God's Forsaken Family // Sara Wolbrecht // July 19, 2015 // Mark 5:1-20
Are you familiar with the website awkward family photos? Yeah, people love a good awkward family photo. Part of what we love about awkward family photos is that we all know that we’ve got them, too. Do you? When were your most awkward years growing up? Fifth and sixth grade were a bit sketchy for me. As we think about our own awkward family photos and our own families, let’s take a minute to turn to someone near you… Who is in your family? Find someone who you do not know well enough to know those answers yet. Ages, hairstyles, etc. When were your awkward years?
As we set ourselves up to read from Mark 5 today, I want to draw our attention back to Mark 3 – a place where Jesus talks briefly about family.
Jesus is teaching in a home that is packed and some teachers of the law think he’s crazy, and…: Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:31-34
I always think Jesus sounds like such an angsty teenager in this passage. Whatever, mom, you’re not even my family. But of course, he’s not disowning his family, that’s not what is happening, as there is more to it than what we first read.
What Jesus does here, however is a big deal. From what you know about Jewish culture, is family an important thing? Yes – particularly in the 1st Century, the family bond was tight and long-lasting. There are many cultures still today like the Jewish culture, where it was normal for children to live close to their parents, even in the same house. Loyalty to the family was also a statement about identity as being the people of God. Jesus was disconnecting the significance of that link.
Already in Mark’s gospel we’ve seen Jesus challenging the symbols that lay at the heart of Jewish identity. Family solidarity was up there with Sabbath observance and the food laws.
Jesus says here the most important loyalty, the deepest tie is with those who align themselves with God. That is his family, that is God’s family.
And looking through that lens we can see that part of what Jesus has been up to is building up this family of God. We’ve seen it as Jesus set apart his 12 apostles. Healing the paralyzed man, he touched and healed the leper, he healed on the Sabbath acting against Sabbath laws. All these things pointing us toward what the family of God is like.
So with this in mind, we turn the page from Mark chapter 4 to chapter 5. As chapter four closed, last week, Jesus stopped the wind, he stopped the storm, and that passage ends with the disciples terrified and asking this question: “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” Mark 4:41
They ask this question. Now, we see Jesus answer this question. Who is this? Friends, the answer is in one of the wackiest passages of the New Testament. There is a demon-possessed man who can rip apart chains and runs around naked and cutting himself with rocks. There is a herd of 2000 pigs that fling themselves over a cliff. You can’t just make this stuff up. It’s in the Bible. Friends, are you ready for this? This section is called The Gerasene Demoniac.
Jesus and his disciples still on the boat, on the water. And here is what happens. I have different kinds of artwork to go with it – brace yourself because some of the story will be told in Legos.
(Jesus and his disciple) 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.
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 own 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.
So having just escaped the storm that Jesus quieted, they head across the sea to the region of the Decapolis. And as they arrive they are met by this man. …As we go through this, three points to work out: first the dynamics of this man, then reflect about the demons, and then draw it all back to this larger picture about God’s family. (You ready? You sweaty?)
The Gerasene Demoniac. Here he is. What do we know about him? What did we hear – how is he described? He’s living in a tomb – now for a Jew, anything involving death and therefore a tomb is considered unclean. And he lives there. Everyday. He’s unclean as is anybody he comes in contact with, meaning they would have to go through the proper ceremony of washing to be made clean again.
He’s also quite – shall we say – quirky. Super strong (because of the demon) and breaks chains. The word for “bind him” used here is the word used in scripture when taming a wild beast – they even associate him on that kind of level of dehumanization. He’s naked, even cuts himself with rocks. This is the state he lives in all the time. The Gerasene Demoniac. He is completely isolated: Spiritually unclean, socially from human contact, and physically – in chains.
He’s also possessed by demons. We’ve mentioned previously this dynamic we see in the bible – demon possession, unclean spirits. That can be hard for us to really understand in our 21st Century post-modern context. Yet we’ve previously named how we can just kind of get it, yes, today too, there are forces at work in the world that are unclean, evil, unhelpful, malicious. That don’t have our best interests in mind. Contrary to the God of Jesus is the only force at work in the world that became one of us and is for us. God is on our side. But this man is so far from the God who is on his side.
Here’s quote I find helpful in framing how we understand demon possession, and specifically this man: “This account, more graphically than any other in the gospels, indicates that the function of demonic possession is to distort and destroy the image of God in people.” (William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, p.180). There are many things we could name today that distort and destroy the image of God in people – the disease of addiction, abuse, sexual violence, depression – we see this kind of possession in our lives and that of others.
That is this man. So far from the image of God. Possessed by countless demons. Unnamed. Isolated. Untouchable.
So, why do we meet this guy, read about him here in the Bible? I think Jesus, in building his team, in recruiting the family of God, that he deliberately went to the Gerasene in the Decapolis specifically to get this guy. Everyone knew of this guy. They’d been terrified of him for years. Even people on the other side of the lake would have heard of him. Jewish parents would have told their children, Ok, kids, stay away from that area out past the Decapolis because the crazy naked guy who screams and lives in the tombs, will find you…
Right? They would know he’s there. A rabbi would not have just shown up in this region. They would have only come if they wanted to see this guy. Which makes this a big, beautiful, fat statement about God, about the Kingdom of God, about God’s family. 1. Jesus goes the distance to bring even the god-forsaken into God’s family.
Even this guy. Everyone had written him. Isolated him. Nothing could be done. But Jesus goes the distance. And we’ve seen this already in Jesus’ boldness to reach out to those who are on the fringes of society. But this specific trip to get this god-forsaken man – a whole new level of awesome and inclusivity. You see that?
Now let’s talk about the demons. So, as Jesus gets off the boat and encounters this man, let’s name how this is Jesus facing off with the forces of evil. This is potentially a mighty collision, a potential battle between good and evil. There is a Legion of demons here – potentially thousands, definitely a lot.
And we love a good fight between good and evil, right? That’s why we watch The Lord of the Rings, The Avengers, Star Wars – yeah, the special effects and the story Is good – but at the heart of it is the epic battles between good and evil, we’re caught up in it. And so you can just imagine this like a movie and how it could have gone… Jesus and his disciples step off the boat… Jesus arms himself with the large fireballs of the Holy Spirit ready to let fly against whatever evil emerges, then a Legion of demons descend in a fiery wave of heat and power, but Jesus holds them back, but the demons press on. The forces of good and evil collide! … Isn’t that what happens? No! But it could have. Instead: it looks like this:
The text says: 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!”
He fell on his knees in front of Jesus. So this mighty collision, this potential battle between good and evil – there is no big deal. Do you see this? Evil has got nothing. The man kneels before Jesus. Not even a challenge. Second thing I want to name from this text: 2. Evil yields when confronted with our good and holy God. Evil has got nothing. All the stuff in the world that works against us – Jesus has the real power.
So with all this in mind as we listen to this weird text, we remember, that anytime we read scripture, it reveals more about who God is, who we are, and how we see others.
What do we see about God here? The efforts of God and the power of God are boundless in reaching all people to be part of God’s family. (Yes, even this guy). That in every way, Jesus loves the unloveable. The unreachable. The untouchable. And God has the power to face off with the distorted, broken, terrifying, isolated places in our world. And what we actually see that: The places the world calls god forsaken are the places where God is. That flies in the face of some portrayals of God and Christianity today, right? We are told that God is the places that have it all together. That the shiny happy places are signs of God’s presence. Nope – God is in the Gerasene region, and God is in Charleston and Syria and Iran.
Remember, what is it that the disciples asked as the storm was calmed? Who is this? Who is this Jesus? This is the answer Jesus shows us! He’s the one whose family is filled with people of every kind – especially those who seem out of reach.
That is who our God is – this beautiful picture of the generosity and boundless love and power of God. And this also then, informs the way we see ourselves.
Because we know, then, that God can face off with the distorted, broken, terrifying, isolated places in us. That in every way, Jesus loves the unloveable, the unreachable, the untouchable places we have, the memories we carry, the scars we try to hide. And we’ve all got them. Jesus makes it clear that we can name them, own them, and that whatever those things are that can possess us, they got nothing – they too kneel at the feet of Jesus. The awful thing we said to our friend. The way we treated our ex. The abuse we endured. The grief we carry. The lie we told. The fear we harbor. The shame that binds us. Whatever it is that isolates us? We all got it, and the bottom line is that Jesus has got it for us. Our God goes there.
We, too, get to become like the Gerasene Demoniac. Did you notice how he was described after confronting Jesus? As the folks from the region came to see what 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.”
That is the picture for us, too. Dressed and in our right mind. I love that. Because some days being dressed and in my right mind – that would make it a most excellent day.
Oh, and how then, does this inform the way we see others in the world? The obvious answer is that we are invited, like Jesus, to see with compassion and giving people the benefit of the doubt – knowing that they, too, may have a battle of good and evil going on inside of them. Their own broken things may still be buried and hidden. …The other piece of it, too, though is something that Jesus says in parting to this formerly demon-possessed man.
You may have noticed that this man wanted to go with Jesus – take me with you! But Jesus says no. My boat is full and you have important work to do. Jesus says to him: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
Jesus knew that the people in this man’s life needed to hear stories, good, real, messy stories. And so for us, to see that our world needs to hear authentic stories of hope. A world hungry to hear stories of transformation, of mercy, of a generous, pursuing, goes-out-of-his-way God who is not judgmental, exclusive, angry. But a God who has done so much for you, for me, and shown such mercy. For people we know to not just hear the far-off stories of human goodness out there that are posted and shared on Facebook. But for people to hear from us, that it happens in their own circle of friends, their own neighborhoods, their own families. People are hungry for good, true, messy stories of life and faith and the sacred.
We notice, too, that Jesus doesn’t say, “Hey, alright buddy, make sure you know all the right answers, and have studied the bible and have your act together.” No. He says, just be with your people. Be open about what God has done for you – know your story and share it when you can. And especially name the mercy God has shown you.
So what has God done for you? Where has there been grace and mercy in the midst of the ugly stuff? Where in your own imperfection and fear has God given you the little something you needed to make it through today, and the next day? Or where are you hungry to be met by this mercy? Because God’s forsaken family includes all of us and all the folks who seem too far gone. And the great good news is that nothing is beyond the power of God to reach and heal. Nothing. Because God is in those god forsaken places in us and the world.
The band is going to come back up. Which means we take a few moments, like we do every week, to take advantage of a time and space that is vast and open to listening for God. We ask the questions we always ask: God, what are you saying to me/us? What am I/we going to do about it? Because, yes, even a wacky passage of the bible like this one is rich with possibility for God to speak to us. So in the next few minutes, you can do what you need to do to listen, to write something down, to respond. You can also sing – sing of the Amazing Grace we know in our God who welcomes us and all people into God’s family….