Monday, February 8, 2016

Encountering Jesus: Set free, Restored, welcomed in and Commissioned (Luke 8:26-39)

The passage we had read to us this morning is quite a challenging one for our twenty first century western minds with its focus on Jesus dealing with a man possessed by a large number of demons. It challenges our scientific materialistic worldview... You could say in rather an insensitive way... it’s a pig of a passage (dad humor).  But diving in the deep end (sorry dad humor again) I think it helps us to understand unclean spirits and the demonic, it clearly shows us Jesus authority in the face of such powers and it gives us a wonderful and clear picture of what being set free and healed and yes what salvation through encountering Christ looks like and insight into how to share the good news of Jesus Christ in an environment hostile to that message.

The fact that this passage takes us out of our comfort zones is a result of the fact that the whole passage is Jesus stepping out of the ordinary into new territory. Jesus and the disciples have crossed the lake, as we saw last week with Jesus calming the storm it was a challenging journey, now he reaches the other side of the Lake, a region called Gerasenes, and it is totally different than Galilee. It’s predominantly a gentile area; the fact that there are pigs farmed there is a sign of that, for the Jews the swine were an unclean animal   you would not see this in a predominantly Jewish area. The man who meets them is full of unclean spirits he lives in an unclean place, amongst the tombs, for Jesus disciples that uncleanness is how they would view this place. We are not told but the man himself may also have been a gentile maybe that was part of the reason Jesus didn’t take him with his disciples. The people’s reactions to Jesus is one of fear, in most other regions the Jewish people would be aware that what Jesus did was of divine origin and even though they might not have accepted Jesus they would have given thanks to God for the deliverance of the demonised man.
When Jesus arrives on this strange and unfamiliar shore, he encounters a demonised man. When I read the gospel narrative you could almost get the picture of the spirit leading Jesus across the lake for this one encounter. It is a show of how the grace of God is able to reach out into peoples’ lives. In fact one commentator says that the way that the unclean spirits are sent into the pigs shows how much Jesus is willing to do, to see this man set free and restored; to see people saved.

AS I said before in the west we are not that aware of the demonic around us, when we do reflect on it people tend to go to one of two extremes. The first is to go over the top and to see a demon behind every bush, responsible for every problem and issue. The other is to simply say that we do not believe in the devil or unclean spirits or demons, except in film and fantasy. This passage is helpful in addressing those two extremes. Firstly its part of four miracle stories, ones that you might say is at the edge of what the gospel has presented so far. Last week we saw Jesus calm the storm on the Lake, this week it is an encounter with unclean spirits, then we see Jesus encounter with the women who is healed by simply touching Jesus, and Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter to life again. They show us Jesus authority over nature, over the supernatural, over disease and over death. Each of those things listens to Jesus and obeys him. We are presented with Jesus divine authority. But also   we see that there are a whole lot of different causes of human suffering and trouble. Natural causes, spiritual causes, physical disease and as the scriptures call it our final enemy death. You could throw into those other factors as well the harm inflicted by human beings, systemic and environmental causes. One that people wrestle with the most divine will. In John 9 Jesus encounters the man born blind and when asked if it was a result of sin that he was blind Jesus responds that it happened so that God’s glory maybe displayed in him. Scripture does not advocate that there is a demon behind everything that happens but it does assert Jesus ability to be able to intervene and rescue save cure and make whole in the face of all those things.

For those who might say they do not believe in the demonic some have suggested that the man was suffering from mental illness and this was the way that people in Jesus day actually understood that. But we see from the narrative that the demonic in him recognised Jesus and Jesus response was to cast them out and when that happened it had a physical manifestation in the herd of pigs.  But this passage gives us an understanding of what the demonic may look like in a person’s life or in its sphere of influence. It is destructive, we see the man striped of his dignity: He is naked and living among the tomb stones, with the dead.  He is driven by compulsion, not in control, outbursts of violence and rage, he is isolated from his society and family, and relationships are destroyed. The problem at hand is not able to be dealt with simply by human measures. When he is bought under control he breaks the chains and gets loose again. You could say that the influence of the demonic on a personal and systemic level is this destructive behaviour.  There is a spiritual element to addiction, abuse, sexual and physical, out of control lusts and convulsions, racism and hatred, extreme poverty and violence. That dehumanises that is destructive of people and families and communities, which is evil. We don’t know much about the man’s background and how he got into that condition of being possessed by a legion ‘many’ demons, maybe we’d see a whole raft of physical, emotional and medical and spiritual reasons but this possession was the end result. The spiritual influence so much that it was in control.
Jesus deals with the spiritual element, he casts out the unclean spirits from the man, but that’s not the whole picture and maybe for us it’s hard for us to look past the rather dramatic way that happens. But this passage gives us the most holistic picture of what being cured or saved by Jesus actually means. In his wonderful narrative Luke gives us a wonderful parallel of how Jesus transforms the man’s life from how it was before. He had many demons but now we are told that the demons have left him, and it has been demonstrated in a very vivid way. He was naked stripped of human dignity but when the people from the town come they find him clothed, that dignity restored. He was alone and in solitary places, but now he is welcomed back and accepted, he sits at Jesus feet, which is a way of saying that he has become a disciple a learner. He was violent and thrown down on the ground but now he sits quietly and calmly. He was driven and out of control and know we’re told that he is rational and in his right mind. It’s an often overused scripture passage but in this case we see the truth of 2 timothy 1:7...’God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self control or a sound mind’.   He was cut off and of no use to his community, as Jesus leaves he is sent home to his community with a vocation and a mission to tell the good things that God has done for him: To be good news instead of bad news. He has been healed and made whole, in a way that can only be called transformation and salvation. Some of it by spiritual means but also by very practical means as well, being clothed and fed and welcomed, embraced, taught, conversed with. Not just instantaneously but over a period of time. They went back to the town and decided what to do and then came back. This is the work and grace of Jesus in people’s lives.  This is being set free, restored and saved. There is a spiritual element, there is a social element and a compassion element and a giving new purpose element. We often deal with issues without addressing the spiritual element and in the past the church has also focused on addressing the spiritual element without addressing the other elements as well. But salvation and wholeness is Christ dealing with all those areas. It may involve confronting the demonic or as Christ comes in and starts to bring transformation they are dealt simply dealt with.  In this case the legion had to go before the rest could happen.

Sadly in the past things like mental illness and depression caused by physical factors have been mistaken by people for the person needing deliverance, that’s wrong, it does not line up with what happened here. It’s interesting but the very few times that I have been involved in a deliverance situation is usually along the path of transformation not the start of it. And often it’s when people face situations they just don’t seem to be able to deal by other means, and then it is usually with people alongside me who I trust to have the spiritual gift of discernment mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12: A God given ability to know what is going on in the spiritual realm...both the presence and the absence of the demonic.

The deliverance however is not the highlight of this passage. In all Luke’s miracle narratives the focus is on people’s reaction. In this case the people of this region are afraid of Jesus healing the demonised man, they don’t want anything to do with Jesus, and it’s as if Jesus ministry in that place seems to be a failure. They tell him to go and he and his disciples get in the boat and they leave. The healed man wants to come with Jesus to be part of his group, as I said before this may have been difficult because he was a gentile, but in this case Jesus does not say come and follow me, but rather Go home and tell them how much God has done for you.’ Jesus has left a witness in that place, we are told the man listens to Jesus and obeys him and goes and tells the people how much Jesus has done for him. There is a parallel in those two sentences in Luke that identifies God’s divine activity with Jesus activity; the two are equated with each other. One commentator said ‘that for two thousand years the best Christian brains have been trying to eloquently and sufficiently explain the relationship between God and Jesus, but the best way to talk of what God is doing is to talk of what Jesus is doing. What Jesus has done for us. 

We may never be called to go to the other shore, to a strange and foreign place to share the good news; some are called to mission and ministry elsewhere. But the reality is that as we experience the transforming, freeing life giving activity of Christ in our lives we are all called to listen and obey and to go home and to tell of how much Jesus has done for us. You know it may not be the amazing story of the demonised man, but I know that as Jesus has bough change and wholeness in to my lie what I have to share with people, is simply what Jesus has done for me. You know we often think of evangelism and faith sharing as big things that demand that we have all the answers, or some amazing story but often what speaks to ordinary people around us, what God can use even in hostile situations is as we tell and show the ways in which Jesus has changed us, us ordinary people loved and made whole and freed and saved by an extraordinary God. 

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