By the Rev. Kristen Yates
Sermon on Luke 8:26-39 originally delivered at The Mission Cincinnati on 7/21/19.
Sermon recording can be found here.
Can Jesus truly change lives? Does He have the power to do so? These may be questions you ask yourself as you look out upon our current world, and perhaps even on your own life. There is no doubt that we live in angsty times. Addictions. Loneliness. Relational Strife. Apathy. Hatred. Violence. There are just so many maladies that plague us as a people, so we long for things to be made right. Can Jesus make our world right, can He make us right?
We want to know because planted deep down in our souls is a sense that we belong in a world that is teeming with abundant life, and characterized by healthy relationships and peace. And yet, we don’t always see that, so we want to know.
Well, recently, I came across an article that reminded me that the answers to these questions are “yes”.
The article I read was about a man named Rene Martinez. As a child, this man’s mother sacrificed animals over him as a part of her religion, and early on, he began to see demons. By age 12, he turned to a life of crime, including abusing drugs, participating in break-ins and drive-by shootings, and eventually joining a notorious Miami gang. By age 14, Rene had had several near-death experiences.
Rene continued this lifestyle for a long time, until he became a father, and at that point in time, he stepped away from the life of crime. His life, however, felt empty.
But that all began to change in 2013. One day, he heard Jesus clearly say, “I spared you for such a time as this” and he saw his life flash before him, including the several times he had almost died because of his gang involvement. He says, he repented in that moment.
It was in 2016, however, when Martinez was baptized, when His life really got turned upside down. He emerged from that experience a changed man with a call, and from that point forward, he took to the streets, sharing the Gospel with gang members and people in the projects, juvenile facilities, and prisons – people who often didn’t have the chance to hear the Gospel.
And since then, countless lives have been changed as Martinez has shared a message of repentance and transformation, and many have come to believe in Jesus Christ.
So is Jesus powerful? Does He change lives?
Well, Martinez’s testimony unquestioningly demonstrates that yes, Jesus is indeed powerful, and He does changes lives, and therefore, there is an urgency for us to share this good news with a dying world.
Friends, let us pray ……
Today, we are going to explore the passage we heard today about the healing of the demoniac. This passage is part of a series of “three mighty deeds” that Luke records which point to Jesus as being more than a human messiah. In this passage, as well as in the two others where Jesus performs mighty deeds (the calming of the storm and the healing of a woman and a little girl), Jesus shows Himself as a Deliverer who has power and authority over the physical and spiritual worlds, a quality that is actually only characteristic of God Himself.
So, the events of our Scripture reading today pick up directly after the events of last week’s passage. So, after a harrowing trip across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus and his disciples arrived in the country of the Gerasenes, a predominantly Gentile land. After having just encountered a huge storm on the sea, these men stepped off the boat and immediately encountered another storm in the form of a shouting, naked man called Legion who clearly was not in his right mind.
Upon encountering Jesus, this man possessed by a large number of demons, fell down before Jesus and cried out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.”
While the encounter with this man may have felt unsettling to Jesus and his disciples, Jesus immediately responded to the man with compassion and healing power. Just as Jesus just stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus stilled the spiritual storm that was brewing right in front of him.
He commanded the demons to leave the man, and in what must have been a very dramatic moment for the people witnessing this event, the demons left the man and entered a herd of pigs who then rushed down a steep bank into the lake and drowned. And the demon-possessed man was finally restored to himself. He was free.
It was a great moment, and the healed man not surprisingly responded to his miraculous restoration by sitting at Jesus’ feet and asking to follow Jesus. The people of the land, however, begged Jesus to leave, and Jesus complied.
Thus, without doing any more miracles there, Jesus and disciples got back into their boat, headed back over the Sea of Galilee, and returned to Jewish territory, and there our story ends.
Now, this story about Jesus that Luke records is certainly an interesting one, but it is not one that wraps up all the pieces neatly, well at least for me. When I first finished reading this passage this week, I was left with a number of questions. And maybe you have some similar ones.
So as I considered the passage this week, I wondered the following: How are we to understand a man possessed with a legion of demons? What are we to make of the pigs drowning – was that really necessary? Why did the people ask Jesus to leave after such a miraculous healing, and why did Jesus comply when he had only healed one man? (And finally) Why did Jesus not allow the healed man to follow him? There are many pieces of this story that I find curious, and again maybe you do too.
So, for our time here together this morning, I want to answer these questions, at least in part. I will briefly address the first two questions, and then I’ll flesh out the last three. All, the while, I want us to ask ourselves what are the implications of this strange passage for us.
So let’s start with the demon-possessed man. There is no doubt that this part of the story is really weird and perhaps may even be unbelievable to some of you. Possession is the imaginary stuff of T.V. shows like Stranger Things, not reality. Perhaps like some modern commentaries I read this week, some of you might even try to explain this situation away by saying that this man was simply dealing with some kind of psychosis.
Now, while this may feel like the most comfortable and logical way to interpret this Scripture, I want to say that I do believe that this is accurate, and that as weird as it is, we are to take this passage at face value. The reality is that throughout Scripture, there is talk of a spiritual world that includes demons. 2 Peter 2:4 tells us there were angels that sinned who were cast into hell. Revelation 12 tells us that there is a battle that rages between Michael and his angels and Satan and his angels.
If we are to fully inhabit the Biblical world, then we must come to grapple with the reality of a demonic world, but it is certainly easy for those of us who are heirs to a Western modern mindset to be skeptical. I used to be.
Interestingly enough though, vast groups of people around the world, however, are not so skeptical because of their lived experiences. For example, Professor Craig Keener from Asbury Theological Seminary has shown through an interesting anthropological study that the phenomenon of demon possession is experienced in numerous cultures and by people of various religious affiliation around the world, and guess what? Keener shows that all of these peoples’ experiences share similarities with each other and also with the accounts of possession found in Scripture.
So while we Western people question this sort of phenomenon, many people throughout the world do not. This is just part of their worldview, and it would do us well to learn from these people, especially as our country becomes increasingly post-Christian.
Now once we do that, we will find that the Scriptures, while still weird at times, make more sense. So, for example, the part of today’s passage where the pigs rush into the Sea of Galilee is not arbitrary. It is meant to demonstrate that this man was once truly possessed but had now been delivered. When he came into his right mind, it is because the demons had truly left him, and we see clear evidence of this when the demons entered the pigs and caused subsequent psychotic behavior in these animals. The man was dealing with more than a mental malady.
The event of this day was dramatic for sure, but its drama visually and powerfully demonstrated that this man was finally free and that Jesus had power and authority over the spiritual world – power and authority that incidentally only belonged to God Himself.
As I said, this odd event was not random; in addition to demonstrating that the demons were indeed gone from the man, this event did more than that. It actually alluded to the time when the Egyptians drowned in pursuit of the Israelites as they crossed the Red Sea during the Exodus.
In both cases, the freedom of this man and the freedom of the Israelites came because God intervened and utterly destroyed those who were pursuing them. Thus, going forward, this man need not to fear that he would be taken into captivity once again. And this man and anyone who had eyes to see would know that this was true because in Jesusthat day, God had acted.
Now, as you listen to me, you may still have as many questions about the demonic world as you did at the start of this sermon, and if this is the case I understand. For time’s sake, we can’t spend any more time on this today, but if you are still curious, I recommend you listen to my sermon on Spiritual Warfare from last September, which delves into this topic a bit deeper, or please come and talk to me and we can wrestle through this together.
For now, however, I would like to focus our attention on the demoniac’s life, before and after his encounter with Jesus, for he is a true example of one whose life was greatly changed by Jesus in more than one way.
Now, before encountering Jesus, it is for sure that this man’s life was a mess. His demonic infestation meant that he lived a solitary life disconnected from the normal happenings of life. In fact, he literally lived among the tombs, residing among the dead instead of living among the living. He sometimes was chained up, but of course that was no life and because he was strong, he always managed to break his chains and escape. But one thing he could never do was break the spiritual chains that bound him, so he went around unclothed, just like an animal, living apart from the rest of society. This man’s story was a tragic story of intense bondage, profound distortion of his humanity, and extreme social isolation, and there was nothing that could save him from this plight.
Nothing except God. But one day, God appeared in flesh in Jesus and sailed across the Sea of Galilee and met this man, and in that moment, this man was delivered, finally freed from his spiritual bondage. As I said before, this was a truly great moment, and not actually just for this man, but for people of the land as well, although it certainly may not have seen like this at first.
At first, the only person who seemed grateful for this miracle was the former demoniac, for the others in the area were overcome with great fear, so much fear that they begged Jesus to leave. While what had happened to the man was good news, the people didn’t actually know what to make of Jesus’ tremendous show of power. They were used to the demoniac (as distressing as his behavior might have been) and in all likelihood were used to other spiritual happenings, but they were not used to this kind of power. In their pagan land, they had no categories for Jesus other than he was some kind of extra powerful wonder-working magician, which was super scary. What other kind of havoc might Jesus bring if He remained? So consequently, they begged Him to leave.
And Jesus complied. However, when the former demoniac asked Jesus if he could come with him, Jesus said “no” for he knew that this man would continue his mission by staying behind. So Jesus told him, “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you,” and that is exactly what the man did.
So while the people of the land were unable to hear from Jesus Himself in that moment, they would eventually have a chance to hear from the man who was healed how God had acted in Jesus that day, and in all likelihood, some would accept his message.
After all, by coming to the country of the Gerasenes in the first place, Jesus showed that the Good News of the Kingdom of God was not just for Jews; it was for Gentiles as well. This mighty deed performed in Gentile territory was a foretaste of what was to come: salvation was for all people. Once Jesus had died, rose, and ascended, this Good News would spread out from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth. In the meantime, spiritual soil in Gentile land had to be tilled, and the former demoniac had a role to play in this tilling.
So on that day, the former’ demoniac’s life was changed in more than one way. First, his humanity was restored. He would no longer live like an animal residing among the dead, isolated from people, and disconnected from who God made him to be.
Second, he would become a witness for Jesus, continuing the mission that Jesus had started among the Gentiles. As I said before, in the moment of this man’s healing, the people were unable to receive the good news from Jesus Himself because they were just too afraid, but from this man, a man who they knew, who they could relate to, they would learn that God exists and that God indeed has power and authority over the unpredictable and sometimes scary spiritual world. They would learn that they need no longer fear this world.
And then later on in the not so distant future when the good news of the Resurrected Jesus would reach them, some of them would be ready to receive and to even accept this news, all because this man remained behind and shared the good news of what God had done for him.
Now, when I reflect on this story from Scripture today, I can’t help but think of the story I told you at the beginning about the former gang-member-become-preacher. The stories of the demoniac and the gang member are similar in a few ways.
Both men were effected by demons. Both men kept close company with death. Both men lived in bondage, a bondage which disfigured their humanity and created dysfunction in their relationships. And both were powerless to do anything about it.
Powerless until they encountered Jesus, and Jesus delivered them.
Their similarities don’t end here, however. Once, delivered, they were given a mission. Both had been spared for a time like this. Both men were given a unique opportunity to go back to their people and share all that God had done for them.
These men were saved, not just for themselves, but so they could continue Jesus’ mission, so that others might believe and put their trust in Jesus. Because of their unique stories, their knowledge of their home context, and their already established relationships, these men were uniquely suited to share the Gospel at these times and in these places.
Jesus knew this, and so he invited them to join Him on mission. While the Gospel is a universal, unchanging message, it nevertheless needs to be contextualized so that the people hearing it are able to receive it, understand its implications for their lives, and to ultimately accept it. The demoniac and gang member were uniquely suited to contextualize the Gospel among their people.
So, just think about it for a moment – if I were to share how God has changed my life with a gang member, do you think that gang member would relate to my unique story of salvation particularly well? Probably not, but that same person would probably relate really well to Rene Martinez’ story and could perhaps be more open to hearing and receiving the Gospel.
Now, this is not always the case, or else cross-cultural missionary work would never succeed and our churches would be mono-cultural (which would not be a good thing), but it is certainly true from time to time that people are better able to receive the Gospel from those whose stories are similar to their own.
So, God calls unique individuals to share the Good News in unique pockets of the world. He sends them into their homes, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces to tell people about Jesus. In some unique circumstances, he calls them to leave all familiar in order to share this Good News with unfamiliar people just as he did with the Apostle Paul. In all cases, however, the mission He gives is the same – to tell others all that God has done for them.
This is one of the greatest privileges, as well as one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian life, that God would invite ordinary, sinful and yet redeemed people to continue His mission. This, however, is exactly what God does over and over again.
The only unknown in this whole risky scenario that God undertakesis will His people accept His invitation?
Mission Cincinnati, will you accept this invitation?
Friends, as you have heard the stories of the demoniac and the gang member this morning, you might not have related to their stories. I get that. Yet, if you peel away the fantastical and unique parts of their stories and dig down to the basics, you will find that you have a similar story.
Each of you here has heard the Good News of Jesus at some point in your life and has experienced Jesus’ healing, deliverance, and redemption in your own unique ways. Each of you has benefited from Jesus opposing spiritual forces that have worked against you to disfigure your humanity and to create dysfunction in your relationships. Each of you has been brought close to the heart of Jesus despite your sins, idols, and distorted desires.
You each have a unique story of all that God has done for you, of how God has shown you His great love, how he has changed you. And just as God invited the former demoniac and gang member to share their stories, God is inviting you to share your stories.
Now when it comes to sharing the Gospel, I know that many of you feel nervous and inadequate to do so. You feel more comfortable simply sitting at Jesus’ feet as the demoniac did at first, but I want you to consider this: your unique story may be exactly what a co-worker, fellow student, neighbor, or family member might need to hear. People who relate to you well may be ableto receive the Gospel from you in a way they could never do with someone else.
Yes, the Gospel message is unchanging, but you “have been saved for such a time as this”; you are uniquely suited to share the Gospel with certain groups of people that God brings into your spheres of influence.
So friends, as we wrap up our sermon today, I want to encourage you to not be afraid to share your salvation stories. Just be yourself and share “all that God has done for you.” You need not worry about the outcome, for that is up to the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives, not you. Just be authentic and share your life story with others. You’ll be surprised at how people will respond
The truth is, friends, that Jesus is God-made-flesh, is Love-Incarnate, and is One who desires that each one of his creatures be freed from their bondages and able to live their lives abundantly. Jesus is powerful and changes lives – He’s done it with the demoniac, with the gang member, and with you and me, and we all have a part to play in sharing this Good News with others.
So Mission Cincinnati, I ask you: what are the specifics of “all that God has done for you?” If it is not yet clear in your mind, spend some time this week considering this, perhaps first articulating this to yourself and then to a few close sisters and brothers in Christ, and then share this with the world around you, a dying world, that whether it understands it or not, needs to hear that it has a Savior.
Friends, you have been saved for such a time as this; now go and share all that God has done for you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
(Picture above my Matthias Zomer.)
(Story about Rene Martinez can be found here.)