The Kingdom of Life (pt. 1)

In this morning’s text, we follow Jesus into forbidden territory. First, Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee to Gentile country, which no good Jew would have done, if they could help it. Jesus risks becoming ceremonially unclean, and then makes sure he becomes unclean, by going near the tombs, to find a man possessed by a host of unclean spirits. The disciples, and we, follow our Lord of life into the kingdom of death, to witness together how he brings to us the kingdom of life.

1 They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. 2 When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3 This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 4 For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7 He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” 8 For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”

9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” 10 And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

11 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12 The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” 13 He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

14 Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15 When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. 17 Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region. 18 As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19 Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

Living in the Kingdom of Death

As we enter into the story this morning, we discover that everyone Jesus meets is living in the kingdom of death. Everyone is beset with the consequences and conditions of death – physical, emotional, spiritual, relational.

The first person we meet living in the kingdom of death is the legion-possessed man. He comes out from among the tombs, and his story is evident. The remnants of chains hang from his arms and legs, broken by his brutal strength. His body is covered in scars and open wounds, put there by his own hand, tormented by the demons within. And if that’s not terrifying enough for a group of good Jewish boys to encounter, they quickly discover that this man is more than wounded and tormented, but he is weary and terrified himself from living among the tombs and graves too long, surrounded by death and decay.

The second group we meet, very quickly after meeting the man, are the demons inside him. They are compelled out of the tombs, their natural home, to come before Jesus, by his very presence. The will of the demons is to keep this man isolated from his family, his community, his work, and fixated on death – literally – by trapping him among the tombs. When no one else could bind this man, the demons are able to bind him among the dead.

The demons belong in the kingdom of death, it is their natural environment. This is made clear in how they respond to the presence of Jesus. Jesus’ very presence means they cannot continue to control this man; they see their end in his coming. They make one last request, to not be destroyed, but only to be sent away, so they can continue torturing and killing and wounding people. They wish to live in their own kingdom of death, even after being forced to recognize the kingdom of life. Seeing a herd of pigs, a large herd, they beg to be sent into the pigs. They beg Jesus, the Lord of life, to have one last chance at ruining this community’s livelihood: 2000 pigs would have been a core percentage of the whole community’s work and wealth! The last wish of the demons is to destroy not just this man, but the whole city, trapping them in the kingdom of death.

We find out in this morning’s story that this Gentile village in Galilee is also living in the kingdom of death. A legion of demons is keeping one of their own out among the tombs to torment him and wound him and terrify him, and they have no power to free him or protect themselves. The fear and anxiety this must produce among them is the reign of the kingdom of death at work. Fear is always the first sign of living in the kingdom of death. We don’t meet the Gerasenes until after the man is restored, and the demons are gone, and the people come out to see what has happened. The story reads that they saw the man in his right mind, dressed, fully restored, and that’s when they become truly terrified. Why were the people afraid of the restored man? Wouldn’t they be happy to have him whole, and sane, and back?

Not if the power that restored him is still among them. This power freed a man from a legion of demons, yes, but in doing so, this power also cost their village the core of its livelihood, the herd of pigs. This power has shown itself as a power to free and to ruin, and such a power as that is a dangerous, unpredictable power, a terrifying power. The people beg to be rid of this power, to be rid of demons and exorcisms, and just live as they have lived, under the reign of the kingdom of death. The influence of death over them for so long has blinded them to see life at work among them.

The Arrival of the King

And that’s what Jesus’ arrival means. Jesus’ coming to this village is the coming of life into the land of the shadow of death, and that life terrifies them. This power of life at work is not a wild and undisciplined power, fickle in its work and capricious in its will. That’s what the Gerasenes missed, the Legion understood all too well, and the freed man discovered first-hand. This power to free, to restore, to revive, arrived in the person of Jesus Christ, who serves his Father in heaven for his glory.

When Jesus arrives, the demons are compelled to come out of the tombs and bow before Jesus in worship. Throughout the gospel stories, the demons are among the first to worship Jesus for who he truly is. This may surprise us. But we are reminded that the contest is not between two rival kingdoms, equal and opposite in power and will. In a surprising revelation, we see here that Satan’s kingdom of death is subject to Christ’s kingdom of life, subservient to it, and the demons bow down – albeit reluctantly and bitterly – before their Lord.

The demons and the Gerasene people saw and understood the power of the king at work among them, and it inspired in them only fear. The kingdom of death was still reigning over them, and the arrival of a new kingdom with new rules and new goals meant only danger and change to this village. The man who was freed, however, experienced the goodness of the king, and the joy of the kingdom of life, and it inspired in him love. We see his response is very different from the demons or the Gerasenes.

Living in the Kingdom of Life

I think it’s interesting that the story follows the demons, and the townspeople, more than the changed man. I wonder if he bowed down again, this time with a joyful and grateful worship for this gift of freedom. I wonder how his appearance changed, if his eyes softened, and his wounds were healed, and his chains disappeared. But whatever the physical change, the internal change is complete. He is freed from the demons, and freed from the kingdom of death. He sees in Jesus Christ the king of life he has been craving, and begs not for Jesus to leave him in peace, but to go with Jesus, wherever he’s going. The restored man is brought fully into the kingdom of life, and he wants to become a disciple.

But the restored man is not permitted to come with Jesus. Jesus instead sends him home, to tell his story. This man – we don’t even know his name – is the first apostle, a Gentile! The word “apostle” means “sent one,” and this man embraces that charge whole-heartedly. He doesn’t only tell his story at home, but in all of the Decapolis, the ten major Gentile cities around the Galilee region.

This is the power of transformation in Christ, of being transplanted suddenly from the kingdom of death into the kingdom of life. Some of the stories we hear about this transformation are like this: dramatic, sudden, complete. Addictions are broken in an instant; hatred and jealousy leave all at once; and the change in friends or work or lifestyle are immediate. And sometimes these people who are transformed by the gospel are the very people we would least expect. In fact, sometimes it’s the people we have had the hardest time with, the people we have been most hurt by. I wonder if that’s another reason why the Gerasenes were so afraid to have this man back. Here was a man who knew what it was like to be the home and puppet of not just one unclean spirit, but an army of them; no one can be the same after that. There’s no normal after an experience like that. And yet, Jesus sends him back to his own people precisely to tell them the story of his change, of how nothing is the same after experiencing the kingdom of life.

Transformed & Transforming

The nature of transformation is radical; the task of the transformed person is to go and transform others, to share not only the story of transformation, but also the effects of transformation, with the world! That’s the necessary order of events. We cannot be expected to transform others if we ourselves have not first been transformed. We must experience the kingdom of life, receive it, and enter into it, before we can invite others into and carry it into the world.

And we don’t do this alone! This work is our denomination’s vision for Reformed churches over the next 15 years. “Transformed & Transforming” is the work we are all called to be about, as those who have experienced the kingdom of life firsthand, and who are sent back to those still living in the kingdom of death. The Transformed & Transforming vision has three major components to it: Cultivating Transformation in Christ, Equipping Emerging Leaders, Engaging in Christ’s Kingdom Mission (repeat). These three pieces have a logic to them, a flow from one to the next that fits this morning’s story. The man experienced transformation in Christ; he was equipped and sent as a leader of transformation to his own people; and he engaged in Christ’s kingdom mission. We are called to be busy about these three works ourselves, in ways that are unique to our church family, to our history in this area, and to our local community.

We must listen, as the restored man did, to how Jesus Christ is calling us cultivate transformation in those who are still being touched by the kingdom of life. There are opportunities listed in your bulletins to grow and serve, to be transformed; take a look at those opportunities, and commit to one of them in the coming weeks.

We must listen to how Jesus is calling those of us called and equipped to be leaders, in whatever role God has given us. This vision is not age-specific. Just because you’re retired, and stepping back, does not give you an out when it comes to Christ’s call on your life. And just because you’re still in school doesn’t mean you don’t have gifts that Jesus is looking for to help build his kingdom. The youth are not the future of the church, as we often say they are. Youth are the present, as well! We are all called to lead in the unique roles God has given us.

And we must listen to how Jesus is sending us out, to engage in his kingdom mission right in front of us. We do not build the kingdom; Jesus does that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God. And he is at work even now, maybe where we least expect it: among the Gentiles, the unclean, the tombs. Or maybe he’s building his kingdom of life under your very feet, if you only slow down and listen for the sound of transformation happening. We don’t always see transformation occur so suddenly, so fully; but if we learn to listen for it, we will see opportunities to work alongside Christ to help build his kingdom of life among us.

We are being transformed, brothers and sisters. Our communion with one another, our hearing the story of the kingdom told in Scripture, our living it out together in the week to come, all powered and directed by the Holy Spirit within us, all work together for our transformation. Just as we are being transformed, so we are called to offer our transformed lives to those still living under the shadow of the kingdom of death. Have courage, and go forth to be agents of the kingdom of life, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; amen.

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