SCRIPTURE – Mark 5:1-20 – They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; 4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
Questions Jesus Asks Sermon Series
What Is Your Name?
March 26, 2017
A couple months ago, I told you the story about hearing my named called in a museum and thinking it was God, only to find out it was a mother calling her wayward toddler – also named Kory. I swear not two days after I shared that story, I had another name-calling experience. I walked into the Apple store in the mall, and a young sales associate approached me very enthusiastically and said, “Kory! How are you doing?”
I had no idea who this guy was but I didn’t want to seem rude, so I said with a tone of mock familiarity, “Hey there! Great to see you again. How are you?”
He said, “I’m fine.” Then he paused and said, “Have we met before?”
I said, “Well, I don’t think so.”
And he said, “OK. Because you said ‘Great to see you again” like we’ve met.”
And I said, “Well, you’re the one who called my name!”
And he said, “No I didn’t!”
And I said, “You said, ‘Kory’.”
And he said, “No, that’s MY name. When you walked in, I said, ‘Hi, I’m Kory.’”
And I said, “Well, so am I!”
And then we just stared at each other a few seconds and burst out laughing. And then he gave me a free iPhone because we had the same name. Not really. There’s power in knowing someone’s name or in hearing your name spoken.
We’re continuing our Lenten sermon series today, in which we are looking at the questions Jesus asked during his time on earth. We’re not only considering how his listeners responded, we’re also pondering how we would respond. Today, Jesus’ question seems pretty straightforward – “What is your name?” – but it’s the answer that raises more questions for us.
The story starts with Jesus sailing across the Lake of Galilee to the Gentile region of Gerasenes, where he is confronted by a man who lived in the tombs. In that sliver of information alone there is important symbolism at work that would have influenced how Mark’s readers understood this story. It revolves around the separation of clean and unclean in Jewish society. It may seem trivial to us, but that division was as strong and as intense as the Louisville/Kentucky division that exists in our fair state. I’ll let you decide which is the clean or unclean one for you. Much of the Old Testament law that governed Jewish religious life focuses on issues of what constitutes clean and unclean, and those things and people that were considered unclean were excluded or banned. For example, most things dealing with people who were not Jews were considered unclean. Jesus had just stepped onto pagan soil, across the sea from Jewish territory. Jesus was in unclean land.
And he was met by a man who was the embodiment of being unclean. Nothing in Jewish society was considered more unclean than a dead body. There were strict laws about how to handle a corpse and the kind of intense ritual cleansing that must take place afterwards. So for this man to be living among the tombs in a pagan territory meant that he existed in a constant state of uncleanliness.
Not only does he live in an unclean place, but Luke tells us his body is home to unclean spirits. He confronts Jesus and they have this strange conversation. The demon calls Jesus the Son of the Most High God and begs not to be tortured. Jesus then asks, “What is your name?” and the demon in the man says, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” The Legion begs Jesus once again not to be sent out of the area, and instead asks to be sent into a nearby herd of pigs.
One of the questions I have about this story is to whom Jesus directs the question. The passage leaves it fairly ambiguous. Was he asking the man or the demon that occupied the man? The distinction is important, because who answers determines how this man is defined. Is he defined by who he is, or by the demons that haunt him?
There’s power in speaking our name and having our name spoken, and there’s pain in not having it spoken correctly, or at all. I remember vividly when our oldest daughter Sydney was born. The doctor who was getting ready to deliver her was making small talk while we waited, and she asked us, “So what are you naming the baby?” We told her Sydney, and she scoffed and said, “That’s a terrible name! Everyone will call her Squid!” And I wanted to grab a scalpel and say, “You know, doc, a few minutes before our first child is born may not be the best time to offer your critique.” There’s power in a name.
I wonder if part of this man’s mental struggles is the fact that is probably been years since he’s heard his name spoken out loud. Once he started not fitting in with society, he was ostracized, banished to the tombs to be held in chains. At that point, he was no longer Tom or Sam. He was the crazy guy, the village idiot. Frederick Beuchner wrote, “If someone forgets my name, I feel it is I who am forgotten.” I wonder, when Jesus asks this man for his name, if he even remembers what it is. Or is he only defined by his demons?
It’s interesting to note that after this man his healed and returns to his people, the people are afraid and beg Jesus to leave. Why? Maybe it’s because they’ve never met someone like Jesus, someone with more power than a demon. Demon possession is not a part of our modern society, except in horror movies. Frankly, it’s something we don’t understand, although those of us with children might claim we’ve had some first-hand experience. Yet the Bible is full of talk about supernatural beings like demons and angels. We feel much more comfortable believing in the existence of angels because they seem so benign and non-threatening and fluffy. Angels are safe and good; no one would watch a TV show called “Touched by a Demon.” Demons are scary. We don’t know what to do with them. And so we explain them away as a mental disorder, using our intellect to tell ourselves demons don’t really exist.
And that’s just what the demons want us to think! Are they really real? I don’t know. But I do believe there is evil in this world. I believe there is something at work in each of our lives, trying to distract us from God’s wonder and work, trying to redefine us, to make us forget our name. It could be something internal to us, our own sinful nature, or something external, like an evil force or a demon. I don’t know what it is or how it works, but each time I am tempted to say the wrong thing, to not do the right thing, to not treat another person as my equal, to put myself before God, I know it’s there. Just as it was actively working against Jesus during his ministry, it’s actively working against us today. A writer once said, “We have renamed the demons of the past, but we have not exorcised them.”
Only one person has that power to do that, as we see in this story. Exorcising the man’s demons should have been a cause for celebration, but I think the townspeople were more scared of Jesus’ power than they were of the demoniac. That sounds weird, doesn’t it? But check this out. If Jesus has the power to deal with the crazy man’s demons, he can do the same for them. And they are not sure they want that, because it would mean admitting they had demons and naming them out loud. You know, sometimes it’s better to leave them alone. The people may not be living the perfect life, but at least they’re comfortable in it. They may not have known what to do with the demon-possessed man, but at least they knew where he belonged. As long as the village has a scapegoat, they had someone to whom they could point to make themselves feel better. “Sure, I may be making a few wrong decisions, but at least I’m not as bad as THAT guy.” But what happens when the village idiot turns out to be smarter than you are? What does that make YOU? Now that he was in his right mind, where did that leave the rest of the people? So they would rather live with their own demons, which they think they can control, and send the power of Jesus back across the lake.
Do you know how they feel? There have been times in my life when I chose to keep Jesus at a distance. His teachings are helpful and instructive when viewed from afar, but we’re not so sure we want to let his power get to close to us. “Jesus, you stay over there on Sunday, I’ll manage things the rest of the week.” Sometimes it’s easier not to have Jesus around, because when he’s around our demons are named for what they truly are. I’m a lot more comfortable dealing with my demons, which I think I can control, than I am dealing with the power of Christ.
To have our demons named for what they are can be scary. We’ve spent a lot of time building up our defenses, fortifying rationalizations for our thoughts and behaviors with statements like, “It’s just a little thing. No one is getting hurt. I can stop at any time. No one else will know. I don’t have to share what I have. She deserves it. At least I’m not as bad as him.” Have you ever said one of these? I’ve said them all at some point in my life. But then Jesus comes along and shines a spotlight on those dark corners of our lives, exposing the tombs where our demons reside. And then he asks, “What is your name?” What happens if we dare name ourselves for who we truly are? Can we face up to the shame, the guilt we feel for not being perfect, for giving in to our temptations, for falling short of who God created us to be?
The reformer Martin Luther had a Latin phrase he used to describe humanity: “simul justus et peccator.” It means, “both saint and sinner.” Each of us has the characteristics of both inside of us. We are possessed by our sinful nature, inherent to humanity, and we are imbued with the image of God. Both saint and sinner. When we think of ourselves, which one comes to mind? Which name feels more descriptive of us: sinner, or saint?
The power of Christ is a transformative power. We may think, because of what we’ve done, that our name is bad: addict, judger, cheater, selfish, unclean, sinner. But Jesus transforms us, exorcising our demons, reminding us of our real name: child of God. You are a saint, a child of God. No matter what you’ve done, no matter how big and bad your demons are, you are a child of God. The power of Christ is a cleansing power. If we dare to throw ourselves at Christ’s feet and ask for the removal of our demons, we will be healed. But first we have to want to be healed: of that negative attitude, of that destructive behavior, of that grudge we hold against someone else. What do we need to throw at Jesus’ feet? What needs to be removed from us in order for us to be clean? Can we name that out loud so that it can be exorcised?
If Jesus has power over the demons in an unclean Gentile territory, he has power everywhere, including in you and in me. And when we let that power work, we become what Jesus commanded the healed man to be. Jesus said to him, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.” When we open ourselves to being made clean by Christ, we become a flashing neon billboard that says, “The Lord is at work here.”
Jesus takes flawed people like you and me and turns them into walking miracles to show the world what he can do, because there are so many other people out there who are fighting demons and need to be made clean. In the kingdom of God, everyone is clean. Everyone. A writer once said, “The indisputable proof of Christianity is a re-created person.” Let the power of Christ transform you and make you clean. Then go, show them how much the Lord has done for you. What is your name? Don’t let your demons answer for you. Be who God created you to be.