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I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke, chapter 8 and follow along as I read verse 26-39. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.
27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.
28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me"--
29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)
30 Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him.
31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission.
33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.
35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.
36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.
37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.
38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,
39 "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Possessed by Possessions
There is an old saying: "Possession is 9/10 of the law." That saying was probably originated by some older, bigger child snatching away a toy from a younger sibling. If that old saying is true, then it is equally true that the scramble to gain that possession takes up 9/10 of our lives. We are possessed by our quest for possessions. We are captivated by our consumerism. We are ruined by our ravenous appetites for more, bigger, better, faster, grander.
The Gerasene healed by Jesus in today's gospel, was possessed by not one, not two, but a "legion" of demons. This possession overwhelmed his mind and personality—which is precisely the result when we are possessed with a "legion" of all-consuming desires. Our minds and personalities are twisted as we recklessly and ravenously seek to gratify these desires.
Let us talk about our Scripture
One thing this scripture passage shows us is that Jesus was not an ordinary Jewish rabbi. He hung out with the wrong type of people (a demoniac), and in the wrong place (the Gentile lands "opposite Galilee"), but in the midst of violating everybody’s expectations, Jesus does everything right. He heals, he banishes evil, and he leaves a visible and vocal sign of his work.
The Gerasene's country is "opposite Galilee." This encounter takes place only after Jesus "stepped out" onto the Gentile side of the lake. The one possessed by demons is almost certainly a Gentile as well. Even if not, his demon-possession has rendered him unclean. He lives like an animal -- unclothed and outside. He makes his home in a graveyard, which was a ritually unclean place for Jews.
The demons address Jesus directly as the "Son of the Most High God," recognizing who he is. The devil, you see, knows his adversary.
Jesus quickly overpowers the sarcastic, sadistic spirit speaking from the possessed man by commanding the creature to give up its name. In the ancient Middle Eastern, by naming an entity, one gained power over it. Yet Jesus has this demon at his mercy even before knowing its name, for the Spirit provides the true "Son of the Most High God" with all the information he needs.
Legion knew immediately their impending doom, for they begged Jesus not to "order them to go back into the abyss" (v.31). This "abyss" was the designated place of punishment and imprisonment for demons (Revelation 20:1-3). As an unclean spirit it was only natural that Legion request relocation into one of the most familiar unclean symbols – a herd of swine. Surprisingly, Jesus grants Legion's request. And the herd of pigs goes mad and plunges headlong into the lake.
The witnesses to this exorcism and to the demons' destruction run to spread the news "in the city and the country" (v.34). But the reaction of the populace is strange. Confronted with this well-known raving demoniac now sitting quietly at Jesus' feet "clothed and in his right mind" (v.35), the people are "afraid." Likewise, when they hear the details of the demoniac's healing, "they were seized with great fear" (v.37). The people's response to Jesus' miracle of transformation was to ask him to leave (v.37).
Why were they afraid? Did they think that the demons might come back? Were they angry over the loss of a large and valuable herd of pigs? Jesus' own reaction to the request that he leave reveals the most about the situation. Without any further comment to the crowd, Jesus turned his back on these people, "got into his boat and returned." It is almost as if Jesus said, everyone has the right to choose, and you have chosen fear over faith.
Our scripture ends with a private dialogue shared between Jesus and the man he healed. Now fully in his right mind, the man begs to be made a part of Jesus' team, to "be with him." But while Jesus refuses to allow the Gerasene to stay with him, he completes the man's rehabilitation. Jesus orders the Gerasene to return to his former home, and Jesus calls him to a new vocation, giving purpose and point to this man's now unfettered mind and spirit. The Gerasene demoniac is no longer a demoniac. He is no longer possessed, and so he can become the first missionary to the Gentiles.
But what about our own demonic possession, what about our own possession by our possessions? Perhaps the most classic parable of our modern day experience of demonic possession can be found in the story of the Titanic. Right now in Raleigh, there is an exhibition of Titanic memorabilia, a collection of things that Robert Ballard brought up from the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor. Over the labor day weekend, Beth and I went up to Raleigh to see the exhibition. It is astonishing, interesting, and rather sad. The Royal Mail Steamer Titanic was a symbol of "unsinkable" technology and "untouchable" wealth. Its swift sinking was one of the twentieth-century’s most mesmerizing horror stories.
Hollywood’s 1997 block- buster movie Titanic is only the most recent and most expensive replay of the disaster. If we want to look at the Titanic as an example of our worship of possessions, that movie is a place to start. The movie Titanic cost more than the annual budget of some third world countries. "To talk about Titanic is to talk about money." That is how Newsweek introduced its coverage of the "Most Expensive Movie Ever Made:" the three hour, 14 minute movie Titanic. "With fine irony," the article notes, the director "has spent more dollars than any other filmmaker to make a film that denounces the rich; he has employed the most state-of-the-art technology to issue a warning about the hubris of Technology" ("Rough Waters," Newsweek, December 15, 1997, 64).
In case you missed the movie and have only a hazy recollection of the event, the Titanic was sailing on a placid sea when it struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on Saturday, April 14, 1912, and sank early Sunday morning. The Titanic was 882.5 feet long, 93 feet wide, and weighed over 100 million pounds. She was the largest moving object in the world. Titanic was a floating city, with a swimming pool, gymnasium, squash court, verandas, a darkroom, a Turkish bath, and a special compartment for storing automobiles. She was the latest greatest thing.
E. J. Smith was captain of the Titanic. Six years previously, he said in an interview in The New York Times: "I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a modern ship to founder ... Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that." The unfortunate Captain Smith has got to be regarded as one of the most wrong-headed prophets in history.
What the Titanic is most remembered for is being a $10 million casket. More than 1500 people died in the sinking. Only 705 were rescued. As was made clear in the movie, the primary reason for this high number of casualties was that there were only enough life-boats to carry about half of the more than 2200 passengers aboard.
John Jacob Astor died on the Titanic; so did Benjamin Guggenheim, engineer Washington Roebling, and a host of other industrialists and luminaries. But while it is true that some very wealthy and powerful people perished aboard the Titanic, far more of the sinking victims were found among the lists of the second- and third-cabin passengers. Sixty percent of the first-cabin passengers survived, compared with 44% of second-cabin passengers and only 25% of the steerage passengers (not to mention the even more severe toll on the cooks, dishwashers, waiters, cabin boys, stokers, etc.). Perhaps the saddest statistic of all is that two-thirds of all the children booked in steerage did not survive.
At the Titanic exhibit in Raleigh, they give you a boarding pass for the Titanic. It is made out in the name of one of the actual passengers on board the doomed ship. They have a place where you check to see if you, that is, your passenger, survived. Interestingly enough I was a first class passenger, and I did not survive. Beth was a maid, and she did survive. But that was against the odds. The odds were much in favor of first class passengers.
The glaring discrepancy between the survival rates of first- versus third-cabin passengers laid bare the sins of the old Victorian-age class system. After the Titanic disaster, there was a tremendous backlash against the inequality of accommodations, the ranking of some persons over others. It was the beginning of the end for privileged, luxury travel. In the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic, travel accommodations increasingly became generalized. Instead of dividing travelers into first-class/second-class, upper-deck/lower-deck, everyone began to be lumped into one category, namely: "tourist class."
The Titanic disaster became a favorite preaching topic. Ministers interpreted the meaning of the Titanic as a condemnation of materialism: "It was a huge ocean joy ride," said the Reverend James O'May of Chicago's Park Avenue Methodist Church, "and it ended where joy rides generally stop." The Titanic symbolized the values of American culture, which were summarized as: "Make what you can, can what you make, and sit on the can."
The ship's loss was also viewed as a prime topic for a sermon on the demon of pride. Rev. Fred Clare Baldwin asked the question, "Who Was to Blame?" His poem answers:
In part the spirit of this prideful age --
Our blind, insatiate lust of luxury;
Our false disdain of all simplicity;
Our wild and senseless rage for speed;
Our maddening haste
That will not pause to reckon up the waste;
Nor least of all -- our gluttonous greed!
But after almost a century, these sermons preached on the tragedy of the Titanic have begun to lose their sting. In postmodern culture we are beginning to see some return to the old class systems that divided the Titanic passengers into the treasured upper classes and the "expendable" in steerage class. Have you recently found yourself waiting in a long, check-in line at the airline counter only to have some smartly dressed and pressed executive stroll up to the empty "Gold Club" or "Medallion Members" window, flash a card and be taken care of instantly? Have you seen the different size of seats in "first class" or "business class" as opposed to the cattle-riggings of "coach" (not to mention the difference in meals)?
And despite a whole century of notable technological disasters, the Hindenberg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Challenger, and Columbia—despite all that our longing for new technological toys remains undiminished. Instead of bigger, the trend now is toward smaller. It is the miracle of the microchip, not the power of bigger ships and more powerful engines, which fascinates us.
Some contemporary version of the Titanic, the newest technological toy, is probably sitting in your study, or hidden under the hood of your car, or in your telephone. The power of the microchip is information. Our "materialism" has transformed itself into "informationalism," but it is the same old demon.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not yearning for the "good old days." The Titanic happened in the good old days. A lot of us wouldn't be here this morning if it were the "good old days." George Washington died from improper medical treatment. English doctors in John Wesley's day treated the pain of toothaches by filling cavities with mashed ladybugs. It worked; you no longer thought about the pain of the tooth; you thought about your mouthful of mashed bugs. Technological advances are not in themselves evil. The Internet is not the "abyss." Your e-mail address is not the "mark of the beast."
I will tell you what the mark of the beast is: it is the mark of submission to materialist culture. Despite all the "benefits" of our global secular culture—its comforts, luxuries, pleasures and technological wonders—that culture requires total economic servitude as its price. Revelations 13 describes this state of affairs with chilling accuracy: "And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name" (Rev.13:16-17 KJV). Now there are a lot of weird and strange interpretations of that passage, but the best interpretation is the most straightforward. The mark of the beast on the forehead may simply represent the attitude that submits voluntarily to consumerist economic slavery. The mark of the beast in the hand represents all the acts that support the system of the beast. That system is simply all those consumer activities that consume our lives.
The Titanic certainly had the mark of the beast. It represented all the wealth and pride of the early twentieth century. That very wealth and pride led to the Titanic's greatest and most fatal flaw. Her builders were so convinced of her "unsinkability," and so determined to make her luxurious, that Titanic was equipped with far too few lifeboats. Unadorned and low-tech as these simple wooden boats were, they were the key to survival for all of Titanic's passengers. Rich or poor, learned or simple, young or old—if you did not get a seat on a lifeboat, you did not survive the icy North Atlantic waters.
Our Spiritual Lifeboat
Our scripture today deals with what we might call the Gerasene syndrome—demonic possession, or in our case, being possessed by our possessions. To safely navigate our way through the entombing entanglements and enticements of this Information Age, we must keep our own simple, back-to-basics lifeboat always close at hand.
Our lifeboat is constructed out of the rough, splintered, blood-stained wood of the cross. Only by keeping afloat in our faith in Jesus Christ's redemptive love and sacrifice can we escape the mark of the beast. It is only the Spirit of Christ that changes our attitude toward possessions and enables us to navigate the uncharted waters of the twenty-first century. Is your ship headed for disaster? Or do you have hold of that old rugged cross?
Did you come to this place of worship possessed and afflicted in your heart and your soul? Did you come to this place feeling as if your life this week has been reduced to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic? Have you been scrambling for a seat on a lifeboat?
Be afflicted no more. Suffer no more. Scramble no more. You have found safety in the greatest lifeboat of all: the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom we offer our everlasting thanks, and in whom we are more than conquerors; for neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rules, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, not anything else in all creation, is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/22/04