Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Who here remembers Joan Rivers? For those of you who are too young to have heard of her, Joan Rivers was a ground-breaking female comedian who first appeared in the 1960s and was a legend until she died in 2014.
She had a cutting wit about her. Not afraid to turn it on herself. She was bold and punchy, often graphic and obscene. And she held nothing back. Here are a couple of her cleanest classic one-liners. “I knew I was an unwanted baby, when I saw that my bath toys were a toaster and a radio.” Or “I’m definitely going to watch the Emmys this year! My makeup team is nominated for ‘Best Special Effects.’” One more. “You know you’ve reached middle age when you’re cautioned to slow down by your doctor, instead of by the police.”
Rivers had a classic catchphrase. When she said it, you knew you were in for a straight-forward, blunt, “no holds back” conversation. “Can we talk?” she would say. And then it would begin.
So, members of Grace & Glory, can we talk?
I want to start by saying that the gospel of Mark is hard. It is just hard. I’ve mentioned before that it was the first gospel written. Perhaps that is why it is so bold and blunt and, like Joan Rivers, so in your face. It opens with a brash claim about good news. That Jesus is the Son of God. It is a fast-paced, ever-moving book. More like a documentary than a film. That just throws stuff in your face, and that opens with John the Baptist shouting, “Repent!”
The Gospel of Mark is not the reasoned premise of who Jesus is in Matthew, or the lovely narrative of Luke, or the ethereal Jesus of John. Mark is written to intentionally be in our faces. There is no gray area in Mark, no in between. It is black and white. Mark challenges us to pick a side. With Jesus. Or against Jesus. The irony of Mark is that for much of the gospel, it seems as though it is Jesus’ own disciples who seem to always make the wrong choices. And say the wrong things. And it feels as though Jesus is constantly frustrated with them.
Mark is hard.
Today’s story is particularly difficult and hard. So, we are going to walk through it. Verse by verse. Section by section. I invite you to open up a pew Bible, if you wish. I will also put the verses on the screen.
They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. --Mark 5:1 (NRSV)
Our story begins with this phrase from Mark 5, verse 1, “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.” Last week, we heard the seed parables from Jesus. If you remember, he told them from a boat on the side of the sea, because the crowd on the shore had grown so large it was pushing him into the water. The sea that we’re talking last week and this week is the Sea of Galilee, pictured here. The large body to the left is the Mediterranean. But, the small body, almost large lake in the center of this map, is the Sea of Galilee. To the left is Galilee, which we know today as the present West Bank. This is the heart of Israel, the holy land. It’s here, where Jesus first gets into the boat on the western edge of the sea and teaches the seed parables, which we heard last week.
As today’s story opens, Jesus and the disciples have moved across the sea to the other side. On this map, it’s to the right of the Sea of Galilee. The side on the left is Israel. It’s the promised land, where the people of God live. The other side is the Decapolis, where the majority are Gentiles. Non-Jews. Jesus and his disciples are no longer in Galilee, but have moved across the sea into Gentile country, into the land of the Gerasenes. The first time in Mark that they are outside of the holy land.
And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. --Mark 5:2-5 (NRSV)
As Jesus steps out of the boat, he enters one of the most heartbreaking scenes we could ever imagine. He is immediately approached by a man - a man with an unclean spirit, our text tells us. It may be easy for us to focus on the unclean spirits, but there is a man here who has been possessed by them. Who is harming himself. Who people have tried to chain up. The suffering in this scene is enormous.
It’s important for us to understand spirits in this gospel. In Mark’s framework, the world is under the sway of Satan, of evil spirits. This is contrasted with the world of the Holy Spirit. The presence of an unclean spirit here, meeting Jesus, represents a clash of spiritual realms. The unclean and unholy spirits are the rulers of the age in which Jesus finds himself. Jesus represents that breaking-back-in of the Holy Spirit.
In the Jewish tradition, to be unclean is not necessarily to be evil, but in a ritual state. There is no negative judgment about being unclean, except that this causes a rift in relationship with the community and results in social isolation. This is what we have here. A man, bound by unclean spirits, who are hurting him as he lives among the tombs, which are themselves unclean because they are places of death. All of this results in his being ostracized from the community.
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. --Mark 5:6-10 (NRSV)
It’s hard, isn’t it, when we read these verses to tell the difference between the man and the spirits? It’s hard to separate him from their possession of him. What must it feel like to be a person who is possessed by some kind of external power?
Notice that the spirits recognize Jesus right away. They know who he is, even if no one else does. What’s interesting to also note is that, if we turn back to Mark, chapter 1, Jesus’ first act of ministry in the holy land is to cast out demons. Now that he is in Gentile country, this is also his first act. One wonders if this is Jesus reclaiming not only the holy land, but the entire region as well.
Did you notice the name of the spirit? Legion. This is a Latin word that is related to Roman imperial forces, which were organized into legions. A full legion was some 6,000 soldiers. This is not a small war that Jesus is waging on unclean spirits, first in the holy land and now beyond its borders. This is an expanded theatre of action and conquest by Jesus.
Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea. --Mark 5:11-13 (NRSV)
Jesus gives the legion of spirits permission to enter into the herd of pigs, which are also, interestingly, unclean. This is not a small herd of pigs. Two thousand, which was a huge herd for the time. There is a real economic aspect here. Someone owned these pigs and they were worth a lot of money. Their herd is now wiped out. Their economic status is decimated. But, does it seem to you that Jesus is concerned about the economic impact of his miracle?
The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. --Mark 5:14-17 (NRSV)
How stunning this experience must have been for the people, who had likely known this man for years! Here he is. Clothed. Sitting politely and drinking tea. How do we make sense of their response? Of their fear? And their desire to send Jesus away? How comfortable they must have become, having this spirit-possessed man on the edge of town! How uncomfortable it was for them when Jesus came and upended the status quo! We, like they, might not like some things about the status quo, but the question is whether we’re really willing to have Jesus turn things upside down.
Not only this, but one wonders whether the townspeople thought his healing was worth the economic toll. What’s the cost of people on the edges being healed? What will it cost us for everyone to have healing and wholeness? Are we willing to pay it?
As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed. --Mark 5:18-20 (NRSV)
It’s probably not unexpected that this man, now healed, wants to go with Jesus. Maybe he’s worried about staying in this place. He has no one who seems to be happy he has been healed. No family showing up. He’s been isolated for so long, he probably has no one left. But, Jesus says no. Stay here and tell everyone. Show everyone what has happened. Perhaps this is where the man can give his most powerful witness. In this place, where people know him. Who he was. Who he now is. Because of Jesus.
Folks, Mark is hard. We, like the people in town, are comfortable with the status quo. This Gospel pushes us to make the hard choices. What are the unclean spirits of our time? Where do we see oppression taking control of bodies and people, and causing pain? Are we willing to pay the cost that everyone might be whole? And who are the outcasts today? Who are the suffering and isolated in our world? Who do we push away so that we don’t have to see them?
Friends, until everyone is free, until everyone is whole, until everyone is healed, we cannot be fully free. So, yes, Mark is hard. But it is into the midst of our discomfort and fear that Jesus enters in. To transform us. And to fully break us free.
May you live into your discomfort this week. Amen.
Preached February 2, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Daniel 4:28-37, Psalm 27:1-4, Mark 5:1-20