Fear and Hope
Luke 4:14-21; Luke 8:26-39
Good morning! Do any of you wonder why there was no reading from the Old Testament this morning? This is a trick question. Our Call to Worship this morning was adapted from Psalm 42, which was one of our Old Testament readings for the day. More importantly, our first reading from the Gospel of Luke includes a long quotation from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Isaiah 61:1-2)
After reading this passage from Isaiah, Jesus says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:21).” This is Jesus’ first public act of ministry in the Gospel of Luke; it explains why Jesus is sent into the world and it tells us that Jesus will release the captives and let the oppressed go free.
Our second reading from Luke shows Jesus fulfilling this mission: Jesus goes into a region known as the Decapolis and he heals a man who is possessed by demons. Geography is important: the Decapolis is an area of ten Gentile cities. The herd of pigs is a clue that Jesus has left Jewish territory.
To release the man who is possessed by demons, Jesus must first call out the unclean spirits by name. The demons are called Legion. This is no accident. We hear this name as a metaphor: the man is possessed by many demons. But the name Legion is carefully considered. This story is personal AND political.
Anyone from Luke’s congregation who heard this story would associate the demons with the Roman legions who occupied the region, in Jewish and Gentile territory. Luke wrote this gospel somewhere between the years 75 and 100 CE. That’s important.
In the year 66 CE, the Jewish people revolted against Roman rule. It took several years for the Romans to put down the revolt. During that time, the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed. The Romans also sent troops to retake the city of Gerasa: “Romans killed a thousand young men, imprisoned their families, burned the city, and then attacked villages throughout the region. Many of those buried in Gerasene tombs had been slaughtered by Roman legions.” What’s more, one of the Roman legions that was stationed in Jerusalem to enforce Roman rule used a pig as its emblem: on its banners, on coins, and on battle standards. None of this was lost on Luke’s audience, but it’s new information for us.
All of this begs the question, are we supposed to take this story at face value, or are we supposed to interpret it as a metaphor? Yes!
Yes, we have to take this story at face value. Jesus heals a man who was cut off from society, whose demons prevented him from living a full life and being a member of his community, even if it was a community of Gentiles! The man needed to be healed and Jesus heals him.
On the political level, Jesus is proclaiming a common cause with the Gentiles, those who were not originally God’s chosen people. To do this, Jesus transgresses every boundary that Jewish religious teaching has put in place. The man who is healed is a Gentile. He is naked. He is living in a graveyard, which is considered unclean. At that time, if a faithful Jew even touched a grave, he would have to go through a ritual cleansing before he could be considered clean. He would have to do this cleansing before he could enter a synagogue. And let’s not forget about the pigs, which are unclean animals, according to Jewish law. Yet none of this stops Jesus from healing this man!
Surely, this is a call to us as Christians in the twenty-first century. This is a call to us minister to everyone: the people in our own congregation, the people in this community, people across the country, and people around the world. That’s scary! It’s scary because it calls us to go into places where we aren’t comfortable and it calls us to minister to people whom we perceive as unclean.
The unclean among us are the homeless, the addicts, and those who suffer from mental illness. They are the working poor and migrant workers who harvest our crops and cook our meals. They are the hoarders. They are the elderly who are homebound or who live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. They are anyone who is isolated from God’s love, as it is expressed through family and community, in whatever ways we define family and community.
We don’t mind helping the unclean a little bit, or at a distance. We’re happy to raise money. We’re happy to drop items in the box for Open Door. We’re happy to register and raise funds for the CROP walk, and maybe even walk a couple miles. We’re even willing to visit some of the members of this congregation when they’re in the hospital or homebound. And it’s really easy when it’s someone who’s sweet and loving and who lives close by, like Eleanor Hargis.
We’re a lot less willing to step up when the problem is depression, addiction, or some other mental illness. Let’s face it: We’re afraid of these afflictions, these demons. Maybe we’re afraid that we can’t call the demons out, like Jesus did. Maybe we’re afraid that the demons might infect us, too. Or worse, maybe we think that some people deserve their demons, and we don’t need to be bothered—they’re not worthy of our help. We’ve probably experienced all of these reactions at one time or another.
There’s one more complicating factor, especially when it comes to reaching out to folks in this congregation. The truth is, not everyone who is suffering from a mental illness or addiction is willing to come forward to share their struggles. But even in this congregation, there are lots of people who are hurting.
We are so good at erecting barriers and building walls of hostility and fences of indifference. We’re really good at getting out of the work that Jesus left for us. How quickly we forget the story of this man who lived in a graveyard, isolated from his own community.
We have to remember this story. We have to remember that Jesus goes into Gentile territory to minister to a man who is unclean in every way, by every standard of cleanliness. And let’s be clear, those standards of purity and holiness all come out of scriptures that we as Christians still hold sacred. Those codes of purity and holiness are all part of God’s law.
Jesus doesn’t throw those laws out. Jesus doesn’t say, “nah, God was just wrong,” or, “well, I’m God, too, so I can make some new laws because these old ones are dumb.” Nope. Jesus says and affirms, over and over, that the highest law is to love God and love your neighbor. In this story, that neighbor is a Gentile who is unclean. Jesus demonstrates that it is more important to release the man from his spiritual captivity than to follow the religious rules that would prevent him from ministering to the man in the graveyard.
After the healing, Jesus tells the man to go back to his town and tell the people what God has done for him. The man who was possessed by demons now has a new identity: he is now a man who was healed by Jesus. From that moment forward, his identity is in Christ.
That is our identity and as such, we are also called to proclaim release to the captives, restore sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.
This is why there is hope for all of us, and if it generates a little bit of fear or anxiety inside of us, that’s good. We’d have to be crazy if we weren’t at least a little bit scared. That’s why we have to trust in God to do this work. We have to trust that we’re equipped with the Holy Spirit. Fear is understandable and acceptable, but we mustn’t let it get in the way of a faithful response to Jesus’ call.
To truly live into a faithful response and proclaim release to the captives, first and foremost, we must abandon shame. We have to repent from our reliance on shame. We have to stop shaming others. We can no longer use shame as a weapon, either as individuals or as the Church. As individuals, we also have to let go of our own shame, so that we can let our church family know when we need help, and through that help, be released from the things that hold us captive.
Then, as a people who have been healed and released from captivity, we must go out into the world and proclaim release to the other captives. We don’t do this by standing on street corners or benches and shouting, “repent, for the kingdom is nigh!” Well, I don’t do this by standing on benches and shouting. If it’s your thing, I’m not going to stop you, but other methods might be more effective.
First, swallow your fear, let go of your sense of shame, and seek out the prisoners. Meet them. Get to know them. Listen to them. Build relationships with them. Then, when you’ve gotten to a place where they can hear you, show them and tell them what God has done for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, seek out the captives and the people who are oppressed. Share God’s love with them and tell them all the good things God has done for you. Practice God’s love for all of humanity! Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Share the love and peace and joy of our Lord with your children and with the world! In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Judith Jones, “Commentary on Luke 8:26-39,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4108 .