[This sermon was preached at the closing service of the 2016 LWML Washington-Alaska District Convention in Everett, Washington, June 19, 2016]
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I think this is the only time that this happens in the Gospels, what happens here in Luke 8. The pig herders have watched Jesus cast out demons from a man, the demons went into their pigs, and the pigs went over the cliff into the water. Those pig herders go and tell everyone they can find, in the cities and the villages, and they bring back a large crowd. When the crowd gets to where Jesus is, they find this formerly demon-possessed man sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. And the whole crowd, the whole multitude says to Jesus, “Go away from us.” Which is not exactly the response you might expect, when they find this man whole and restored by Jesus. People do get mad at Jesus, like the people in His own hometown of Nazareth, where they try to throw Him off of a cliff. People try to arrest Him, trap Him and trick Him. And people do go away from Jesus. Like the rich man who goes away sorrowful, because he has many possessions. And the people in John 6, who go away because they cannot believe what Jesus says about eating and drinking His flesh and blood. But I think this is the only place in the Gospels where people tell Jesus to go away from them, not because they’re angry, but because they’re afraid.
But the response of the crowd is not the only thing that’s strange about this account. Jesus sails to this area, opposite Galilee, after already being in the boat with the disciples during the storm. Jesus calms the storm, and the disciples ask, “Who is this, that He commands the wind and the waves, and they obey Him?” Jesus sails back across the lake, casts out the demons, the people tell Him to leave, and then He sails back across the lake. That’s the only thing He does there. Why does He go there at all? He goes there to do what He is always doing: spreading the reign of God. Wherever Jesus goes, the reign of God goes, because He is the Lord. And where the reign of God goes, the darkness is pushed back. Just as Jesus, through whom all things were created, is able to command the wind and the waves, so it is that where He goes, death and the devil must flee. So as soon as He gets out of the boat, this man, full of unclean spirits, meets Him, falls down, and cries out, “What do You have to do with me, Jesus, Son of God most high? Do not torment me.” The demons know why Jesus is there, and they know what will happen to them when He appears. They just didn’t expect to see Him so soon, since the world hasn’t ended, and yet, there He is. So they beg not to be sent into the abyss yet, which is where they’re headed, as Revelation makes clear. They’re going into the Lake of Fire, prepared for the devil and his angels; they just don’t want to go there yet. So they ask Him to allow them to go into the pigs. But the pigs don’t stay there on the hillside, happy and feeding. They rush headlong into the lake of Galilee and are drowned. For the demons, this is a foretaste of the abyss to come.
By this word and by this drowning, Jesus makes this man whole. Jesus is not at all afraid to enter this land, which is about as unclean as it gets, as far as a Jew would be concerned. First, the man is full of unclean spirits; second, he lives in the tombs—that is, caves carved out of the hillside, into which they put the bones of those who have died; third, he lives in a land that is apparently known for pig herders. Strike three, you’re out. But since Jesus is bringing the reign of God to this place, uncleanness must flee and the believer is restored. Jesus gives him back everything that the demons took from him: He clothes him, He unbinds him, He gives him back a home, and he even gives him back a name, since the demons even took that and called him by their name, Legion. When the King comes, the unclean are cleansed, the demons flee, and people are recalled from death. For the sake of all those lost in a world full of death and demonic activity, Jesus becomes unclean Himself—a curse, even—and becomes a dead body, and is buried with the dead, in order to bring them all out of the tombs with Him.
And when this man is made whole, he—understandably—wants to stay with Jesus. He’s had enough of death and the devil and unbelief. The same man who asked Jesus, with the mouth of demons, not to torment him now asks Jesus, with the mouth of faith, that he might remain with Him. But Jesus says No. Go back to your home, and tell everyone everything God has done for you. So he does: he tells everyone what Jesus has done for him, because it is in this man, standing here in front of him, that he has encountered God. And then Jesus goes back across the lake.
The whole account is rather strange and, yet, at the same time it should be a comfort to us, because it is the way the Christian life is in this world. What Jesus does for this man is no different from what He does for every person He claims for His own. Maybe not as dramatic to the world, not as striking a change as this naked, tomb-dwelling demoniac, but the same work, nonetheless. I think sometimes we think it’s easier for Jesus to save some people than it is for Him to save others. Do you ever catch yourself thinking such a thing? But that’s only because we are inclined to think that Christianity is about becoming nicer, cleaner, more respectable; so then, those whom we view as nice, clean, and respectable already only need Jesus to push them over the edge into salvation. But that’s not Christianity; that’s just finishing school. Christianity is about resurrection from the dead, and it’s no harder for Jesus to raise one person from the dead than it is for Him to raise another. To us, one person might look worse off than other, but to Jesus, dead is dead is dead. This man was dead; you were dead; I was dead. And, lest we forget, we confess that prior to baptism, prior to faith in the promises that Jesus gives in baptism, we were all lost and under the power of the devil, under his kingdom, until Christ claimed us for His own. We would all be lost forever, unless delivered from the sin, death, and everlasting condemnation. Thank God, then, that at just the right time, God sent His son to be born of a woman, born under the law, to buy us back, who were enslaved to sin under the law. We did not ask for Him, but He was ready to be sought; we did not seek Him, but He was ready to be found. He said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation not called by His name, as much as this demon-possessed man didn’t want to be found, but Jesus showed up anyway. And it is still by words, by a drowning, by clothing, and by naming, that Jesus claims people out of the devil’s death-strewn kingdom. Drowning our bedeviled nature, clothing us with Christ, naming us with His own holy name, and putting us back in our right minds, the Mind of Christ, Jesus does what He always does, and spread the reign of God to people, one by one.
And oh how much we’d sometimes like to be translated automatically to the glorious vision of Jesus face to face! How much better it would be if we could simply remain with Jesus, instead of slogging through a world filled with terrorism, murder, hatred, violence, and the widespread idolatry of the State. But Jesus still chooses to leave witnesses to Himself among those who would tell Him to go away from them. He says, You cannot go out of this world yet. Go back to your home, and tell everything God has done for you. And you have encountered that God in the flesh and blood of Jesus Himself, no less than the demoniac. You know what God has done for you: claimed you from sin and death and the devil by washing you in Holy Baptism; you know where Jesus is: not gone away, but with us all the days exactly where He has promised to be: in forgiving words and in body and blood to be eaten and drunk with bread and wine. No matter what our individual circumstances, no matter what darkness or death surrounds us at any given moment, Jesus has given a universal cure and a resurrection power at which death and the devil must flee. He is the Lord, and His word does exactly what He says.
In the power of that word, then, we return to our individual and unique vocations. We return to our homes today, and every week, baptized and claimed by Jesus. Whatever the gifts He has given to each one of us for His glory and for the service of our neighbors, God has done the same work for each and all: resurrection, and the promise of restoration in both body and soul. As you go, you are the aroma of Christ to God, living sacrifices in the once for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross; to those who are perishing, it will be the fragrance of death to death; but to those who are being saved, it will be the fragrance of life to life. As you go today, back to homes, and congregations, and communities, and your own part of the LWML, you have been clothed, named, restored, and delivered from the devil; so use it well, you have been made new, in Christ a new creation. Live and do within your own vocation, and tell everything God has done for you in Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, and on us be His mercy, at all times.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/17/16