Jesus the Hero
Previously, in the gospel of Mark, when we last left our band of misfit Galilean fishermen, they had narrowly avoided death by drowning, thanks to the actions of their fearless rabbi, a seemingly unimpressive misfit himself, growing up as a carpenter’s apprentice in the backwoods town of Nazareth. But this young rebel had garnered unprecedented popularity in recent months, and would go on to become the undisputed most famous person to ever live, thanks to a string of miraculous healings, exorcisms, and uniquely profound teaching that drew dense crowds of followers. However, his disciples, these fishermen who with their siblings and wives had lived near the sea their whole lives, knowing it well, were not prepared for how their teacher took control of the situation during their time of need.
As we saw last week, rather than merely playing the hero like other captains, organizing his sailors and developing a clever bucket plan in order to prevent the ship from sinking, this man, this young carpenter-turned-prophet, their friend and teacher, stood up and started talking to the sky like it could hear him. As his friends likely started looking around at each other in disbelief, all of a sudden, at the bellowing words, “PEACE. BE STILL,” the winds died down immediately and the waves became a still, quiet calm. From whirling winds, thrashing sails, pounding rain, and shouts of panic to complete, and total, shocked silence. And in that quiet moment, after being rebuked by Jesus for being afraid, this goofy band of disciples look at one another and whisper… “Um, did that just happen? Is this real life? He just talked to the sky and it listened!! Who IS this guy?” And that question, “Who is this?” That's the key question flowing through the entire gospel of Mark, and in this week’s episode, these followers will get an answer from a very unlikely source.
The sermon today has a simple outline, which is actually surprisingly similar to something you might see in a superhero flick. First, Mark will set the scene and describe the bad guy(s), next, the disciples will witness an astonishing battle between good and evil, and finally we’ll watch the responses and consider our own. So 1) the villain, 2) the hero meets the villain, 3) the aftermath & our response. We’ll take them in turn.
To begin, we’re going to work our way through this story and try to draw out some of the cinematic-like emotion that I believe Mark wants us to feel. He includes more details about this first character than almost anyone else in the rest of the gospel, and that’s on purpose.
The Villain (“Out of the Tombs”)
So let’s take a deeper look at how Mark describes this madman. First off, where does he come from? Starting in verse 2, we see that he’s coming “out of the tombs.” He’s coming out of a place of death, disease, and decay. And we come to learn that this man wasn’t just passing through, but he lives among the tombs (v. 3). Now why would one choose to live in a cemetery? Well, Mark says this fellow is a one “with an unclean spirit.” You might have a little footnote in your Bible there, but that phrase is actually one word in Greek, daimonizomai, which means one oppressed, even controlled, by demonic forces. A demon-zombie, if you will. (Now a bunch of you just perked up – wait, is he talking about Zombies? The Walking Dead?! Just wait folks. This story gets crazier.)
Not only is he controlled by demons and lives among the tombs, but he’s crazy strong. Like almost incomprehensible strength. We know this because the townspeople apparently had tried to secure him, perhaps first in his house, and likely later in a jail, with all sorts of shackles, chains, ropes, and he literally burst the bonds apart. He busted out of heavy metal shackles like they were made of Styrofoam. So this dude is scary. You do not mess with him. He’s like the anti-Samson: a rippled, bloody, scarred, screaming psycho who roams around graves day and night crying out and cutting himself with stones. This is some intense bondage here. I think Mark describes him in vivid detail because it’s really important that we understand just how strong and how intense the forces of evil are that control this man.
Looking at our cross-references, we get a bit more detail from the parallel story in Luke 8 and learn also that he’s naked, and it’s been a long time since he’s worn clothes at all. He’s homeless. His hair and beard is likely long, unkempt, full of dirt and grime. At one time, he lived in the city, but now he’s been driven out, alone with his demons. The forces of evil have caused this man, made in the image of God to rule God’s creation and live in harmony with Him and His people, to become an animal, an enemy of God and his people, harming others and himself.
The Battle (or “Pigs Don’t Fly”)
Now that we’ve gotten a closer look at this man, let’s watch what happens when he meets Jesus as we move to our second point: the battle, starting in verse 6. If this was a typical Marvel flick, following the short intro and backstory on the villain, we’d cut to the heart-warming origin story of the hero (which Mark has already begun for us in first four chapters, describing the rise of this new hero, Jesus Christ #eyesontherise). And of course in the movies, everyone knows that the bad guy and the good guy have to eventually meet and duke it out. They fight for dominance. They struggle, they duel, they joust, and perhaps the good guy squeaks out a win after initially all seemed lost.
Eventually we may see a version of that later in the life of Jesus, but in this story? The almighty demon-zombie who breaks every shackle, lives in the tombs, is stronger than any man, woman, or child? Let’s watch what happens when he meets Jesus, starting in v. 6-10. He sees Jesus from far off and basically pees his pants in fear. He runs up to Jesus and throws himself on the ground at Jesus’ feet. This is shocking! There’s no fight! At Jesus’ voice of command, the force a thousand-plus demons, this full-on legion gives up immediately, without any fight at all, identifies Jesus as the “son of the Most High God” and literally begs Jesus not to torture him! Sprawled on the ground, Jesus asks his name, and the demons reply in the creepiest horror-movie voice ever, “We are Legion, for we are many.” A Roman legion was an efficient & powerful unit of 6,000 foot soldiers, along with 100+ cavalry. This is a legit fighting force. And yet, the demons beg him by the mercy of God not to send them away, out of the country of the living and into the abyss.
Now, lately in my house we’ve been going through the gospel of Mark and I’ve been reading/acting out the stories for my kids. And because of what happens next, this story is currently the most-requested “Jesus story” of them all for a couple reasons.
My boys think it’s just the greatest thing that first, this super-strong scary bad guy with a “ghost spirit” ask Jesus to “send us into the pigs.” Send us into the pigs! They dance around and laugh hysterically. Second, they think it’s hilarious that the pigs rush off the cliff into the sea. And in one way, the wisdom of little children teaches us something here. It is funny, on one hand, how Jesus wins this battle. In “granting permission” for the demons to enter the pigs, allowing them to think they had “won” in staying in the land of the living for a bit longer, Jesus knew the demons were not going to win. The pigs, completely shocked and terrified by the startling demonic presence, stampede to their death, disembodying the unclean spirits at the same time and likely confining them to the exact Abyss they were so afraid of. It’s truly poetic justice. And obviously, in another way, this is not funny at all, and we’ll see what the townspeople think in just a minute.
But let’s quickly recap again where we are in this battle.Jesus meets the villains, the Legion, likely one of Satan’s best fighting forces, a veritable terrorist organization in their own right, and he completely humiliates them. It’s Jesus 100, Satan 0. There’s no battle at all. Jesus is real, and Jesus wins, handily, in dramatic and vivid fashion. Notice again how the voice of Jesus is incredibly powerful, like we say every week, all authority on heaven and earth has been given to him and today we’re seeing another manifestation of that. Even a special forces Black Ops demonic force embodying a Samson-like strongman obey his voice without question.
The Aftermath & Our Response
And now, let’s move on to our third and final point, the aftermath and response. Stay tuned, because there’s a bit of a surprising twist that we’ll draw out at the end. But first, let’s notice two things – the response of the townspeople, and the response of the formerly demon-possessed man. Look at verse 14.
The townspeople were completely and totally shocked. The herdsman, who had been tending the newly-suicidal demon-possessed pigs, ran like the wind to tell the rest of the town. And the people were afraid. They were afraid of Jesus. Why? Because he had defeated the most powerful demonic force they had ever see and somehow, he had indirectly caused the destruction of 2,000 pigs in the process, likely one of town’s primary sources of income and stability. To them, Jesus had taken their security and defied their expectations, and so they begged him to leave. Unfortunately, these people end up with the same response as the demons, begging Jesus to stay away from them. Let’s just stop here for a moment and notice that it is possible to come to Jesus without any intention of worshipping him in awe of his power and incredible majesty, rather, you can attempt to come to him to merely get what you want, whether that’s freedom to live the way you desire (like the demons), or to build up your own security and safety (like the townspeople). This is sad, because Jesus is the only true source of freedom and security.
But now let’s look at the response of the former madman in v. 15. He’s sitting there, clothed, and in his right mind. From naked to clothed. Jesus gave him dignity. From screaming and cutting to sitting there calmly. Jesus gave him rest. From unending roaming and raving to being restored to his right mind. Jesus gave him peace. From being alone with his demons, to being ready for human community again. Jesus gave him love and belonging. And that’s what coming to Jesus still looks like for us today, and that’s what we offers us.
And this newly restored man’s response, as we might expect from someone brought from such depths, was to beg Jesus in verse 18. So the third time is the charm here, this third and final begging is the kind we want to emulate. Don’t beg like the demons or the townspeople for Jesus to leave you alone so you can be “free” and “safe.” True freedom and true safety are found only in this King, rather beg, ask earnestly, like this former slave of evil. He begs Jesus, tugging on his cloak, “that he might be with him.” He just wants to be with Jesus! Of course he does! And Jesus, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, turns around and probably smiled at him knowingly. Patting him on the shoulder, Jesus responds with a wink, “Brother, not yet. One day. Today, you need to go back to that town, back to your friends, and tell them how much the LORD has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And you know what? The man obeyed, left his new Savior, went back to the Decapolis, the big city, and began to tell everyone his story, his testimony of deliverance from death, decay, disease and demons, and everyone was amazed.
So that’s our story today. A bad guy, stripped of the evil oppressing him, becomes a good guy by the word of the one true hero. But that’s not all. Let’s not miss the secret here. How does Jesus forgive this man so easily? How does he forgive us? Because, let’s not forget, we are all like that man. Without Jesus, we are alone. We are dirty. We are addicted to and controlled by our natural desires, feeling shackled and unable to change. We hurt other people, and ourselves. We live in the land of death, without hope. And yet, Jesus can forgive us and transform us just like he did that man. But how?
Because one day, Jesus would trade places with that man. He would be chained and led alone, outside of the city. Jesus would allow himself to be shackled to a cross. He’d allow himself to be cut, becoming bloody and scarred. Jesus would die, be thrown into the tombs, abandoned. He would fall under the oppression of the devil, plunged into death and decay. And because Jesus went through all that in place of that man, in place of you, he could forgive that man and change him, and he can do the same for us. Because he paid the price for the evil to be purged! He exchanged his perfect life for yours and he offers a place on His throne to you. Do you know that? Do you believe that? Do you understand how incredible this offer of life is?
Paul, another bad guy turned good guy by a powerful miracle of Christ, would write a few years later to a group of young followers in Corinth… “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich! (2 Cor 8:9). Do you get that? Jesus, the richest, most powerful, most glorious King, the Son of God Himself, left his throne in heaven, gave up his rights, to become a slave, a servant, a pauper, to be executed like a criminal, and because of that deep magic, we become rich by his poverty. And that brings us to the table, where Jesus gave up his body and his blood, so that his strength would become ours, and his sacrifice would cleanse us, heal us, restore us, and make us fit for community with one another and with God Himself, forever.