January 26, 2020

“Powerful Healing—Part 1”

Mark 5:1-20

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

January 26, 2020 (Epiphany 3)


How do you read a story like today’s reading?  Maybe your first reaction was like mine—to read it as a story of Jesus’ power over evil spirits.  My message would be very short, and I would simply say, “We worship Jesus, who has power over all things, including evil spirits, so we do not need to fear.  Amen.”  But there is so much more going on in this story.  


One of the ways of mining stories in the Bible for meaning is to read them from the perspective of different characters.  Pick a person in the story and read it, experience the unfolding events through their eyes.  This has helped me to empathize with the different characters, and not simply judge them.  So let’s look at the story of the healing of the demon-possessed man through his eyes and the eyes of the other characters to see what we can learn about Jesus.  There are a number of different characters in the story, but today I want to focus on four people or groups:  Jesus, the man who was possessed by the impure spirits, the pig herders and the people of the region, and the disciples.


First, Jesus.  He sailed across the lake to the region of Gerasenes.  It was in the area of the Decapolis, a federation of ten cities that were mostly Gentile.  So this was Jesus’ first foray in the gospel of Mark into non-Jewish territory.  This again hints to readers that God was not only concerned with being in relationship with and blessing the Jews, but intended the blessing of Abraham to go out to the whole world.  


As soon as they landed on the shore, the man possessed by spirits came to Jesus.  I imagine that the disciples and Jesus were tired from their trip across the lake.  They had encountered a storm and feared for their lives, but Jesus had rebuked the wind and waves, making their journey calm.  But upon landing, Jesus was presented with a need and engaged the spirit who was torturing the man.  


It was clear who was in control of the situation.  The spirits begged Jesus not to torture them and not to send them out of the area.  They knew that if Jesus commanded them to do anything, they had to do it.  As a consequence, they left the man and went into a herd of pigs that then rushed into the lake and were drowned.  The spirits apparently died along with the pigs.  The man’s need for healing was met in the casting out of the impure spirits.  But the story is much more than one that reveals Jesus’ power over other spirits.  We see this in the way he interacts with the other people in the story, the chief among them being the man who was healed.


So the second character in the story is the man who was possessed by the impure spirits.  I felt a lot of pain for the man.  Can you imagine living as he did:  alone in a cemetery, sometimes bound with chains, like an animal, cutting himself, crying out with no one to hear him?  Some say that our modern knowledge of the brain and psychology would indicate that he was mentally ill, not demon possessed.  I realized that if I were demon possessed, I would become mentally ill with all the loud, relentless competing voices in my mind.  It was no way to live, whether you call it possession or mental illness.


And so when he saw Jesus, he knew, and the spirits inside him knew that he was the Son of the Most High God.  They all knew that they were in the presence of one much more powerful than they were, and the spirits had to do whatever Jesus told them to do.  Jesus wasted no time and told the spirit to come out of the man.  Then he found out that there was not just one, but a legion of spirits.  A legion was a group of 4,000 to 6,000 Roman soldiers.  No wonder the man was unable to live with other people.  After Jesus cast out the impure spirits, the man was “in his right mind” (v. 15).  A calm that he had not had in years had come to him.  His mind was restored. Can you imagine what that must have felt like?


The man was given a new lease on life.  And being grateful to Jesus, he wanted to follow him.  He begged Jesus to let him accompany him.  He asked to become a disciple.  But Jesus told him to stay.  “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” (v. 19).  Who else would appreciate the effect of Jesus’ power but those who knew him before he was delivered and healed?  They would see a completely different man than the one they knew and had come to tolerate.  With Jesus’ instruction to give his testimony, he was the first evangelist commissioned by Jesus in this gospel.


I thought about the reasons the man would have wanted to go with Jesus.  I wondered whether he thought because he had been living in the cemetery on his own for so long, he didn’t think he had a family or community to return to.  But part of the healing he experienced was his restoration to the community.  He was no longer an embarrassment to his community who needed to be hidden away.  Jesus made it possible for him to live in the community again, to interact with others, to build relationships.  Jesus knew that that’s what the man needed and could do.  His healing was not just physical or mental, but relational.  


Illness has a way of separating people and breaking up communities.  I saw it break up families when those with Hansen’s disease were forced into quarantine in Kalaupapa.  Even in modern times, diseases like HIV-AIDS, Ebola and the recent Coronavirus have been devastating because they have created barriers between people.  So it was important for the man to return to his community so he could tell them about Jesus’ power and begin rebuilding those relationships and connections with people.  His healing included the restoration of his relationships in his community.


But did the others in the community want their relationships with the man restored?  Would they accept him back into their common life?  There’s nothing in the story that says that anyone cared that he had been healed.  If anything, the people seemed more concerned with the loss of the 2,000 pigs.  Instead of seeing and appreciating the amazing healing, they pled with Jesus to go away.


What?  Wouldn’t we be happy if someone we knew was miraculously healed and able to take part in our common life after being separated by illness?  Maybe, maybe not.  The people may have gotten used to the way things were, with the man living outside of town.  They could make themselves feel like they were good neighbors by taking him some food every once in a while.  As long as he stayed put, they could go on with their lives, tending their large flocks of pigs, taking them to market and making a good living.


It turned out that the healing of the man was very costly to the owners of the pigs.  Would Jesus’ continuing presence cause more economic turmoil to their community?  Would he heal others, who would then have to be welcomed back into their neighborhood barbeques?  What if, in his right mind, the man didn’t fit anymore?  What if they had enough people for their soccer or bowling league?  What if he became a different kind of pain to them, one who would only and constantly talk about this Jesus person?  This healing had impacts on their lives too, and apparently, they weren’t ready for it.  Jesus left, as they requested.  


The last group in this story was the disciples.  We know they were with Jesus, even though they didn’t have any part in the healing.  They were there to witness the miraculous and spectacular healing.  They saw the controversy that was stirred in the community over the loss of the pigs. They were with Jesus when the man who had been healed begged to join them and was sent off to give his testimony.  The story doesn’t tell us anything about what the disciples observed or thought.  But they were present, and the experience had to have left some kind of imprint on them.


Which character or groups of characters in this story do you resonate with?  Are you like the man who had an impure spirit?  Have you been healed by Jesus?  Do you have a testimony to tell?  It doesn’t have to be a dramatic healing for you to have a story to tell about how the Lord has had mercy on you.  It is your experience of Jesus’ healing—healing of body, mind, spirit, relationship—and you can tell others.  Remember, as I said last week, our job is to share the word, share God’s love, and it’s not our responsibility to make that seed grow.  We just need to be faithful in sharing our stories, leaving it to the Holy Spirit to make something out of it.


Maybe you are like the pig herders or the townspeople.  You’ve become fairly comfortable with how life had turned out, and Jesus’ miracles or work are an unwelcome disturbance.  You’d rather Jesus stay out of the deep stuff in your life.  You like how your life is, even with its pains and challenges.  You’re used to it.  And Jesus will stay out, just like he left the region, if you aren’t ready or willing to have him speak to your life.  He’s not going to go where he is not welcome.


Or maybe you are like the disciples, at Jesus’ side, watching, taking in all his miracles, teachings, his way of living. Are you learning and figuring out what it means to follow such a teacher, such a God?  As we continue to read the gospel of Mark into the spring, we will see more and more what the disciples think of Jesus and how they respond to him.


Let me suggest another way of reading this story, which is not too different from what I’ve shared this morning.  Read this story in relation to the Parable of the Sower, which we read last week.  Jesus went to a predominantly Gentile territory to minister.  He was the Sower, throwing his seeds of love around almost willy-nilly, among Gentiles who may or may not have been ready to receive him, hoping that it would take root and grow.  When it landed on the demon possessed man, he hit rich soil in which the word could take root and grow.  The man ended up going around the Decapolis—ten cities!—to give his testimony.  As a result, people were amazed.  The harvest was good.  The pig herders and townspeople were thorny soil, who did not allow the gospel to take root.  The worries of life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things choked the word, making it unfruitful (see Mark 4:18-19).  Read through this lens, our story challenges us to once again trust God for the growth of the kingdom.


Jesus is powerful, and can heal.  Jesus is the Son of God.  But are we ready to receive him, to accept the healing and reconciliation that his ministry brings to us?  Are we ready to follow him, allowing him to change our lives, our relationships with others, even our treasures?  May God bless us and guide us as we strive to understand what following this powerful Jesus means for us and our lives.