I want to talk a bit about fear.
What does that word do to you? Can you feel a tug as you just process the word? Can you feel the movement inside of you–maybe a twisting, or a tightening, this new sense of urgency inside of you just at the mention of the word?
We all have fears. They’re unavoidable. Even if you might be pretending that you’re fearless: let me tell you something. You’re fearless of one thing, sure, but petrified of another. You just don’t talk about that one. Perhaps you’ll go slightly over the speed limit (just 90 miles an hour only, never any faster, you swear), without fear of getting pulled over—but you’re terrified of letting your wife or your husband find out who you really are once you get home.
You’re fearless enough of planes, sure, no problem with turbulence, but you’re afraid of speaking your mind at the meeting you’re about to go once the plane lands. No coworkers will support you, no one’s going to take you seriously, there’s no possible way your ideas can fly, and so you keep quiet and accept the company’s decisions.
You aren’t afraid of an injury when you go running, or of pushing yourself too hard. You are in fact terrified to stop running.
They can be pretty damaging, right? Some might be devastating.
This is where there’s both good and bad news.
There’s a way to liberation, to freedom, to peace—to true peace.
Now I’m not one to get preachy, or to sound like a Bible-thumping preacher or one of those ultra-popular inspirational speakers who command thousands in places like the Allstate Arena: you know, “I want to tell you this morning to TRUST in Jesus the Lord, a-MEN? Let me tell you something about trust: I was DYING with my shame, folks, I was just DYING, I couldn’t face a SINGLE SOUL because of my shame, and then the LORD stepped into my life, and—”
You get the idea. Now back to my point.
The Lord offers the way to freedom, to peace that this world cannot give (John 14:27). But of course, it’s Jesus: and if it’s a different kind of peace, it’s going to be a different kind of path. And that path will be messy dirty, and sweaty. It’ll be rough.
And at one point, there was a very real, literal path that Jesus strode in the Israeli desert, that can help with my point.
Let me illustrate with one of the most powerful and vivid scenes that I’ve encountered in the Gospels: the story of the swine and the possessed man from the village of Gerasene, at the beginning of the fifth chapter in the Gospel of Mark.
This story is one of the most vivid in the entire narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry—certainly one of the most descriptive, with evocative words and powerful imagery to highlight a very real, very personal encounter with Jesus. This story addresses what happens when the lowest of humanity comes into contact with the highest of heaven: when our deepest, darkest fears are exposed by the presence of Christ.
This is the story of what liberation looks like. And it most likely took place on or near some sort of footpath, in scrubby hills, with dust and dirt and–you’ll see later–lots of animal mess, too.
In this scene, Mark 5:1-20, we have a man who was possessed by demons, but not just possessed: he was so ravaged and stricken by these devils that he beat himself day and night. Mark tells us he “smashed stones” and constantly broke his shackles and chains. He could not be contained. “In fact…the chains had been pulled apart by him and the shackles smashed, and no one was strong enough to subdue him.” This man also “bruised himself with stones” and ran around crying and screaming among the hills.
Pretty evocative, isn’t it? Just imagine: this man was not in control of himself. He was battling against these spirits constantly. This man was raging, twenty-four hours a day. And the Gospel of Mark doesn’t say how long this man had been at it. Weeks, perhaps, or months maybe. The case is very strong for it having even been years, as the townspeople had long since given up on him. “No one was strong enough to subdue him.” They’d exhausted all their resources already, and were failing at making him one an upright member of the citizenry, so they did what must have seemed next best: just banish him, and deal with it. In Mark’s Gospel he’s banished to a distant graveyard on a hill out of town. The language even seems to suggest that the people have gotten used to this crazy possessed lunatic off in the far yonder. It’s as if they hear his wailing and howling at night, and then roll their eyes. There he goes again.
Guess who shows up on the shore.
That’s right. Jesus himself crosses over from the other side of the Sea of Galilee. And quite abruptly, quite dramatically, life is no longer normal.
In our story the demoniac comes after Jesus “at once,” and the spirits inside of him plead with Christ: “I adjure you by God, do not torment me!” There are plenty of these demons inside this man—legion, in fact, which means many. Jesus commands them out of the man, into a nearby herd of swine. How many swine, you ask?
Two thousand swine, all of whom then rush headlong off towards the lake, hurtling themselves into the water where they drown.
Now. This cannot be overlooked.
For me, this moment is the crux of the entire passage, the most important part of the scene. This is actually the point.
So. For a bit here, let’s do some Ignatian spirituality of imagining this scene. I invite you to imagine yourself right here, right now, on this hillside, on a small footpath amidst two thousand pigs. These two thousand animals are all possessed, careening pell-mell down a hill. They’re mad. They’re raging, all of them, as this possessed man had been doing for so long.
Go ahead and take a moment with this. Place yourself there, somewhere amidst the chaos. You’re either watching it from a distance in the village, as one of the townspeople, or you’re closer, near Jesus, or perhaps even following one of the pigs. Maybe you’re amidst the stampede—if you’re really brave!
Can you feel what’s happening? This is anything but a calm moment. The hills are positively thundering, the air rent with the screeching of these animals, all of them snapping, squealing, screaming, snarling, all of them ferocious. It’s got to be terrifying, in one of the most literal and overwhelming senses of the word. These villagers—you, right now—are in the midst of a stampede of demonized pigs.
Continue sitting with this image, in this scene, and then sit with what you feel as they rush off into the water.
Imagine watching these pigs disappearing into the lake: still snapping and squealing, straight into the water. Imagine the water, the tremendous noise of them plunging into the depths: not just noise, but the end of the world, a scene that surely can’t ever be forgotten, pig flesh and demons and water all meeting in one gigantic mess.
Then imagine the first few seconds of silence after they drown.
Imagine peace once again prevailing.
Wait. Peace? Silence?
If you’re like me as you sit with the aftershocks of this stampede, these words are anything but on your mind. If you’re like me, the silence is deafening and I’m in so much shock I can’t imagine my life. I’m reeling, I’m still terrified, and if you enter into this story I bet you are too.
This man, now, who you see in front of you, this stranger whom you’ve heard about—Jesus of Nazareth—is supposed to bring peace? Good tidings to the poor and freedom to the oppressed?
This man? THIS MAN?
Surely you’re thinking, as I thought: this man is a danger. He’s an absolute madman, someone who should get his hindquarters straight on out of here, as far from you as possible—and ever further! He’s a terror, a disruptor, a danger to everything you’ve ever known. Good riddance, and not fast enough!
That’s what happens in this story, in Mark. The villagers are literally begging Jesus to leave (Mark 5:16-17). Not hard to imagine, right?
Yet aren’t we forgetting someone? Oddly, the possessed man is sitting there calmly, serenely. He is “in his right mind again” and dressed in regular clothes. I imagine in this moment that he’s in the grass, just outside the village, with his knees up towards his chest and his arms wrapped around his shins, staring out over the water where all those pigs disappeared. It’s getting on towards dusk, and the light is as peaceful and soft as his demeanor. Oh. And he’s smiling.
This, my friends, might sound shocking, perhaps as hard to believe as what you just witnessed. This is that crazy man from the cemetery, sitting there with a bright blissful smile on his face? The same one we used to laugh at every night, and roll our eyes at like he was some coyote off in the hills?
And here’s the thing. This man is each one of us. This is the story of Jesus coming to you, and to me, and there are two outcomes.
We have two choices when it comes to freedom. We can get hung up by the disruption, by the fear that uncovering our demons releases, like the townspeople: or, we can rejoice and carry on in serenity because our fears left us. We can have a blissful smile and a peaceful heart because freedom really is ours, or we can have a vengeful heart towards the one who helped release our fears.
We can remain angry and upset that Jesus came to expose our demons and our fears for all to see, or we can take the sweetest and most delightful comfort that they’re taken care of.
Which one will you choose?
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