The devil you know

Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 23, 2019 – Luke 8:26-39 – Trinity, Winchester

It’s that time again: Ordinary Time! We’ve made it to the Second Sunday after Pentecost. Last Sunday was of course, Trinity Sunday. 

After two principal feasts in a row, it is perhaps fitting that this morning is a bit more subdued. We are reminded that no matter the day, no matter whether there is organ music or hymn-singing, the risen Christ is with us. 

If you noticed anything weird about today’s gospel, you wouldn’t be the only one. There is, of course, the whole demon-possession thing, but I’m talking about this: Jesus is asked to leave town, even after he exorcised a man of a demonic spirit. 

What’s up with that? 

Upon his arrival to the country of the Gerasenes, Jesus is immediately confronted by a solitary, naked, demon-possessed man. A danger to himself and others, Luke tells us that the man is often restrained in shackles. 

Jesus does what Jesus does. He confronts the demons, who recognize him as the Son of God, and sends them, at their request, into a herd of pigs which run into the lake and drown. 

People from all around come to see what has happened and find the man fully clothed and of sane mind, seated next to Jesus. After hearing eye-witness testimony of the exorcism, you might think they would have invited Jesus to stay for dinner and given him the place of honor at the table, but no. 

Instead, the crowd’s fear takes over, and they ask Jesus to leave. “Go on, pick your stuff up, take your friends, and get out of here. We don’t need you making anymore trouble.” 

At first blush, their desire for Jesus’ departure doesn’t make much sense. Why would Jesus be asked to leave town when he has demonstrated that his power is greater than the demon’s? He has saved their countryman from demonic possession and restored the community to health and peace.

But if we ponder this unusual request for a moment or two more, their insistence that Jesus leave may start to make more sense. 

There is, of course, the economic factor. An entire heard of swine are dead. If I were one of the pig farmers, I would be pretty upset. How did insurance work in the ancient Near East, anyway? 

It goes much deeper than economics. To understand the Gerasenes’ desire for Jesus to leave, we have to look deeper into our own human nature. 

How does the saying go? “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t?” Or in this case, perhaps, “Better the devil you know than the Jesus you don’t.” 

The Gerasenes know evil. They are used to evil. They deal with evil everyday. They chain it up, post guards around it, and hang up those little signs that say “Beware of evil.” “Please don’t feed the evil.” “Must stay at least 20 yards from the evil at all times.” 

We, too, are well-acquainted with evil. We each have our ways of coping with it. Some of us are skilled at keeping it at arms length, while others of us simply choose to ignore it.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Oh, I just can’t stand to watch the news anymore!”? “Whenever I hear that voice I just—smack—turn the radio right off!”

On the other hand, the power of God—the power for good—often seems to allude us. The Gerasenes weren’t so accustomed to it, either. Jesus’ liberating power was unfamiliar to them. When something is unfamiliar, we often find it threatening.

Those among us who are more naturally competitive than others may recall the experience of meeting someone who shares our interests, but has talents that we perceive to be better than our own. We feel jealous of them because we feel threatened by them.

Grandma had the same experience with microwaves. She had no use for one. She cooked every meal from scratch and had perfected each one herself. If she wasn’t afraid of the new technology, she was certainly afraid of what it would do to her lifetime of cooking experience.

Likewise, when we encounter something new it can awaken in us a primal fear.

When a family member dies we know instinctively that things will be different. Fear is a big part of our grief. Who will carve the turkey this year? Who will drive me to the doctor’s office? What will I do with all my time?

Change makes us uncomfortable, even if it appears to be for the best. For some reason we prefer the chaos that we know to the chaos of uncertainty. In other words, our eyes are kept from seeing the good because the change itself is so scary. 

Take for example the woman who gave her husband a bottle of Jack Daniels for the first anniversary of his sobriety. She knew if he drank it he would become belligerent and abusive once again, but that’s the only life she knew how to live. With her sober husband she was lost. Her identity was changing faster than she could cope. 

She had no idea how to function as the partner of a stable person. Even though any bystander would observe that her life changed for the better, she didn’t know what to make of it. 

Even liberation can be threatening, scary, uncomfortable. It’s not so surprising, after all, the Gerasene response. When faced with uncertainty our first instinct is often to push the source of that uncertainty away. We just want things to be “normal.”

It’s hard to imagine new life when the only thing you know is death. At least death is concrete. At least we know what we’re getting with death. 

“At least when he lived out by the tombs—as good as dead—he could keep control of him. At least back then we knew what he was up to. Now, who knows what kind of funny ideas he’s going to have?” 

The story is not new. We hear it every year on Good Friday. We would rather reject God’s offer of transformative love by nailing Jesus to a cross than accept the promise of a resurrection that we cannot yet imagine.

Jesus comes to the Gerasenes today to give them a glimpse of what resurrection has to offer. It’s startling, it’s dramatic, it’s a lot to take in. 

We can’t blame them for asking him to leave. We are much the same. Take heart, there is still time to learn. Jesus is always right beside us, ready to remind us what new life—what resurrection—looks like. 

I’ve given you examples of it before: overcoming addiction, managing grief, asking for help when you hit rock bottom. I know you’re in the habit of spotting signs of life all around you. 

Whenever you realize God’s liberating power of love it’s only natural to want to take some time and bask in it. Like the healed man, you may want to stay all cozy right up next to the source of your resurrection, but there is a little time for that. 

Simply observing and enjoying these signs of life is not where we stop.

Listen to Jesus. He’s calling you to go one step further. He bids you still today, “Return . . . and declare how much God has done for you.” 

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