I used to enjoy listening to Desert Island Disks when I lived in Scotland. It’s fascinating to learn what one bit of music or one book the famous person would choose to spend that island time with.
I’d bet that if one had to choose a book from the New Testament Luke would be at the top of the list. The prodigal son, the forgiven thief on the cross, the promise that today you will be with me in paradise, the Magnificat, the touching story from last Sunday of a woman brought into new life. Luke has a generous spirit. Probably not Jewish, he has high regard for Israel and as a historian pays great attention to their treasured literature.
We think of Luke as a physician based upon the notice at the end of Colossians, where he is so referred (“our good friend Luke the doctor, and Demas send greetings”). At the start of his gospel he tells us that his account of Jesus will be orderly and well thought out, and I suppose he might be referring—wink, wink—to Matthew and Mark’s presentation when he compares his own with theirs. He has some special stories they do not, and highlights details in his own signature way.
It is therefore a bit surprising to have this morning the very strange encounter of Jesus with the demoniac. This isn’t “take two and call me in the morning” doctoring from Jesus. The sick bed is a place of tombs, the patient is naked and screaming at the top of his lungs. His sickness is so severe that he has been bound by chains and shackled, and even this can’t prevent him from harm. Luke the physician gives us a story that lies at the extremes of any doctoring he might have been called to do.
I suppose it is tempting to think of these accounts as locked in their ancient context. Today we’d have a Latin name for the ailment, and be confident that the right medicine would take care of the problem. But then a madman goes on a rampage in Orlando FL and kills 49 people and we realize we aren’t as modern and the Gerasene demoniac is not so strange after all. It is possible to be afflicted by demons and to lose all control, yes today. Take a fit of temper we know ourselves and multiply it by 25, throw in a dash of this and that, and you will have shackles and screaming and a place of tombs.
When I was a young deacon I worked at the Cathedral in Orlando. I was assigned to an old priest to accompany on hospital rounds. I had done hospital chaplaincy training and thought I knew my way around. We were in the psych ward and a young man was acting up and dominating the group we were visiting. I thought the understanding old priest would comfort him and get him to talk things through. Instead he said, “what’s bothering you?” He said, “my head.” So he said, “I’m going to lay my hands on your head and we will say the head prayer.” I was surprised, but that did the job. The poor man was changed. His complaints ceased.
Jesus goes into wherever there is danger and sickness in our lives. Head first. He asks for the man’s name and he gets the name of the affliction: “I am legion for my afflictions are without number.” It is possible to lose a sense of oneself entirely. To be named by an affliction. To become dominated and occupied to the point of distraction. To the point of self-harm and destructiveness. The Gerasene is simply the last station on that rail line. Luke preserves the story because it must have shown him what kind of physician God is, where the need is outside our usual methods. Where a Latin title and take two and call me in the morning won’t do the job.
If we have become named by our behaviors and conduct—and it can happen in life—we need the special doctoring Jesus alone can bring.
In our OT lesson, Elijah is by contrast the picture of strength. Running before the chariot of Ahab. Defeating the prophets of Baal. Calling down rain in extreme drought. Calling down judgment on a corrupt king and his wife Jezebel. His name is “My God is the LORD.” But now he is running for his life. The strong man is scared. His strength has come to an end.
Unsure where to turn he sets his face in the right direction. He heads south in the direction of Sinai, where God made himself known to Moses. He leaves his servant behind. Cuts out all distractions. He says, in effect ‘I need the head prayer.’ He lies down to die, and the angel of “I’m at wits end” appears and feeds him. The journey to the place where God is will take some work. So it is with us, whether in strength under attack or in extreme weakness and need. God is waiting: the path to him may take some time and some work. Some letting go of familiar ways.
Like Jesus, God asks Elijah to speak to him and name his problem. He obliges. After forty days and forty nights it is the one thing crying out in him. I am all alone. You gave me a hard job and I did it. Now I’m in trouble.
The scene is a familiar one. Ah, yes, the still small voice. We go on spiritual retreats to hear this voice at the center of ourselves but coming from God. Surely there is a true north that our compass can be reset to.
Yet upon inspection what is most clear in the scene at Sinai is where God’s voice is not heard. The places we had got used to him speaking, or thought we did, but which now show a compass needle spinning. Elijah saw God at work in whirlwind, in earthquake, in fire. He was really there. We know it, and he does. But Elijah needs God to be present in a different place. Or God wants to be in a different place with him and with us than what we’ve got used to.
Not a place of power, or where Elijah is certain of his service. Where the dial tone is strong. No. In a place where Elijah is afraid. “Why are you so full of heaviness, my soul? And why are you so disquieted with me?” is how the psalmist puts it.
Notice that the still small voice doesn’t change the dilemma. Elijah repeats word for word his complaint, just as he spoke it first, after the still small voice did whatever a still small voice does. The dilemma before him isn’t gone. But inside it God has spoken and now speaks.” Go return. And incidentally, you are not as alone as you think.”
The Gerasene, because he sits at Jesus’ feet and no longer in the tombs of his torment, is Luke tells us now “clothed and in his right mind.” A good place to be. Luke the physician knows a cure when he sees one. Jesus tells him he now has all he needs. Elijah isn’t to linger at Sinai, or ask for more of God. God has given him all he needs. The man who had lost his name and himself begged to accompany Jesus. Instead Jesus tells him to return home and tell how much God has done for you. And so he does.
Luke describes the lingering effect of the scene as fearful. We might reflect on that. We have got used to thinking of fear as a negative reaction. But what Luke is describing is the awareness of the people that something terrifying and strange, that needed extreme constraint, shackles and chains, that they had got used to, and could put into something like a category of tragic acceptability – that this state of affairs has been totally dominated by a stronger force in this man Jesus. Kind and strong beyond measure.
We saw the same reaction in Peter, when Jesus stilled a storm that scared him witless. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” “Who is this that stills the seas and commands the heavens and they obey him?” “All the people of the surrounding country asked Jesus to leave, for they were seized with great fear.” The power of Elijah is unlike anything but it is as nothing to that of Jesus.
Most of us will live in the world of the reasonable and generous Luke, even as we may have aspects of these stories today speak to us and to scenes in our own lives. In fear, sickness, odd moments of being ambushed by something unforeseen. But we surely know that dimensions of our life require strength from a source beyond ourselves. Jesus doesn’t come only to show himself all powerful. Though he did, and it scared those who were present.
He came to show the power of his love and his unwillingness to let sin and darkness take charge of the good world God has made, where we are indeed beset and buffeted. If he shows himself to Luke and Luke must catch his breath and see a doctoring unlike anything in his wise practice, he is always the same Jesus. The Jesus—we will note–who later hands himself over into a place of tombs and nakedness and sharp piercing cries, shackled to a Cross. That we might know him always our Lord and always at our side. They are two sides of one coin. A power and authority to bring fear, and the love of handing himself over for us, that he might makes us new in him.