Pound for pound, this morning’s Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Mark packs quite the punch.
This strange story of a man who daily lives with the unraveling of his mind easily ranks right up there with the most bizarre stories in the Bible.
A man named Legion is labeled demonical, and the town residents shun Legion to the margins of their community. His name is apt, because he’s tortured by a legion of voices that coerce him to violent self-harm and other bizarre behavior.
But when he spots Jesus coming his way, Legion sees and understands something that his wary neighbors cannot – the very Son of the Most High God is their midst. So, Legion breaks free of his shackles and bows at Jesus’s feet, where the Lord heals Legion of his mental illness.
Here’s where the story gets really weird: In the surprising course of Legion’s healing, a herd of valuable swine stampedes to a watery death, and the flabbergasted townsfolk are so incensed by it all that they run Jesus out of town. Fear compels the skittish crowd to turn their backs on the amazing grace of God!
May our response to grace be far more faithful as we listen and watch for the Word of the Lord with the help of the Holy Spirit.
What in blue blazes instills such overwhelming fear in the hearts and minds of the townsfolk?
That’s really the bottom line of this staggering story: All the locals who witness the healing of Legion are terrified and afraid – and probably more than a little angry, and they channel all their anxious feelings onto Jesus.
But why? Exactly what is it that tips the town scales against the Lord?
Maybe it’s the sight and stench of all those dead pigs floating downstream and washing up on shore.
Maybe it’s the shocking reality of this once-naked lunatic now standing tall, fully clothed, and in his right mind.
Maybe it’s the idea, despite all the other explanations people bandied about over the years (he’s quirky, he’s mixed-up, he’s eccentric), that the local oddball has had a legion of demons infecting his mind all this time.
Why are all the curious, rubbernecking townspeople so nervous?
Perhaps those same demons scurrying around Legion’s head infect the citizenry with a nasty case of the heebie-jeebies.
Perhaps the whole off-the-wall affair reveals to them that the world is a more spiritually troubled place than they first thought?
Perhaps the demonic transfer from man to swine rattles one too many cages.
The loss of the pigs surely deals a vicious blow to the local economy and steals plenty of pork chops from family dinner tables. Blows to the pocketbook are always unsettling, and the prospect of empty meat lockers is fretfully uncomfortable.
But when the dust settles, the pigs probably can be replaced, and there usually are other things to eat. So, the loss of livestock most likely isn’t what sets off the crowd.
Whatever it is that overwhelms with such intense fear, the terrified crowd begs, pleads and all-but demands that Jesus hit the road.
And maybe therein lies the answer to the whats, whys and wherefores of this story.
This spectacular miracle is shocking, and things that shock senses and sensibilities have a way of stirring unsettled feelings – even sometimes quake-in-your-boots fear.
Legion himself surely is a jaw-dropping spectacle to behold now that his wild, untamed nature has been corralled and hogtied. Whatever happened, and however it happened, the healing of Legion removes any threat – real or perceived – that he might have posed.
In any event, all this time, no one ever suggests that Legion get out of Dodge. The community has put up with his rabid behavior for years without running him out of town on a rail. Legion is a local oddity, no question. But apparently, no one was too terribly afraid of him. And, he’s surely no source of fear now.
So, who gets everyone thinking second thoughts? Jesus does!
And they not-too-politely ask the Lord to leave.
To my way of thinking, there’s really only one explanation why: The crowd collectively decides that Jesus is the source of their overwhelming fear. Maybe if he leaves, their fright will vamoose with him.
Think of it this way: If a community is afraid of a peeping Tom who nightly peers through windows at young girls as they undress, the police work overtime to locate and remove the perpetrator from the streets, and no one sleeps well or feels settled until the source of fear and intrusion is locked up tight.
And so it goes with Jesus, who peers deep into Legion’s mind. The Lord’s intrusion leaves people afraid, and that’s why Jesus has to go. The One the demons properly peg as “the Son of the Most High God” simply can’t be allowed to hang around any longer, because his disturbing presence is unraveling everyone and everything!
Legion? He can stay.
Wherever they scurry once they’re evicted from their temporary home inside the pigs, apparently the demons can stick around, too.
But not Jesus.
The trouble-maker, the rabble-rouser, must disappear, so people once more can breathe easy.
It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that the powerful, healing presence of God is a source of fear.
But I wonder if even we church-going types wouldn’t be fearful, too, if the palpable, physical presence of God showed up here in the Sanctuary some Sunday morning. We’re surely fooling ourselves, which we do all the time, if we assume that Jesus’s arrival here in this place would find the Lord only smiling upon and blessing everything we are doing and saying.
Maybe we do have everything absolutely correct in terms of who God is and how God likes to be worshiped, referenced and served.
Maybe every theological stance we hold, and every missional program we carry out, and every decision we make about allocating church resources – maybe all of it fits God and God’s desires to a T.
But I have a sneaking suspicion that, if Jesus really did show up here, his arrival would prove mighty unsettling and shocking – even to the buttoned-down religious types among us. We very well might come to see just where and how we are significantly out of step with Jesus after all.
It’s like when the boss shows up in your office and starts going over all your work and through all your files and emails. Or when the principal pops into your class right after you’ve sailed a paper airplane across the room – for a second time, after being warned the first time!
Sooner or later, the knot forming in the pit of your stomach signals one undeniable fact: You are anxious! You are afraid! You fear what the boss or the principal will discover if and when he or she starts digging deeper!
If that scenario could be true for us in Christ’s Church today, then how much more true would it be for this naïve, wretched crowd in Mark’s Gospel?
Here’s the thing about having the one true God in your midst: You somehow feel that the incident with the pigs is only the tip of this heavenly iceberg. Anything could happen next, and it’s surely not beyond the realm of possibility that this Jesus, the Son of the Most High God, might end up shaking up and stampeding everything. And that’s a frightening possibility for most people.
Church tradition teaches that sloth is counted among the Seven Deadly Sins.
Although popular imagination reduces sloth to mere laziness or being a sluggard, the core of sloth weighs heavy with spiritual boredom. Sloth is the inability to get excited about things that truly are good and wonderful, holy and divine.
Sometimes the spiritually slothful are anything but slothful in other aspects of their lives. They certainly get fired up for sporting events, or hunting season, or finding out there’s a new restaurant opening up down the street.
The slothful get excited all right – just not about the right things!
All week long, spiritual sloths look forward to Friday night lights, but the day the Lord has made and other things of God and God’s grace, well, not so much.
Empowering sloth is resistance to change – stubbornly resisting what needs doing to make one’s life more pleasing and acceptable in the eyes of the Lord.
Let’s face it: It’s easier to stay the same – even if “the same” is not all that great – than to let someone put you through the wringer of change or confront you with this or that truth about your life, or this culture, or this world, or its history, or anything else with which you’d just as soon not have to wrestle.
For the Gerasenes, living with a demon-possessed crazy man in their midst was no walk in the park.
His public nuisance terrified neighborhoods, wrought fear in parents and children, and embarrassed out-of-town guests who pulled in off the highway for a visit.
But as they say, better the devil you know.
Better the devil you know than the God you don’t – the God who promises so much life-transforming change, but you prefer not to be bothered. Of course, when God shows up to shake things up, it’s grace and mercy that God doles out every which way through the Holy Spirit.
Without a doubt, the deliverance of Legion is an act of grace and mercy. But so are the many other things that Jesus can and will do for you and me, painful and scary though some of those things are when Jesus changes our course, reorients our priorities, or demands we give up this or that.
Any number of demons within you and me block our commitment to Christ, our commitment to carrying out his work, and our commitment to loving and serving others.
As Mark ends the story, Jesus sails off into the sunset, and the Gerasenes amble back home, unconvinced and unchanged. Only the one man is left behind at the city limits to wave goodbye in enthusiastic gratitude to One who rescued him.
Legion has got his work cut out for him in telling people about the great things God had done for him.
I wonder if anyone ever listened?
I hope that someone did, and for Christ’s sake, I pray that you and I do, too!
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message during morning worship on Sunday, November 1, 2020 –the Feast of All Saints. It is the 12th and final sermon of his series, “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” Commentary, reflection and scholarship by Hannah Garrity, Lisle Gwinn Garrity, Scott Hoezee, and L.T. Johnson inform the message. (Artwork: Hannah Garrity, Begged to Leave, SanctifiedArt.org)