Freedom

Reading: Mark 5:1-20 Good News Translation, Jesus Heals a Man with Evil Spirits
 
5 Jesus and his disciples arrived on the other side of Lake Galilee, in the territory of Gerasa. 2 As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, he was met by a man who came out of the burial caves there. This man had an evil spirit in him 3 and lived among the tombs. Nobody could keep him tied with chains anymore; 4 many times his feet and his hands had been tied, but every time he broke the chains and smashed the irons on his feet. He was too strong for anyone to control him. 5 Day and night he wandered among the tombs and through the hills, screaming and cutting himself with stones.
 
6 He was some distance away when he saw Jesus; so he ran, fell on his knees before him, 7 and screamed in a loud voice, “Jesus, Son of the Most High God! What do you want with me? For God's sake, I beg you, don't punish me!” (8 He said this because Jesus was saying, “Evil spirit, come out of this man!”)
 
9 So Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
 
The man answered, “My name is ‘Mob’—there are so many of us!” 10 And he kept begging Jesus not to send the evil spirits out of that region.
 
11 There was a large herd of pigs near by, feeding on a hillside. 12 So the spirits begged Jesus, “Send us to the pigs, and let us go into them.” 13 He let them go, and the evil spirits went out of the man and entered the pigs. The whole herd—about two thousand pigs in all—rushed down the side of the cliff into the lake and was drowned.
 
14 The men who had been taking care of the pigs ran away and spread the news in the town and among the farms. People went out to see what had happened, 15 and when they came to Jesus, they saw the man who used to have the mob of demons in him. He was sitting there, clothed and in his right mind; and they were all afraid. 16 Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the man with the demons, and about the pigs.
 
17 So they asked Jesus to leave their territory.
18 As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had had the demons begged him, “Let me go with you!”
19 But Jesus would not let him. Instead, he told him, “Go back home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and how kind he has been to you.”
20 So the man left and went all through the Ten Towns, telling what Jesus had done for him. And all who heard it were amazed.

 
 
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
 
 
I wonder, what do you value most in life? For me freedom is pretty high up on the list. One of the things I love most about Stannington is the freedom to get out and explore in so many different directions, ask me what I like best about my job, and it is the freedom to teach and to care for children in the way that I believe is best rather than being constrained by the latest government fad on child development. And one of the things we so easily take for granted in this country is our religious freedom. Our first reading this morning was about the distress caused to those who have lost their freedom. I don’t have much experience of imprisonment; I haven’t been inside a modern prison not even to visit. But I have visited a number of castles and been horrified by their dungeons and cells where prisoners might be kept chained in cramped conditions without any daylight. Maybe I have too strong an imagination but when I visualise what must have happened in those dark damp cells hundreds of years ago I am left feeling very  unsettled. More recently, Terry Waite described at Greenbelt the disturb he felt watching his skin go white while he was imprisoned for years in a small cell without natural light, and how grateful he was to the call to prayer from the mosque in helping him to keep some sense of the passage of time. To me being incarcerated in the darkness and gloom described in Psalm 107 would be one of the most horrific experiences ever.
 
For the Israelites it brought back two powerful memories of their past. The Exodus when the Israelites had been trapped through circumstances into slavery in Egypt, and the Exile when the nation’s spiritual rebellion against God caused them to be captured by the Babylonians. If you watched the recent remake of Roots you will have seen how stories of slavery were passed down through families. In the same way stories may well have been passed down through the Israelite families so when this psalm was sung in the temple it would have resonated with those memories of slavery and captivity and the response of Joy when they are released.
 
The Psalm gives us a literal understanding of what it is like to be imprisoned and released. The Gospel reading gives us another angle on imprisonment, what is like to be imprisoned spiritually. It isn’t a pretty story, but when we look at it in context it is an incredibly powerful story. For some reason, Mark doesn’t tell us why, Jesus has decided to cross over the Sea of Galilee. They survive a night time storm and arrive on the other side of the Lake in an area that we know as the Golan Heights. In Bible times the politics of the area was as complex as it is now. But what is important for us is that it was a non-Jewish area and the people who lived there weren’t Jews, we can tell that from the presence of the pigs. There Jesus is met by a man who has been living in the burial area. The man is a non-Jew, the area is full of pig farmers and he is living in an area contaminated by dead people, you couldn’t get a more unclean situation, except, you can, the man is possessed by demons. So many they call him Mob, or in other translations Legion giving us a link to the Roman oppressors. Tom Wright suggests that the people of the time were gripped by a fear of the Romans and in this man’s case so much that it has affected him internally as well as externally. He has been overcome by a troupe of phantom invaders giving him super human strength, making him self-destructive, isolating him, turning him into a human wreck. Here is a person imprisoned by their own fears to the point of self-destruction. Yet he can recognise Jesus and run to him. And Jesus heals him in a dramatic and deeply symbolic action. Jesus takes the forces of evil that have been fouling up the man’s life and hurls them back into the place of monsters, into the sea, back into the place that he has just shown his disciples that he has authority over. And the man is left free, re-clothed, in his right mind. The event is so dramatic that it totally freaks the locals out and they beg Jesus to leave them. But the man is left free to go and tell his story, and the word about Jesus is spread to those who would otherwise never have heard it, to those whom the Jews would have considered unclean. St Paul might be the first named apostle to the Gentiles but this man was preaching his story about Jesus earlier.
 
So why did Jesus go there? Why did he go to all this trouble for one unclean man? Because this literal story of freedom and release for one person demonstrates what Jesus was going to do for all people. So often Jesus would perform a literal act of healing so that we can gain the symbolic act and then apply it to ourselves.
 
Here there is a man naked, rejected by everyone, appearing to be destroyed by the evil represented by Rome, isolated, left among the tombs outside the city. This is exactly what was going to happen to Jesus. Jesus was taken outside the city, he was torn apart by Roman torture, he was left naked amongst the dead. This is how our freedom was won. Jesus shares in the plight of the people; he takes the full force of evil and lets others go free.
 
So where does that leave us? I think most of us are pretty law abiding and don’t have much experience of prisons, We are fortunate to live in a country where there is enough religious tolerance that we don’t put people literally in prison for their faith. So in what ways do we experience the doom and gloom, the misery and hard labour of psalm 107 where do we need Jesus to step into our lives and release us from the demons that overpower us. There is so much in our 21 Century Western world that does trap and ensnare us that those Christians who live in literal persecution for their faith pray for us. Where do I start?
 
There are those of us who may feel trapped financially, either through debt or over borrowing. Trapped by a consumer society that tells us we need things to make us happy, ensnared in a system where we strive to give our children the same level of luxuries as their friends have. We might feel trapped in our employment. Maybe we have missed promotion opportunities and the job that we used to love has become a drudge going nowhere. Or maybe we do a job which is undervalued by society. I have had friends say to me “don’t you think you’ve wasted your training” or people say, “Oh, if you’re just a childminder”. Don’t worry they don’t do it twice. But it isn’t everyone who has the resilience to call people to question when they let a demeaning comment slip, and the chains begin to mount up as people’s sense of self-worth plummets. Or we may feel caught in relationships, maybe family responsibilities weigh one family member down as they try to be the support for everyone else, or maybe they are simply struggling in a relationship that is past its best, or maybe in our society of constant movement and change we are bound by loneliness as families become more dispersed and friends move away.
 
Maybe we feel confined by past decisions, grudges, doubts, fears which rule our lives for us. Terry Waite speaks powerfully about not allowing the past to haunt him. He says “It shapes our lives but we don’t have to carry it with us”. But for many of us it is difficult to have that conviction that we can leave the past behind us and so for one reason and another our baggage comes with us. We find ourselves drawn into suffering though chains which are either forged by other people, or forged by ourselves. In the booklets we are using for lent in house groups there is a reminder of the image in a Christmas Carol of Jacob Marley weighed down by the chains made from the things which bound him in life, his ledgers, cash boxes, keys, padlocks and purses. He explains to Scrooge that he wears the chains he forged in life made by his own free will. Not surprisingly for an increasing number of people, and a frightening number of young people and children all these fears and worries build up and spill over into the epidemic of mental illness that our country is struggling to admit to.
 
There comes a point in the psalm when those who are in prison cry to the Lord in their trouble. When our un-named Gerasene sees Jesus he runs to him. The whole point of Jesus’ death on the cross was that we would be free, free from everything in this life which tries to hold us back and imprison us, free from our fears, free from evil and free from death. Death is probably one of the biggest fears that tries to ensnare us. The Authorised Bible translates verse 10 of Psalm 107 as “such as sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”. John’s gospel tells us that one of the last acts that Jesus did before the crucifixion story begins proper was to raise Lazarus from the dead. When Lazarus comes out of the tomb he stands with his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, his face wrapped in a cloth. In effect Lazarus is bound and blindfolded by death, and Jesus commands that they unbind him and let him go. Yes one day our lives must come to an end, but we live our lives with the perspective not of fear doom and gloom, but in the prospect of eternity. Our Baptism is a sign that we have died with Christ to our old life and to all that would hold us and we now live a risen life with him. Behind the picture of the man set free from the demons is the bigger picture of God sending Jesus to rescue not just the Jews but the whole of creation from the grip of evil and the fear of death.
 
 Galatians 5:1 says it was for Freedom that Christ has set us free no longer to be subject to a yoke of slavery. Jesus longs to set us free but we have to ask him, we have to be willing put down the baggage to let Jesus take the evil that control us and throw it into the sea. Then we can become the person we are meant to be. But why? Why would God do this? The answer is in the little picture, the little picture of  Jesus in a small fishing boat boat, battling though a tremendous storm across a lake large enough to be called a sea to reach a single person, so out of his mind he is running wild, so unclean no-one will go near him, but Jesus loves him enough to risk everything in coming to heal him, Jesus loves the man enough to stay with him so the people of the area reject Jesus and not the man, and Jesus loves him enough to trust him to continue his work telling other people about what Jesus has done for him. If Jesus did all that for one person, you can be sure that he will rescue you from whatever fears are holding you back, it doesn’t matter how enormous they seem or how trivial all you need to do is ask.
 
Isaiah 43 says
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you, when you walk thorough fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Because you are precious in my sight and honoured, and I love you.
 
 
Questions
1 Can you look back on your life and see what might trap you, like Jacob Marley what would your chains be made up of?
 
2 Do you experience times when you feel trapped in your Christian life, how do you deal with them?
 
3 What difference does it make to your new life in Christ now that as a Christian you have been set free from the fear of death and from death itself?
 
4 How will you use your freedom?
 
5 What new insights about God’s mercy are you taking away from this session?
 

Alison Cook, 12/03/2017