A sermon based on Psalms 42 and 42 and Luke 8:26-39 preached on June 19th, 2016
This isn’t a sermon about the shooting in Orlando. But, then again, maybe it is. This is really a sermon about all of us. About how or why we unravel from time to time. And why life is messy and complicated, and why it hurts sometimes to be human—why there are moments that occur way too often when life just stops making sense to us. When we wonder who’s really in control here.
We need only to unfold our morning papers or open our laptops to check for current events—switch on the TV—to be reminded over and over again that things come undone, that we human beings can’t seem to find a way to stop hurting one another. Whenever things like that happen, most of us don’t have a problem calling them evil. But since they happen over and over again, we would do well to wonder if it goes deeper than that—if evil is more than just something that happens in instances. What is it inside of us and among us that makes the taking of life—death in all its forms (from physical or emotional or spiritual death, or the death of relationship) an everyday thing for us? There seems to be forces out there that keep us from living our God-given and God-blessed lives in full ways. From the very start of our story, there was something that lured us out of relationship with God.
What was it that made Adam and Eve hide from God—the very God who stitched them together and called them His own and gave them purpose, and wanted to share in full relationship with Him and each other? What was that voice that spoke to them, assuring them that is was okay to eat from the one tree that God told them to keep their hands off of?
We don’t talk about the devil much. We’re Presbyterians after all. I’d take a guess and say that most of us here this morning don’t believe in a being called Satan. But that presents us with a problem. The problem is that Jesus talked about the devil often, and if Jesus talked about the devil over and over again, and if we believe that Jesus knew what he was talking about, then maybe we should take the devil more seriously, also. I don’t care whether you think a literal devil exists or not. We could have that conversation for days. But you and I cannot deny that there’s something out there—something very real—that stands in resistance to the Kingdom of God, something death-dealing, some out there that’s destructive.
In his book Reviving Old Scratch, author Richard Beck puts it this way: He says there’s something pushing against the life-giving power of God. Whether you personify it or not, give it a proper name or not, is up to you, but there’s some kind of pervasive force in and among us that seems hell-bent on unraveling all that is good and right. In the words of the father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, something out there that threatens to undo us, and in order to confront it and push back against it, we first have to admit it’s real. Throughout scripture, we read of a force called Satan. Satan is not so much the name of a being or a person as much as it is a description of a relationship—something that confronts us in an antagonistic or adversarial way.
Scripture says that Satan is the personification of all of those forces that stand in the way of us being able to experience life in its God-given fullness. In that sense, author Richard Beck says,
Hate is the satan of love, exclusion is the satan of inclusion, war is the satan of peace, oppression is the satan of justice, tearing down is the satan of building up, competition is the satan of cooperation, revenge is the satan of mercy, harm is the satan of care, hostility the satan of reconciliation.
Whatever is it that keeps us from living perfect and whole life with God and one another, whatever is it that strips us of our God-given humanity—call it whatever you will, but Jesus called it Satan.
The man in our passage for today is full of voices that are not his own. He’s possessed by many demons that have crowded him out of his own humanity. He’s a man occupied by an army of demonic presences. The most heartbreaking part of this story is when Jesus approaches this man and asks him his name, and instead of a response that speaks to his humanity—like Fred, or Joe, or Matthew, or Jonah—the man says his name is Legion. Legion is a roman military term meaning an army of up to 50,000 soldiers.
This man isn’t so much possessed by demons as he’s being occupied by them. Just like Rome occupied the whole Palestinian region in Jesus’s day, this man was occupied by demons, and they have stripped him of his identity. This man has been invaded by so many oppositional forces that he’s ceased to be human. Everything about him speaks of death rather than life: he lives in a cemetery, makes his home among the tombs; he’s naked and homeless; he’s had to be restrained in leg irons and chains, and place under guard for his own safety and that of others. He’s scarcely human, and he begs Jesus to leave him alone. More than anything he wants to be left alone. It’s isolation that most affectively robs us of our humanity.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t even ask the man whether or not he wants to be healed. Jesus skips that part to contend instead with the Legion of demons that has occupied the man. The demons speak back to Jesus, begging for their life to be spared. He casts them out into a herd of pigs, and just as uncontrollably as they lived within the man, they occupy the pigs and send the pigs hurtling recklessly off a cliff and drowning to their death. And with that, after who knows how many years or even decades, he comes back to himself restored—fully dressed and completely sane.
What occupies us? What gets in the way of us being truly ourselves? What forces exist out there that threaten to occupy and undo us?
Like this man who had no other name but Legion, are we also, at least sometimes, defined not by what God made us to be, but by what occupies us, holds us captive, pulling us away from all that is good and holy and whole and life-giving? And what about our world or our culture? What forces are at work out there that seem hell-bent on tearing our world to shreds, pushing love out of our world, robbing us of our humanity?
So, maybe this is a sermon about the shooting in Orlando after all. We know now that the shooter was a terrorist, connected to ISIS. That means he lived under the weight of a very violent and very strict set of codes. He had been brainwashed to believe that anyone who didn’t live like and believe in all the oppressive and demanding ways that ISIS commanded, didn’t deserve to live at all. We also know that the shooter was gay, and because of the strict set of codes placed upon him by his militant beliefs, he fought against his own sexuality—even had a wife. He tried his best to live like a straight man, but there was always that struggle, this coercion—this battle waging inside of him.
This man was possessed by voices that stripped him of his identity, that told him his real sexual orientation was not permissible and needed to be denied no matter what. And anyone who fights so hard to be something different than what and who they are will inevitably come undone, unraveled.
In this case, the man was so confused, so full of his own demons, that somehow it made sense for him to target a nightclub full of people who most reminded him of who he was so fearful of being himself. And in his killing of those innocent people, he was, in essence, seeking to destroy that thing inside of him that he hated most of all. Killing 50 plus people and injuring even more, before taking his own life.
This man was so occupied by his own demons and so afraid of his own identity, so lost among all the evil that possessed him that he ceased being human, and he made himself into a machine made for killing.
This passage from scripture tells the story about how we become human again. The demon-possessed man is a reminder for us that there are many powers and principalities that seek to claim and contort us, to pull us in all their different directions all at once, and away from God’s shape and purpose and intention for us, and in doing so, dragging us away from all that makes us human.
Maybe it’s that God is the most human being of all—and it is only when we seek to live our lives in God’s image that we become fully human ourselves. Maybe becoming truly human means being delivered from all that is not life, and being claimed, called, and adopted into God’s holy life.
The world wants us to be so many different things. There’s a legion of voices we can become so easily occupied by. Our culture is great at carrying us away from ourselves, heaping upon us an infinite number of names and expectations. And when that happens, we become undone by it all. There’s so much that invades us, accosts us—steals us away from our God-given and God-blessed humanity.
This story is also about salvation. Maybe salvation isn’t only about getting to heaven. Maybe salvation is about being delivered from all that is not life, and being claimed and adopted into God’s holy life. When Jesus delivered this man from all his demons, the man ran home and told the story of what God had done for him—proclaiming the Good News of God’s salvation.
Maybe salvation is that journey away from all that holds us captive and attempts to tear us apart, robbing us of our divine purpose. Maybe salvation is that slow and intentional walk towards our God-ordained purpose and identity—every step along the way taking us a bit closer to becoming truly human again.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!