Why is it that sometimes Jesus asks obvious questions (like to blind Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?”—Mark 10) And sometimes he just acts? “What have you to do with me, Jesus?” This question was asked after Jesus started to work. That’s kind of curious, don’t you think? The demons knew who Jesus was and what he could do. Indeed, Jesus had already spoken and told them to come out. But they played dumb, it sounds like. “What have you to do with us?” “Are you talking to me?” They recognize Jesus, but they don’t really want to obey him. They want to argue with him or negotiate. “You don’t really want me to go, do you? You aren’t really driving me out. This guy likes me. We get along well. Sure, he’s naked and living in a cemetery, but it’s a life, you know?” It makes some odd kind of sense.
No, it doesn’t. Maybe to a demon, it makes sense. Living with brokenness, living with hatred, living in fear doesn’t make any sense. Not to Jesus. He didn’t ask any questions at first; he was just was trying to get rid of the problem—until the negotiation started. It’s almost as if Jesus was prepared to take care of it until the guy chimed in. Jesus knows what we need, but is always willing to let us self-determine, even if our choices make things worse. Jesus was going to send the demons out; they chose to ride the pigs.
I know, I don’t want to go too far with this metaphor. Demons can be a slippery subject for any of us. But it is somewhat ironic that the legion asks for a ride on the pigs instead of being sent to the abyss. Except as soon as they get on the pigs, they end up in the abyss. The very thing they wanted to avoid becomes their fate—their self-determined fate. And Jesus lets them because they asked. Just like Jesus left because the villagers asked. He doesn’t put up a fuss; he doesn’t argue that he could do even more good, given the chance; he just goes.
How many times with anger or even with kindness have we said, “No thanks, Jesus, I’ve got this”? “I’ll handle my own stuff. I’ll ride my own pigs, wherever they may take me.” It was fear that caused them to send Jesus away. Luke says coming and finding the one they knew to be crazy now clothed and in his right mind scared them. It was a change that unsettled them. If the crazy ones start sounding sane, then by what do I measure my own sanity? They’d grown used to him being there on the edge of town, shouting in the darkness. He was useful for keeping the children in line. “Behave, or we’ll give you to the guy in the cemetery!” Now he was just like you and me. The enemy, the other, they are us. That’s kind of scary. So, they got together and stirred up their fears and all went to Jesus and asked him to leave. So, they could be safe, be great again.
“What do you have to do with me, Jesus?” That’s our question too. “What changes will you effect in our lives? What growth will you seek? What effort will you require?” Require? No, the effort we expend isn’t the result of a demand. Jesus doesn’t come and say, “Get to work, or else.” No, he just loves us into wanting to work. “What have you to do with me” becomes a man who begged to be with him. Did you catch that? That fear that pushes away becomes a love that desires to move closer. He wanted to be with him, now clothed and in his right mind, all he could think to do was to stay with Jesus.
He didn’t stay with Jesus—at least not in the way he probably imagined when he made his request. Instead, like us, he stayed with Jesus by telling his story to everyone he met. He chose, having been rescued from a life of despair, to live a life of hope and of joy, sharing the love of Jesus with all he encountered. Having faced his madness, he now found the stillness of contentment. He was now in his right mind, Luke says, clothed and in his right mind. And that mind was focused on the mind of Christ. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” writes Paul to the Philippians (Phil 2:5). But what was that mind? It was a right mind, surely. A mind of longing and of serving and of hoping and of following. It is a mind of discipleship. We are making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But that making process is one of transformation as well. We are being transformed, even as we seek to transform the world. And sometimes it feels like moving from madness to stillness, to sanity, to a right mind—but a mind that may seem like madness to a world bent on turning inward, to lifting up self above all other goods. To be a disciple is to be other-centered, outward-focused; it is to see all the people, even before seeing self.
To get there, we have to be quiet. We have to set ourselves aside and listen to a profound silence. Just ask Elijah. He had come to the end of himself—the end of his strength, the end of his wisdom. And it is only in the strength of God’s presence that he could hope to continue his life’s journey. He was ready to give up. You’ve been there, maybe not to the degree of wanting to die. Or maybe you have. Maybe someone you love has been there. It’s a place of despair, of surrender. It is not a place for condemnation, or shame, but of silence.
God leads the prophet to the mountain and let him experience a rock-shattering wind, then a mountain-shaking earthquake, and then a fire. A fire? On the mountain? “What was burning?” we can’t help but wonder. Are we talking volcano? Or a mountain forest burning? Except there aren’t that many forests covering the mountains in Israel. Maybe there were back then; we’ve read about the cedars of Lebanon. Or maybe it is a vision, a manifestation of a world bereft of the presence of God, the way that Elijah felt in that moment: abandoned and alone, persecuted, hunted and hounded by his enemies and at the end of his strength.
But the text says God was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. In the loudness of this terrifying world, God was not in the destructive forces that beset us when we’re at our worst. So, where was God? The text says God was in the silence. We once translated this verse to read, “the still small voice.” I always liked that. There is serenity there, an echo of a presence—like the voice you hear in the back of your mind when you are steeling yourself for a difficult task. It is the voice of encouragement, the voice of presence—the still small voice that is hope.
A beautiful translation. But perhaps a better one is the one the NRSV presents as “a sound of sheer silence.” What is happening on that mountain? It’s hard to be sure, to be honest. It sounds like God sends Elijah to the mountain; yet at the same time, it sounds like God doesn’t want him there. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Maybe God is asking for the prophet to do an identity check, or to present his to-do list. But maybe we should read it as “Why are you still here?” Elijah’s rebuttal is that he’s doing his best. And sometimes it feels as if he is the only one doing any work here, the only one putting his life at risk, the only one who represents the true God of Israel. Does his complaint include God? “I alone am left,” says Elijah, which might be another way of saying, “Where have you been?”
So, what’s with the silence versus the madness of the destructive forces of nature? Could it be that God is announcing God’s presence in ways that often get overlooked? We want the big show; we want lightning and thunder to announce God’s presence. We want it to be so obvious that it would be hard to doubt. And there have been those moments, to be sure. But here in this moment, God announces that God works in quieter ways, obscure ways, ways that seem natural—like coincidence, like happenstance, like in the everyday decisions that we make all the time. God is at work in and through what happens around us, even when it doesn’t seem like it. God is present, even when it feels like absence. God is acting, even when it feels like stillness.
The man in the cemetery in the country of the Gerasenes was a force of nature who became a stillness. He moved from the earthquake of his madness to the silence of his right mind, a mind set on following Christ. Elijah was running for his life, so afraid of being killed that he wanted to die; then he encountered the silence and found the God he was longing for. He moved from despair to hope, fear to mission, and got back to work for the God he served.