Spring has become a season of thanksgiving; Mother’s Day, graduation Sunday, Memorial Day weekend, and Father’ Day. Each of those has its particular joy because that’s what thanksgiving does. So the first lesson today is just that. If you want to make your life better, thank God for everything for which you can think to thank him. And Thanksgiving is a helpful way to approach today’s Gospel, which is a wild story.
Scripture doesn’t tell us why Jesus ordered his disciples to sail across the Sea of Galilee to the land of the Gerasenes. He does calm a storm along the way, demonstrating his authority over nature.
When he comes to this region, Jesus has moved outside his expected area of concern. He is a Jew and that very much frames his ministry in Israel. They are looking for a messiah to restore their nation and cast off Roman rule. Messiah is the Hebrew word for judge, as in the Book of Judges. His role would be to call the people to repentance, back to the Covenant, back to their relationship with God, and he would vanquish their enemies and restore peace and so on. Jesus will do all of that of course, but on a cosmic scale.
Although Jesus isn’t the type of messiah they expected, all of the conflict with the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Scribes revolved around his emerging role as Messiah – all of that is contending with Jesus’ call first to the nation of Israel and works within Israel’s long history of failure, redemption and salvation.
But this is gentile territory, which means they don’t have any of that cultural background. They aren’t looking for a messiah and would have had very little if any frame of reference to even consider who he might be. And there’s no indication that they have heard the buzz about Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus goes directly to them.
There he encounters a man who is in rough shape. I’m not going to try and explain his condition medically. It’s more helpful to look at this from the perspective given. Some malevolent forces have so tormented this man to the point that he is completely lost in them. Carol Burnett, the comedian, lost a child to drugs and said at one point she realized she wasn’t talking to her daughter, rather the drugs. “We reasoned, cajoled and pleaded with Carrie, but you can’t reason with a chemical.” I’m not suggesting this story is that, but it is like that. The demons that are tormenting him have separated him from every aspect of community. No one, not family or friends or even authorities can deal with him. They can’t help him. They can’t cope with him. They can’t restrain him anymore. He’s naked and living among the tombs. Who does that? Whose life is that lost? A lot of chronically homeless people, for a start. He is so utterly lost that even his name is buried. No identity, no home, no hope.
So what do we learn here about Jesus? Not only is he the one who can calm the storm, he is the one who will cross the sea through a storm to a foreign territory country to find a complete stranger outside his primary service area and deliver him from torment, restoring his identity as a beloved child of God even though he is a gentile. He didn’t even ask for help! The words that came out of his mouth - not his own words but the demons - said “Leave us alone!” But still he was healed. Still he was saved from that wretched existence.
And in that is hope, and hope is absolutely critical to life. It is so critical that for many of the troubles we face in this life, identifying the remedy and pursuing it has immediate positive effects. Let’s say that your bathroom scale hasn’t been too kind lately. And so you set a plan and you start to work the plan. Right at the outset, before you have had time to really get going, the fact that you’ve embarked on a serious attempt to make positive change actually makes positive changes in you. You feel better because your body physically responds to the change.
That’s the power of vision and that’s the power of hope. Often we find ourselves waiting on The Lord to help us or someone we love with some issue. We realize that God may have a different plan or timing that we can understand, so we wait and we hope and we wait. But if you want life to improve, you better plant your flag in a future hope. And if Jesus is the guy who can do all of that and more, you might ought to plant it with him.
Why does Jesus send the demons into the herd of swine on the hill? Maybe it’s to illustrate that not only is he the one who can calm the storm and heal the afflicted, but also that the things he casts out are indeed malevolent and kill. No wonder the villagers are afraid. They don’t want any part of whatever was destroying that man and they have no frame of reference to grasp who Jesus is and what he means to the world - yet.
The man’s response is quite beautiful. He doesn’t really have anything except the clothes that someone gave him, but he offers Jesus everything he has - himself. He wants to follow Jesus.
But Jesus commands, “No. Stay here and be my witness to these people.” In other words, the good news of the Kingdom of God has just broken out of Israel in a profound way, and Jesus has enlisted a disciple who will prepare the ground for the early church outside of Israel when the Apostles come in a few years. The people will remember that Jesus did this and that they were afraid – but the seeds of faith have been planted in a powerful way.
So, what has Jesus done for you? Make your own list, starting with your own life and potential. Giving thanks for your blessings will orient your heart and mind toward praising God, and open you to the possibilities He has for you.
Are you willing to offer Jesus everything you have? Are you willing to mentally, emotionally and spiritually lay all that you are before him and trust his provision, trust his guidance?
Are you willing to “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you” as Jesus instructed the man? Luke tells us, “So he went away, proclaiming how much Jesus had done for him.” You see what Luke did there? It’s subtle, but he’s reminding us that if we want to see God, we will see him most clearly in Jesus.