Sermon June 23, 2019

“Asking Jesus to Leave”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Luke 8: 26-39
June 23, 2019

Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. – Luke 8:37i

I am going to ask two questions this morning. The first is why did the Gerasenes ask Jesus to leave? The second question is why do we ask Jesus to leave? Of these two questions, the first is easier to answer. The second question – namely, why do we ask Jesus to leave – is perhaps harder to address but far more important. The first question is of historical interest. The second question is deeply disturbing and requires a reckoning with our wayward souls.

Let’s begin with the easier question. Why did the Gerasenes ask Jesus to leave? I’ve preached on this Lucan passage before and I thought I knew the answer. I thought it was because they feared that Jesus would take away other forms of income. After all, it was the swine herders that reported the destruction of their herd to the town. Surely, I thought, Jesus had threatened their livelihood and they feared where this might lead. I don’t think I was altogether wrong. After all, when one is confronted by Jesus there is no part of one’s life that does not come under Holy scrutiny. Your relationships, your interactions with the created order, your form of employment, your speech, your leisure, your all – that is what an encounter with Jesus entails and we, like the Gerasenes, may find that we resent the changes Jesus demands. We, too, might ask Jesus to leave. So I don’t think I was entirely mistaken. The Gerasenes may have feared for their economic well-being.

But let’s look a little closer. When I read Richard Vinson’s commentary of Luke, I discovered something I had overlooked.

First, the text never says anyone was upset with the destruction of the pigs.

Second, Luke 8:35 says the Gerasenes grow fearful when they saw the demoniac clothed, sitting at the feet of Jesus and in his right mind. If we take this verse at face value, it tells us that it was the man’s healing that caused them fear. Remember, the swine herders had already told the townspeople about the destruction the herd. Indeed, that seems to have caught their interest because right after the town’s people learned of what had happened, they decided to go and see for themselves. But when they got there, the text tells us their fear was motivated by seeing the transformation that had taken place in the Demoniac. Verse 35:

Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.

Word spread and in verse 37, we read these words:

Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.

As great as their fear may have been about the loss of the pigs, it is the man’s healing that appears to be the catalyst for their fear. Why?

I don’t know, but I can suggest some possibilities:

  1. They, like most of us, fear change. Maybe that’s part of what fueled their dread. Imagine it. Here is a man who has been known to be dangerous and violent. They had to put him is shackles – shackles that he broke. Thankfully, the demons drove him into the wilderness, indeed, into the tombs to live with the dead which they may have thought is where he belonged. In some ways, I suspect, he was already dead? What is it like to live in isolation, to be so feared that you were not even welcomed at home? All these assumptions, these necessary precautions were now called into question. As bad as the man’s madness had been, his healing will now require change and no one knows where this might lead.

And remember, the man asks to leave with Jesus, to follow the One who had healed him. I wonder if that wouldn’t have defused the situation. The town folks wouldn’t need to change and neither would the man have to learn new ways of relating to those who feared him. Perhaps it was fear of change that caused them to fear the man.

  1. Perhaps their fear was motivated in part by their guilt. From Leif Enger’s novel Peace Like a River comes the story of the protagonist’s father who heals the face of the man, his supervisor, who had just fired him for no good reason:

“He roared a few words, and Dad became a former janitor.” But then the father puts his hand on the supervisor’s face: It was the oddest little slap you ever saw. Holmgren quailed back a step, hunching defensively, but Dad turned and walked off; and the superintendent stood with his fingers strangely a wonder over his chin, cheeks, and forehead. Then I saw that his bedeviled complexion—that face set always at a rolling boil—had changed. I saw instead skin of a healthy tan, a hale blush spread over cheekbones, that suddenly held definition; and above his eyes the shine of constant seepage had vanished, and light lay at rest upon his brow. Listen: There are easier things than witnessing a miracle of God. For his part, Mr. Holmgren didn’t know what to make of it; he looked horrified; the new peace in his hide didn’t sink deep; he covered his face from view and slunk from the cafeteria.”1

Perhaps their guilt in banishing this man to a life of isolation living amongst the dead caused them to fear the inevitable judgment of God.

  1. Related to the fear they may have felt due to their need to change, was the fear of having lost control. A moment ago, they had known what to do with this man, how to control him, how to protect themselves. Now, in his right mind, they had lost their control and the future was an unknown. What had been was difficult, but they knew how to cope with his madness. Now? They had no clue. What had once been seen as a thing to be shunned and condemned, became a man no different than themselves.

These are some possible reasons for their fear, for their asking Jesus, who seemed to bring change wherever He went, to leave. Their ordered world had been tossed up side down.

Which brings us to our second question. Why do we ask Jesus to leave? Oh, we are not so different from the Gerasenes. This inconvenient savior who saves us from what we want to cling to places demands upon us that we might wish to ignore. Yet is not God the One who has a complaint against every age? Can Christ be happy when religion is used to bludgeon one’s enemies? Is it true that God loves America more than Iran? Wherever injustice abides, God demands repentance. Oh, do not misunderstand me. I want Jesus to enfold me in His loving arms, to comfort me when dark days come and to be a constant guide for my daily living, but I find myself captured in the words of James Gustafson:

“We want a God we can manage, a God who comes when beckoned, a God who permits us to say that ‘he’ is here but not there; a God who supports our moral causes and destroys the forces we judge to be evil; a household God and a kitchen God who care more fur us and ours than ‘he’ cares for others who suffer like we suffer, who fear like we fear. We desire to manage and manipulate the ultimate power that has brought the worlds into being, sustains them, bears down upon them, and determines their ultimate destiny. We want to shape God to look like us, to change ‘his’ mind so it is in accord with ours.

And yet, Gustafson goes on:

But such a God is not God.”

Gustafson concludes:

“God does not exist simply for the service of human beings. Human beings exist for the service of God.

God will not be manipulated.

God will not be ignored or denied.

God will be God.”2

I think I know enough about myself that I, too, ask Jesus to leave when my salvation becomes an inconvenience for my pleasure. So today I ask that this be my prayer: “Even so, Lord Jesus, come; for without you I am lost.” If need be, may it be your prayer as well. Let us pray…

1 Leif Enger, Peace Like a River (New York: Grove, 2001), 79–80.

2 Gustafson, James M., Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Vol 2, University of Chicago Press, 1984.

i Luke 8:26-39

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus* sent him away, saying, 39‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.