Naming Hope (Second Sunday after Pentecost)

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One of the challenges of reading stories from the Bible is that there are frequently little details in the stories that seem to make no sense.  Perhaps it’s place name (that we usually can’t pronounce!)  Or maybe it’s a reference to a ritual that we’re not familiar with.  And sometimes, it’s just a parenthetical remark that doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the action going on in the story.

One such detail shows up in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus and his disciples have crossed the Sea of Galilee (which is really just a large, fresh water lake), and have landed on the eastern side of the lake, which is Gentile territory (you can tell this by the fact that they raise pigs there!)

And here, Jesus meets a guy possessed by demons.  There’s the usual description of how bad the demons have made life for this poor guy.  And as we’d expect, Jesus commands the demons to come out of the man.

But then, in the midst of this exorcism, Jesus asks the demon, “What is your name?” 

“What is your name?”  Why would Jesus want to know the name of the demon?  And why would it matter?

So to understand why Jesus asks, and why the first readers of the Gospel would have thought it would be important, you need to understand the power of knowing a name.  In ancient Judaism, and indeed in most ancient near eastern religious thought, names had power.  And knowing the name of a person or a being, especially a spiritual being – whether a god, an angel or a demon – gave you power over that being.

This is an important thing to know as you read stories in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.  A name had power, and so using or misusing a name was a BIG deal.  This is why, for instance:

  • The Second Commandment forbids the wrongful use of God’s name – God’s name (not just “God”) actually brought God’s presence and power into your life at the moment you spoke it, so you didn’t just carelessly banter it about…
  • Angels won’t tell people their names – for example, the angel who wrestles with Jacob in the middle of the night (Gen. 32:29), or the angel who appears to Samson’s parents (Judges 13:18)…
  • There is a strange passage in Revelation (OK, pretty much all passages in Revelation are strange!), in which the redeemed are given a “new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev. 2:17) – that is, if evil doesn’t know your “real” name, it can’t own you…

So if you know the demon’s name, you have power over it.  And if the demon tells Jesus its name, it’s toast!  Of course, because it’s Jesus who’s asking, the demon is toast anyway.  And so equivocating on the name doesn’t help … (when the demon says, “Legion”, it’s just a number – a Roman Legion was a military regiment of about 6000 soldiers.)

Today, we don’t really think that way about names anymore.  A rose, as Shakespeare wrote, by any other name would smell as sweet.

And yet, we do still realize the power of “naming the demons” in our lives.  Sometimes, the “demons” we name are our own personal demons – our fears, our prejudices or simply the scripts in the back of our minds that tell us we’re not good enough, strong enough or smart enough to do what we want to do.

And sometimes, our “demons” are the big things that infect our word – whether the “demon” is racism, sexism, or the pervasive anger and suspicion which temps me to hate anybody who’s opinion on anything is even slightly different than my own.

Often, naming the demons is still important.  Naming the demons helps us to recognize them, face them, and confront them.

Still, naming the demon isn’t enough.  And it’s actually not the most important thing in today’s story.  After all, the guy with the demon knew the demon pretty well before Jesus showed up.  Folks around him had done all they could to confront and contain the demon.  And in the end, Jesus didn’t actually need to know the demon’s name to cast it out.

Right up to the end of the story, the guy who was possessed by the demon never knew the demon’s name.  But he knew the name of hope.  He knew the name of Jesus.

And that’s what makes this story different.  That’s what made a difference in the life of this guy who once had the demon.  Jesus, who as Son of God clearly knew the name of the demon anyway, didn’t tell the guy about the demon.  He didn’t tell the guy to talk about the demon or warn others about demons. Instead, he told the guy to go tell others how much God had done for him.

And that’s what he does – sort of.  Because he goes off and tells people not about God in general, but about how much Jesus had done for him.  He names Jesus.  And in so doing, he doesn’t talk about the danger of demons, or his own personal struggle, but the One in whom people could find hope.  He names Jesus.  He names hope.

The point of this story is that hope is named.  And maybe that’s why Luke included it.  He means by this story that Jesus intends us to be people who can not only name the demons in our lives, but more importantly can name our hope.

Indeed, there are lots of folks in our world who are really good at helping us name the demons – reporters, political commentators, psychologists and comedians.  And that’s a good thing. And it doesn’t mean that we also don’t need to name the demons, too.

But what Jesus really needs for us to do is to be people who name hope.  That’s what the world really lacks right now.  And people don’t need just amorphous, generalized hope. They need the hope we know in Jesus.

We don’t really know exactly how this guy in the Gospel shared his hope in Jesus, but often in our lives, naming the hope we have in Jesus comes by:

  • Projecting our confidence in the One who can and will defeat the demons, even when we can’t … (that is, we’re not confident in our ability to defeat the demons, or in the eventual progress of human enlightenment, but in God’s power, at the last, to defeat every kind of evil and every kind of demon…);
  • Having the courage to act as people who have already been freed from the demons that tell us that there is no hope … I can’t fix the world, but I can live each day as somebody who doesn’t buy into the message of the demons who tell me I can’t make a difference by the small ways I resist evil in my life; Jesus has already freed me to do that, and Jesus has freed you, too …
  • Speaking of Jesus as the One who brings life and hope, not the one who brings judgement and bondage … (I spoke a couple of months ago about reading billboards during a trip – and I did it again recently!  And virtually none of them portrayed a Jesus of hope, healing and freedom – which is what Jesus gives whenever he meets people bound by whatever kind of demons they face…)

We don’t usually think of “demons” in the same way as ancient people.  But we know the demons who infect our lives and our world.  Others know them, too, and it’s often helpful to name them.

But our most important mission as Christians is to name hope.  And our hope is not in ourselves, our programs or our ability to change the world.  Our hope is Jesus.

Jesus is our hope, because Jesus shows us that he can and will defeat even the demons we can’t name.  Jesus is our hope, because Jesus shows us that he can and will defeat the demons we can’t defeat, no matter how hard we try.  And Jesus is our hope, because Jesus shows us that he can and will even defeat the demon of death.

And so whenever you face the demons of your life, go ahead and name the demons.  But never forget to name hope.  Name hope to yourself and name hope to others.  And whether it’s by how you speak, or act, or simply the attitude you convey, make it clear that even when the world seems hopelessly bound by the demons, there is hope in Jesus.