Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
What name did your mother call you when she wanted your attention RIGHT NOW?
“Jason Monroe Haddox, get in here…”
Even if it’s been years since you heard that voice, you still know that sound.
The power of naming, by which we simultaneously bestow and call forth the identity of the one being named, is a mighty power indeed. And so it is to be used with great care and humility.
That power of naming stands behind our gospel this morning. The writer invites the hearers to see and recognize God’s presence and action in the lives of those named in the story, and in our own lives as well.
Immediately before this morning’s passage, Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee in a boat with the disciples and calmed a storm, to the disciples’ salvation and confusion. Afraid and amazed, they ask one another: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” For Jesus to command the winds and waters from storm to stillness is not merely a cool party trick, a little meteorological sleight-of-hand. The writer of Luke’s gospel wants us to understand that Jesus’ words “Peace, be still” comes from the same voice of creation spoken over the waters of creation at the beginning of all things, that said “Let there be light.” To control wind and water is to control the natural forces of chaos and destruction. This is the work of the Creator, and no one else.
But the disciples—bless their hearts—just don’t quite get it.
As this morning’s gospel begins, Jesus and the disciples (who are still amazed and afraid, confused and befuddled) come ashore on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee in Gentile country. A man possessed by demons meets them. He screams aloud “at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the most high God?’”
The man himself is naked, uncontrollable, wild; he cannot be kept at home, he is driven by raw diabolical impulse into the wilderness, he lives in the cemetery among the dead. He is as strange, as frightening, as “Other” as imaginable. And yet HE KNOWS.
This man knows who Jesus is, and that alone is enough to set him in contrast to the disciples, who are still confused about the whole thing. Both the man himself—a Gentile, a stranger, one who is clearly one of “them people” in every possible way—and the demons who have possessed him—know and recognize Jesus for who he is.
Jesus asks the name of the unclean spirit. To know the name is to have power. The name given is not a single name; it is the name of a mob. Legion. It is a military term for approximately five thousand foot soldiers. It is a Latin, Roman term, reminding the hearers then and now of the power of empire to possess and destroy the souls of those under occupation. It is another word of “otherness”, no proper name for a human being at all.
Like the disciples, the powers of darkness and corruption are filled with fear. But it is worse for them; they KNOW who this is, and that in his presence their power is at an end. “Do not send us back to the abyss; let us go over there into those pigs grazing by the lake.”
GO, he tells them. “Get out.”
And they go, into a herd of pigs, creatures which are also understood to be unclean, who go mad and plunge down the cliff and into the lake to destruction. Into the lake, into the water, into the place of chaos and disorder over which Jesus has just moments before demonstrated control and power. Into the abyss, just as they had feared.
When the dust settles and the neighbors come to see what all the commotion is about, they find this man whom they have known and feared for years, “from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” He has not been in his right mind for as long as anyone can remember—himself least of all. Sitting at the feet of the teacher is the posture of a student, of a disciple. This man is now one of Jesus’ followers, by his disposition and body language.
He is clothed. We learn at the beginning of the episode that “for a long time he had worn no clothes” and yet he is dressed and sitting calmly with the other disciples.
Where did he get the clothes?
It must be from the other disciples. An undershirt from this one; a belt from that one; a tunic from someone else…together they clothed this new addition to their community. Together they provided what was necessary to bring him into the place of calm and welcome and restoration.
This, as much as anything, makes those who see it afraid. They discern, however imperfectly, that something very strange and very powerful is present, and they back away from it. Before this the townsfolk would have stayed away from the man who had been possessed by demons out of fear for their own safety; now they keep their distance out of amazement and holy fear. They don’t know WHAT to make of all this, only that it is even more strange and unsettling than before.
For their own comfort, they ask Jesus to leave. The man who had been freed from the demons seeks to stay with Jesus—of course he does! But Jesus tells him “No, I have a job for you. GO HOME, and tell them all what God has done for you.” So he goes home—how long he has been away from home!—and tells the people there all that JESUS has done for him. Note the shift—that it is in Jesus that God’s blessing and healing and sending has been revealed.
My brothers and sisters, we are ourselves plagued by the powers of darkness and evil. We know what it is to wander in the tombs, to be driven into desert and wilderness. Whether by anxiety or fear, depression or grief for ourselves, for loved ones, or for the world in which we live, we know something of that man’s struggle. Perhaps we have known ourselves cut off from one another, as if we alone had to battle and batter against shackles and chains.
Into the midst of all of this—in the deepest darkness, into the place of hurt and rage and despair, Jesus comes to us. Calls to us, names us with the name which is our truest, most complete self, and turning to the powers of darkness orders them GO—GET OUT. You shall not have this one, these many, for they are my beloveds.
For that is who we are, dear ones. Beloved of God, made in the image and likeness of God, called as brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus, in whom (as the letter to the Galatians says this morning) “there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ.” Children of the promise made to Abraham and his offspring. Blessed, in order to be a blessing.
As the newly-freed man in the gospel was clothed by the other disciples,
to go home and tell what had been done for him by God revealed in Jesus,
so in our baptism we are set free;
the powers of darkness are dead and drowned in the waters of new life;
and we are clothed in Christ,
to go and tell what God has done, is doing, and yet shall do through
Christ, for and in us.
What God calls us to do, God gives the gifts to accomplish. As the letter to the Hebrews says: “Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” It is God’s power, not our own, at work. All we have to do is say yes.
May that yes be our word, our answer to God’s call, this day and all our days.