A rooster taught me to ride my bicycle. Well, actually it’s more accurate to say that a rooster motivated me to ride my bicycle. When I was about 5-years-old, my dad bought me a used bicycle. At first, he put training wheels on it in order for me to get the hang of it but eventually he said it was time to take them off. If you have had that experience, you remember that you are afraid of what? Falling over, right? So was I. I was tentative, wobbly and slow to gain confidence... until one day a rooster in our family’s farm yard started chasing me. Let me tell you... roosters can run fast! And for some reason, this rooster took offense at my ankles and started running after me trying to peck at my ankles. Believe me: I had instant motivation to pedal faster and in doing so, I gained momentum and I was balancing! And still the rooster kept chasing me, pecking at my ankles and so I lifted my legs up in the air... achieving even better balance. After that, I could ride my bicycle with no problem. I love telling that story. I think all of us enjoy a good story, don’t we. We love hearing details and a well crafted tale.
There are some stories that the gospel writers seem to love telling and this is one of them. There are so many vivid details in this story! However, Mark’s purpose in telling this is not just because he likes a good story. He tells it in such a way to highlight just how powerful Jesus and his coming kingdom are. Even the most powerful demons are no match for Jesus. In this powerful story of Jesus, we see not only Jesus’ power and authority over Satan as he establishes the kingdom, but also a call for us to serve as witnesses for him in our lives in his kingdom as well. Let’s read Mark 5:1-20.
I. First we see a pitiful but very scary man in verses 1-5.
Jesus and his disciples had crossed the Sea of Galilee to the area of the Gerasenes where he encountered the demon-possessed man, who is elaborately introduced by Mark. In fact, every word Mark uses emphasizes this man’s pathetic insane condition. These townspeople, according to the accepted practice of the day, had tried binding him with chains to protect himself from his violence but this had failed. They then had driven him off to wander in the country and to dwell in the caves which served as tombs and dwellings for the poorest people in the area. At times during the night and the day he would be seen among the tombs or on the mountains, wildly shrieking and cutting his flesh with sharp stones. These were likely attempts to destroy himself and end his miserable existence. The response of the people in the town was clearly an added burden to this man.
In the description of what this man was going through we see how evil tries to destroy the image of God that was given to people when they were created. It makes me wonder if demons are active in the problem of drug addiction today. Satan and his demons want to destroy people who have been created in the image of God and drugs and alcohol do that very effectively today. This man was a prime example of good that had been twisted into something evil.
The man had seen Jesus from a distance, had run to him and had fallen on his knees in front of Jesus. His posture is important to note for while the demons are powerful, they must still bow before the sovereign Lord. Shrieking with a loud and violent voice the man begged Jesus to leave him alone! The demon raised his voice to defend itself from Jesus.
Notice that he addresses Jesus by his full divine name: “Son of the Most High God.” It is clear that the demon is fully aware of Jesus’ divinity and dignity. However, the full use of Jesus’ name is not a confession of Jesus’ dignity but a desperate attempt to gain control over him or to render him harmless. We have seen before that in those days, people believed that the use of the precise name of an adversary gave one mastery over him. In saying “swear to God” the demon senses that it is about to be punished and so uses the strongest statement it can think of and asks God to protect it from God.
Thus in the act of kneeling, the defensive use of the divine name and the violent swearing by God, the demon fully recognizes that Jesus has superior power over it. Jesus is so powerful that the demon knows he must leave the man now. In fact, it comes almost as an afterthought by Mark, “For he had said to come out of him.”
Now the story takes another interesting turn for Jesus demands to know the demon’s name. And now we begin to understand just how much this poor man had been tormented. There was not one but a multitude of evil spirits in him. It is difficult to know exactly what the word “Legion” means, but there are so many demons in this man that there is virtually nothing left of the man. It is also possible that the answer the demons give is evasive for they don’t want Jesus to know their real name. When I was probably 10 or 12 years old, my buddies and I would go play in and around the huge stacks of lumber that were stacked in a nearby lumberyard. We knew that we weren’t supposed to be there but we had an “elaborate plan” in case the police caught us: we decided we’d give them fake names! Not a great plan. That may be what this demon is trying to do as well to throw Jesus off. It may also have been said to give the impression of authority for it is a powerful name but we don’t know completely why Legion is used.
The demon made repeated requests that he not be sent out of the district. The reference to the herd of pigs grazing on the hillside is not strange for this occurs in an area called the Decapolis which had a predominantly Gentile population. The demons make a specific request to enter into the pigs. Jesus complied with this request and the demons quickly entered the new hosts. Then in a panic the herd rushed down the slope into the sea and drowned perhaps down this hill on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Now what is going on here with the pigs? What must be seen above all is that the fate of the pigs illustrates what the demons had been trying to do the man they had possessed. It is the demons’ purpose to destroy God’s creation but Jesus prevented them from doing that. And so they instead fulfilled their purpose in the destruction of the pigs.
However, the drowning of the pigs was not an unforeseen consequence in Jesus’ action. It wasn’t like Jesus said, “Oops! Well, I didn’t see that coming!” So why did Jesus allow the pigs to be destroyed? First, Jesus knew that the time of the final defeat of the demons had not yet come. His battles with the demonic and his triumph over them do not put an end to Satan’s power. However, it is a sign that the final defeat of Satan is coming. Therefore Jesus allows the demons to continue the destructive work but not upon a person. Second, Jesus allowed the demons to enter the pigs to demonstrate to everyone that the demons real purpose was the total destruction of their host. While this may have been obscured in the case of the man, this was blatantly obvious in the instance of the pigs. It shows that the purpose of the demonic is to destroy God’s creation.
The herders who had tended the pigs fled the scene and went to town and the small villages surrounding it to report the loss to the owners. Now picture this scene as the people came quickly to see what had happened. They saw Jesus and the man sitting calmly, clothed and restored to full sanity; he was the one who was possessed by Legion! The man whom could not be restrained with chains and who had terrified others by running after them naked was now fully clothed and sitting calmly with Jesus. The transformation was so radical that the people were stunned and frightened. The result was that they gave Jesus the pathetic response for him to leave them. While they may have been upset by the huge financial loss, they wanted Jesus gone because they wanted nothing more to do with someone as powerful as Jesus.
We too may avoid someone we see as a dangerous threat if we don’t understand them. When I was about 10-years-old, there was a neighbor boy who was severely autistic but he was also very big and very scary to me. If he got upset, he was big and surprisingly fast ... and violent. I avoided him because I didn’t understand him and that made me afraid. These people knew that Jesus was very, very powerful because of what they had seen, but they didn’t understand him and so wanted nothing more to do with him!
IV. And then we conclude with a faithful witness for Jesus in verses 18-20.
In sharp contrast to the fear of the people is the devotion of the man who had been possessed. As Jesus entered the boat, the man begged Jesus to take him with Jesus. He knows that Jesus is not some strange and powerful man who is to be feared. Jesus is the one who is the redeemer and calls others to follow him in devotion. Yet Jesus refused the request of the man and instead instructed him to return to his circle of friends and family from whom he had been estranged. And he is to declare to all what the Lord had done in extending mercy to him. In obedience the man went his way and began to tell all in the Decapolis the outstanding things that Jesus had done for him with the result that people marveled. It was natural that he spoke so openly since God had shown him mercy through Jesus.
Yet Jesus before had told others who had been healed not to tell anyone; so why does Jesus command him to tell his friends and family everything? First, this man understood who Jesus really was. He grasped that Jesus was more than an amazing miracle worker. While not knowing fully, he believed that Jesus was the Son of God. And second, this man anticipates the Christian mission to the world. He was a Gentile and his proclamation would be confined to a certain area. Thus in the midst of the Gentiles, the God of Israel was glorified through what this man proclaimed as to what Jesus had done for him.
So what is the lesson for us? We should be a witness wherever we are. God has saved us in Jesus and rescued us from the ravages of sin and death. God may at times call us to go someplace remote or exotic. But most of the time, God calls us to stay right where we are and be a powerful witness to those who know us as we tell others of what God has done for us.
And we also do this in how we talk, how we act and how we use our resources. We live our lives in such a way that others can’t help but notice the difference in our lives or they notice that we are “weird” in that we aren’t like most other people. And then we must then be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us.
And finally let’s be excited about being witnesses for Jesus! There is a cartoon in which two women are having coffee together. One is passionately telling the other: “He's changed my life. He communicates with me every day of the week. Anywhere I go, he's there. He lets me know how I should live and what I should think. He tells me the true meaning of life. I just love Phil Donahue!”, referring to a former talk-show host. We can be very passionate about the people and things of this world. Let’s be passionate about our Lord who has saved us as well.