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Freeing the Oppressed Sermon Art

Freeing the Oppressed

June 23, 2024 | by Pastor Peter

We might assume that being pure means keeping away from sin. And since God is absolutely pure, he must stay as far away from sin as possible. But we see, in the incarnation, that this isn’t true. Holiness doesn’t stay pure by being distant from sin, but being different than sin. Jesus goes on a rescue mission to free a man in the most unclean place imaginable to show to God gives up on no one, but instead sends his people to the darkest places with his saving power.

Sermon Summary

It was one of those experiences I prayed would never happen. One of the girls had been playing carelessly while sitting on the toilet and somehow—I’m not clear on exactly how—her glasses ended up at the bottom of the toilet bowl. Not only that but the toilet had been used. I distinctly remember wondering if I could just flush the toilet and the problem would go away. But between the expense and my fear that they would clog the toilet I did what I was loath to do: I reached down into the toilet and fished out the glasses. Yuck. Putting my hand into a used toilet makes me squeamish. The Jews in Jesus’ day likely wondered the same thing about God and the sinful, pagan people of the gentile nations. While God had expressed dismay at Israel’s unfaithfulness over the years, he was surely so offended by the shocking immorality of the pagans as to have written them off entirely, right? In today’s story, we see that this is not the case at all. In this story, we see Jesus venturing into the very darkest place to save:

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”

Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned (Mark 5:1-13, NIV).

Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!

The disciples are with Jesus on the boat when he comes ashore, but they’re not even mentioned in the story. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they are so horrified, so scandalized by their surroundings, that they are speechless. Everything in this scene shouts unclean. The disciples crossed the sea to get there. Jews eyed waters (especially stormy ones) with suspicion. In the Genesis creation narrative, God orders the chaos of the deep. But open water seemed to be outside the boundaries of the space God had ordered, so it was considered the abode of demons. On the way across the lake, they encountered a storm, which they might now perceive as a demonic attack as Jesus ventures into their territory. This area is inhabited by Gentiles (the large herd of pigs makes that clear. Jews were forbidden from eating pork, so they would have no reason to keep pigs). The man dwells in a cemetery (coming into contact with the remains of the dead makes a person unclean). The man cuts himself with stones (if you had open cuts, you were unclean) and he is inhabited by a legion of unclean spirits. The modern equivalent of this might be encountering the high priest of Satan at the multi-purpose crack house/brothel in Skid-row (but even that probably doesn’t describe just how revolting this situation would be to pious Jews). 

This kind of contact with such impurity would have been tremendously uncomfortable for Jews after the exile. The lesson the exiled Jews had drawn from their predicament was that they allowed themselves too much contact with pagans. They had been seduced by their paganism, and so the people had been thrown out of their land by God as punishment. Upon returning to the land, the Jews had set up high walls around themselves, trying to limit, as much as possible, their contact with Gentile impurity. In other words, they tried to maintain their purity by keeping their distance. But Jesus has no such compunction. He shows us that holiness isn’t maintained by distance but by difference. God wasn’t commanding his people to stay away from sinners but rather to live a different kind of life. Their pagan neighbours live according to the pattern of old creation, the pattern pioneered by Adam and Eve. According to this pattern, we decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. We have a habit of doing this in a way that prioritizes our wants over the needs of others. Like Cain, we don’t see ourselves as responsible to or for one another: “Am I my Brother’s Keeper?”. But Jesus shows us another pattern of life, which we will call a New Creation Pattern. This life is characterized by things like love, humility, reconciliation, hospitality and mutual submission. It is the stark difference between these two ways of being in the world that shows God’s saving and transforming power.

<SIDEBAR> On a practical level, there are indeed times when we need to keep our distance from certain types of situations. So, for example, if you struggle with alcohol abuse, outreach to heavy drinkers in bars is not an advisable thing to do. But, except in situations where our weakness leads us to unbearable temptation, we should be willing to reach out to all sorts of people.</SIDEBAR> 

This poor demon-possessed man lives in the shadow of death. He’s been expelled from his community, he wanders around naked harming himself in, of all places, a cemetery. Jesus hasn’t come to this side of the lake for great deals at Walmart: It seems as if he’s made the journey for the express purpose of freeing this one man. Something easy to miss in the modern English translation of this passage is how much it employs military language. A legion was a Roman army formation of about 6,000 soldiers (Whose symbol was a boar). The word for the group of pigs isn’t the normal one used, but it can refer to a group of soldiers. When they rush down the bank, the word used is the same one used for a military charge. When Jesus gave them permission, the word meant “dismissed”. The story takes place near Garasa, a town that had recently (at the time when Mark was written) been destroyed by Romans in punishment for an uprising. Everything here points towards the brutality of Rome.

Some people see this as a commentary on Rome’s defiling presence. I don’t think that’s what this is trying to say. Rather I think Mark is using the familiar image of Roman military occupation to describe another occupation: the occupation of God’s good creation by the oppressive spiritual forces of darkness. Like the Romans, they take over places that don’t belong to them. They use violence and intimidation to control, they casually exploit and destroy people. They are the force that empowers and animates the Roman occupation, and here Jesus shows he is far stronger. This story details a commando raid against a Satanic stronghold. Commandos usually go after soft targets, but here Jesus humiliates a garrison of demons to show his astounding power and his limitless compassion. On the journey across the sea to get to this man, Jesus calms the storm (A satanic sentry trying to keep Jesus away?) and the disciples ask each other in terror, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41). No doubt after the encounter with the legion they’re asking the same question again.

Interestingly, Jesus foreshadowed this incursion in Chapter 3, “In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house” (Mark 3:27, NIV). In Jesus’ analogy, Satan is the strong man. His minions can’t be bound (remember the people can’t bind the demon-possessed man even with a chain), but Jesus binds him to plunder the strong man’s possessions (in this case, to set this man, possessed by Satan, free).

What’s with the pigs? Jews considered pigs unclean. The demons think they can flee into the pigs, but the plan backfires. Something Jesus said in Chapter 3 explains: “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come” (Mark 3:25-26, NIV). Pigs are unclean in Jewish law, and they’re sacred animals in many pagan religions. If the demons try to hijack the pigs (considered to be on team darkness) it is Satan’s house divided against itself, which Jesus predicts means the house will fall. It falls right into the sea, killing the pigs but also destroying the demons. So by Jesus’ permission, the large herd of pigs is killed, but it also liberates a demonic stronghold from the corrupting power of darkness.

A Sad Response

But the Locals aren’t pleased by what Jesus did:

Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed (Mark 5:14-20, NIV).

Maybe they’re angry about the loss of the pigs. But perhaps there’s more: This man was all they could handle. They couldn’t control him. But in Jesus, they see an even more powerful force, one that brought the evil in this man to heal. They are probably frightened by the power Jesus has displayed. It’s not a great look that they would rather have the pigs than this man whom Jesus has restored to the community. The people plead with Jesus to go, and surprisingly, he accommodates them (Jesus shows us that God isn’t interested in dominating, but wants to be invited in). The man wants to come with Jesus but isn’t allowed. Maybe Jesus senses that having a gentile following him around at this point in his ministry will be a stumbling block. Or maybe he just wants this man’s testimony to prepare the way for the eventual return of the gospel message. Among the Jews, Jesus has been tight-lipped about his Messianic identity. Many Jews had unhelpful political and cultural expectations for the Messiah, so Jesus avoided using the title. But this man and his fellow pagans do not, so Jesus gives him leave to spread the word.

What Can We Learn from This Story?

What is Jesus communicating about God? God isn’t afraid to get dirty, crawling into the filth to rescue even a single sinner. God is holy, but his holiness doesn’t translate into squeamishness about dealing with sinners. His holiness is embodied not in physical separateness (or else the incarnation would rob him of his holiness) but in a separate way of living. Jesus embodies the life of the New Creation even while he lives in a sea of Old Creation.

There are two important implications of this. First, no matter what you’ve done, or where you’ve come from, no matter how badly you’ve blown it, or how lurid your past experiences are, God’s grace is sufficient to reach, redeem and transform you. I doubt any of us have ever been as lost as the man in this story. Jesus didn’t hesitate to come to his rescue, and he won’t hesitate to come to our rescue. 

The second implication of this is that since the church is the people God has sent to be his representatives in the world, no one is too lost to be excluded from our company. Just as Jesus goes swimming in the sewer to rescue those in the filth, so we too must go to the dark places of our communities and our world to be the liberating presence of Christ. 

Jesus has sent us into the world:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV).

The word we translate as ‘nations’ (ἔθνος in Greek) is often translated as Gentiles or even Pagans. Jesus has sent us to the people the Jews had mistakenly believed were too far out of God’s will to be worth saving (people who would include all of us). The disciples showed over and over that they were flawed people, but were transformed by God’s grace. Their job is to replicate this process that they have experienced with Jesus: to take flawed human beings and make them into saints. Not much of the disciples’ formation happened in a synagogue. To make disciples of all nations means stepping out of our churches and into our communities. We are Jesus’ commandos (not employing the violence of traditional commando tactics, but living as New Creation subversives amid Old Creation). Jesus doesn’t call us to attractional engagement where we sit in our church buildings waiting for people to show up. Rather he calls us to missional engagement, where we take the message of Jesus directly to those who need to hear it.

Taking the Message to Others 

How do we take this message to our community in the Way Jesus took the message to his own? First, we must proclaim the message fearlessly. Demonic forces wanted to silence Jesus, but he wouldn’t be cowed. We must speak the truth, even if it is unpopular. We must say that every person is of equal value, that community is a greater value and autonomy, and that reconciliation is a non-negotiable necessity. Our temptation is sometimes to proclaim not God’s spiritual message, but our own cultural/political message. Jesus doesn’t tell the demoniac to stop eating pork or to get circumcised. The message of Jesus is a message about his victory and a call to live the lives of the New Creation, not a call to assimilate people into our church culture. 

Don’t Fear Contact With Sinners

Second, we must remember that Jesus doesn’t call us out of the world (This is part of his critique of 1st Century Judaism) but rather to embody a different way of being–New Creation dynamics–amid the world. To do this, we shouldn’t work to create a Christian bubble (where all our meaningful interactions are exclusively done with Christians) but rather to build bridges with those outside the church. We are called to live out the New Creation dynamics in our relationships with people whose lives display Old Creation dynamics. The idea is that these people will notice and be curious about Jesus. 

Jesus is calling his disciples away from tribalism (the idea that God is looking out for good Jews like them) and into a place of hospitality. Likewise, he calls us away from a tribalism that seeks to make God the property of the church (instead of the church the property of God). God is calling us to people we don’t naturally want to be with. It might be people with whom we have differences of opinion (theological, political, cultural). Maybe it’s the poor, the mentally ill, or people from other cultures and ethnic groups. If God’s love reaches out to a demon-possessed man living in a pagan cemetery, then it also reaches out to all the people you know too. When the world looks at us, they are supposed to conclude that the God we serve would crawl into the filthiest sewer to save the most wretched person imaginable. If that’s not what we project, then perhaps we misunderstand God’s holiness. The life of a New Age is breaking into our world through the power of God’s Spirit. It’s heading to the very lowest places, so we should be headed there too.

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