The compassion of the Son - Mark 5:1-20
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Here is a question for those who are into trivia. Who was the first missionary Jesus ever sent? A devoted disciple? Someone who had been to missionary college perhaps? Well, let me give you a clue. To find him don’t turn to the list of the apostles-he isn’t there. They don’t get sent out until chapter 6 of Mark. What about the 72 ? He won’t be located amongst them either.
So, where did Jesus go to find his missionary? Believe it or not it was a cemetery. The first missionary Jesus sent out was in fact a madman- a madman turned missionary. And we read all about him in Mark chapter 5 in which we see displayed the divine compassion of the Son.
So let's look at this heart rending story together under three headings: a desperate situation, a divine encounter and a divided response.
First, a desperate situation vv 1-5 ‘They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, 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.’ .Here is the man your parents tell you to avoid. Here is the fellow the police routinely lock up. Here is the deranged thief who stalks the streets and murders families. Here is the face which fills the evening news. Here is the face of death.
Now can you imagine a situation more frightening- more futile than this? The whole sorry episode reeks of death. The man’s very habitation -living amongst the tombs -vividly captures his twilight existence, if it can be called an existence at all. He is one of the living dead. A Jew reading this would be scandalised by the fact that his home was a cemetery. That for a start would make him ritually unclean-beyond the pale of God’s grace. Notice too how he is living right next door to a herd of pigs- ritual taboo number two. This then is Gentile country Jesus has entered. So for the religiously scrupulous this man is as far removed from God as any human being could be. He is a no hoper.
Palestine obviously didn’t know what to do with him. The only solution those around him could offer was to try and bind him, probably more for their own safety than for his. This was their idea of care in the community! But that proved impossible; there wasn't a straight jacket in the whole world which could hold him-v 4 ‘He had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet.’. Luke in his account tells us that the man was naked, and that is suggested here in v15 where later we read he is ‘dressed and in his right mind’ the implication being that normally he wasn’t. Now can you imagine it? This is a human being we are talking about: he has a family-v19. So this is your son whom you nursed all those years ago. This is your husband whom you adored on your wedding day. This is your father who took you out for walks as a child and bounced you on his knee. But now this is someone uncontrollably roaming the graves like a wild animal.
There is also an indication in v5 of self-mutilation, screaming in anguish as he lacerated his body. Do you see it in your minds eye? It is a picture of abject despair -lacking all that is basic to dignified humanity. There is lack of shame- he is reduced to nudity. There is lack of peace-he is tortured by demons. There is lack of identity- having a personality, splintered into several thousand fragments for in v 9 the demons describe themselves as Legion-a Roman legion mustering up to 5000 men. So he wasn't a person any longer he was an army! And it is in this context that we are to read those poignant and pathetic words of v4 'No one was strong enough to subdue him’-no one.' He had no power to help himself and no one else had the power to help him either.
And that is when Jesus steps into what was to be a divine encounter -vv6-13. ‘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? Swear to God that you won't torture me!" For Jesus had said to him, "Come out of this man, you evil spirit!" No sooner has Jesus set foot on the beach, hurtling out of nowhere comes this deranged creature- wild hair, bloody wrists, scratched skin, fury encased in flesh, naked bedlam rushing towards him and the disciples with arms flailing and voice screaming. That is the force of v7, literally he was screaming at Jesus. I don't know about you but I think I would have been back in that boat pretty sharpish!
But not Jesus; not the divine Son. In total mastery of the situation he performs the most astonishing exorcism.
Now it is important to realise that Jesus is not like other contemporary exorcists of the time. He doesn’t use any incantations or special amulets, he doesn’t even pray. No, his is a unique and immediate authority. Nonetheless, there is a progressive pattern to this particular encounter.
Notice how in v8 it says, 'For Jesus had said to him 'Come out of this man, you evil spirit.' Jesus had already commanded the spirit to leave him, but there was this unholy resistance, an attempt on the part of the demons to bind Jesus. That is maybe behind v7 which would be better translated; 'I bind you by God, don't torture me.' The demons are invoking an oath which they hope will cast a paralysing spell on Jesus. Of course it fails. God is hardly going to disempower his own Son is he? And so Jesus moves on to the next stage of the exorcism: identifying the demon's name, the belief being that if one knows the name one disarms the opponent by having access to their real character signified by their name. This could also explain why in v7 the demons shouted out the name Jesus so somehow trying to get a handle on him.
The answer given to Jesus is quiet shocking; v9 'My name is Legion for we are many.' Within this one soul is concentrated a whole demonic battalion. Merely at the human level people knew what havoc and carnage a Roman legion could wreak and how powerless even the most experienced defenders were when confronted with so lethal an enemy. But a demonic legion! Who could possibly resist that? The answer: no one. But in Jesus they knew they had met their match-v10,'And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.' So total, so irresistible and confusing is the demonic control that even the man pleads on their behalf.
But then we come to the most bizarre aspect of the whole episode-v11-13 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 evil 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. ‘
Now what was the point of that? Well, some suggest that it is done to provide a clear assurance to the man that the demons have left him. But surely the fact that in v 15 he is sane and whole again is all the assurance he needs. Also, there is no indication that the demons were destroyed, it is the pigs that are drowned; the contemporary belief was that demons could inhabit water. One possible explanation is that this was part of the cure with the transference of demons into another body-in this case that of pigs. Other contemporary exorcists did pretty much the same, with spirits being transferred into stones or pots and then thrown away. ‘Ah,’ you say, ‘but on other occasions Jesus simply called demons to come out and that was the end of the matter.’ True, but may there not be a parallel to the way Jesus used different techniques to cure the blind? Sometimes he just spoke and they were healed. On other occasions he touched them and they were healed. Sometimes he spat on their eyelids or made a mud poultice. So may it not be that here Jesus deemed it necessary to employ a sort of transference technique? Whatever the answer, the main point can't be missed: namely, what are we to make of the violent power which has enough force to drive 2000 pigs into a mad stampede and to certain death? It simply reinforces the shear magnitude of the horrific dark powers that had tormented this poor man for so long and the infinitely superior power of Jesus. You could not ask for a more vivid depiction of the divine power over demonic power than this.
But let me ask: during all this time what are the disciples doing? The answer: not that much. While Jesus fights his followers stare. They don’t know what else to do. And maybe that is exactly how you feel. You look out on a world which seems to be rapidly spinning out of control. The fighting is fierce, we feel so helpless. But there is one who is in control, who comes to help the helpless and that is Jesus.
The result? A divided reaction-vv 14-20 and both involve begging.
First, there is the reaction of the townsfolk-vv14-17 14Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15When 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. 16Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man--and told about the pigs as well. 17Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.’ Isn’t that incredible? Just look at the beautiful thing Jesus has done. Here is this man for the first time in years, decades even, clean, fully dressed and in his right mind, sitting in peace. A picture of quiet tranquillity and goodness if ever there was one. Now what reaction would you have expected from the people seeing this? Would it not be something along the lines: Isn’t this wonderful? How did you do it Jesus? Who is this that has such power? You would have hoped for that sort of reaction wouldn’t you? But that is not what we find. Instead of welcoming Jesus they want to get rid of Jesus. They beg him to go.
Now what would cause people to do such a thing? What would lead people to prefer chaos to Christ, pigs to peace?
Well, you can equally ask what would cause a church to prefer sleep over revival? What would cause a nation to prefer materialistic slavery over spiritual freedom? What would cause a people to prefer yesterday’s traditions over today’s living God? The answer is there in v 15- fear. Fear of change; fear of the unknown; fear of losing control. And so Jesus has to be ushered off centre stage into the wings. Oh I am sure that they appreciated the blessings of Christ- the madman calmed, but they didn’t want the presence of Christ. That makes you wonder who was more bound by Satan- the man or the masses?
That is one reaction.
The other reaction is much more moving-v18-20 ‘18As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19Jesus did not let him, but said, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you." 20So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.’ Now, isn’t that glorious? This is the response of someone in his right mind, he begs Jesus to let him go with him. He has tasted the sweet release he brings. He owes his life to him and so naturally he wants to serve him, of course he does. But Jesus sends him back to his family who in utter despair had given up on him. 'Let them know what the Lord has done for you, what mercy he has shown to you,' says Jesus. So off he goes. And what does our madman turned missionary do? He tells them what Jesus has done for him. Do you see that the man has made the right connection as to the identity of Jesus? Here is proof enough that he was in his right mind- he could see who Jesus was- he is the Lord!
Now, do you realise that you are to be found somewhere here in this story? True.
You don't have to be demon possessed to know the deep seated feeling of futility and helplessness in life. It is a feeling common to everyone. What was it the French writer Rousseau said? ‘Man is free yet everywhere he is in chains' That is so, but not in the way Rousseau meant it. He believed that we could and should do whatever we feel like doing- we are naturally good, but we are restrained from doing our own thing because of the oppressive restrictions imposed on us by the state and religion. That is what he taught and it became the basis for much of modern educational theory as laid down in his book Emile. But the freedom Rousseau and many others since have been advocating is not true freedom at all. It is an illusory freedom whereby we are in bondage to our sinful impulses. Take the case of the American film star Errol Flynn. Handsome, dashing, the idol of many men and adored by all the women, most recently portrayed by Jude Law in the film ‘The Aviator’. He died at the relatively early age of 52.He was found with his body riddled with disease- he was a heroin addict, addicted to booze and sex, living with a girl young enough to be his own daughter. Flynn has an unmarked grave somewhere in Hollywood. Once his daughter was asked if he were to have a gravestone what would the inscription be? And this is how she replied 'I did whatever I wanted to do'. But if course he didn’t, he was a driven man, a bound man, resulting in a sad estrangement from his closest family and friends. And that example focuses in a vivid way the basic human condition, when it comes to the things that really matter, choosing God, doing what is right, don’t we often feel helplessly bound, wanting someone to set us free to do what we ought to do? Of course!
But you might see yourself amongst the villagers. You have heard about Jesus. In some ways you actually admire him. You have seen what he can do in other people's lives, but you are not going to allow him to disturb your life. You have everything set out, you are comfortable in your daily routine, you have a university career to think about and you don't mind him helping those really needy cases, but he is not for you. The prospect of you becoming a real Christian is just, well just too frightening. What would your friends say? You might actually have to start thinking about things for yourself instead of just going along with the crowd as these people were doing. And so you beg him to leave you alone, to get out of your life. If that is you, then let me warn you, he may well do as you ask, he as he did here. The living Lord Jesus will not force himself on you, he will only respond to your invitation. But if you reject him, then be aware of the consequences, for he may not be in the area the next time you look for him. The Bible says: ‘Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.’ The implication being that he will not always be so. You can’t just turn to him when you feel like it. In fact the more you resist his promptings as you come to a place like this, the more you shackle yourself and harden your heart , becoming spiritually desensitised such that that is the condition into which you enter eternity and then it will all be too late. Don’t put of becoming a Christian, today is the day of salvation, there may not be a tomorrow.
But then there is the man himself in v 19-living proof that while we might be helpless we need not be hopeless for there is one who has the power to change us and that is the Lord Jesus.
Now you may be feeling that you are a hopeless case. I tell you, you are not. Helpless, maybe, but never hopeless, because if Jesus can change this man, and can change me, then he can change you. And if that is really what you want, then let’s talk to him now as we pray.
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