Released from the Shackles
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For most people today, demon possession brings up memories
of The Exorcist or pictures of mental illness or hallucinogenic drug use. But for the people of Jesus’ time—indeed, for
Jesus Himself—demon possession was a present reality. A fellow pastor once remarked that in lands
where the devil is taken seriously, he shows himself even more seriously. Take Haiti as an example. There are all kinds of weird stories told by
our missionaries in this country where voodoo is alive and well. In places where the devil isn’t taken very
seriously, he shows himself even less serious.
The Halloween kind of devil.
Horns, tail, red suit. Funny. Comical.
But either way, the devil and his demons are serious business and not to
be played with. “On earth is not his
equal,” ends the first stanza of A Mighty
Fortress, and it’s not referring to Jesus but to the devil.
The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 8:26-39, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
|"My Name Is Legion" by James I. Tissot|
The demonic realm is real. Don’t think for a moment it isn’t. You do so at your own peril. The devil prowls around like a lion, looking for someone to devour. And demonic activity seems always to peak when the light of Christ and His Word comes into the darkness. Perhaps that explain much of the turmoil we find in the Church. The Word of God from the lips of Jesus is the light that reveals the darkness, then and now. But the darkness hates the light.
This also explains why the Old Testament rarely mentions Satan while the New Testament speaks about him so often. The advent of God’s Son, His appearance in the world, discloses the hidden presence and operation of Satan. So wherever Christ appears and speaks, Satan and the demons are unmasked. Wherever the Word of God is proclaimed in the Divine Service with the authority of Christ, there the demons are exposed and driven away, but not without a fuss.
This continues a theme in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus had just used a parable to teach His disciples how Satan tries to steal God’s Word away before it can take root and grow in human hearts. And how the cares of this world seek to choke out that Word. Jesus went on to tell them not to hide that Word, but to let its light shine for the world to see. And then He emphasized that those who hear the Word of God and do it are truly part of His family. Families of flesh and blood last only for a lifetime, but the family of God endures forever. Then Luke recounts Jesus’ calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee. With a Word, the Lord rebuked the wind and waves, and there was instant calm. “Who then is this,” His disciples ask, “that He commands even winds and water, and they obey Him?”
Now they are about to see Jesus exercise His power and authority over a spiritual storm—the hurricane of demonic power over human beings. Not only do the winds and water obey Him, but His power, grace, and mercy are able even to restore that which human sin has destroyed. Jesus comes to release those shackled in darkness and death. He goes to the Gerasenes, the Gentile side of Galilee.
A man from the city is there to meet him. Not the mayor with the keys to the city, but an outcast, a man plagued by demons. For a long time he has run about naked, without a home, living among the dead. Here was a man no one would have anything to do with. They kept him in shackles to keep him from hurting himself and others. But even those chains could not hold him when he was under the demons’ influence.
“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” he cries out. “I beg you do not torment me!” The spirits know who Jesus is and why He came. They tremble in His presence. He is their Lord too, but not in mercy. They praise Him, but only in a way that seeks to undermine His mission. He is most Son of the Most High God when He is dying for the sins of the world. The devils will have none of that. They will do whatever they can to short circuit the cross.
“What is your name,” Jesus asks the demon directly, establishing who is the one in charge. “Legion,” comes the answer. Not just one, but many. Perhaps thousands, since a Roman legion numbered six thousand soldiers. But whether one or many, they were no match for Jesus, and they knew it. They began negotiations to cut their losses, and begged Him not to cast them into the Abyss, the place of their torment and imprisonment. They opted for the pigs. A large herd (about two thousand head) was feeding on a nearby hillside. And so Jesus gave the unclean spirits permission to enter the unclean pigs. And as they did, the herd rushed headlong over the cliff and into the lake and the pigs were drowned.
Poor pigs. Poor herdsmen. They just lost a fortune, thanks to Jesus. No wonder they asked Jesus to leave! This is simply too weird! But there is more going on here than meets the eye. It was, in type, a picture of the last day when the devil and his demons will be cast into the lake of fire and sulfur, as St. John saw it in the Revelation, where “they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”
The next time the man was seen, he was wearing some nice clothes and in his right mind. He’s sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to Jesus’ Word, learning the Good News of salvation from the Teacher Himself. Jesus had saved him from the darkness, the demons, and the madness. He was clothed and at peace.
This is a picture of what Jesus does for each of us. No, our condition doesn’t seem as dire as that man’s was in the Gerasenes. We are able to get up each morning and dress ourselves and go to work or our regular activities and act generally respectable most of the time. We are not demon possessed. We do not wander the catacombs. We do not have to be shackled or sedated. We certainly don’t expect to see a herd of pigs hurtling off the bank of Split Rock Lake at the command of Jesus. But we are bound to sin and death. And like that man, we cannot free ourselves. We need to be clothed by Christ. We need Him to release us from our shackles, to set our minds at peace and restore order to our lives.
This story reminds us that there is a lot more going on in this world than we are aware of. There is a dark, demonic realm that occasionally breaks into our existence and wreaks havoc on our lives. I know that’s a bit hard for us to swallow in our scientific age. We tend to relegate devils to Halloween. We smile inwardly when we sing “though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us.” Our scientific minds have no place for the demons. If that man with demons were among us today, we’d likely label him “insane” and institutionalize him.
The fact is that there is a dark, demonic realm of which the Bible has precious little to say. But this we do know: There is a devil, an evil one, the one who is the father of lies and a murderer from before Adam and Eve. He tempted Eve to disobey God’s Word. He wreaks havoc and evil in the world, working with our all too willing sinful natures. No, this is not Halloween silliness. This is a hidden, dark fact of life. It’s what St. Paul calls the “powers and the principalities and the rulers of this present darkness.” Our text has much to teach us about this.
Notice, first of all, that Jesus does not go around actively searching for people with unclean spirits even though He is engaged in a mission to destroy them. They come to Him. The man with the unclean spirits is attracted to Him, like a moth to a flame. He meets Jesus as soon as Jesus steps foot on land. Although people who live in spiritual darkness often avoid Jesus for fear of exposure, the man with these many demons is strangely drawn to Christ.
Second, the unclean spirits recognize Jesus long before His disciples do. “What have You to do with Me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” the demons ask through the man. “I beg You not to torment me.” Christ’s hidden nature and authority is apparent to the demons, for it is spiritual. They see what we cannot see. They know what is hidden from our sight. His holy presence threatens them and their power, just as light banishes the darkness. They must therefore attack Him and short circuit His power before they are vanquished.
Third, this episode shows that the battle between Christ and Satan, the battle between the Holy Spirit and the unclean spirits, is not a contest between two equal and opposite powers. All power in heaven and earth belongs to God. The only power that Satan possesses is what he has usurped and stolen from God. So this contest is, basically, a truth encounter, a matter of spiritual authority.
Satan is the arch-liar. His apparent power is all a lie. It is nothing but make-believe, misappropriated authority, and rank deception. He gains power by feeding on spiritual disorder and impurity. Evil thrives on guilt, fear, and hatred. Hence, in the New Testament, the demons are most commonly called “unclean spirits.” Demonic power is parasitic, for it gains its force from the desecration of what is holy and the defilement of what is good in the order of creation. Why do you think the man lives among the dead in the cemetery?
Since Satan deals with untruth and unreality, Jesus routs the unclean spirits by teaching God’s Word with authority. That Word destroys the web of illusion and deception that characterizes the dominion of darkness. It releases prisoners and slaves from the shackles of sin, death, and Satan.
The power of Jesus does not just apply to what happened there in the Gerasenes. It applies equally—and perhaps even more fully—now in the light of Easter, to us and our situation. All people remain in darkness until Christ comes and teaches them His Father’s Word with authority. That Word discloses and exposes the darkness. With the Word, Christ dispels the darkness from human hearts. With that Word He sends Satan and his unclean spirits packing.
Everything, therefore, depends on Christ and His victory. Through His self-sacrificial death for our sin and His resurrection for our purification He was won the victory for us. All that remains to be done now in this period of history is to mop up the remaining outposts of darkness here on planet earth.
That’s not to say it is going to be easy. It took only a few weeks for U.S. led forces to gain control of Iraq, but American troops spent nearly a decade fighting stubborn pockets of resistance, and still today Iraqi insurgent groups continue to attack the central government of Iraq, resulting in thousands of deaths in 2012. And spiritual warfare has much higher stakes! The casualties are eternal!
Satan, though defeated, has dedicated himself to lead us and the world away from Jesus, and to join him and his demons in hell. How does he do this? He makes hay out of our sin and sinfulness. First, he tempts us to sin; then when we fall into sin he works on our consciences through his accusations.
When that doesn’t work, he takes advantage of our sinful condition to mock Christ as nothing before our eyes. Satan calmly and rationally speaks: “This Jesus is a fraud. He’s making plans to suffer and die! You can’t run the world or your life on forgiveness alone! Your congregation will die if it’s only about Jesus for the forgiveness of sins! Free forgiveness? Then people will do whatever they want. You need to have more policies and rules in place.”
The devil will whisper in your ear. “Look what’s happening! You’re giving up everything. You can’t trust in that Jesus to provide. Take charge! Figure it out yourself before He runs you into the poorhouse. For that matter, why is everything so difficult for you? If this Jesus were really in control and so powerful as He says, things should be going much better for you, shouldn’t they?”
Do not fear! Jesus is the Savior. You’re not. He’s taken care of you. The crucified and risen Son of the Most High God came to you in your Baptism. In that water, He cast Satan out and commanded him to keep his claws off of you. And now the Son of the Most High God possesses you. You’re His. He put His Name on you. He’s given you His Holy Spirit. He’s promised that you will be with Him forever. And if He has done all of these impossible spiritual things, you can be assured He still takes care of your relatively simple temporal needs as well.
For you and me, that means confidence and boldness. The prince of darkness, the devil may still prowl about like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour, but he can be resisted as we stand firm in the faith of Jesus. You are baptized into Jesus’ death and life. Like that man of the catacombs, you have been brought out of darkness into His light, out of death into His life. You have been clothed with Christ. He is the healing of your mind as well as your body and soul. You are children of the light and of the day. The darkness is ended.
You receive Christ’s body and blood as your food and drink. That body given into death… that blood shed for your forgiveness… causes the whole demonic realm to tremble as much as it did that day in the Gerasenes. We are powerless against the forces of evil, but Christ is our strength, our fortress, our shield. You have nothing to fear of the darkness, of death, of the devil.
The man wanted to join up with Jesus, but Jesus had other plans for him. He didn’t need more people following Him around. He needed someone there in the Gerasenes who would tell others. So He sent him away, saying: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And so he did. “He went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.”
What a great sentence for us who have heard the Word of forgiveness, who have been released from the shackles of sin, death, and the devil, who have tasted the heavenly gifts. As you leave here today, He bids you to return to your home, and as you go about your daily vocations declare how much God has done for you in Christ. He’s healed you, giving you the right mind and heart of faith. He’s clothed you, fed you, raised you to life, and given you to share in His glory. Even today He brings you His powerful Word that cleanses you and releases you from the shackles of sin, death, and the devil.
What Word is that? This Word: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.