You know you are getting old when the movies of your youth are having milestone anniversaries. You really start to feel old when the movies you saw about the future are about times which are now in your past. Many of you have seen the movie trilogy “Back to the Future,” which begins in 1985, goes back to 1955, and then forward to 2015, and then back to 1885, and then back to 1985.
One of the main points in the story is that things don’t really change unless something extraordinary intervenes. And even then, at their core, the people are still the same. Marty McFly, his forefathers, and his children, have been and always will be persons who react to being called a chicken. Biff Tannen and his relations have been and always will be jerks. Principal Strickland and his relations have been and always will be focused on order and discipline.
To put that in Biblical terms, the sins of the father are visited upon the son for three and even four generations. To put that in Garrison Keillor terms, as he said it in one of his Prairie Home Companion books, we still hate the people our parents hate, even if we don’t know why. We hate them even if our parents don’t remember why we hate them. We do it out of a sense of loyalty to our family vision of the world around us.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t find much comfort in that. My Grandmother Campbell did a genealogy study once. It turns out that I am the descendant of the kinds of people in the old movie westerns who got shot for stealing horses and cheating at cards.
It turns out that not everyone is descended from heroes and greatness. Some of us are descended from the folks who gave others the reason we needed heroes and greatness. And while I don’t think that I will be called a hero or great any time soon, I also don’t think that I am likely to be confused with a horse thief or a card cheat. Something happened which broke that cycle of the sins of the father being visited on the son for three and even four generations.
And that is a good thing. It can be hard to be the father known for bad things. I know that it can be hard to known as the son of someone known for bad things. I think about that sometimes when I read our passage for today. It is the story of the Gerasene Demoniac.
The Gerasene Demoniac. That is a horrible thing to be known as. It is so horrible that the gospel writer doesn’t even give us his real name, even though his life is changed by Jesus. And I think this points out just how horrible it was.
We remember from last week that we got the names of Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Susanna, whose lives had been changed by Jesus. We remember that Mary had seven demons, which sounds pretty bad, but the Gerasene Demoniac had legions of demons. Mary, even with her demons, was still walking around in society when she met Jesus. The Gerasene Demoniac was so bad, society put him in chains in the wilderness, away from the people.
We don’t know the name of the Gerasene Demoniac. Because everyone called him “Demoniac,” it may be that he didn’t remember the name which had been given to him by his mother and father. Maybe that is why when Jesus asked his name (though Jesus as God would already know it), the Demoniac answers “Legion.”
It may be that the gospel writer was trying to protect the Demoniac. If we don’t know his real name, maybe people wouldn’t react negatively when he told them his name after his life has changed. If we don’t know his real name, he might have a more or less normal life, if he moved to a new place.
Can you imagine the difficulty of only being known as “the Demoniac”? You move to a new place, to begin a new life. You start to introduce yourself to the neighbors. “Hi, I’m Nick.” The neighbor shakes your hand but then says, “You look familiar to me. I know – you were on Facebook! You’re the Gerasene Demoniac!”
There is that moment of uncertainty, as they pull back their hand. “Oh. You’re the Gerasene Demoniac.” And then they offer what they hope will be seen as “friendly” advice: “I wouldn’t move here, if I were you. Boonville might look like a good place to live, with its affordable housing, quality schools, and low cost of life, but it is really a scary place. Why, bombers from Whiteman Air Force base fly over and you never know if a bomb might fall off and kill you. There’s a casino in town, so who knows if the mob is pulling all the strings at City Hall. There are a lot of old buildings and Civil War history, so “ooooo” ghosts! And people ride bicycles into town, and they are wearing bicycle shorts – not a pretty sight!”
We don’t like to believe that people can really change – even in fiction. Before the last Harry Potter book came out, there was a chat group online trying to predict what would happen with Harry and Lord Voldemort. United Methodist pastor that I am, I suggested that the love which saved Harry would be extended to Voldemort, and that he would be redeemed, that he would change. Instead of doing great evil, Voldemort would now do great good. I suggested that it would be much like Saul, who persecuted the Christians. Saul encountered the Christ who lived, and then became Paul, the Apostle who wrote much of the New Testament.
My suggestion was not well-received. It is not an exaggeration to say that this suggestion got “flamed.” Everyone else in that chat group was certain that Voldemort had to die because he was beyond redemption and nothing could ever change him. Voldemort had to die because his evil was legion, much like the Gerasene Demoniac.
We understand the people who chained up the Demoniac. We believe that a McFly is a McFly, a Tannen is a Tannen, and a Strickland is a Strickland, whether it is 1885 or 1955 or 2015. We believe that some people, like the Demoniac, are beyond redemption, beyond hope, and even beyond the power of God to save them.
Our reading tells us that there is someone who can always find us, no matter how restrained and isolated we may be. The good news is that there is someone who can always save us, no matter how horrible we may be. The good news is that there is someone who can always change us, no matter how doubtful we may be. And that someone is Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
There was a popular song from a generation or two back that many of you will remember. I usually hear it in my head with Tennessee Ernie Ford singing it. “I once was lost in sin, but Jesus took me in. And then a little light from heaven filled my soul. He bathed my heart in love and He wrote my name above. And just a little talk with Jesus makes me whole.”
This is a song of good news. This is a song for the life eternal and for the life right now. This is a song which affirms that Jesus saves us for heaven, and that Jesus saves us for life in the kingdom of God now. This is the song of the Gerasene Demoniac, after his life had been changed by Jesus!
One of the ways the world judges Christianity is to ask, “Does it make any difference if I follow Jesus?” Too often, we answer that it makes a difference in the afterlife – and we stop there. We stop there because we are not always so sure that it makes a difference in this life. We have all seen, and sometimes been, the Christian who is judgmental, unforgiving, and unaccepting – just like the rest of the world. Some Christians even make that a point of pride – we are just like everyone else, only forgiven.
But the world is not asking if following Jesus makes a difference in an afterlife they may not yet have a reason to believe in – they are asking if it will make any difference in their life now. Can Jesus cast out their demons now? Can Jesus break the chains which bind them in their sin now? Can Jesus break the cycle of the sins of the father being visited on the son now? Is it just the sins of the father which get passed on to the son, or can the reverse of this be true, as well?
And the good news is that the love and holiness of God the Father is seen in the love and holiness of Jesus the Son. The good news is that this love and holiness is available to all who become children of God our Father through the grace of Jesus Christ. The good news is that it does make a difference in this life when we accept and follow Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
It used to be popular in churches, and it still is in some, for speakers to travel from church to church to tell their “amazing grace” story of how Jesus changed their life. But then the world noticed that the stories were almost always the same, following a “fill-in-the-blank” format. The world noted there was no way to test their witness because they were here one day and gone the next. And while those stories made people in the church feel warm and fuzzy, it was not convincing to the world outside who were still asking if it makes any difference.
This is why the Gerasene Demoniac is told by Jesus to stay where he is. He is to tell the story of his life change. People may doubt what you say, but they will believe what you do. Showing the change is how we answer the world’s question about whether following Jesus makes any difference.
The world will believe that God has forgiven us when we forgive them – that is how Jesus taught us to pray. The world will believe that we love God when we love them – that is how Jesus has taught us to live. The world will believe that Jesus can change their lives when they see that Jesus changed our lives – that is how Jesus has taught us to tell our story.
Today we are baptizing Skylar Ann Phelps. Some outside of the church will see this as a naming ritual, or as a bit of superstitious fluff and magic. But inside the church, we see this as a commitment we make together to be the change God wants in every life. It is a commitment we make together to live before Skylar in such a way that she sees the difference it makes to follow Jesus, so that she may make this commitment herself in the days to come. It is a commitment we make together to tell our story of life change to a world that still believes that we are all, on some level, just Gerasene Demoniacs.
Something extraordinary happened when Jesus came to live among us. Something extraordinary happened when Jesus died for us. Something extraordinary happened when Jesus was raised for us, and when he ascended into heaven. At his ascension, Jesus told us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We are the people who are “Baptized in water, sealed by the Spirit, cleansed by the blood of Christ our king.” We are the people who confess and show that this makes all the difference in the world!
FWS 2248 “Baptized in Water”