This is one of the weirdest stories in the Bible ...
And it’s in the Bible three times. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of when Jesus cast the demons into the herd of pigs. Maybe it was just too weird to pass up. Maybe people back then were interested in the weird and freakish just like people today. Maybe a little bit of tabloid-type newscasting made the Jesus story more interesting. ... Maybe ... and maybe ... just maybe ... there is an important message here - even for us modern people who find this story so uncomfortably weird. To get at this meaning, we’ll have to unpack some of the weird stuff.
For starters, the flow of the story is out of sync. Luke tells the story with all of these flashbacks and asides. Instead of telling the chronological sequence of events, Luke has rearranged the material so that it centers around Jesus showing up. Everything changes when Jesus shows up.
Then, there are several cultural issues. Jesus and the disciples have now traveled to the east side of the Sea of Galilee. The Jewish Messiah is now landing in Gentile territory. Gentiles are “unclean.” They don’t believe in Israel’s God. They eat pork and worship the Roman gods. This is a bad, bad place for a regular Jew to be.
In the passage just before this one, while their boat is crossing the Sea of Galilee, a storm comes up and almost sinks the boat. In ancient Jewish culture, the sea is this symbol of chaos and evil, so for the disciples, it’s as if the forces of evil were trying to suck them down to Hell. Jesus finally stands up in the boat and calms the storm. Even the wind and the waves (these symbols of evil) obey Jesus.
Then, just as the boat reaches solid ground, they are confronted with more forces of evil. There’s a deeply crazy guy who says he is filled with thousands of demons, and before the disciples get the boat docked, he’s already screaming at Jesus and thrashing on the ground. (If I were a disciple, I would probably just get right back in the boat. “OK. This was a nice trip. Let’s go home.”)
In today’s world, we would probably say this guy was crazy. He was naked. He was apparently a danger to his community. He lived in the tombs or graveyard. He was so out of his mind that he was half-dead already.
Then, the story gets weirder. Jesus seems to enter into negotiations with the demons. Jesus tells the demons to come out, but they start bartering with Jesus: “Please don’t send us into the Abyss.” The Abyss may be the place of the dead, or it may be a special place of punishment for evil spirits. (See Revelation 20:1-3.) Weirdly, Jesus seems to give in to the demons. He lets them go into the pigs instead of the Abyss. But then the pigs freak out and run off a cliff into the Sea and drown. That has got to be one of the weirdest scenes in the whole Bible. There are thousands of pigs jumping off a cliff like screaming lemmings. Just imagine the huge pile of hundreds or thousands of dead, mangled pigs in the water. That can’t be good for tourism! Some people think Jesus allowed this to show the sheer number of demons in this guy (and thus Jesus’ own power). Others think, it was kind of a joke on the demons, like Jesus is a college prankster: “OK, go into the pigs instead of the Abyss. See how that works out for you ... oops, they’re taking you to the Abyss too! Na, na.”
The story wraps up with the guy completely restored. Before Jesus, he was full of demons and out of control. With Jesus, he is demon-free and in his right mind. Before, he was naked, shouting, and wandering in the wilds. Now, he is clothed, calm, and sitting at Jesus’ feet in the position of a disciple. Before, he was homeless. Now, Jesus tells him to return to his home with a mission to tell people about how God has restored his life.
But there’s one more aside at the end. Even after Jesus sets the crazy guy free from his demons, Jesus is still not welcome in town. But maybe that shouldn’t surprise us too much. Jesus just killed their bacon. Don’t mess with people’s bacon! That’ll get you in trouble every time. Seriously, Jesus has just destroyed the local economy and created quite a scene. This guy Jesus is dangerous, so they told him to go away. We’re not so different, really. Most of us would rather have a calm, normal life - rather than a life injected with an uncontrollable God.
So where do we go from here? How do we cope with this crazy story? Do we need to start doing exorcisms here - maybe after communion time? We can joke about this because we feel like this story is so far from our reality. As far as we know, most of us have absolutely no personal experience with demons or evil spirits ... as far as we know.
However, many of us have heard stories of demons and exorcisms on “the mission field.” When we went to Indonesia, our translator was Samuel Suarez, a pastor from East Timor. Samuel regularly prays for miraculous healings and confronts demons and evil spirits who are oppressing individuals or houses in East Timor. Samuel and his church members regularly lead new converts to burn the talismans and tools of witchcraft that are so common in East Timor houses.
When I was in Papua New Guinea, I heard missionary Warren Neal tell a story about a time when he and some other Christians were traveling through an area known to be dominated by witch doctors. One night an “evil presence” confronted them and a fire swept through the forest. Yet, the Christians stayed in their hut and prayed for safety against the evil spirit. The fire burned all the way around the house but did not burn the house at all.
Some of my friends in Bangladesh regularly relay stories of spiritual battle. One story I remember was that during the showing of the Jesus film movie, a woman fell on the ground thrashing and moaning with stomach pain. Then, she spoke in a strange voice telling the Christians to leave because that area belonged to Kali. The team literally challenged Kali to battle. Then, they gathered around the woman and prayed that Jesus would show his power by casting the demon out. Jesus did set the woman free, and many in that village became Christians.
I could go on and on with stories like this, but these stories only raise another question. Why are there so many stories of demons and witchcraft in the developing world, but not many stories like these in the developed world?
Well, some people think that many of the experiences labeled as “demon possession” are actually physical or mental illnesses like epilepsy or schizophrenia. Some of the stories in the Bible do sound surprisingly like these: seizures, voices, antisocial behavior, foaming at the mouth, etc.
Other people say that Satan chooses more subtle tactics in developed nations. Several people have said, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.” The idea here is that evil is far more difficult to contain if it is hidden.
Some believe that there is an innate connection between progress and goodness. God desires health for all people at all times. So, as we learn how to live in healthier ways, there is a corresponding sense that we are learning to live in more experience of God’s life and health. With this line of thinking, God is working through medicine and science to push away the forces of evil and disease.
Some people say that there are less “demonic” experiences in the developing world because fewer people are intentionally pursuing the dark spirits. Conversely, in cultures where people engage in witchcraft and the “dark arts,” there are more openings for evil spirits.
There may be some truth to all of these opinions. However, it is important for us to realize that evil is real. There is a real force of evil in our world, and it takes different shapes and forms. We may not understand all the why’s and how’s of evil, but I think we can understand that evil is here among us and “out there” in our world. Whether we understand it or not, whether we like it or not, there is a battle between darkness and light, and we are in the midst of it. We may or may not call it “demons” or “spiritual warfare,” but we can all recognize it as darkness.
What are the areas of darkness that we face? Where is the darkness in our lives?
- addictions (alcohol, relationships, drugs, even gaming)
- pornography (That internet is ever-so tempting.)
- eating disorders (eating too much, eating too little, eating for all the wrong reasons)
- bitterness (that person you just can’t forgive, or that chip on your shoulder)
- materialism and greed (wanting more and more and more; disregarding the health of others and our environment so that we can make our money and keep it for ourselves)
- depression (which sneakily effects so many of us)
- negativity (There’s always something wrong with everything, right?)
- judmentalism (There’s always something wrong with everyone, right?)
- racism (If we’re honest, how view people is often colored by their color.)
- low self-esteem (those nagging voices of not being good enough)
- gossip (It’s just so fun to pass on that bad news and to put down those other people.)
- despair (It’s never going to get better.)
We may or may not call these our “demons,” and they may not be actual “evil spirits.” But I think we can all agree that these are dark places in our lives. And we can all agree that God wants to bring healing and light to these dark places. The great truth of our story about the crazy guy from across the lake is that Jesus can bring light no matter how dark the darkness.
So how does it work? How does God bring light in our dark places? How can we find healing for our darkest places? We need to let Jesus move us toward light in four basic ways.
First, if we want healing in our darkness, we need to let Jesus move us from isolation to community. Remember the guy filled with demons. When the darkness was destroying him, he lived alone - away from his family and away from his friends.
Battling darkness almost always leads to isolation. We don’t feel like being around people. We don’t want others to see our dark places. Whether we’re sinning or just struggling, we tend to hide. This is the worst possible thing we can do. Isolation gives strength to the darkness. When we are isolated, we are alone and without help. As John Jewel explains: “The longer the isolation continues ... the more dangerous the isolation becomes.”
If you are struggling with some darkness, the first thing you need to do is to reach out to someone for help. Run to people, trustworthy people - not away from them. Talk to them about your darkness. Pray together with them about what’s going on inside you.
If you have a friend who is pulling away, go after them. If you see someone here at church who comes alone, sits alone, and goes out alone, then please reach out. Reach into that isolation and build community. Your friendship can be a light in the darkness.
The second move Jesus takes us through is from denial to truth. Evil is like a fungus that grows in the darkness. When we pretend it isn’t there, it just grows in strength. When we try to keep it secret, we only make it stronger. When we bring evil into the light of truth, its power shrivels.
We can make this move to truth in several ways. First, name evil for evil. Jesus asked the demon what its name was. Naming something gives you a measure of power over it. Name the darkness.
It’s not “shading the truth.” It’s lying.
It’s not “pampering yourself.” It’s materialism.
It’s not “just something that happened a long time ago.” It’s a deep, personal wound.
It’s not “working all the time.” It’s being addicted to work.
It’s not “taking in some eye candy.” It’s lust.
Be honest. Call it what it is, and you will find that its power over you goes down.
We can also move from denial to truth through accountability. Find a spiritual partner in your battle against darkness. You need to be able to say, “Hey, man, I sinned this week. I knew I shouldn’t go to that site, but I went anyway.” You need to have someone ask you, “Did you gossip this week? Were you respectful with your words and actions?” Just talking about it openly is a big step in overcoming the darkness. It’s like Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
If you really want to be like Jesus, then you will name the darkness in those around you. This is hard, but this is what it takes for us to become the people God wants us to be. We are often blind to our own darkness. We need each other to call us out and to show us what we’re missing. Gently but honestly say to your friend: “I’ve noticed that you seem to struggle with this issue. Is there any way I can help you or support you in that?”
Some of us may need help from a professional counselor or psychiatrist to deal with our darkness. Don’t feel bad about that. We are blessed to live in a time with so many resources. Taking a pill or talking to a counselor may not seem like battling darkness, but God can work through all kinds of things. Use every tool available.
The third move as Jesus sets us free is the move from despair to hope. The guy in our story had been living alone in the tombs “for a long time.” The people from the town had given up on this guy living a normal life. They had stopped trying to help him. There is a real sense of despair here.
Many people in our world are stuck in despair. I hear a lot Americans talk with despair about their busy schedules. There are 2-3 things on the schedule for every weeknight and 5-6 for every weekend. Our system is broken, and nobody knows how to fix it. Parents are exhausted. Kids don’t have time to play or to rest. And families don’t have time to be together. Most of us are increasingly frazzled and burnt out. Depression and anxiety and suicide are going around the country. Despair is deep here.
We can radically change our world simply by giving hope. Things can change. Your life can change. Your system can change. You don’t have to keep living in the same ways. You can be different. You can be a pioneer. You can live by a different standard. You can step out of this broken system and live by your own rules (in God’s ways). You can model for your friends and neighbors a slower more peace-filled way of life.
Jesus brings hope. No darkness is too dark. No system is too broken. No situation is unchangeable. Be an agent of hope. Have hope. Act on hope. Give hope.
The final move happens at the end of our story. It is the move from shame to testimony. I imagine that the man filled with demons felt a deep sense of personal shame. In his moments of sanity, however rare, he must have felt deeply ashamed of himself. He was naked and dirty. He lived in a graveyard - eating who knows what. That shame strengthened his isolation, and his isolation strengthened his darkness.
But when Jesus set him free, his painful history was no longer shameful. Instead, it was his story of healing. Jesus sent him out as the first missionary. Jesus didn’t send him to seminary to study systematic theology. Jesus told him to go tell the folks back home “how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39).
We are so quiet about how God has worked in our lives. The most convincing thing we could say to our friends is the story of how God has changed us. Better yet, be willing to tell people how God is still changing you. If you don’t know how to get the conversation started, just start by asking about their spiritual story. Most of the time, people will return the favor and ask you about your story. Tell them what your life was like before you met Jesus, what happened when you God began to work in your life, and how your life is different now.
Your story is worth more than a hundred sermons.
Darkness is real. In some places and times, it is obvious and strong. Other times, darkness hides in the corners and pulls at our ankles when we pass by. Whatever you believe about the darkness or evil or demons, believe that darkness is real.
And more importantly believe that the light will overcome the darkness. Jesus is stronger than whatever dark powers we face.
No demons can defeat him. No darkness can destroy him. No evil can keep its hold on our lives. Jesus is the Light of the World, and he will always shine in our darkness.
Let Jesus lead you out of darkness into light, out of isolation into community, out of denial into truth, out of despair into hope, and out of shame into testimony. Jesus is greater than the darkness, and his light is changing our world!