PIGS MIGHT DIE
When people present themselves turbulently before God, his work for them may have a raw, untamed quality about it which mirrors theirs
What happens when God moves in power? That we have to stop and think this answer through suggests we do not see enough of this to speak unhesitatingly. There may be several reasons why we do not often see the power of God at work as we might. Our tendency to view belief in purely individual terms may deprive us of the kind of trust God is calling to: a shared and expectant faith, a kind of spiritual crowd sourcing where the group is more influential than any one person in it. There is endless talk of digital connectivity today, yet we connect only sporadically in prayer; mostly this is seen as a private enterprise.
Allied to this is the rationalist mind-set which denies the possibility that God may intervene in the world. We confess we believe in this – the Nicene Creed itself is a model of divine intervention – yet we doubt the power of God and tend to interrogate unusual stories until we can satisfy ourselves that there is a material explanation or a causal connection that accounts for it instead. Our cautious and undemonstrative nature, forged in the questioning empiricism of British philosophy, prefers to pull things apart before we offer praise to God. I am not offering an argument for credulousness, which believes anything it is told, but for a vigorous faith rooted in the sound mental faculties God has given us. We don’t have to sound like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris to get a hearing in Britain today; many people are open to spiritual interpretations. The outcome of doubt overcoming faith in the Church is the formation of a lesser God, summed up in the U2 lyric: ‘stop helping God across the road like a little old lady’. My apologies if you are elderly, female and small all at the same time, but you get their drift.
The account from Luke 8 of the healing of the demon-possessed man tells us with unsettling accuracy what tends to happen when God moves in power. On arriving at the east bank of Galilee, Jesus is confronted by this man. There is no time to adjust to the motion sickness of the crossing; the man is in Jesus’ face before he has time to climb the shore. God is always drawn towards problems in this world rather than away from them, but occasionally these needs pressed upon Jesus like paparazzi round a celebrity. Our mission in this world is often gritty and challenging. We would prefer to contain it to safe places where the ground rules are understood by all, like a surgery or an interview room, but the chaotic and unpredictable nature of human need does not regularly afford us this.
God’s power is experienced manifestly in personal transformation. We have grown accustomed to this as a process of evolution, as people respond to the grace of God over many years, but it can be very rapid. We would like to think we are comfortable with this, but the evidence is mixed. The deliverance of the demon-possessed man should have been a cause of rejoicing for the neighbourhood but Luke says the people were ‘seized with great fear’ (verse 37). When people present themselves turbulently before God, his work for them may have a raw, untamed quality about it which mirrors theirs. While we tend to think of God’s work as calm and pastoral, conjuring up images of flowing streams and sweeping mountains, his deliverance can be edgy and unsettling for those who witness its effects because it challenges our own personal faith and commitment. If we look closely at the accounts of the miracles of Jesus, they make the people afraid, for it puts them in touch with a power beyond their control or imagination, rendering them vulnerable, even as God says ‘fear not’.
The demonstration of God’s power in this messy world is also not as clean as we might expect. In the deliverance of this man, a herd of pigs is lost of great economic value to the owner and probably at the cost of several jobs. Around the edges of God’s intervention, there can be collateral damage for those caught up in it. Sometimes, like at the shrine of Artemis in Ephesus where the silversmiths lost their trade in idol making, the Gospel challenges vested economic interests with its priorities. Here it seems the pigs were just in the wrong place at the wrong time – at least as far as the owner was concerned. For the demon-possessed man the feeding pigs were a God-send. If God is to re-fashion our messy lives in the shape of his kingdom, the spaces we live in too are going to be reformed. Priorities are altered, resources re-allocated, relationships changed; alterations which can be unsettling.
Rather than embracing the presence of a miracle worker among them, the people of the region begged Jesus to leave them; they felt it was safer to keep Jesus at a distance. They calculated that his continuing presence would unsettle and ultimately re-shape the community in ways they weren’t prepared for. To us, this looks like a missed opportunity, yet we are prone to similar calculations in the privacy of our own lives. We do not doubt the sovereignty of Jesus over our lives, but quietly set up barriers over how far his Lordship actually roams. Like the residents of Gergesa, we negotiate the terms of our discipleship in ways which fall well short of the notion of presenting ourselves as living sacrifices. We do this unobtrusively, so others are largely not aware of the bargains we make with God. One reason we find stewardship campaigns awkward is because they ask us to re-negotiate these terms in tangible ways.
The personal transformation of the demon–possessed man was dramatic and incontrovertible. The local population tried to manage his problems in cruel and inhibiting ways, shackling him and shunning his presence so he was forced to live among the bodies of the dead. On confronting him fully dressed and mentally sound, they are stunned. The man’s response is to ask Jesus that he can follow him round the country. He felt safe in the presence of Jesus but less so among the people who had treated him so punitively. He was probably afraid they would not accept his healing and continue to deal with him as a risk to be managed; he had seen their cruel side and did not trust them. Leaving the region for good in the company of Jesus was preferable, but Jesus would not let him. Instead, he asked the man to return to the place where he had felt unsafe in order to proclaim the mercy of God. They knew this man’s previous state and so his re-integration into the local community would be a perfect witness to the power of God. If he had left the area, his witness would have been diminished because other regions would only have known him as a well-adjusted follower of Jesus.
The man was naked when Jesus healed him and so presumably he re-entered society with only some borrowed clothes on his back. He had nothing, but what he had, he gave and it is a model of discipleship. This story offers us a choice. The people of the region were too cautious to allow Jesus to walk among them; they knew he would draw out a response they were unprepared for. By contrast, the man was prepared to return to them and witness to his healing, even though he knew it would be an edgy role. Both made personal responses to the power of God; only one made the right call.
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