Gospel stories of demonic possession are difficult to preach about, because the contemporary and “enlightened” society in which we live today pretty much shuns the idea of true demonic possession, just as it shuns the idea of the devil and even the existence of God Himself. But, demonic possession is very real, Just as God and Satan are real.
All the demons Jesus confronts have three things in common: 1) they cause self-destructive behavior, 2) the victim feels trapped in that condition, and 3) they separate the victim from normal living among their family and society. Sound familiar? Do not many of us suffer from the same kinds of snares and burdens?
If we define demons as those forces which have captured us and prevented us from becoming what God intends us to be, we are as surrounded by – yes, possessed by, - as many demons as those whom Jesus encountered. Our demons can be of many kinds: mental illness, schizophrenia, paranoia, depression, drug or alcohol addiction, sexual obsession, destructive habits, lust of money and power, and so on.
Note the similarities between this demon-possessed man and the demons that possess us. He was totally cut off from family and society. He did not live among the people, but “in the tombs,” in the burial places of the dead. In other words, he was already in a living death, separated from normal people and normal living.
Furthermore, the demons were harming him. In St. Mark’s version of this story, the man was bruising himself with stones.” (Mark 5:1-20).
Thirdly, in Mark’s version, “no one could restrain him anymore, not even with chains.”
Fourthly, and most sadly, he was so totally possessed that though the demons recognized Jesus as “Son of the Most high God,” but the man could not free himself.
The point of this morning’s Gospel story, as well as all the demon-healing stories in the Gospels is that the power of God can cast out demons. The seventy disciples sent out by Jesus soon afterward came back and reported, no doubt with astonishment, “Lord, in Your name even the demons submit to us!” (Luke 10:17).
This is the key to the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose “Twelve Steps” to Healing” begin with these three:
1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.
Consider this for a moment. Alcoholism is a terrible problem in Russia. Before the collapse of the former USSR, Soviet officials appealed to American AA members to help them set up AA groups over there. However, because the Soviet Union at the time was officially atheistic, those same government officials asked that these first three steps be omitted from the AA program they sought to implement. The Americans refused, stating that those three steps are basic to their program. They asserted that the God was the key element needed to free men from their demons.
Members of AA also realize they not only need God’s help but the support and love of people around them. In almost all of Jesus’ stories of healing, there is restoration to families and townspeople. For the healing of demons today, the fellowship of family, congregation and community, and the prayers, ministry and support of the Church are key to healing and restoration. Becoming free from our demons is seldom a “do-it-yourself” project. We need help. We need God’s help, and we need the help of other people.
All this is happening in today’s Gospel reading.
Today, many people attuned to animal rights will be bothered by the fact that “a large herd of swine” was drowned after the demons entered them. Many people cannot understand how God, in the person of Jesus Christ, would deliberately and wantonly destroy something He created. During the time in which Jesus lived, pigs were considered an unclean animal. It was fitting, therefore, that sinful and unclean demons would be consigned to unclean animals and that, being destructive, would drive the animals to death – just as the man had been dead to the world around him before his healing.
At the end of the story, the man “had been healed,” which can also be translated to mean “saved,” “delivered,” or “made whole.” He is not only delivered from the demons which possessed him but he was made whole, he became a changed man, a new man. That leads into the important last verse of the story: “He went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” He has not only become a believer in Jesus but an evangelist, one who proclaims the Good News.
We all know what the “Great Commission” is. It can be found in the Gospel of St. Matthew. If you do not know what it is, then I suggest you take out your Bible when you get home, dust it off, and read Matthew 28:18-20. But Jesus gives us an equally urgent and important commission in this morning’s Gospel reading: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you!”
This morning’s Gospel is not so much about what Jesus did, but more about who Jesus is and the power and authority He possesses. The Gospel tells that when the man possessed by demons saw Jesus, he immediately cried out and fell down before Him, and in a loud voice he shouted, “What have You to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” (Luke 8:28) Right away from this passage we can make two observations. First, the possessed man knew who Jesus really was. He confessed Him as the Son of God. In fact, this confession is similar to the confession of the Apostle Peter we find in the Gospel of St. Matthew. It reads, “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” (Matthew 16:15-16). Second, we can extrapolate from that text that because Jesus is the Son of God, he has power over demons and is able to drive them out. In fact, even the demons acknowledge his authority over them, that is why they beg Him to be sent into the heed of swine.
After being healed this man, who was naked and terribly tormented and living in a graveyard, got his entire life back. The demons were gone and the man could now live a normal life. But what did he do? He went away and proclaimed the greatness of God and all that Jesus did for him. As I said earlier, the man became an evangelist, a proclaimer of the Good News of salvation, to all who would hear. We are to do the same. We should go out among our fellow men and proclaim the greatness of God and all the good that Jesus has done for us. Truly, we have been abundantly blessed and favored by the Lord.
It is interesting to note at this point, that not everyone who witnessed the healing miracle accepted Jesus as the Son of God. Earlier I said that the possessed man recognized Jesus from the beginning and even the demons acknowledged His authority. However, the people of the land, after being told all that happened, refused to believe in Christ. Instead, they were afraid and asked Jesus to leave their land. So He did, and nowhere in the Gospels is there a mention of Jesus ever returning to that place.
It is important to note that Jesus does not go where He is not wanted. He does not impose or force Himself on anyone. He makes Himself known; sometimes He makes His works known, but He always allows those who see Him and witness His works to decide for themselves whether or not they believe in Him and all that He does. What choice have you made regarding Jesus, the Christ? Do you believe in and acknowledge Him as the Son of God or, like the Gadarene people, are you afraid of Him? Have you asked Him to leave your life, your house, your community? Have you chosen, like they long before you, to live your life in the darkness and gloom of disbelief and hopelessness? The question the Gospel places before us today is, “Who do we believe Jesus Christ to be?”
Believing is not just mental recognition of something; it is also an action that confirms that belief. We see that after the man was healed, he wanted to remain with Christ. His confession of faith was followed by an action, the desire to remain with the Lord who had healed him and made him whole. And, as further proof of His belief in Jesus as Son of God, he went away proclaiming throughout the entire town what Jesus had done for him.
Belief always involves action. In fact, belief and action are married in an intimate union which is not stagnant, but living. You cannot have belief without action for belief without action is dead faith. How does our belief manifest itself in the community and world in which we live? Do we keep our Christianity to ourselves, perhaps to this Church, namely this building? Or do we go out of here and proclaim throughout this city in which we live and everywhere beyond what Jesus has done for us?
Let us pray today that we may all have the courage and strength to confess Jesus as the Son of God and proclaim Him by our actions and our words.