A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on June 20, 2010.
I can still remember watching the movie, The Exorcist, with Joani when it debuted in 1973. This movie about demons and their hideous behavior scared us to death, partly because the special effects were amazing, partly because we didn’t have a category for what we had just seen, and partly because our Christian faith didn’t really take demons seriously…except, of course, for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons!
We were both in college in those days. And most of the people we know looked upon all things supernatural with a lot of suspicion. Science was king of the intellectual hill, and the more scholarly crowd thought the only way you could make a religion like Christianity respectable was ignore the miracles of Jesus and focus on the morality of Jesus.
But the Oscar winning movie The Exorcist, featuring a demon-possessed teenaged girl whose head spun completely around while she levitated above her bed and spoke with a blood-curling male voice, challenged the reigning secular outlook head-on. Suddenly, everybody was talking about supernatural demons and supernatural healing through Catholic rituals of exorcism. And Christians were noticing all over again that the exorcism of evil spirits was addressed in the New Testament.
And well they should! According to the New Testament, Jesus, the master of all exorcists, had repeated run-ins with the Devil and his demons.
Presbyterian pastor and professor Craig Barnes wryly notes that when we preachers run across a biblical text that talks about demons, we’re tempted to skip over that part and keep reading. Despite our seminary training, we don’t have a category for the demonic, either. But then Barnes adds that if you stay with Jesus in the New Testament narrative, you find dealing with the demonic unavoidable.
Take the gospel of Luke, for example. According to Luke 4, Jesus has barely toweled off from being baptized in the Jordan River before the Spirit of God drives him into the desert where he will be sorely tempted by the Devil for 40 days and nights. Before he preaches his first sermon, or calls his first disciple, or performs his first miracle, Jesus does battle with the Devil. And the Devil’s demons aren’t far behind.
Before Luke 4 concludes Jesus has driven an evil spirit out of a man after preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Before the day is out, Jesus is at it again outside the home of Simon Peter, healing the multitudes and exorcising demons out of many people. Several days later, according to Luke 6, Jesus is again, healing many who were troubled with evil spirits. Still later in Luke 8, we are introduced to Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus had cast seven demons.
Then comes perhaps the most confusing and controversial exorcism in all the New Testament—the healing of the “Gerasene demoniac”. This passage bristles with so many interpretative challenges that preachers are sorely tempted to detour around the story. And it’s not just the demons that cause problems.
This exorcism story appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew has it occurring in the country of the Gadarenes, while Mark and Luke locate it in the country of the Gerasenes. Which is it? Matthew says two men are demon-possessed, Mark and Luke only talk about one demon-possessed man. Which is it?
Reams of commentary have been devoted to these kinds of issues. But I want to push these issues aside and focus on what I consider a key point—both locations are in Gentile territory. This incident represents the only time in Jesus’ ministry he ventures into Gentile territory. He literally sails from the north end to the south end of the Sea of Galilee for no discernible reason other than to demonstrate that there’s nowhere Jesus won’t go to invite people into the Kingdom of God.
Last year we had a four-week emphasis on evangelism entitled, “Just Walk Across the Room.” You could call this ministry move of Jesus, “Just Sail Across a Lake.” The compassion of Jesus was simply unbounded. Even though Jews weren’t supposed to be seen with unclean Gentiles, much less minister to them, Jesus refused to let his love for people be limited by arbitrary boundaries.
Naturally, Jesus’ excursion across the sea raises all kinds of prickly questions for Christ-followers. Does our compassion have boundaries? Who are the “Gentiles” in our lives, and are we willing to walk across our neighborhoods and communities to seek them out?
What happens once Jesus gets off the boat is so wild and woolly and weird that it causes our heads to spin!
When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town.
Let’s pause for a moment. We’re being introduced to a man literally living in hell because he’s possessed by demons from hell. So, my question is why would this man be waiting to greet Jesus when he got off the boat? Why wouldn’t a man full of demons want to avoid the most effective exorcist ever to live?
The text doesn’t tell us why. But I have my own theory. Possessed though he was with compulsions and powers beyond his control, some part of this man’s soul wanted to be free, wanted to be liberated from all that held him in bondage. He was dominated by his demons, but not so completely dominated that he couldn’t take the necessary step to get healed. Had he not taken that step, he might never have met Jesus, might never been healed.
If you find yourself captive to some kind of bondage, are you willing to take that same step and meet the Jesus who is ready to meet you?
Let’s continue. 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 evil 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.
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.
So, let’s ask the $64,000 question—what are we to make of all these demons?
The word demon comes from the Greek “daimon” which means evil or unclean spirit. Traditional Christian theology understands demons to be those fallen spiritual beings or angels that joined Satan in a heavenly revolt soon after the beginning of time. Later Satan would enlist these same fallen spirits to assist him in his crusade of tempting, influencing, and possessing human beings, and generally wreaking havoc around the world.
While the Old Testament says little about demons or evil spirits, the New Testament has plenty to say as we’ve already seen. It’s interesting to note that these demons from hell often better understand who Jesus is then his own disciples, and they want no part of the Son of God. Eventually, Jesus will give the twelve disciples power and authority to drive out demons. In the book of Acts, the disciples and the Apostle Paul freely exercise that power. And according to the early church fathers, exorcisms continue to be a staple of Christian ministry for centuries.
But what do we make of exorcisms in the 21st century? We can make two grave errors when it comes to demons. The first is to dismiss all demons as ancient manifestations of mental or physical illness and nothing more. I agree with Jeffrey Burton Russell who says that whether educated Christians like it or not, you cannot exorcise the Devil and his demons from the Christian faith without destroying the integrity of scripture. Besides, if we disavow the existence of demons, we are playing into the Devil’s hands—his favorite trick is to convince us neither he nor his minions exist.
That said, we can also acknowledge that mental and physical illness may contribute to or exist along side demon possession. Indeed, some have speculated that the Gerasene demoniac is an example of someone who is both mentally ill and demon-possessed. Who’s to say it always has to be either mental illness or demon-possession?
Likewise, it is a mistake to obsess about demons, giving them more credit than they are due. My own hunch is that supernatural demon possession today (at least in the Western World) is quite possible, but also quite rare. What is not rare is possession and bondage involving mind-altering substances like alcohol and drugs, and life-destroying emotions like rage, lust, bitterness, and greed.
There’s not a person in the sound of my voice that is not dealing with some kind of demon at some level. You thought it would be exhilarating to earn lots of money, but now your possessions possess you. You thought alcohol was a harmless social beverage, and now you are chained to the bottle. You thought Internet pornography was an entertaining pastime, now you are hooked to those provocative images. You thought you could hate the one who hurt you and not suffer, now you realize your own hatred and bitterness are suffocating your soul. In a thousand different ways, a legion of demons taunt you and defeat you, driving your soul into solitary places, stripping you of your of self-worth.
What’s worse is you’ve tried to exorcise your own demons, and failed—miserably. You’ve told yourself you’ve got to learn to live with your demons, manage them as best you can, hide them in the deep tombs of your life and pray nobody notices. Worst of all, the demon of discouragement has convinced you that living a fulfilling Christian life is nothing more than a pipedream, a figment of some preacher’s imagination.
In fact, that’s the very kind of thinking that explains the strange response of the Gentiles to that “exorcist extraordinaire” named Jesus. You would think the Gerasenes would be falling over each other to follow Jesus after this awesome display of Jesus’ power. First, Jesus gains power over the demons by learning their name, “Legion,” which means many. Then he outwits the demons who are terrified of winding up in the “Abyss,” or that bottomless pit reserved for evil spirits that holds them captive for all eternity.
The demons would far rather live in pigs than perish in the Abyss. But when the demons leave these men and occupy the pigs the demon-possessed swine rush headlong into the sea, in effect sending the demons to the very place they hoped to avoid.
When the townspeople hear about this, they are terrified, and tell Jesus to leave? Why? Because they don’t have a category for a man like this. Nor do they want to adjust their lives to the new reality called Jesus. Sadly, they’d rather learn how to manage their demons than trust their lives to a Savior who could rid their lives of demons for good.
Interestingly enough, Jesus does not object. He got into the boat and left the Gentiles to their own devices.
See, there was one Gentile who was ready to roll for Jesus. He was the one formerly called Legion who used to walk around naked in graveyards ranting and raving like a lunatic. Now, he was sitting at Jesus’ feet, a favorite saying of Luke to denote that this man is now a committed disciple of Jesus. He was fully dressed, in his right mind, in his right life—the life God had planned for him all along.
The healed asked Jesus if he could join his team of disciples. Again, Jesus surprises us when he says, “No.” “Return home,” Jesus says, “and tell how much God has done for you.” And he did. And the Gospel of Mark says as the man went about sharing his story and the gospel, everybody marveled.
Isn’t that something? The first evangelist to the Gentiles was not Peter or Paul. It was a formerly demon-possessed man. He had no seminary training, no prior church experience. His only qualification for walking across the room to his fellow Gentiles was that he was once lost, but now was found, possessed by demons but now free.
So—what’s stopping you from just walking across the room?