When I was in my mid-teens I heard a sermon on the story of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes. I think I remember two or three sermons from that time in my life, so it is striking that this sermon stuck with me. I do not know exactly what it was about the sermon that made it so memorable, but I think it had something to do with the way it captured my imagination. If I am correct, the sermon was titled “D-Day at the Decapolis” and the preacher drew parallels between the Allied forces invading the beaches of Normandy and Jesus invading the beaches of the Decapolis.
As I sat in the wooden pews of the Cloverdale Canadian Reformed Church all those years ago, an image formed in my mind: Jesus, the one true force of good and life, invading the regime of wickedness and chaos, with no weapons but the spoken word. I have read this story many times since that Sunday and I’m still struck by the powerful image it gives us of the ministry of Christ.
In the battle between life and death, it is life that makes the attacking move. Jesus steps into the boat, charges across the Sea of Galilee, lands on the beaches of the Decapolis, and disembarks into enemy territory. As he makes his way up the steep bank, Death arises from among the tombs to meet him. The enemy will not cede ground easily.
What Jesus is confronted with is a living exhibit of the all-encompassing power of sin-induced death – a wild beast of a man whom no-one could tie down, let alone help. There was no power to be found that could subdue the power of the death within this man and free him from the chains of sin. Hopeless and helpless, the demon-possessed man retreated into the hills, more at home among the tombs than the homes of family and friends. Every night he would cry out into the inky blackness of the night and, feeling like a savage, he would cut his wrists and arms to remind himself he was human.
This is what sin does to a man. It overpowers him and makes him a slave to the warped desires of the flesh. It drives him away from himself and makes love and hope impossible dreams. It drives him away from home and family, and shatters every relationship in sight. It drives him away from God, and leaves behind a sin-trenched chasm.
When the demon-possessed man confronts Jesus we expect an epic battle between the forces of good and evil. But we must remember that the two opposing sides are not equals. Jesus is the sovereign creator of all things, and Death is only one who follows behind, seeking to sabotage what is good. Jesus is the giver of Life, while Death hobbles about seeking to end life.
Jesus speaks first. From a distance, he commands the demon to come out of the man. The demon surrenders as the man runs towards Jesus and gets down on bended knee before him. The demon knows who Jesus is and the kind of power Jesus has, and he looks for an escape route.
“What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!”
Jesus is calm. He has no reason to tremble in the face of death. He asks the demon for his name.
“Legion, for we are many.”
One against many – familiar story in redemption history. Jesus has no reason to pick up arms, or a jawbone, or river-stones, because the enemy is already beating a retreat. The demons ask Jesus to send them into a nearby herd of pigs. They may have lost this battle, but perhaps they might regroup and fight another day. Jesus knows that this particular skirmish is not the end, but it foreshadows the final, war-ending battle on the cross. So he lets the demons go.
While the legion of demons are doing what sin does – foolishly hurtling themselves toward death – the once possessed man is sitting on a rock and trying to make sense of the peace and newness of freedom. With calm, weighty words Jesus had stilled the storm that raged within his soul.
As Jesus was getting into the boat to leave the area, the man once again ran up to him and begged at his feet – but this time he doesn’t want Jesus to leave him alone, he wants to go with Jesus. But Jesus does not let him. The man was more useful to Jesus as a hometown witness, than a wandering disciple. So Jesus told 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.”
And he did. He told them the story of his encounter with the Living One and his emancipation from the chains of Death. Over time, his story spread around town, travelled over the hills to the next town, and kept going to the regions beyond. And then, two-thousand years later, in a church across the globe from the Decapolis, a young teen heard a preacher tell that same story once again. And his heart set ablaze.