Let me ask you an obvious question: do you pray in your church services? OK, too easy. Here’s a tougher one: do you expect anything to happen? And here’s the toughest one: what if something happened, and it seemed to be tied to a certain one of your visitors? How would your church react then? Even more importantly — would some react one way, and some another? And why?
If you remember the story, then you remember the reactions of the people in Gerasene to the healing of their local crazy guy. Here’s a man they’ve tried to help, without success. Perhaps he is the son of a local family, and everyone pities the parents. They wish they could do something, but everything they try fails. So then they try to control him — but that fails as well. So now, they’ve given up.
Then into their town comes a rabbi from across the lake, who barely gets out of his boat before he is accosted by this possessed individual. Jesus interacts with the man — or, with the demons within the man — then tells the demons to leave the man and go into a herd of pigs, who immediately rush headlong into the lake and drown.
For today, I’m not interested in discussing our beliefs in demons or mental illness. Instead, I want to focus on two different sides of the same coin: the reactions to Jesus of the people and of the man.
On one level, we can all understand the reactions of the townspeople. The settled order of their universe included this local man and his behavior. It also included the local gossip, the couple having marital issues, the slightly shady market owner, and any number of other people and situations that were “just the way it is.” An expression often heard in this part of the country says it all: “it is what is is” — that’s the way it is, nothing’s going to change, might as well accept it.
Then God shows up.
It’s bad enough when change comes. It’s even more disconcerting when you suspect that it is the result of a force, of a Person, that is outside the “normal order” and who is intent on breaking in and shaking things up. And you realize with a start that you can’t control It.
How do you react? Do you celebrate the new possibilities, the breaking in of new light, the coming of a new day? Or, are you afraid? Afraid of the power, afraid of the change, afraid of what it will mean? Do you begin to bloom inside, or do you ask God to leave?
The people did what people have been doing since the beginning: they turn their back on hope, on growth, on life. They would rather have things the way they were, even though that way means shackles and screaming and death.
But wait — there is one person in this story who reacts differently. Who sees Jesus not as threatening change, but as life-giving Love right here, in the flesh. Who wants this new life, and is willing to give up everything to have it.
Even as the townspeople are pushing Jesus back into the boat, even as they are reacting out of their fear, the man wants to be with Jesus so badly that he tries to get into the boat and go back across the lake. Away from everything he knows, everyone he knows.
Because above everything else he knows, he knows that Jesus is life. And he wants more of it.
Why these two reactions? Why do some ask God to leave, while others ask God to stay? One possible answer: external observation versus internal change.
The townspeople observed the miracle. They KNEW it was a miracle, because they had known this man and his intractable illness for years, perhaps decades. And yet, even though they saw the outside circumstances, they were not changed internally. They did not have the eyes of their souls opened. All they saw was threat. And fear. And if you feel threatened, and fearful, all you want is for that to go away.
The man, on the other hand, not only saw what happened, but he was changed. He KNEW this was not just a miracle, but also Life itself. Where the others felt fear, he felt acceptance.
One final thought: This lection should keep us humble. Why? Because the same act of God was perceived as threat by one group, and as life by another. May we be slow to judge the move of God in others, and if we sense fear, let’s be extra careful. We don’t want to be the ones to ask God to leave.