This sermon is part of the sermon series "inSanity". See series.
When I was a kid, my parents used to drag me out to church on Sundays. I'd walk into this big building in a shirt and shoes that seemed too tight. We'd sing songs and pray prayers I didn't know at first. But the worst part for me was when the guy in the robe got up and began to speak. He'd intone some reading from a dusty old Bible and talk about bizarre events like nothing that ever happened at the school where I went. He'd sayeth this and uttereth that and I'd think to myself: What in the name of rock and roll and all things holy does any of this have to do with life—especially my life?
I hope you won't feel that way by the time we're done, though I do feel compelled to tell you that there are some bizarre parts to the story we'll read together. Jesus and his friends are living in a place called Galilee, on the northern edge of a very big lake. Think, the Upper Peninsula of Lake Michigan. Apparently, Jesus had some important business to do way down on the southern side of the lake and, because there was no good highway or skyway at this time, he and his friends board a ferry. Jesus' biographer, Luke, picks up the story in chapter 8 of his book at verse 26: "They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee."
Now to really appreciate what happens next, it helps to know that this whole zone at the southern tip of the lake was a pretty remarkable place. It took its name from the city of Gerasa, one of the principal towns there, but the region was more frequently called the Decapolis. That's Greek for the Ten Cities. The region of the Gerasenes was actually a whole network of towns and cities which had been planted there by the Greek Empire shortly after the time of Alexander the Great. In other words, even though it was located in the midst of the very heartland of Palestine, this region had much more in common with the great Greek and Roman cities of that day than with the rural country around it.
During the first century, the region of the Gerasenes was a flourishing center of business and domestic life. Archaeologists have dug up the ruins of some of the splendid public buildings, homes, and shopping centers its residents enjoyed. The towns of the Decapolis were filled with people who were better educated, more affluent, and more upwardly mobile than the average Palestinian or Jew. People took pride in living there and many who didn't yet live there no doubt set their sights on it one day. There was only one very significant problem with these communities at the southern end of the big lake: Some of the neighbors were nuts!
Under the influence
Read along with what Luke tells us in verse 27 and following:
When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don't torture me!" For Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" "Legion," he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.
Back when I was a child in Sunday school, this would have been one of those readings that struck me as bizarre! Even as an adult, it can hit me that way. We might write it off were it just here in Luke's gospel, but in both Mark and Matthew's gospel, we are given similar reports of people like this living in the Decapolis region. The composite picture the gospels present, then, is of a neighborhood that is, on the one hand, wonderfully prosperous, desirable, and laden with talented people, yet, on the other hand, is afflicted with such insanity!
When I say "insanity," I'm speaking of much more than a mental health problem alone. In its original context, the Latin word sanitas meant health and wholeness in every sense. To be "living in sanity" was to be relationally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy. God's desire is that every human being experience this kind of wholeness. In fact, one could argue that the entire Bible story is focused on this theme. In Genesis we read about the health and wholeness that existed at the start of Creation. In the Book of Revelation, we hear about the health and wholeness that will exist at the end of history. And in between, the Bible is all about what went wrong to break down this health, and what God has been doing to restore his Creation to a state of sanity in the fullest sense. Jesus himself defined his life's mission in these terms: "I have come that you may have life and have it in all its fullness"—in all its wholeness, in all its abundance (John 10:10). But in the region of the Gerasenes, this kind of holistic health was fading fast.
When we read these accounts, we get this picture of neighbors rushing about from place to place, yet not really connecting with anybody. They go through life on the defensive ("What do you want with me? I beg you, don't torture me!"); they live life with their dukes up, assuming others are out to hurt them. We get a picture of people who are seeking comfort in places that are really only tombs and dead-ends, and yet they keep going back to look for the life those places don't contain. They're crying out in their anguish and solitude, the Bible says. They're doing damage to their own bodies and sometimes treating others violently, hurting even the people closest to them. All of the accounts make it clear that there have been attempts to intervene and help these people, but the forces at work upon and within these residents are so great that nothing thus far has been able to subdue them. The problem, the Bible says, is that the Gerasenes are driving under the influence of not just one, but a whole legion (literally a "multitude") of destructive spirits—what the text calls "demons."
I'll confess that when I first came across that "demons" part, I ground my teeth a bit. I graduated from a good school. I passed my Science and Psychology classes. I'm not in the habit of looking for pitch-forked devils, except perhaps at Halloween, and if I give them some candy, they will go away! I am also pretty sure that when the Bible talks about demonic forces, it is not referring to the Freddie Krueger-style monsters of horror movies. I've checked every page of this Book and nobody spins their head around or throws up pea-soup anywhere! We can thank Hollywood, Milton, and Dante for those mental images.
At the same time, I have come to believe that when the Bible speaks of demons, it is not superstition; it is not ignorance; it is not kidding. I've become convinced that alongside all that is so good and beautiful and marvelous and rational about this world, there is also at work here a legion of very powerful influences whose active aim or passive effect is dangerous and even evil. Left unexamined, unchecked, or unprepared for, these forces will conjoin to progressively destroy the sanity—the balanced health—of a whole lot of individuals, families, and communities. Why do I believe this? Because I also live where the neighbors are nuts!
Confessing the craziness
I was backing out of my driveway a few months ago, when I suddenly heard a horn honking wildly. A car was still almost a full block away, but the driver was barreling down my street at about 40 miles an hour. Though the posted speed limit is 20, it was obvious as the driver passed that she was truly angry with me. She might have felt badly about that, because she made this gesture with her hand toward me that I think might have been a peace sign, though I'm not sure about that. The incident was very upsetting. I thought, Doesn't she realize that she has neighbors who actually live on this street—who have to be able to occasionally leave their own driveways? But I don't think that driver thought of me as her neighbor. She had someplace to go in a hurry. She was probably possessed by all kinds of pressures, and I was the nut in her way. And I can be a nut, if I'm honest with myself. I recently saw one of those humorous "de-motivational" posters from the folks at despair.com. It was entitled "Insanity" and it read: "It's difficult to comprehend how insane some people can be. Especially when you're insane." That's what it feels like to me: Crazy has become the new norm.
It seems like my life and everything around me is moving faster and faster, and no matter how hard I run, I just can't keep up. I feel this pressure to constantly be upgrading and improving things, but it takes such effort and expense. I want to be a good parent, to do the best I can to help my kids succeed, but sometimes I think I view them as just extensions of my ego, and I think that's sick. I have lived for ten years on the same block, and I don't know the names, much less the stories, of over half of my neighbors. I try so hard to be a superhero for so many people, but what is really motivating that? Why am I so concerned with managing my image, with keeping up appearances? There's just so much to do, and the burden is heavy. There are simply so many choices, and I am dizzied by them. I think, Any day now, maybe it will all change, maybe it will get better, but that day never comes. This is the crazy way I too often live.
Can any of you relate to this? It takes courage to admit that you are an example of "Living Insanity" more than you are an example of "Living in Sanity." But admission is the first step toward greater health and my primary point now. In Matthew 9:12-13, Jesus says: I can only heal those who know they are sick. So many people today are unwilling to admit that. They are in denial about how unhealthy their lives have become. Let's resolve here and now that we are going to start dealing more honestly with how we are really experiencing life. If we do, there is tremendous potential for Christ to help us forge a better future.
Moving toward health
The second step toward health, however, will take a bit more time. If you look back at the story we've been reading from Luke chapter 8, you'll see that before he could cast the destructive spirits out of the afflicted man, Jesus first had to name them. "What is your name?" said Jesus to the man. "Legion," he replied, because many demons had gone into him. In all likelihood, life has gotten the way it is for you and me now because there are several destructive spirits and mentalities that have a hold on us. The particular force that oppresses you may be different than the one that messes with me or someone else, but if we can help each other identify them clearly, they can begin to be cast out. In each message in this series, we're going to be naming at least one of the most challenging and destructive spirits of our age and talking together about how we might begin to cast them out.
So here's the journey again: First, admit your basic need for healing. Secondly, start to name the specific demons that afflict you. And third and finally, take some intentional steps to draw as close as you can to Jesus. It's interesting to note that the Gerasene Demoniac was not healed from a distance. He didn't get better from the back row or by continuing to wander around by himself in the tombs. On the contrary, the Bible says, he actually "cried out and fell at [Jesus'] feet."
In his marvelous book The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan offers this powerful observation from the Book of Proverbs, and with this I'll close:
The folly of fools is deception. They keep lying to themselves …. They keep making excuses for themselves, justifying and blaming, all the way to nowhere. They dupe themselves right to the grave. They never change their minds …. [But] the wisdom of the wise is to give thought to their ways. They think about where they're going. Wise people ask, Does the path I'm walking lead to a place I want to go? If I keep heading this way, will I like where I arrive?
Confronted by all the voices of the influences around you, can you make a choice to be single-minded in your purpose? Dare to say with me: "I choose to live in a way that is sane and healthy. And I begin that journey today."
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.