Becoming a Spiritual Lifeguard,
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Centreville Presbyterian Church, Centreville, VA
Heavenly Father; God of all seasons and all times; Lord of places familiar and places unfamiliar; God of our emotions and our thinking. In the power of your Holy Spirit silence any voice in our ears but yours. Make your presence known to us today in the words spoken and the words heard. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.
Story of Reluctant Swimmers
In thinking about this afternoon’s message, I kept coming back to my experience in high school as a swimming instructor at Goshen Scout camps. At one point I was asked to teach a troop of special needs scouts how to swim. Talk about scary moments. The image of a lake full of drowning scouts still comes to mind.
By the end of the week, however, two of these scouts, Elmer and Freddie, had passed their swim test. Both had the swim routine down before I met them, but both also faced certain obstacles to finishing the course.
Elmer swam the American crawl perfectly, but only in shallow water where his fingers touched the bottom. He loved to show off his great form, but in his heart of hearts he thought swimming was a scam. He became visibly upset when I prodded him to venture into deeper water.
Freddie swam just fine, but thought it was more fun to be rescued by the lifeguard. He would begin his swim test and swim a lap or two. Then, a great big smile would come across Freddie’s face and he would pretend to drown. I can still see the horror on the faces of those watching me as I got mad at this drowning scout—that is, until they saw Freddie stop drowning and finish his swim test.
Isn’t that so like us when hear God’s call? (2X)
Stop focusing on myself and finish the race? Who me, Lord?
Swim into deeper waters and trust you to support me? Who me, Lord?
The moment we get over our pretensions and really appreciate how much Christ has done for us, we want to tell the whole world. When we do, we become spiritual lifeguards.
Our scripture lesson is taken from the book of Mark who recorded what is believed to be the witness of the Apostle Peter. The story of the healing of a man with an unclean spirit appears in the three synoptic Gospels and in each case follows the account of the storm on the Galilee . Mark’s version is the longest and offers details of obvious interest to a modern reader. The length of Mark’s account is particularly striking because Mark wrote the shortest Gospel. Why does Mark spend twice as much time on this particular story as does Matthew or Luke?  (2X)
Uniqueness of Mark’s Account
Only in Mark, for example, do we learn that the crossing of the Galilee involved multiple boats and took place in the evening (Mark 4:35-36). The storm on the Galilee inspired fear, in part, because it happened after dark. Nightfall might also explain why Jesus was sleeping .
The Man with the Unclean Spirit
Two details suggest that Mark expressed great sympathy for the man with the unclean spirit .
The first detail is his use of the term, unclean spirit (ἄνθρωπος ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτω (Mark 5:2 BNT)). By contrast, Matthew starts by saying the man is demonized (δαιμονιζόμενοι (Matt 8:28 BNT)) while Luke reports that he has a demon (ἀνήρ…ἔχων δαιμόνια (Luke 8:27 BNT)) . The term, unclean spirit, is less judgmental and evokes the image of ritual impurity rather than demonic manipulation.
The second detail is also unique to Mark. Only Mark tells us that this man cuts himself with stones (κατακόπτων ἑαυτὸν λίθοις (Mark 5:5 BNT)). In other words, he was a cutter.
What is a Cutter?
In case you have never known a cutter, a cutter is someone, usually a young person, whose emotional pain is so deep that self-induced physical pain comes as a relief. Cutters feel abandoned by their friends and family. Cutters are not normally suicidal although they may accidentally kill themselves. Mark gives us a picture of a young person in unbelievable anguish which is in sharp contrast with Matthew’s image of a raging, fearsome maniac (Matt 8:28) .
Can you feel the pain being communicated here? (2X) If you could heal this kid, would you take the risk to step into his messy life and do it?
Other details in this passage evoke less pathos but focus more on moral ambiguity. The synoptic Gospels, for example, differ on the location of this pericope but all place the location in Gentile territory known as the Decapolis, region of ten cities. Mark and Luke locate this story in the Gerasene while Matthew cites the area of Gadara . Scholars place the location at Gergesa, a relatively unknown location on the Sea of Galilee with a steep slope. The Gerasene and Gadara locations, while better known, are not on the Sea of Galilee .
In summary, the location, the man’s lack of clothing, his presence in a graveyard, the presence of demons, and the local raising of pigs (Lightfoot 1979, 254) all reinforce the image of the man as ritually unclean and probably a gentile. The idea that this man was a gentile makes sense because Apostle Peter led the church in accepting gentile ministry (Acts 10). Peter’s leadership in accepting gentiles into the church may also explain Mark’s special interest in this story.
Jesus’ pathos for the pain of this young man is obvious. There is a sense here that the man with the unclean spirit is the personification of unrepentant sinner undergoing a difficult conversion (Garland 1996, 212). As the Apostle Paul put it: If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Cor 5:17 ESV). Through the story of this young man, Mark has painted a picture for us of both the old self and the new self in Christ (Eph 4:20-24).
What does God’s salvation look like to you? (2X)
The Apostle Paul described salvation in these words: if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved (Romans 10:9-10 ESV).
Exodus as Salvation
For me, salvation evokes memory of the Exodus story when God rescued the people of Israel and brought them out from the land of Egypt. Remembering the Exodus, the Prophet Isaiah writes: But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, 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 through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you (Isaiah 43:1-2 ESV).
Downing as a Metaphor
Have you ever felt in over your head? Do the waters of life leave you grasping for life-preservers that are nowhere to be found? Do you feel like Jonah trying to run away from God and end up being thrown overboard? Here in Mark we find the disciples in a raging storm in the middle of the night on the Galilee.
As the Psalmist writes: Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven (Psalm 107:28-30 ESV).
Do you see the lifeguard at work? (2X)
Jesus simply says: “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm (Mark 4:39 ESV). What’s the big excitement? Where is your faith? Jesus asks.
But what if the storm in our lives is more personal? (2X)
What if we find ourselves in a strange land, surrounded by strange people, confronting death or, worse, confronting people living hollow, haunted lives?
Jesus, why are you still here? Jesus, why do you torment me?
But our lifeguard is still on duty. Jesus asks: what is your name?
Name? We have many names! What name would you like? Anger? Depression? Fear? Guilt? Grief? Humiliation? Shame?
Our lifeguard simply says—you have my permission to give them up.
Anger…(snap) gone. Depression…(snap) gone. Fear…(snap) gone. Grief…(snap) gone. Guilt…(snap) gone. Humiliation… (snap) gone. Shame…(snap) gone. Gone…gone…gone…(Snap 3 X)
But what happens when the storm is over? Jesus says: Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you (Mark 5:19 ESV). We are called to be witnesses of our own healing and lifeguards for those around us.
Let me close with another story.
A woman by the name of Debra used to live outside my office when I worked downtown in Washington. Debra lived on the sidewalk there outside my building for seven years—longer than I had worked there. When I was feeling all full of myself and generous, I would visit with Debra and give her lunch money. When I was mad at the world and feeling sorry for myself, I sneak out the building so as to avoid her. I felt the judgment of God in her presence because I was rich, warm, and well-fed while she was poor, cold, and hungry. For this reason, I prayed that God would cure her of her mental illness and cure me of my moral cowardice .
Confronted with someone in pain in a morally ambiguous situation, what do you do? (2X)
Confronted with a young man in great emotional pain, Jesus set aside his own agenda and healed him.
Almighty God. Father of all compassion. Beloved son. Holy Spirit. Thank you for your presence in our lives. Calm the storms that plague us. Heal us of the names that haunt us. Make us whole people created in your image. Help us to model your love to the people around us. In Jesus’ mighty name, amen.
Mark 4:35-5:20, Matthew 8:18, 23-34, and Luke 8:22-39. Note also the allusion in Revelations Rev 21:2. In each account the man with the unclean spirit declares Jesus to be the Son of God (Matt 8:29; Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28).
The word count in Greek is approximately: Mark (472), Luke (407), and Matthew (236). This is shocking because the Book of Mark (12, 015) is the shortest compared with Luke (20,683) and Matthew (19,474) (BNT, BibleWorks). This implies that almost 4 percent of the Mark text is devoted to this story while less than 2 percent is devoted in either Luke or Matthew.
An episode of near drowning in a boat on the Galilee evokes a dramatic image of the exodus from Egypt—a communal baptism. Because baptism is frequently thought of as a symbolic death and resurrection (Rom 6:4) which is similar to the allusion evoked in mental illness (Foucault 1988, 16), the storm on the Galilee is thematically related to story of the demoniacs that follows. Both are also miracle stories and display Jesus’ authority (France 2007, 333). By contrast, Saint Jerome (1977, 163) saw an allusion to the prophet Jonah (Garland 1996, 193). Taken together, the literary argument is implicitly from the greater to the smaller, if Jesus can command the wind and waves, he can surely cast out demons in a possessed gentile.
The OT provides at least two examples of demonic possession (Judges 9:23 and 1 Sam 16:14-16), but no exorcisms. Casting out demons is a NT innovation. ἐκβάλλω (exorcise) is frequently used in this sense in the NT, but the LXX uses this word primarily in a military sense of driving one’s enemies out. The allusion most likely in mind for a first-century Jewish audience is: then the LORD will drive out [ἐκβαλεῖ] all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and stronger than you (Deut 11:23 NIV). ἐκβάλλω (BDAG 2328) . The only hint of a spiritual use of the word in the LXX arises in 2 Samuel 7:23 (driving out nations and their gods), Isa 2:20 (cast away his idols), and Jeremiah 23:31 (against the prophets).
Even authors that question Jesus’ divinity acknowledge that he performed exorcisms (Sanders 1993, 149-154). Porterfield (2005, 36-37) cites John Meier writing: What made Jesus unusual, if no unique, was not simply his role as an exorcist but rather his integration of the roles of exorcist, moral teacher, gatherer of disciples, and eschatological prophet all into one person. She also notes that in Mark, the first even in Jesus’ public life was the healing of a possessed man (Mark 1:23-27). The early church routinely performed exorcisms as part of the baptism ritual and exorcist was a church office, much like elder or deacon. For example, see (Hippolytus AD 215, 21:10; Cyprian AD 250).
Because Mark is thought to be recording the experiences of the Apostle Peter, is this sympathetic view of this man a reflection of the heart of the Apostle Peter for the mentally ill?
France (2007, 340) reconciles this discrepancy citing Josephus (Life, 42) who places Gerasene within the jurisdiction of Gadara—a Roman stronghold . This is more subtle way to make a political inference than naming the demons: Legion (the name of a Roman military unit). Later manuscript variants explicitly substitute the Gerasene for Gadara in the Matthew account suggesting that the inference may have been too subtle for a gentile audience to pick up.
Schnabel (2004, 255-256) writes: Gergesa is identified with ancient Chorsia and located near ruins of modern Tel el-Kurst (Kersa) situated on Wadi Sermakh on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, an area that belonged to the Decapolis. Near Tel el-Kursi there is a steep slope toward to the lake….A localization in Gergesa, a small and insignificant settlement, could well have been changed by a copyist in West to the well-known city “Gerasa,” which copyists in the East would have “corrected” to “Gadara.”
 Foucault (1988, 26) sees mental illness as a metaphor for death (p. 16) and as a mirror on society.
Bauer, Walter (BDAG). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Ed. Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. <BibleWorks. v.8.>.
BibleWorks. Norfolk: BibleWorks, LLC., 2011. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.
Cyprian. Epistle XVI. Translated By Ernest Wallis. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. ANF5. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. In BibleWorks, V.8. AD 250.
Foucault, Michel. 1988. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Vintage Books.
France, R.T. 2002. The Gospel of Mark. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
France, R.T. 2007. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Garland, David E. 1996. The NIV Application Commentary: Mark. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Hippolytus. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome. Translated by Kevin P. Edgecomb. Cited: 31 March 2010. Online: http://www.bombaxo.com/hippolytus.html, AD 215.
Jerome. Commentaire Sur S. Matthieu (398). Translated from Latin into French by Emile Bonnard. Paris: École Normale Supérieure, 1977.
Josephus. Life of Flavius Josephus. 1:42. In BibleWorks, V.8.
Lightfoot, John. 1979. A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica Matthew – I Corinthians (1859). Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
Porterfield, Amanda. 2005. Healing in the History of Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sanders, E.P. 1993. The Historical Figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin Books.
Schnabel, Eckhard J. 2004. Early Christian Mission. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
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