The Rev. James T. Moor is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
Last year our first grandchild was born. Naomi has been an absolute delight in our lives, and it is always a joy when she brings her parents and comes to visit. No matter what my wife and I are doing, no matter the time of day, no matter how the house looks-we're just thrilled to see them.
Other visits are less joyful. Our son served a year with the Army in Afghanistan, easily the longest year of my life. I don't know how I would have stood it if we had ever gotten one of those dreaded visits from Army personnel informing us that our son had been killed. I thought sometimes of the scene in the movie "Saving Private Ryan" in which the Midwestern mother collapses in grief on the porch of her farmhouse when she gets that visit. I might have done the same. We didn't have to face that visit, thankfully, but others did and do.
Our experiences of visits can vary widely. What if Jesus came to visit? What would you do? How would you feel? Would you be excited and honored, perhaps making preparations similar to those made for the Queen of England when she visited this country in May? Would you be comforted and uplifted by the possibility of a visit from one who seems so loving and kind? Would you be anxious and uneasy, maybe hurrying to do some extra cleaning and straightening of the house? Would you prepare a special meal? Perhaps buy a new outfit? What would you do if Jesus came to visit?
In our text Jesus pays a visit to the country of the Gerasenes, a Gentile region across the Sea of Galilee. He comes as he always does in Luke's Gospel with the authority and power of God's inbreaking reign. When Jesus comes to visit, it is no longer business as usual. When Jesus is present, people and conditions are challenged, upset, transformed. His visit to the Gerasenes makes quite an impact. Almost before he can get off the boat, Jesus is met by a man described as demon possessed. The man is buck naked. He appears to be crazed. He comes at Jesus from his home in the cemetery, and he is shouting at Jesus to leave him alone, not to torment him. We learn as the story unfolds that it is not really the man who speaks to Jesus, but the demons who are bargaining with Jesus. In a dramatic scene Jesus sends these demons to their destruction and restores the man to health and wholeness. Here is the transforming power of God at work.
The dramatic change in this troubled man's life is the kind of transformation sung about by U2 in the song "When Love Comes to Town." The verses tell the story of a life marked by betrayal, confusion, and lossness, a life changed when it is confronted by a great robust love. "I did what I did before love came to town," says the chorus. But love did come to town, and the singer's life was changed. The healed man might well have sung this song, and I imagine Luke featuring it in his hymnbook.
The reactions to the visit of this powerful Jesus are swift and intense. The demons realize immediately that they are in the presence of a power greater than their own. They represent the forces of evil and oppression that are active in our lives and in the world, and these forces always tremble when they come before the dynamic presence of God's reign. The reaction of the people in the area to the healing of their neighbor is most striking. You might think that they would be happy that this man who has caused them so much trouble is now sane and whole. Perhaps they will throw a party to celebrate this miracle of salvation or hurry to bring to Jesus other friends in need of healing. But there is no party, no celebration. Luke says they are seized with a great fear. Petterson translates they are "in a state of panic." They are scared and they ask Jesus to leave their community.
It seems like an odd response to those of us who don't think of Jesus as fearful. Why are they scared? Maybe they're fearful that if Jesus hangs around they won't be able to make a living. After all, Jesus has just sent a big part of the local economy to destruction in the lake. And the unsettling power of Jesus extends to pocketbooks and economic systems as Christian ministers from Paul on have discovered. But the fear of these people may be about more than the possibility of no longer having a job. If Jesus has power over the forces of the world that oppress and bind, if Jesus can heal somebody like the longsuffering man in the text, destroying a hog farm in the process, what might he do next? Who is safe from such a power? And what if I don't want to see my life upset but prefer to remain in my comfortable, familiar patterns of living.
There is a parable about a farmer who had a few animals he kept in a barn that had gotten old, drafty, and leaky. Concerned for his animals' wellbeing, the farmer decided to build a new barn. He built a fine new barn, tore down the old one, and was comforted to know his animals were now safe and dry. One day a storm came through the area. The farmer decided to look in on his animals, and he was shocked to discover that the barn door had been left unlatched, and all of the animals had left the new barn and were huddled beneath the storm within the foundations of the old, familiar barn. It is easier to hold on to what we know than to face the new.
In their song "Closing Time," the rock group Semisonic has a line that goes, "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." When Jesus comes to visit, he comes with a possibility of new beginnings, but that transformation and healing will mean the end of other beginnings, the exorcism of old ways of living.
For the Gerasenes, it was too much to risk. They asked Jesus to leave.
This fear of the new is not unknown to us. We see it in churches and individuals that cling to old patterns of living, even when it is clear that those old patterns are not life-giving; and if Jesus comes to visit, we just might ask him to leave like the Gerasenes, afraid of what he might do to our familiar ways.
One way we get Jesus to leave is by taming him, by turning him into someone who is kind and gentle, one who never gets too upset, and who is not a threat to anyone.
Dorothy Sayers has written this domestication of Jesus. She writes:
The people who hanged Christ...never accused him of being a bore. On the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up the shadowing personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the lion of Judea, certified him "meek and mild," and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.
Such a Jesus leaves us unhealed but protects us from the fearsome power of God.
There is one other reaction to Jesus' visit in our story, and that is of the man who was healed. This powerful Jesus has given him back his life. From a naked, howling, tormented man who lived in the graveyard, he has been changed to one who sits at the feet of Jesus clothed and in his right mind. Astounding! No wonder he might be singing with U2 or Charles Wesley. The healed man is so grateful that he pleads to be allowed to go with Jesus back to Galilee, but at Jesus' direction he becomes an apostle to his hometown, bursting with the good news of what Jesus has done for him. If fear is our response to the power of Jesus and to the possibility of new life, I imagine the man saying to us, "I understand your fear, but don't be too quick to send Jesus away. I wouldn't go back to who I was before Jesus came for anything. Trust Jesus to make the best of your life.
You never know when or where Jesus is going to turn up. He just might come to visit me or you with an offer of healing and new life with the power to make it happen. May we be open to what Jesus might do in us.
Let us pray.
Lord, you come to us with love and with power offering us new life. Help us to trust you with our lives. In the strong name of Jesus. Amen.