The most impressive—and impressionable—place around modern Israel’s storied Sea of Galilee must be ancient Capernaum. It was this (Heb.) Caphar-Naum—Village of Nahum—which served Jesus of Nazareth as his earthly base-of-operations.
Amazingly, Capernaum—at the north end of the 12-mile lake—remains unspoiled by the passing of 20 centuries. Unspoiled except for the presence of a contemporary glass-and-cement Latin Catholic church. Some of you have been there, and you know: it looks for all the world like a flying saucer, perched on steel stilts above the footings of a stone house thought to be that of Peter the fisherman.
Hard by the modern church is the so-called “White Synagogue,” a Fourth Century ruin built atop the black, basalt foundation of the very sanctuary where Jesus of Nazareth appeared one Sabbath long ago, and there healed a man with a withered hand (3.1-6).
In the autumn of 2005 Catherine and I sat virtually alone inside that now-roofless synagogue. We read the miracle story from Mark 3 (1-6). And we wept as we visualized the One we had worshiped and served since our youth, treading the stone floors of that very building.
If one should rise and walk to the main entrance of that synagogue, and look to the southeast, across the several miles of water that lie between Capernaum and the distant shore, she might see where archaeologists and biblical historians suggest Jesus later encountered this mysterious figurein our scripture passage today, known as the Gerasene Demoniac.
That site is called Kursi, an Arabic word for “throne.” An ancient ruin is there also, a Fifth-Century Byzantine church. To one side is a steep, sloping hill that plummets sharply toward the clear, blue waters of the lake. Some tour guides refer to the hill as “Pig Jump.”
Nobody knows how, but Jesus recognized Kursi—the “throne”—as the throne room of the devil himself. After teaching the crowds around Capernaum, Jesus abruptly directed his disciples to rig a small boat and set sail for Kursi, from familiar Jewish environs to the unclean territory of the Gentiles.
Owing to a frightening wind storm and high waves, the short trip took all night. But we read that Jesus, asleep in the back of the small boat, arose and spoke the memorable words “Peace, be still”; and the calm was restored (4.35-41).
Nobody had phoned ahead, but a strange welcoming committeewas waiting next morning as the Lord and his disciples came ashore. At first glance the place appeared to be deserted. It lay at the base of a high plateau known in the First Century as Gaulinitis (the Golan Heights today). Looking about, all one could have made out were the many natural caves that honeycombed the cliffs and rock faces of the surrounding terrain. These caves were used as graves by the residents of distant Greco-Roman Decapolis cities—among them Gerasa and Gadara.
So it was actually from a cemeteryof sorts that the bizarre welcoming committee emerged. Even stranger, the committee debuted in the guise of a single individual,a man who—while not exactly a zombie—was nonetheless an example of the living dead.
For the man was demon-possessed. That’s what the word “demoniac” means. Even before its human host had spoken the first word, Jesus had already ordered this “unclean spirit” (as he called it) to depart. The spirit complied, but not before there ensued a fierce battle ofrecognition.
At that time it was supposed that an individual who could know and call another’s name might seize the upper hand and have the advantage. So at the top of his voice, the distraught demoniac shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”
Jesus immediately applied a counterthrust. He required of the unclean spirit its own name. Since this came as a command from the Most High God, the demon knew no recourse. Meekly but mysteriously he answered: Legion . . . Legion, for we are many.
Note here the self-centeredness of evil: the very one (or ones) who had so tormented their host—the demoniac—did not wish themselves to be tormented. In the normal course, evil spirits were understood to inhabit drab, deserted, waterless places. This “legion” of spirits had escaped from such a province and did not want to return there.
Nodding toward a herd of swine grazing nearby (v. 11), they begged, “The pigs! The pigs! Send us into the pigs!” This (perhaps they reasoned) might accomplish two things: (1) it might appeal to Jesus-the-Jew to dispatch unclean spirits into unclean swine. More than that, (2) once the demons took up residence in the pigs, they might wind up on the dinner table and in the stomach of some other hapless Gentile, where they could resume their tormenting.
We read that “[Jesus] gave them permission.” You know what happened next. Down the steep slope of Kursi plunged pigs by the hundreds, belly-flopping into the lake and drowning themselves, thereby discharging the legion of demons back into the dark and dreaded cosmos.
Never mind that the keepers of the pigs high-tailed it to the city, to tattle to their bosses. Never mind that their masters returned to the scene and brazenly implored Jesus to go back wherever he came from. That was to be expected. (As my New Testament professor Frank Stagg used to say, “Any fool knows that a couple of thousand pigs are worth more than a man!”)
Never mind, because now we arrive at the golden heart of an otherwise grim tale. For now a man— a once-tormented man—sat meekly in the shadow of his deliverer. No longer host to a legion, he was at last his true self. But his was now a singularself, for whom Jesus would later give his own, singular life; a self for whom the Lord had not only sailed the Sea of Galilee, but decades before had traveled from his heavenly home to a lowly, sin-beleaguered earth.
The man, says the Bible, was at last “clothed, and in his right mind.”
Now, to the person who rescues you—who comes to you in your time of distress and delivers you—to that person you want to be near, and to stay near. So we read, “As [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him.”
I can only imagine the deep tenderness with which Jesus looked back. It would have been the tenderness of a loving and responsible parent. The tenderness of one who, even though he has authority over everything, chooses not to answer every request with a “yes.” Because he knows what is good. He knows what is best. He understands his own benevolent purpose for the world he has created.
We see that Jesus “refused” the man’s request. But in so doing, he made him a better offer—really a command, albeit so gentle. Go home to your friends,he said, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.
The man did as he was told:“he went away, and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and all men marveled” (5.30 rsv).
Where does Christian witness begin? It begins, I suspect, in the mind of one who, personally and individually, has been delivered from those threats that life in a fallen world invariably poses. It begins in the heart of one who realizes who it is that has accomplished the deliverance—one who in turn honestly and honorably credits his Deliverer.
I was born the third and final child in my family. In the Book of Genesis we read that Jacob’s wife Rachel, at the birth of their second son Benjamin, “travailed, and she had hard labour” (35.16 kjv). It was also a hard delivery for my mother, such that the doctor is said to have come out from the birthing room and asked my father an impossible question: “If we can only save one, which shall we save—your wife, or the baby?”
My father chose what I would have chosen. Two other children needed their mother. They needed—and my father needed—for her to live. Happily, as it came to pass, we both survived, my mother and me. But in reflecting upon that story, first told to me in my formative years, I have often done as those people living in the ancient Decapolis: I have “marveled.”
These concluding months and weeks of my ministry with this blessed congregation have caught me reminiscing about the great personalities I have known here. Among them was the late Federal Judge William L. Osteen Sr. Judge Bill remembered a time in his teenage years when he drove to the old Greensboro airfield and went up for a spin with his friends.
As their light plane came in for a landing, it flipped and crashed on its top. Somehow, though their clothes were soaked with gasoline, Bill and his friends escaped. “You don’t walk away from an experience like that,” the judge mused, “and not ask who spared you, and why you were spared.”
In later years it occurred to me why I was spared. I had been called. As a boy I sat in my home church under the declaration of what it was that was so goodabout the Good News. God had done for me what I could notdo for myself: he had—through the sacrifice of his Christ—mended my broken relationship with my Creator, and delivered me from the kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of the Son.
I realized that thatwas news that must be repeated, generation after generation, until its very Author should return to rescue the whole groaning, travailing creation (Romans 8.22). It must be told by one who had himself been saved by the telling.
Then it must be told in every way it mightbe told, to every audience with ears to hear, and even unto the darkness of every valley of dry bones, until every bone should be rejoined to its neighbor, and every skeleton reclothed with flesh, and every lifeless body—even the living dead—should be lifted up to honor and glorify its Redeemer.
I had been called. Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!’”(Ezekiel 37.4 nkjv).
Every thoughtful child of God has his and her own story of deliverance. When one truly begins to reflect, the stories mount up. As a young college student, I was delivered from a dark night of the soul. If you have been saved from your sin, and then called by God, and if you have said yes, you might expect temptation will come. It came to my Lord, and it came to me. But that same mother—the one who travailedwhen I entered the world— quickly responded, and rescued me.
Later on I was saved from bachelorhood! I suppose the Lord knew that I could not handle the life of a minister alone. And that being so, I recall that it was about one week to the day—after my father had told his uncle that I was unlucky with girls, and he doubted I would ever marry—that I returned to the campus of Southern Seminary in Louisville and met Catherine Ann Bartles.
When anyone should inquire what is the best thing that ever happened to me, she’s what comes to my mind.
And again, I am not different from you, not in any important way. We start thinking, reminiscing, reflecting, and our stories begin to flow. Seminary led to the local church, and congregation yielded to congregation. Inexpressible blessings came along the way—not least of which were two beautiful daughters.
But if anyone should ever ask what then would become the most blessed chapter of my entire life of ministry, I would point to this. This congregation. This people. Youpeople.
Hard to imagine is that Catherine and I have spent the majority of our married lives right here. Our children have been well-educated—at a great, historically-Baptist university—because we have lived among you. Later both of our girls were privileged to be married here, here in this splendid sanctuary.
I began this sermon speaking in some detail about the Land of the Bible. I know something about that, and I know it because of you. I know something about the different faiths that inhabit not only the world beyond, but increasingly the community right around us, because of you. Moreover, owing to your generosity, I have learned much—and have come to appreciate much—about the variety of expressions of Christianfaith around the globe today.
Sadly, many of the great people I have known at First Baptist Church are no longer among us. They have moved their memberships to an even-greater congregation, in an even-better place. Can you imagine?—in the course of a quarter of a century doing ministry here, I have conducted well more than 500 funerals and spoken words of life to as many grieving families. That has been an inexpressible privilege. And I have enjoyed it because of the confidence of this congregation and the gracious leave of the three pastors under whom I have served.
Even now, as we prepare to take our own leave, we realize we are able to do it without worry, without concern or anxiety over our personal future. Because you are also a thoughtfulpeople. Through your own careful planning and foresight, you have made provision for us (as you do for all who minister among you).
People ask me, “But now that you’re retiring, what are you going to do?” I think I getit: am I just going to stay home, be underfoot, and a nuisance to my wife? Well, no. Catherine herself is the best insurance against that!
What I see out ahead, in reality, is a broad vista of opportunity. I can and will go wherever somebody needs me to go. I will be listening for the voice of the man of Macedonia, the one who said to the Apostle Paul in a dream, “Come over . . . and help us” (Acts 16.9 esv).
I have little idea where that might be, or what course future serviceto the Lord might take. But one thing I know. The same Lord Jesus who once turned around, and looked tenderly into the face of a grateful man—one whom he had delivered from ultimate untowardness to a place of unremitting joy— now looks to me also and says:
Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.
In one way or another, I will go on telling of the Lord’s mercy. I will tell all that he has done. And I will trust that any who hear will respond as that first audience in the Decapolis: they will marvel at the goodness of God.
This is my hope and my prayer. And I offer it in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.