Dead Man Walking

Scriptures: Mark 5:1-20

As we begin to enter into this passage, I first want to start just before this story, where Jesus had calmed the sea. Which, by the way, is one of my favorite stories. It’s one of my favorite stories, because it shows Jesus in his humanity, I believe.

It shows him, while he is also shown to be God, in his control of the wind and the waves, it shows his humanity. You see, he was tired. He was so tired that he slept on the boat. This little boat, fourteen-foot or so. And he slept through a storm, a storm with lots of waves and wind and things that got the disciples all scared.

Then when they woke him up, really early in the morning – those of you who have had children understand this, at two or three in the morning – when they woke him up and said, “Save us,” he was kind of cranky. So it shows Jesus’ humanity there.

I note that the story finishes with the disciples once again, as all the way it happens through Mark, asking, “Who is this guy?” That’s a paraphrase. Actually, they say, “Who is this man whom the wind and the waves obey?”

So once again, we have people who don’t know who Jesus is. Yet as we’ll see, the demons possessing the man in the tombs knew. They knew very well.

Now, I have a question for you, as we get into this story of the demoniac, the demon-possessed man. Part of that is, I don’t know if some of you may too old for this, some of you should be the right age, but when I was a teenager, there was a movie that came out. It was called The Exorcist?

Have any of you seen that movie? That was a one scary movie. It really was. The acting was incredible, the special effects, for that day and age, were top-notch. And I have to admit that it bothered me and it gave me some nightmares.

Now we have more demon stories. You get things like Constantine and others. But a demon possession is a scary thing.

So let’s look at this story, and try to understand the people and principles that are in it. Now, first I want to note some things about this passage and its setting.

First of all, there is some question about the place. There are different names in each gospel. Here in Mark it is Gerasenes, but it also says Gergesenes and another is Gadarenes. And you have to understand, this is not just three names for the same place.

These are actually three different towns that we know where they are geographically. So there’s some argument as to whether or not, because of the location of the lake, etc., which one is which. So we don’t know where it is for certain.

But this we do know. There was no city on the lake itself at that point – there’s no harbor, no port. But there had to be a city nearby. We know that the city was nearby but not on the lake as well because of the lack of a port, but also because of the cemetery and the pigs.

Now, cemeteries in those days, they didn’t have all the concrete and the headstones and things like that, they tried to use natural caves systems and such, and occasionally if you had a pauper’s field, everybody avoided working over it because as folks rotted, nasty things go on and happen.

So they put that outside the city. They never had a cemetery within the city. Catacombs, maybe, yes, but not the cemetery itself.

The second thing is the pigs. Now, I know that we have farmers here, and some of you may have raised hogs. And let’s face it, let’s be real – pigs are odorous. In particular, their waste products. When we first moved to Buffalo Prairie and we went to the church there, I got kind of a shock.

One of the people that was a congregation member was a pig farmer, and he utilized their waste products fertilizing his fields. And he did not have an injector yet. That was on his “things to get.” So he just laid it over the top. And even though we were about three miles or four miles, in the manse, when he was fertilizing, you stayed indoors, if you could.

They were odorous, and nobody wanted that in their city. So we know that there was no city on the lake.

The second thing we know is, whatever town was nearby, whatever city was nearby, it was a Gentile city. We know that because, well, because they kept pigs, which are unclean to the Jews. And the man goes around to the Decapolis after the healing, which was known as a cluster or league of 10 Gentile (that is, Greco-Roman) cities bonded together for commerce and defense.

So Jesus is entering Gentile territory. I think this is important, because Mark wrote to the Gentiles, remember. He did not write to the Jews. His primary audience was the Gentiles. And he was consistent in trying to show that the Gospel was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.

So Jesus goes over to this Gentile city across the lake. Now, it doesn’t say that he went specifically over the lake to bring the Word of God to them. We don’t know why he crossed the lake over there, though we can speculate. It just says he wanted to get away from the crowds.

We know this about the man in the tombs: he was well-known and well-loved. We can tell this because of the continuous efforts to keep him from hurting himself. As cruel as binding him may have seemed – this translation said he bruised himself on the rocks; others say he cut himself. So he would slash himself with the sharp rocks. I don’t think it was just that he staggered around and fell.

And people were trying to prevent him from hurting himself and perhaps others when he got hysterical. So they would bind him up. And they kept coming back to do it. They loved him enough that they didn’t want to see him hurt.

His strength was amazing. You hear about hysterical strength – you know, a woman throwing a refrigerator out of the window of an apartment and things so she can clear a space for her baby to get out, etc. I can see snapping his bonds. But snapping his fetters on his ankles – that’s pretty impressive – iron fetters.

So as cruel as binding may have seemed, he was loved, because people kept trying to keep him from hurting himself. And the fact that folks in town apparently n recognized him when they saw him later on, showed that he was well-known.

Now, he was a Gentile, so they didn’t have the laws against the moving among the dead. But I want to note, to Jesus and the disciples, the demon-possessed man was a dead man walking.

A dead man walking. You see, to the Jews, if you were associated with the dead, if you touched the dead, if you even walked over a grave, you were unclean. You had to undergo a ritual purification and washing and make a small sacrifice at the Temple to be declared clean again.

Otherwise you were contaminated by that death, that morbidity, and you might as well have gone around with a sign saying “dead man walking,” much as a leper had to go saying “unclean, unclean,” so people would clear out of your way and out of your path.

It’s kind of a – I don’t want to say prejudice, but bias – that we see sometimes even today. Very few people will tell you, yeah, I work at a cemetery. You take a step back.

I remember, when I was a kid – nobody in Morning Sun knew this tradition, so maybe you guys don’t either. I don’t know where my family got it, but when we used to drive around, if you passed by a cemetery, you had to hold your breath. Or else touch a button – that way was OK too.

I have to admit, when I was a kid, sometimes wondering, how people who live dealt with it, because you can’t be always holding your breath and you can’t be touching buttons.

So people have this fear, if you will, of cemeteries. Even in the Gentile areas, it probably was avoided, it was probably gone around. He was essentially a dead man, walking around among the dead. And of course he was possessed by demons.

He was a dead man because he had no will of his own, no life of his own, no love that he recognized of his own. He was isolated and alone, tormented beyond belief. You should know that at some level he must have still recognized what was going on. There was still a core to him.

He wasn’t completely lost, or he wouldn’t have remained a tool for the demons. They wouldn’t stick around if there was nothing left to torment. Also, he wouldn’t have been able to throw himself at Jesus, for I believe that was the man inside that was doing that, he ran forward, to throw himself at Jesus.

When he did that, an amazing thing happened. Again, I want to set the stage for you. You have a man who is powerful and strong, screaming bloody murder, trailing probably chains and things on his wrists and his ankles, naked and cut up and scarred. He comes charging toward you out of the tombs, out of the cemetery.

You’re a Jew, and you just got off a boat. I don’t know about you, but most of us would probably be getting right back into the boat. Jesus stood still.

He stood still. He recognized what was going on. He called the demon out, then he talked with the demon, which we find perhaps a little strange. He didn’t just command them like he did in Capernaum and in Nazareth and other places.

He talked with him, and there’s a good reason for this. The demon called himself “Legion.” You see, the Jews believed that an exorcism required the name of the demon in order to exorcise him completely.

One of the things in another story that amazes the people is there is a deaf-mute that was demon-possessed, and he cast the demon out of that deaf-mute. Everybody was freaked out, because you can’t ask the name of a demon from someone who can’t speak. And yet Jesus did.

In the same way, Jesus asks the name of this demon, in front of the disciples, who were Jews and who knew. And it doesn’t answer, exactly. It doesn’t say its name. It says “Legion, for we are many.” It’s not telling its own name. He’s giving a challenge to Christ, even as he asks Christ not to torment him. “Can you take us all on?”

A legion, in the Roman understanding, as we know looking back at writings and stuff, was anywhere between 3500 to 6500 men. That’s a lot of demons, no matter which way you cut it. So they said their name is “Legion.”

I want to note, he did not tell them, or it, to be silent. As he was running toward Jesus, he said, “Jesus, what do you have to do with me, Son of the Most High God?” Notice, every time a demon said that over on the Jewish side, he said, “Be silent.” But not this time

I think that was intentional, so that the pig herders therefore heard everything. Then when they went into the town, once Jesus did the strange thing of sending the demons into the pigs, they had a name to associate with him, “this guy who is called the Son of the Most High God,” to get the attention of the townsfolk.

Now, why pigs? There’s a lot of speculation, and again no real answers. It was an unclean animal for the Jews. That’s one possibility. It also, some have spoken, was not the time for banishment to the final torment, and that’s part of what the demons refer to when they’re talking to Jesus.

So they asked permission. They had to ask permission. The demons had to ask permission, of Christ, to go into these pigs.

What we do know is that it was a large herd, and that what Jesus did both upset and scared the heck out of the townsfolk. Now,the townsfolk were Gentiles, and let’s face it, they were more cosmopolitan. I’m sure they thought they were sophisticated. They had culture. A lot of them might have been bilingual. You have Greek, you have Latin, you might have Aramaic around. So they’re multilingual.

And here they heard this story, of this man that they were afraid of, because of his being demon-possessed, had been overcome by this individual that came out of nowhere, who was called the Son of the Most High God.

About the time that they arrived, they discover, they find out that not only had he cast these demons out of this man that was well-known to them, but he’d gotten rid of their economy, by sending all these pigs over the cliff.

So somebody lost their livelihood, and the town probably was impacted. They didn’t know whether he did that because he was doing something good or because he was doing something evil. It’s good for the man, but he killed all of the pigs and the livelihood.

So they were frightened to death, of what they didn’t know and didn’t understand. That bias still occurs today, of people being frightened of Christ. And the bias, by the way, against rural folks, agrarian folks, still exists as well. You know, city people, town folks, cosmopolitan, sophisticated – they think they are – sometimes have the weirdest misconceptions about us folks that live out in the countryside and on farms and things.

You know, I’m from Nebraska, mostly, and I went for a year at Penn State University, as a freshman, and I was honestly asked, by somebody who had never been further west than middle Pennsylvania – come from the east coast, in New Jersey – said, “Do you have indoor plumbing?”

This was in 1981. My house had indoor plumbing. And they called me Slim, not because I was big as a sort of a joke, though maybe that had something to do with it.. They called me Slim because I sang tenor, and the only guy they knew was Slim Whitman. I did have a cowboy hat and boots, which I occasionally wore for their pleasure. Though I did not have any overalls.

So they think they understand everything. They think they know better than anybody. And they come up against something they cannot explain, something they cannot get their minds around. And they’re afraid.

They get there, and they see the demoniac, this well-known man, cured and “in his right mind,” as it says in Scripture. Clothed, presumably by the disciples. I doubt they had a Clothing Depot nearby, or a Walmart. So the disciples probably gave of their own clothing that they were traveling with, to help clothe him.

Sitting at the feet of Jesus with his new life that was gained. Sitting at the feet of this terrible, awesome man who has done these things. Jesus was talking to him and teaching him. I find that impressive in its own way.

Jesus, after he cast out 2000 demons, neither went “Whew!” or “Yeah!” No, he just said, “Give the man some clothes,” and then he started teaching him. It’s like another everyday kind of thing with Jesus.

When Jesus decided to go – the people begged him to leave, for they were scared – when Jesus decided to go, the man wanted to go with him. But Jesus gave him a different command, to go back to his people, his “life”, and to share what God had done. To be a living witness to the power of God to cleanse and heal through the touch of Jesus.

To let others know about the forgiveness that can be achieved in Christ. After all, if he, the demoniac could be forgiven and freed literally from the bondage of the demons that tormented him, who can’t be?

He was given a new life and a new mission. That was important. You need to understand. It wasn’t enough that the demons got cast out of the man. There’s another story about Jesus that Jesus tells, about a man who had a demon cast out, and that he did nothing positive after it was cast out, and it came back several months later with seven more buddies, and took the place.

I believe it says they found the man like a house swept clean, but nothing in it. It’s not enough to get rid of the demons. You need to fill it with something good. You need to fill it with something positive and new. New life coming from the life that Christ gives. And that’s what Jesus did, as he gave him that command, to go and share his life with others.

You know, he gives us that same command. At the end of Matthew, the Great Commission, what does he tell us to do? “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” And through Paul he tells us to walk worthy of the calling to which you have been called.

We have a job. We have a calling. Now let me ask you at this moment, what are your demons? Are you a “dead man walking”? Is your heart a wasteland, or an empty tomb such that sometimes you scream inside, just for release from the pain? It may not be obvious to other people, but we all have some. Some part of our life that torments us. Some part of our life that we still can’t let go.

When I went through Clinical Pastoral Education, CPE, a chaplaincy at a hospital, we had to do exercises as part of our spiritual development. One of them was called imaginative contemplation. You had to meditate and you had to create an image and things.

There was an image that appeared in my mind once, through one of those things, that struck me to the core to this day. It was an image of my heart, and in my heart was a trophy room. There were little stands, and there were little trophies, and there was light shining on the trophies.

As I drew closer in my dream, if you will, in my vision, I recognized something strange. All the trophies were upside down. You see, these trophies weren’t celebrating my victories, but rather my failures. They were the things that I had done wrong that I had not let go of, that I couldn’t let go of.

They were a part of me. The pain was a part of me. To let go of those things, it seemed, would be to let go of myself. Yet isn’t that what Christ calls us to do, when we’re forgiven and freed?

Jesus can give it you release – not the release of death but rather the release of new life. In Him you are forgiven. Your demons broken and sent away. Your mind made right, and your heart made whole. It may not come in an instant like with the demoniac in our story. But it will come, because Jesus has promised it.

“Come to me, all you who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” “I have come to bring you life, and to bring you life abundantly.” More abundantly. Christ has promised, if we live in him and let go of death, that we too can walk in life and light.

As you go forth in this new year, in this new season and on this day and this coming week, may you let go of that which is holding you back. May you release the pain that brings death, into life, and grab hold of the life that Christ brings, through his life.

And may you give praise to God the Father in heaven above, and bring honor and glory to His name in all that you do. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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