some laughs. As we were parting company, the visitor told me of homeless friend who carried around an old Billy Graham daily devotional book. “Do you know, on p. 63 of that book Billy Graham said that mental illness was evil?” I said “really?” And starting to leave my office, my friend said, “And I think that’s a load of crap.” But that wasn’t the word used. “I’m sorry Father!” I said, “that’s okay, I think it’s a load of crap, too!” And I used the same word.
The bible, and Mark’s story of what the tradition calls the Gerasene demonic, is not a treatise on mental illness or the spirituality of mental health or a prescriptive example of mental health care. Yes, description of suffering and the impact on family, loved ones, and the community certainly seems timeless. But here in Mark 5, in the world created by the New Testament, it is the story of Jesus going to toe to toe with evil. After the calm, Jesus stepped out of the boat into a world that reeked of suffering and death. He stepped onto a place considered religiously impure, foreign, even tainted. The land of the tombs would have been considered unclean and a place where evil lurked. All those pigs running around puts an exclamation point on the uncleanliness of the scene. The symbolism is not to be missed. It’s sort of stacked up; a legion of spirits, tombs, pigs. Demons, death, and the epitome of what is unclean according to the law all lumped together and thrown into the sea so recently calmed by the voice of Jesus himself.
This healing, this miracle doesn’t work out too well for the pigs. Last week it was the fig tree in Mark 11. This week the pigs and, of course, the pig farmers. Presumably their livelihood was just drowned in the sea, for the sake of one man made whole. Not great math, not great economics, not great policy, Jesus. After the herd had plunged out of sight, the pig farmers ran to tell in the city and in the country. I take that to mean they told everyone. Mark records that “the people came to see what it was that had happened.” The people rushed to see Jesus, to see what he had done. Then all the people saw the man, that man, “sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion.” It was then, that the people were afraid. It was then that the people talked about it. You know how people are, they probably talked about it endlessly. Spreading the word of discontent. Fomenting anger, fear, even hate. People are good at that. The people kept talking about what Jesus did to that man and how that scary guy among the tombs was just sitting there in clean clothes and with his mind clear. They got so worked up about it that they “began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.”
If Mark had described the anger of the swine keepers, then maybe we could convince ourselves that the community was upset with Jesus because of the economic disruption of an entire herd gone into sea. But Mark tells us that the people arrived from the country and from the city. Mark doesn’t record that they were led back by the pig farmers. It was the people who heard all about. The people who saw the tortured man now sitting with Jesus. They saw him and they were afraid. The people were afraid. Jesus takes on the presence of evil, evil multiplied over and over again. Jesus takes on evil, and suffering, and death and brings wholeness to one man. And they were afraid.
It was much easier when they knew to be scared of the chain man down at the tombs, when they knew where evil was, when they knew where to look, and where to point. It’s so much easier to know when evil is contained somewhere or in someone, when you know what and whom to hate. There is a lot of clarity in life when there is an enemy or when someone is demonized. The people were afraid because Jesus took the locus of evil away in their town. He took away the focus of their fear. They looked into the face of the one now made whole and were so ruled by their fear that they begged the Son of God to leave the neighborhood. They begged the Light of the world to leave them in darkness. They begged God with us to just get the heck out of here.
Jesus stepped out of the boat into a world of suffering and torment and violence and destruction and disease and death. A world where no symbolism is needed, no exclamation point is needed. Because the uncleanliness of it all speaks for itself. A world where evil lurks and death is real. A world where the shackles and chains of oppression and poverty and malnutrition forever bind vast numbers of God’s people. A world where the precious memories of the fallen in war can so easily fade when tensions rise and weapons are flaunted. A world where hatred and bigotry and the demonizing of entire populations of people is used for all sorts of purposes and then turns to brutal violence in just a heartbeat. A world where local bars, and houses of worship, and yoga studios, and schools become crime scenes. A world where trips to the cemetery never really stop and the phone calls about a friend’s diagnosis or distant family member’s passing never let up and the reminders of the reality of death are certain and sure. Jesus stepped out the boat right into your world and mine.
Jesus, the Son of God, Jesus the Light of the World, Jesus, God with us, stepped into your world, birthed from Mary’s womb bearing our very flesh and with heart like ours that aches when surrounded by the darkness and the suffering of this world. Jesus brought healing and wholeness to that one man. And when you linger with the man from Gerasene for just a bit on the bench just outside the tombs, allow another burial ground to come to mind. One with an empty tomb. For 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 forces, those powers, those principalities, the chaos, of all that works against the ways of God. And for those of us who live in a world, in land of deep darkness, on them, on us, a light has shined.
So indeed, in this world of ours, God’s people will dare to hope, and God’s 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. We will dare to pray endlessly for peace, for one day the people shall beat their swords into plowshares, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation. That one day God’s people will learn war no more. God’s people will work for justice and mercy and compassion knowing that one day 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, that one day this God with Us will guide them to springs of living water, and that one day God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Until that day, when you find yourself surrounded by the darkness and suffering of the world, when your hearts aches, why don’t you go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you. Tell them of the mercy, the love, and the grace of God. Because some days, most days, every day, you and I ought to be sharing something good with one another. Something good, like the goodness of the Lord.