The story from today’s Gospel reading is weird and disturbing. But I wonder if it unsettles us not just because of its weirdness, but because there is something familiar in it. We may be 21st century educated sophisticates—but we still have to deal with demons: bigotry, violence, hatred, fear, addiction, greed, dishonesty—there are plenty to go around. Society has its demons, and they are Legion.
I decided to switch us back to the alternate first reading for this morning, the one about Elijah, because I think it has more to say to us right now. I know that for many of you, there is a real appeal in being like Elijah, running away and hiding from the news when it’s bad. But that is not how it works, of course. We can’t run away from our demons.
Elijah was running for his life because he had just killed 450 people, the prophets of Baal. He thought violence was the solution to the problem, and when he realized that violence begets violence, when Jezebel vowed to kill him before the day was through, he didn’t know what to do next. So he ran and ran until he couldn’t run anymore.
When he’s ready to give up, an angel shows up with water and a little cake. The angel tells him to eat and drink, because there’s still a long journey ahead and he needs to build up his strength.
Honestly, I’m not sure I’d find it comforting, if I were in the same position. But he eats and drinks and gets back on his feet and goes further into the desert, to Horeb, the mountain of God. And that’s when things get really interesting.
I love that God and Elijah have the exact same conversation twice, but what happens in between changes the tone.
The first time God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I hear it as an accusation. “Why won’t you face the consequences of your bad decision, Elijah? Why are you running away when you should be back in Israel doing the work I gave you, Elijah? What are you hoping to find here that you couldn’t find back there, Elijah?”
And Elijah responds defensively. He insists that he was just doing what God wanted, eliminating the evil in the land by being destructive and violent, and he does not appreciate that now his own life is in danger. His words drip with resentment toward God. “Where are you when I need you?!”
So God shows up.
But not in the way Elijah expects.
The commentaries will tell you that the three non-manifestations—wind, earthquake, and fire—are meant to represent the nature gods worshiped by the communities around Israel, and that Yahweh, the God of Israel, chooses a sound of sheer silence to show that God’s power is something more than natural forces.
But I think there is something more to it.
It tells us that God is not going to act in destructive violence to prove God’s power. There is a different way, a better way.
The sound of sheer silence.
And then the same question, asked again, but this time not in anger or condemnation. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And Elijah’s response, no longer defensive but filled with grief, sorrow, and repentance.
“I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
And God tells him to go back. Go back, but changed. The lectionary leaves out what I consider one of the most important parts of this story: God tells him to go back, and he will find that he is not alone. There are others who are still faithful to God, others who have not given up, who have not given in and started worshiping idols.
I know it seems sometimes like the world is falling apart, like the demons are getting the upper hand and all we want to do is run away from it all. We give up on the world because we can’t seem to fix it. We feel like that community of the Gerasenes, who had this madman in their midst, and no matter what they did to try to contain him he still broke free and ran to the places of death. We give up hope of anything changing.
And then Jesus comes along, bringing healing and freedom and life to this one man.
But encounters with Jesus have consequences. Jesus is never content to stick with the status quo. Jesus knows that healing one man won’t be enough; the whole system needs to be turned on its head. So he sends the unclean spirit into that symbol of all uncleanness—a herd of pigs. The demons end up destroying themselves. The community is given a chance for a new way of being together.
But change is never that easy. The community is more afraid of radical change than it is of the demons, so they ask Jesus to go away.
Go away, Jesus. We don’t want you here. You make us uncomfortable. You unsettle us. You with your “love everyone” and “there is room for everyone in God’s kingdom”—we’re not ready to live that way.
Go away, Jesus.
It’s tempting to give in to the despair, and think the world is falling into unredeemable chaos. But I think there is another way to look at it. Perhaps the kingdom of God is breaking into this world in unexpected places and ways, and what we are seeing are the desperate, violent attempts of the demons of the status quo to keep it from happening.
So we are left with a choice: to rage against God when it happens again, to despair and lose hope and throw our hands in the air and say, “This is how it’s going to be. We can’t do a thing about it. Go away Jesus.” Or we can finally, finally, listen to what God is saying in the silence, and try a different way. A way that says that more violence is not the answer, clinging to all those idols of false security is not the answer. That running away, separating ourselves from one another is not the answer.
The answer is the healing, freeing love of Christ that shows us that each person, no matter how different, is a child of God. That doesn’t mean that we have to excuse the actions of those who choose violence over love. But it does mean that we can’t look away, we can’t run away, we can’t pretend that they aren’t part of a larger system of brokenness that includes all of us.
We have to be willing to hear God ask that tough question, “What are you doing here?” and then listen for the sound of sheer silence while God waits for us to answer.