March 3, 2019: When Pigs Fly

Pastor Steve Mechem

Mark 5:8-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 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.

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Text only.

This is the second part of the sermon that began last week.

There is a very simple way to understand the story of a possessed man in a cemetery. And that is to read it as it is written.

Jesus and his disciples have crossed the sea of Galilee and have found a demon possessed man who lives in a cemetery. The man, filled with demons, begs Jesus to leave him alone.

Jesus doesn’t. He casts the demons out. As he does, he asks the demon for its name. The man tells Jesus that his name is Legion because there are many demons possessing him.

The demons beg Jesus not to send them out of the country, so Jesus sends them into a herd of pigs that are kept on the hillside. As the demons enter the pigs, the pigs go into a frenzy, and rush down hill into the sea of Galilee, drowning.

2000 pigs fly off the hillside to their deaths.

The pig farmer tells the story of the pigs to anyone who will listen and soon the whole town, it seems, comes out to the cemetery to see what is going on.

There they find Jesus, his disciples, and the formally demon possessed man who is now restored to health, dressed and calmly sitting beside Jesus.

The townspeople beg Jesus to leave and as he is about to, the formerly demon possessed man asks if he can go with him. Jesus tells him that he needs to stay here in the town where people know him. “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

That’s the easy way to hear the story, to take it at face value, and just accept it as is.

But for many people, taking this story at face value just doesn’t work. Demons, thousands of them, possessing a person, flying through the air into the pigs, causing the pigs to jump into the sea and drown. Come on. Sounds like a great horror movie, but not a realistic story of redemption.

Well, for those folks, there is an alternate way to hear the story which still respects the biblical account while recognizing that not everything is as it seems.

This alternate reading begins, not so much with Jesus, but with the man from the cemetery. Last week’s sermon was basically the telling of a possible backstory for this man. A man who is dealing with severe mental health issues, psychological trauma, and physical illness. His conditions would be diagnosable in 2019, but in Jesus’ day, such conditions are almost always credited to the presence of Satan in the form of demons.

To purge the man, back when he was a boy, of these things, he was punished, beaten, mistreated, tortured.

This traumatic body altering physical abuse, alongside His other conditions, creates a violent, uncontrollable persona which the man accepts and exercises. Being told he is possessed by demons all his life has created a reality for him that he is indeed demon possessed and the thing that a demon possessed person should do is act demon possessed. Banished from his community, he lives in the cemetery, and has become somewhat of a legend throughout the area with his howling and yelling and the terrorizing people.

Into this man’s life strolls Jesus. I tend to think that Jesus has heard the legend and has crossed the sea to this specific locale for the specific purpose of meeting this man. Jesus doesn’t need to go looking for long, because as soon as he arrives the man comes to him, howling and yelling and out of control.

This is how the man approaches all comers to the cemetery, but as he approaches Jesus he immediately knows there is something different is afoot. Perhaps he has a sixth sense about this, or maybe as he approaches Jesus he hears the conversation going on among the disciples and immediately realizes who Jesus is.

‘You are the Messiah. Stay away from me,” says the man who is convinced he is full of demons.

Jesus, using a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, declares “Demon, come out of him!” Is it possible that when Jesus says this, he knows that the only way the man, and the community, will recognize his healing is if they believe the demons have been exorcised.

Jesus follows up his command by asking the question “Who are you?”

The man who thinks he’s full of demons replies, probably with the guttural demon sounding voice, “I am Legion.” Legion isn’t so much a name as it is a number. A Legion of Roman soldiers could number as many as 11,000. So convinced that he is devil controlled, when the man describes himself as Legion, he is saying he is chock-full of demon activity.

After stating his name, the man speaking for the demons, requests that Jesus will not cast them out of the country. It seems that a common belief in Jesus’ day is that demons are bound to a specific geographical location. So to send them out of the country is to destroy them.

Jesus sees another way to emphasize the departure of demons that will help convince the man and the villagers of his healing.

So Jesus acquiesces to the request and says, again loud enough for everyone to hear, that they can go into the herd of pigs on the nearby hillside. With Jesus words, the man has, what might be called, a fit. He screams at the top of his lungs. He howls with an other worldly voice, He lashes out. He runs madly. Finally, he passes out. At the same time, in a crazed frenzy, the pigs run off the side of the hill and into the sea and drown. In the context of the first century, anyone who saw this happen would believe the demons were destroyed as the pigs drowned.

So what in the world happens to the pigs? What causes the stampede, Would the demons really send them off the hill to their own deaths, or did Jesus in some sort of supernatural way instruct them to fly off the hill?

It it is a mystery for be sure. There has been the suggestion that as the man is acting out in the process of his exorcism, his actions are so loud and disorderly with such ferocity that the pigs are startled and experience group panic behavior. In a moment of panic they run off the hill and plunge to their deaths. I don’t know, it makes as much sense as anything else.

I wonder if Jesus and his disciples get a bill from the farmer for the lost pigs?

The farmer sees what’s happened to his heard and runs into the city to report the news. In no time at all, the entire city has converged on the cemetery to find the previously demon possessed man who is now whole, and calm, maybe for the first time in his life.

Perhaps, if not for Jesus’ pronouncement of exorcism and the sad ending to the pigs, no one, including the man himself, would have believe he is healed. But he is. This becomes a story of physical, mental and emotional healing, but not necessarily of a story of exorcism.

The villagers ask Jesus to leave, perhaps nervous about the fate of the pigs, or nervous about the devil in the cemetery who is now healed, or perhaps guilty for their own behavior in this whole ordeal.

As Jesus is about to get back in the boat, the formally demon possessed man asks if he can come with him.

But he has so much more to offer here, says Jesus, as he is now able to be reconciled with his family, and with his community, and begin to function as a person once again.

The point of story:

Seems simple to me – Jesus meets us where we are, and loves us more than our defenses, more than our weirdness, more than our contradictions.

Jesus loves us even when we feel unloved, and rejected, and cast out.

You, my friend, are loved by God through Jesus Christ. Period.