One Little Word

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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    

Is there anything worse than a violent, demon-possessed lunatic?
There sure is, according to Bible scholar Mark Strauss – “a naked, violent, demon-possessed lunatic.”
That’s exactly what confronts Jesus and his band of apprentices as they arrive on the southeast shore of the Sea of Galilee – that thoroughly pagan region that faithful Jews derisively labeled “the other side.”  As we noted earlier, no self-respecting Jewish young man would ever drop in on such a place.  So the disciples are probably not surprised that Jesus immediately comes face to face with a deranged soul.
Here’s how Luke describes this well-known encounter:
They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee.  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 impure 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 Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.  A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside.  The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission.  When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.  (Luke 8:26-33)
Traditionally, this unfortunate man is known as the Gerasene or Gadarene demoniac. 
How did he get into this condition?  We aren’t told.  What does it mean that his name is Legion?  A Roman legion was a unit of heavy infantry that numbered somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 soldiers.  Luke tells us he is “legion…because many demons had gone into him.”  His inner world is overwhelmed with spiritual intruders. 
Tombs are his preferred hideouts.  These would have been shallow caves dug out of limestone outcrops, probably not unlike the tomb where Jesus would soon be buried on Good Friday.
As if his nakedness and violent behavior are not sufficient grounds for social rejection, his proximity to places of burial, in Jewish eyes, render him utterly unclean. 
The demons’ motivation is to destroy this man – to keep him as far away as possible from the love and grace of God.  But the Bible unflinchingly asserts that Jesus is master of the seen and unseen worlds.  The demons are powerless in his presence.
For that reason, there’s no cataclysmic struggle between Jesus and Legion.  The showdown is already over.  The afflicted man – and here we presumably mean the human being still living inside this tormented shell – falls at Jesus’ feet and begs for mercy.

For five centuries, churchgoers have been singing A Mighty Fortress is Our God, Martin Luther’s most famous hymn.  It’s easy to overlook the fact that the lyrics are basically a primer on Satan.  Check out verse three: 
And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him
His rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure
One little word shall fell him. 
When Luther felt assaulted by spiritual evil, he wrote these words on his desk: “I have been baptized.”  His security, in other words, was grounded in his identity as God’s child. 
It seems clear that the demonic entities in this story at the very least want to disrupt Jesus’ ministry.  They ask permission to be sent into a large herd of pigs feeding on a nearby hillside.  The gospel of Mark tells us there are 2,000 of them.  Jesus consents.  In Matthew’s version of the story, he speaks only one word: “Go!”  One little word shall fell him, as Luther says. 
The demonized pigs promptly rush down the hillside and into the lake.  The surprising thing is that they all drown.  Pigs are excellent swimmers.  They are the Michael Phelps of barnyard animals. 
But the demons want to create havoc.  By drowning the pigs, they cause an economic disaster for the people in this region. 
These pigs almost certainly represent a generous portion of the 401(k)s of multiple herders.  If the Financial Times had covered this story, it might have been titled “Pork Bellies Experience Sudden Liquidation.”  The upshot is that these people now associate Jesus not with good news, but with a major fiscal setback.
What happens next is painful. 
When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they 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 found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind.  And they were afraid.  (Luke 8:34-35)
There is no collective joy that the “wild and crazy guy” has been restored to sanity.  There is only fear.  The local people cannot seem to grasp the good news.  They see only the great loss.

The newly liberated man, for his part, begs to become part of Jesus’ entourage.  It occurs to him that he can now live a whole new life.  “That’s right,” Jesus seems to say in response, “but I want you to stay right here and live that life among those who know you best.  Return home and tell how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39).
And the local townspeople?  It’s just possible that the saddest verse in all of Scripture is Luke 8:37:
“Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear.  So he got into the boat and left.”  This is the only time in the Bible that anyone asks Jesus to leave. 
Do you realize how much power you have?  You have the power to make the Son of God go away. 
All you have to do is ask. 
Or you can do just the opposite.  Like the demon-haunted man in this story, you can respond to Jesus’ transforming touch by choosing to embrace a whole new way of life. 
Choose wisely.