Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from the crucified and living Lord Jesus! Amen. In the preface to his novel, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
Thus, Lewis warns us that either denying the existence of demons or outright obsession with the occult will have disastrous effect in our lives.
In our scientific, naturalistic, rationalistic age, it is difficult for us to believe in a real, personal devil. In a 2009 survey, the Barna Group found that 59% of Christians believe that Satan is only a symbol of evil, not an actual being. We have relegated demons to the same realm as vampires, werewolves, and the bogeyman—figments of our imaginations, but not actual threats.
And Satan is pleased.
Yet in our Gospel lesson today, Jesus frees a man possessed by many demons and gives him salvation. Jesus certainly thinks demons are real, and that’s good enough for me
Our Gospel lesson takes place right after Jesus’ famous miracle of calming the stormy sea. “Be still,” he said to the wind and waves, and they were still (cp. Mark 4:39). Yet his disciples were left wondering, “Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25, ESV). In our pericope, the people marvel that even the demons obey Jesus. And in the story after that, when Jesus raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead, he proves that not even death and the grave can withstand his command. In the face of such overwhelming evidence, there is only one appropriate response: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).
But I’m getting a little ahead of us.
After Jesus calmed the storm, he and his disciples sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is on the other side of the Sea of Galilee from Galilee. This was Gentile territory, where people ate pork and didn’t worship the God of Israel. Yet Jesus came for all people, not just the Jews, and so he brought salvation to a wretched man who “lived” there—if you could call it living.
The man of the tombs was a terrible sight to see. He was stark naked and stayed in the cemetery, where he was exposed to the elements. Apparently, he was also a violent man and a menace to society, for many times his fellow townsfolk had tried—with no avail—to bind him under lock and key. But the demons that possessed his body gave him incredible strength to burst his bonds and run away. So they abandoned him to his miserable fate. The Gospel of Mark also adds this detail: “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones” (Mark 5:5). So this man was a “cutter.” He was so miserable that he resorted to self-mutilation in order to try to relieve his inner turmoil. But that could not save him.
Now I recognize that in our society today, we would probably be quick to dismiss demon possession as “mere” mental illness. Certainly, we argue, this man had some kind of personality disorder. Perhaps he was bipolar or a paranoid schizophrenic. Or maybe he was “on something.” After all, drugs like meth and cocaine can temporarily grant people superhuman strength.
Maybe the man called Legion was mentally ill. But that doesn’t deny the fact that he was demon possessed, as the Scriptures tell—and God does not lie. We must not dismiss demon possession as superstition. Yes, today Legion would probably be locked up in a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Yet his mental state does not negate his spiritual state. The man of the tombs was in the grips of Satan, and the devil was destroying his life.
By the way, let me make an important pastoral point here: While there is probably a certain amount of overlap between mental illness and demonic activity, we should never automatically assume that a depressed or mentally ill person is under demonic influence. Nor should we ignore the spiritual state of a person and assign all manner of conditions solely to psychologists and psychiatrists. We are whole persons: body, mind, and spirit. What impacts one part of our life impacts the others. We cannot compartmentalize our reality.
The man of the tombs was not somebody most people would want anything to do with. If you saw him on the sidewalk, you would probably cross to the other side of the street. His matted hair and the crazy look in his eye were terrifying. (The lack of underwear was probably also extremely uncomfortable for those who saw him!)
But Jesus had no fear. When the demon-possessed man saw Jesus and came running toward him, Jesus did not look away or run away. He stood his ground and helped the man.
The man cried out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” (Luke 8:28). How interesting, isn’t it, that just a few verses after the disciples ask, “Who is this man?”, the demons answer, “The Son of God”? Yes, the demons know exactly who Jesus us. The Bible says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder!” (Jas. 2:19). Even the demons believe that God exists, but it’s not a happy thought for them. (In The Screwtape Letters, the devils call Jesus “The Enemy”). It’s not enough to be saved simply to believe that there is a God. No, you must also believe in the mercy and grace he won for you by his death on the cross. Faith saves us—not knowledge.
Jesus asked the man, “What is your name?”
Sometimes in order to lay claim over your demons, you must first name them. Until a drunk or druggie admits, “I’m a drunk” or “I have an addiction,” he or she can’t be helped. You have to name your demons to have power over them.
So Jesus asked, “What’s your name?”
And he replied, “Legion,” for he was possessed by many demons.
In the ancient world, a legion was comprised of about 6,000 infantrymen. This does not necessarily mean that the man was possessed by 6,000 demons, but the name Legion indicates that his mind and body were overwhelmed and overthrown by many evil spirits.
“And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss” (Luke 8:31). Some Day Jesus and the faithful will judge the demons (cp. 1 Cor. 6:3). Then the devil and his angels will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20; 20:10). But that day was not yet.
So Jesus allowed the demons to enter into a herd of pigs, who rushed headlong over a cliff and into the lake, where they drowned.
And—just like that—the poor man of the tombs was freed. No longer captive to Satan, he sat at the feet of Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind” (Luke 8:35). Jesus “healed” him (v. 36). He saved him!
That is why Jesus came—not just to the Decapolis, but to the entire world. Jesus came to save us from sin, death, and the devil—to defeat enemies we couldn’t deal with ourselves. As the Bible says elsewhere, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8b). By driving out demons and giving people saving faith, Jesus eroded the spiritual strongholds of Satan and inaugurated the coming of the kingdom of God. “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
Even now the kingdom of God breaks into our world and upsets our reality. Jesus turns our world upside down and leaves no leaf unturned as he seeks to rout out the devil and his minions. We have a saying, “Everyone has to fight their own demons.” But we mustn’t turn every kind of trouble into a metaphorical Mephistopheles (a demon from German folklore). Jesus came to save real sinners from a real devil and a very real hell. He still saves sinners! And he can rescue and free you from whatever spiritual “strongman” binds you today. He did for the man of the tombs, and he is willing to do it for you.
The man’s neighbors—the villagers and nearby farmers—should have rejoiced at this man’s salvation. After all, the naked, violent, crazy man was no longer naked, violent, or crazy! But instead they were afraid. When they heard how Jesus saved the man, by driving the demons into the pigs, they were infuriated by their loss of property and saw Jesus as a terrible threat. Ironically, Jesus saved them from one menace, yet now they branded him another. As the old saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
The townsfolk begged Jesus to leave them alone, so he did. Jesus was a gentleman, and he will never force himself upon anyone’s life or way of thinking. He stands at the door and knocks. If you let him in, he will dine with you, and you will be saved. If you do not let him in, he will shake the dust off his foot and go to the next house. No harm, no foul. It was their loss, not his.
But the man of the tombs didn’t want to let him go. No, wait, I can’t call him that anymore. The demoniac? No, he wasn’t that anymore either. And I suppose the name Legion just won’t do. The man formerly of the tombs who used to be demon possessed, whom Jesus freed and rescued, he begged Jesus to take him with him.
But Jesus said, “No.” Instead of taking along the artist formerly known as Legion, Jesus sent him home. He told him to go and tell the wonderful things that God had done for him. And the man was so happy and excited that he did one better: he went and told the whole town (Luke 8:38). The man’s response reminds me of a lyric from one of our Communion liturgies: “Thank the Lord and sing His praise/Tell everyone what He has done…” (LSB).
Salvation always leads to proclamation. God’s forgiven children are not “the frozen chosen,” circling the wagons and cutting themselves off from the world. Forgiveness and grace are too wonderful to hide in a hole somewhere. No, we go into the world to make disciples. We baptize and teach. We break down spiritual strongholds (just as Jesus did). For even the demons are subject to us in Jesus’ name (Luke 10:17). We cannot keep Jesus to ourselves. The whole world needs to know what God has done.
And so, dear friends, I leave you with the words of Jesus: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:38). In the name of the Father and of the Son and of + the Holy Spirit. Amen.