Among the Tombs

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 1 came from Mark 5:1-20, the story of the Gerasene demoniac.

The first time I participated in a national gathering of church leaders was while I was in college. I had been selected as a “Youth Advisory Delegate” to the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, and I went as an optimistic, hopeful, yet determined young man. I had a deep fire in my belly to help the larger church embrace truth as I could see it. My beard was quite long in those days, and in my mind, it made me appear more prophetic and serious. I learned that first impressions can be different, however, while standing in the back of an elevator while two of the older commissioners got on. I recognized them as being men who served on the same subcommittee as did I, but before I could say anything, one of them turned to the other and said, “Wow, I’m glad that meeting is over. What a waste of time,” to which his friend replied, “You’re not kidding. I don’t know who that kid with the beard thinks he is, but I thought he’d never shut up.” Ah, first impressions…

This week, we continue our Lenten journey in which we are taking a look at people who had not only first, but second impressions of Jesus – stories from the Gospels that describe people who met that young man and were curious, angry, or desperate enough to come back to him and re-engage him in a new way.

The Sea of Galilee as seen from the cliffs along "the other side".

The Sea of Galilee as seen from the cliffs along “the other side”.

The story for today does not have an auspicious beginning. We read at the end of Mark 4 that Jesus and his followers had left the safety and familiarity of Galilee and taken a boat ride. Mark 4:35 reads, “…when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side’”. You may remember that we have spoken before about the fact that when the Bible calls this part of the region “the other side” it means at least two things. On the one hand, there is the literal meaning of simply crossing the lake. They did that. But more than that, “the other side” was meant to convey the impression that Jesus had asked his followers to leave their comfort zones and the safety of the familiar to set foot in a place where “those” people lived – those who were “other”. Those who were different. Those who are not “us”.

All right, today we read that they got to the other side. Now, follow me on this. When did they leave home? According to Mark 4, “When it was evening”. And so, if it was evening when they left, and the Sea of Galilee is about five miles across at this point, then what was it when they got to the other side? Dark. And where do they make landfall? In the graveyard.

OldTombWow, if the disciples didn’t want to go to the other side in the first place, then heading to the cemetery at night must have been the icing on the cake, eh? Three times in the first five verses, Mark wants us to remember that this action takes place among the tombs. Why?

I think that, at least in part, it was because when the disciples remembered this time, they remembered being scared out of their wits. Tombs, in addition to being thought of as haunted by ghosts and demons, were also – believe it or not – filled with dead bodies, and thus sources of uncleanness and the risk of infection. In addition to that, these caves were the homes of wild animals. And to top it all off, this particular area was home to a man who had fallen so deeply into his own personal hell that no one else even tried to bother with him any more. He was a total loser. A goner. A waste of a life – but as long as he stayed out in the graveyard, it was all right.

DemonsWhat do we learn about Jesus in this passage? Well, from the start, Mark has let us know that Jesus is intrusive – that the Kingdom he proclaims will challenge the status quo and confront the powers that be. That truth practically screams at us from these pages. When Jesus shows up in among the tombs, who wants him to be there? As we’ve already noted, the disciples would just as soon not be around. What about the others – are they eager to meet Jesus? Not the man – he yells at Jesus to stay away. Not the demons – they say, “Leave me alone, Jesus!” Not the townspeople – they can’t get rid of him quickly enough, even after the tremendous display of power. Nobody wants Jesus around.

And if that’s not intrusive enough, did you notice that Jesus performs his healing on an unwilling victim? What’s up with that, Jesus? I mean, here I am – a good, faithful kind of guy who keeps his yard clean, votes responsibly, and can be trusted with small children and to collect the church offering, jumping up and down, saying “Jesus, come over here and heal my friend, or my sister, or my son…” and it seems as if he can’t be bothered…but check him out as he crosses the Sea of Galilee and goes into a region where he’s clearly not wanted and heals a man who doesn’t ask for it. Why does Mark tell us this? I think it’s because he wants us to know that we ought to never, ever think for a second that we can either control Jesus or pretend to fully understand him. Who Jesus is, and what Jesus does, says Mark, is all about the Kingdom of God. And there are parts of that, it would seem, that we just cannot, or do not, “get” at this point.

For centuries, people have looked at this incident in the life of Jesus and thought that it was troubling because it revealed him to be a cruel and insensitive man. After all, the result of this little foray is that two thousand pigs die and several people, none of whom had anything against Jesus, are out of work. Can you imagine what the Galilean chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was saying about this? Or the local swine-herders association? Why is Jesus so destructive? No wonder people there begged Jesus to leave.

I don’t know, but I wonder if maybe we’re asking that question backwards. After all, here is a human being who has been wandering the caves, living among the tombs, lost to the world, for who knows how long – and people just accept it. “Yeah, that happens”, we say. “It’s terrible when we think about the kinds of things that people can get themselves into…”

But put a little bite into the bacon profits, and watch out! Is there something wrong when we accept the isolation and torment of a human being and shrug and say, “Well, what can you do?”, but get ourselves worked into a lather over the stock market, or what color that dress on Facebook is? I’m just saying…

So, Jesus is intrusive. And Jesus values human life even more than we do. Maybe that’s at least a part of what this passage says about Jesus. What does it say about us?

Well, for starters, let me suggest that this passage reminds us that we do love our demons. The man whom Jesus met in the graveyard at night can see Jesus coming, he is strangely drawn to the Lord – but then he says, “Stay the heck away from me!” He is face to face with the one who could heal him – but he tries to pull back. Why? Because he can’t see himself anywhere else.

I wish I could say that it’s only him, but it’s me, too. And maybe you, for all I know. If I live among the tombs long enough, I get to know and maybe even love my secret pride; I nurse my anger; I feed my addiction; I cultivate my lust. I know it’s not good for me. I know that Jesus would take it away from me. And so I’d rather not talk with Jesus about that thing…because in some odd and perverted way, I have come to love it. Can you imagine that? Does that make any sense?

Not only does this passage remind me that I love me some demons, it calls me on the fact that I don’t really want to be bothered. I think most of us would just as soon not worry about anyone else.

Don’t you think that the disciples ever snapped? “Hey, for crying out loud, Jesus, give it a rest. Can’t we have a day off? Feeding 5000 here, healing a withered hand there, now traipsing off to the graveyard and visiting the gentiles and getting booed out of town? Why are we bothering with this, Jesus? Really! Who needs it?”

It’s really, really hard to care about the man wandering in the graveyard. He’s unclean. He’s smelly. He treats me like garbage. He’s scary. But for some reason, Jesus thinks he’s worth more than two thousand pigs. Jesus heals him. And that makes a difference.

This may be among my all-time favorite photos of my daughter, taken amongst the ruins of Hippos/Susita in 2010.

This may be among my all-time favorite photos of my daughter, taken amongst the ruins of Hippos/Susita in 2010.

We know that it makes a difference because Mark tells us that it does. Mark is very precise about this healing – he says that it occurred in somewhere called “the Decapolis”. If you remember anything about your Greek, you’ll recognize that “deca” means “ten” and “polis” means “city”. Clustered around the east side of the Jordan river was a curious group of ten cities: Scythopolis, Pella, Dion, Gerasa, Philadelphia, Gadara, Rahana, Kanatha, Hippos, and Damascus all traced their founding back to the time of Alexander the Great. They were located in Syria, but they were neither Palestinian nor Arab – they were fundamentally Greek cities. They had temples to the Greek gods; there were Greek marketplaces, Greek amphitheaters, and Greek lifestyles. My daughter Ariel and I visited the ruins of Hippos in 2010.

And now, because of the intrusive savior who bursts into the graveyard at night and heals a man who is not particularly interested in being healed, and in the process, who irritates the businessmen of the entire region, there is one person who can speak to the healing power of Jesus Christ.

There are ten towns in the Decapolis, each of which is filled with thousands of people. And out of all those people, there is one person who knows from personal experience what Jesus can do for a man. The first conversation between Jesus and this man is a harsh and difficult one, but since we’re talking about returning to Jesus, let’s look at the second conversation, there in verses 18-20. More than anything, the man who had been the object of Jesus’ unsolicited healing wants to get out of the Decapolis and follow Jesus. The man begged Jesus for the chance to accompany him and be a disciple, and Jesus – confusing, irritating, unpredictable Jesus – says “No. Go home.”

After being “clothed and in his right mind” for less than twelve hours, the man has a hunger to be with Jesus. I’m sure he doesn’t understand it very well. It’s just gnawing at him. There’s a sense that something amazing has happened, and that something bigger could happen. The man has been wandering the hillsides crazed for who knows how long, and now he gets it. Now he sees. Now he is healed. He knows what he is hungry for and he knows where it is. It’s in Jesus.

And Jesus looks him in the eye, and Jesus loves him, and Jesus says, “Now, go back to the Decapolis, and tell your friends.” And the man does. He does!

Check this out: a few chapters later, Mark talks about the next time that Jesus and the boys visit this region near the Decapolis. In between these trips, we hear about the ways that Jesus was treated in his hometown of Nazareth. The people among whom he grew up, the men and women and boys and girls who ought to have been most aware of the Holy that was in their midst, rejected him. And so Jesus and the disciples head out on a preaching tour and find themselves “on the other side” again.

Jesus Feeds the Multitudes (artist unknown)

Jesus Feeds the Multitudes (artist unknown)

Only this time, when they get to that neighborhood, it’s not such a lonely place. This time, there are more than 4,000 people who are there eager to hear his teaching and experience his touch.

When he left that town, how many people knew who Jesus was, what he could do, and who he was calling them to be? One man – ONE MAN – was told, “go and tell your friends what the Lord has done for you” – and he did. He did.

Lent is a time to wait or to reflect. To anticipate. To begin to wonder what might happen if this intrusive and powerful savior was to show up in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love. It’s a time for us to look around us at the demons that we love and to cry out to the Lord who asks us to love him more.

The healing of the Gerasene demoniac is an incredible Lenten reading. What would happen if each of us were to be willing to row all night with Jesus towards a place where we’d rather not go? What would happen if each of us were to allow Jesus to hear us speak the names of the demons we have grown to love…and if we were to allow Jesus to remove them from us? What would happen if each of us were willing to pray for the Christ to show up in the lives of those whom we love who are unwilling to call out on their own behalf? What would happen if one, or two, or five or six of us would be willing to obey Christ and go out and tell our friends?

What would happen? Well, we’d find ourselves in Easter, my friends. It would be a season where we explored and dwelt in the kind of life for which God intends us.

What would happen?

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