A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Mark 5:1-20.
Our message today is about a strong man, someone stronger, and someone even stronger.
We meet the strong man running from a cemetery on the eastern shore of lake Galilee. Now, as we start looking at Mark chapter 5, it’s important to remember that it’s the early evening of the same day that Jesus taught the story of the four soils back in chapter 4. The same day. After a long day teaching the people, Jesus had got in a boat and crossed the lake with his disciples. Jesus had fallen asleep, when there was a sudden storm. The storm was so violent that even the disciples who were experienced fishermen had been afraid they were all going to drown. They woke Jesus up and he rebuked the wind. “Be still!” he said to the waves, and they were. Everything became calm. “Who is this man?” the disciples asked each other. “Even the wind and the waves obey him.” Who is he? They were about to find out again.
It didn’t take long for them to reach the eastern shore. Lake Galilee isn’t very big and it isn’t far from one side to the other. But in that short journey they had left one world behind and entered another. A place where they herded pigs. Pigs which were forbidden as unclean to Jesus’ people, the Jews. They had come to a place where the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Father of Jesus, was not known or recognized or worshipped. And near to where they had landed there was a cemetery. A place of death and decay.
It was in that strange land that Jesus met the strong man. And the more we learn about this man, the more we feel sorry for him, for his great strength came from the madness and torment he endured. He was a loud and restless man, roaming the tombs and crying out. He was such a danger to others and to himself, that his family and friends and fellow villages had tried many times in the past to restrain him with fetters and chains. It seems cruel and inhuman, but it seems that they believed that if they could only control him, if they could only stop him hurting himself, they could start to look after him. But he was too strong. No one could hold him. No chain could bind him. No one could go near him. So that by the time we meet him even those who cared about him had given up on him. No one could save him. He couldn’t even save himself. And he was left to fend for himself far from society and community and home. In fact, his reputation was so fierce that no one went that way on purpose for fear of meeting him.
Maybe there are people like this strong man in our own community. People whose behaviour is so wild and extreme that others are afraid of them. They won’t go near them. They’ll cross the street if they come near. Children are warned not to go past their house. They are shunned because people won’t forgive them for what they’ve done. But Jesus sought this strong man out. For it was always Jesus’ mission to seek and to save the lost. To help those who cannot help themselves. And it was this man that Jesus had crossed the lake, had ridden the storm to meet because of his great compassion.
Indeed, the more we learn about the man, the more we feel sorry for him. Because he was under the control of someone even stronger. Although chains of iron couldn’t hold him, he was still a prisoner, held by bonds forged by the devil himself. He was possessed by an evil spirit. It reminds us that Satan pretends to be the friend of sinners. He seems to offer them what they really want. But the truth is that although he is the chief of sinners, the first to rebel against his creator and leader of the rebellion, he is no friend of sinners. His purpose is to rule them and to control them, and if Satan must be destroyed on God’s great day of wrath and judgment, he longs to take as many with him when it happens. He doesn’t care if they are black or white. He doesn’t care if they are rich or poor, as long as he holds their heart in his possession. He doesn’t even mind if they are religious, as long as that is all they are.
The man who lived in the cemetery was strong, but the demons that infested him were even stronger. He couldn’t stop himself from hurting those who loved him. He couldn’t stop himself from harming himself. He couldn’t even speak for himself. Body and soul he was owned, possessed by another. Maybe there are people in our community just like him. Their brains are broken by drug addiction. They have only known abuse and violence in their life, so it is the only language they know. We don’t normally feel sorry for such people. We either try to control them or avoid them. Their problems are so strong, that no one can help them unless someone even stronger comes to set them free.
The man ran from his home among the tombs and knelt in front of Jesus as if he had been summoned and unable to disobey. Jesus took one look at him and knew what was wrong, and said to the evil spirit within him, “Come out of him!” This is what he’d crossed the sea, had ridden the storm, to do, to set this prisoner free from his chains.
The spirit within him spoke with the man’s own voice. He cried out, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most high God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me.” Like the school yard bully who is a coward in the principal’s office, he tormented the weak but feared those who were stronger.
“What is your name?” asked Jesus.
“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” The name legion corresponds roughly to our English word regiment. It’s a military term for a company of soldiers of about three to five thousand men. It reminds us that there were many spirits in the man. He was literally suffering from a plague of demons. But the name Legion also hints that these many spirits were organised and worked as one to bring about death and destruction. A mighty regiment of evil opposed to God’s purpose of life and blessing. Together they were strong, but not strong enough to oppose the Son of the Most High God.
“Send us among the pigs,” begged the spokesman for the demons. “Allow us to go into them.” And Jesus did so. The whole herd of pigs, about two thousand of them immediately rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. Why Jesus gave them permission, I’m not exactly sure. It does show, however, that just as Jesus is Lord over the wind and storm in chapter 4, he is Lord over the kingdom of evil. We may not know why Satan’s civil war goes on, but we have to concede that it does so only with the Lord’s permission. The devil is strong. But the Lord is stronger. Whatever Satan does, the Lord can undo and even more. The Lord is not in command. He is not guilty of evil. But we have to concede that he is responsible and we see in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the Lord taking responsibility for the evil in the world. And the Lord does not let anyone suffer what he is not prepared to suffer himself.
In the misfortune of the pigs we also see the number, the power and the purpose of the evil spirits. Enough to control two thousand pigs and lead them to their deaths. This is the fate that awaited the man if he had not met Jesus, or rather, if Jesus had not crossed the sea to meet him. This is the fate from which Jesus saved him. This is the power that Jesus overcame. So I do not rejoice in the loss of animal life. But I do rejoice in one lost sinner crossing out of the kingdom of darkness and into the light.
Jesus had done as he had said in Mark chapter 3.
“No one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he an rob his house.”
Jesus had gone all that way to plunder Satan’s treasure. He had gone into the strong man’s house and tied up the strong man and robbed his house of this one lost soul. It shows not just his great compassion but also his great power. Others in the man’s life had wanted to help. They’d tried to help by chaining him up. But he was too strong for them. They were powerless.
Jesus, however, was the Son of the Most High God. And we see his power not in the fact that he could have done anything. But in the fact that he did this one thing. He crossed the sea and rode the storm to help this one man. Jesus had wanted to help and had been able to help. This is his power, to set the prisoners free.
The pig herders ran off and reported what had happened in the town and countryside. When they came, they saw the man who had been possessed sitting still, dressed and in his right mind, and just like the disciples after the storm, they were afraid. And they begged Jesus not to stay, not to drive out all the demons, not to heal all their sick, not to convert all the heathens, but to leave.
The man’s condition reveals the peace that Jesus brings. Jesus has great compassion and great power. But his power is for good, not evil. It does not bind and control, but sets free. Instead of being restless, the man can sit still. Instead of hurting himself, he can now take care of himself. And instead of living among the dead, he can go back to live among the living. Instead of wandering among the graves, he can go home.
When Jesus was getting into the boat, the man wanted to go with him. But Jesus told him to stay. “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And the man told everyone what Jesus had done for him.
This has always been Jesus’ best marketing strategy: another satisfied customer spreading the news by word of mouth. What has the Lord done for you? Who could you tell?
You see, we are all prisoners in our way. If not to addiction or to the cycle of violence, we are prisoners of sin. Rebels against God, hurting others and hurting ourselves. We are bound by invisible chains that we forge ourselves one link at a time. No one can save us. We cannot even save ourselves. But Jesus can. Because Romans chapter 8 reminds us that
the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ has set us free from the law of sin and death.
Satan’s purpose is our death. And if we reject God and his life, we are like that herd of pigs running down the hill to our own destruction. But Jesus did what no one else could do. He was not guilty of evil. But he took responsibility for it. Although he did no wrong, he suffered the curse of all our wrongs, he suffered our death, so that the life that was required from us might be found in him, and that his life might be ours. He breaks our chains. He casts out our demons. And by his Spirit he gives us his peace, and leaves us in our right mind.
Satan is not your friend. He is the chief of sinners, but he is not the friend of sinners. He doesn’t even mind if you are religious, as long as that is all you are. The only friend of sinners is the man who did not sin, Jesus Christ, who rode the storm of human life and death to save your life. No one can save you, not even yourself. But Jesus can. Satan is strong. But Jesus is stronger. Trust in him. Receive his peace. And tell the world was he has done.