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Monday, July 9, 2012

Run From Jesus or Follow Jesus

Instead of teaching, Jesus told stories  - stories about planting seeds, good and not so good soils, small seeds that grow to become enormous bushes, lamps.  Jesus compared the grandest of ideas, the Kingdom of God, to these simple, everyday things.  Speaking to crowds along the seashore, he told parables, and those who could discern the message understood.  Those who could not understand what Jesus was saying, well …

As twilight set, Jesus told the twelve they should get on the boat and head to the other side of the water.  The experienced sailors jumped to it with no problem until the wind kicked up.  No man of the sea is so experienced as to be able to overcome all weather.  Even the best boatmen are sometimes lost to sea and the 12 disciples feared this very fate as the waves rose and tossed them about.  Is anything more humbling that being made aware of how small we are?  The boat was swamped. 

Yet Jesus lay on a cushion in the stern, sleeping through it all.  The hours of teaching, expending creative mental energy, all the while outdoors in the sun and breeze had drained him.  “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing” (4:38).  He woke and gave the storm a concise, sharp tongue-lashing.  “Peace!  Be still!”  The winds and waves had not sinned; they behaved the way the seas and lakes and oceans are supposed to behave.  They acted as God had created them.  But now God was telling them to knock it off and they did. 

Cranky, Jesus turned to the wide-eyed disciples and demanded to know why they were afraid and where was their faith?  They began asking, whispering to one another, hoping he wouldn’t hear, “Who is this?”  Who is this that has called us to follow him?  Students seek out masters, but he sought us.  People like us don’t get to study under true masters – not fishermen or rebels, and certainly not tax collectors.  He called us, and he’s greater than the greatest masters.  Who is this?

And so it was that they landed on the other side of the lake, heads shaking, questions rising.  They walked inland into the region of the Garasenes.  Ahead was a graveyard. 

Once, I went away for three days of uninterrupted study.  Someone generously let me use a cabin by a lake.  I walked inland, and came to a cemetery in a churchyard.  I took my time, studying the headstones.  This was out in the country, midweek, about 11 in the morning.  No one was around.  Uninterrupted, basking in the rural sounds, I tried to imagine that place in the late 1800’s.  Many of those buried were children.  The funerals would have been mercilessly hot in June and July, and potentially freezing in December and January.  In that quiet reflection, I felt the Spirit of God speak into my heart.

Jesus and the disciples did not enjoy tranquility.  As they came to this ceremonially unclean place, a cemetery with above-ground tombs, a horrific roaring assaulted them.  It was a prelude to a remarkable scene.  How do we envision what rushed at them?  Mark was not striving for drama, but even his straightforward reporting cannot contain the force of this event. 

Metal shackles could not contain this man – he snapped them apart as if they were paper.  His body was a wreak – dirty, bloodly, bruised, hair going everywhere, beard matted, filled with who knows what; indescribable wildness in the eyes.  What inflicted such harm?  The man did it himself.  Mark does tell us the entire community in the village nearby could not contain the madman or restrain him.  They tried, but he flung them aside like unwanted rodents.  He howled and screamed.  He was death living among the dead, one whose body still lived, but one completely overcome by evil. 

An entire village could not calm this rage, but at the sight of Jesus, he threw himself on the ground, bowing at Jesus’ feet.  Jesus was one of 13 people, walking at the head of group.  Yet the demon possessed man seemed utterly indifferent to the disciples.  The demons disdained Jesus, yet they also feared him tremendously.  For them, there was no mystery.  He was the very presence of God.

The demons who ravaged a man’s life and kept an entire town in fear were now reduced to begging.  They pleaded that Jesus might send them into a herd of pigs.  Can we even realize the mixing of awfulness for Jesus, for the disciples all of whom were Jews, and for the first readers of Mark who were most certainly Jews?  What was worse for them, pigs or gentiles, or demons?  All three are right here, converging on the disciples, and the only one in control, the only one with authority is Jesus.  All other powers are reduced to nothing before him – raging storms at sea; armies of demons.  It’s all insignificant. 

When the Jesus demanded the demons’ name, they collectively said “Legion.”  That doesn’t just mean there were ‘1000’ of them.  A legion was a unit of Roman soldiers.  Jews, Egyptians, Greeks – all feared the coming of a Roman Legion.  Legionnaires dominated through intimidation.  Was this pack of demons trying to put some fright into Jesus by calling themselves “Legion?”  That couldn’t work because Jesus was not scared of Rome.  In him there is no fear.

He sent the demons to the pigs and the pigs went mad, rushing over a steep bank and into the sea where they drowned.  Pigs gone; demons gone.  What about the Gentiles?  Here we see God in the flesh.  Yes, he came to redeem God’s chosen people, Israel.  He also came as Lord of all creation with a message of salvation for all people, even non-Jews.  Here, in the Garasenes, among the tombs, Jesus claim authority.  The Kingdom of God had come here and He was Lord in this place of all places.  But then, he is Lord of all places. 

The keepers of the pigs, stricken with freight, ran to town to report that a group of Jews were with the graveyard madman, and all the pigs went crazy, and now the madman wasn’t a madman anymore, well … the townsfolk had to come see for themselves.  And they did.

I wonder if they brought torches and pitchforks.  After all they had kind of designated this as the area to warn the kids about.  Don’t go down to the graveyard, kids, there’s a wild monster down there and he’ll eat you.  They had built up quite a life avoiding the unfortunate man they had relegated to there.  Their response to a demon they could not confront was to accept the dehumanization of the poor possessed man.  Let that one suffer at evil’s hand, and we’ll all be safe staying away from him.  We won’t confront the evil in our own lives – jealousy, greed, gluttony, laziness, faithlessness, prejudice.  We’ll ignore all that and pretend that all the evil in the world is in the demoniac who lives in the tombs. 

Were they ever upset to arrive and find him clothed and in his right mind.  Did they remember what he was like, before the demon came?  Was he the town blacksmith or the town tanner?  Maybe a farmer?  Perhaps he had been quite an important man in town, the grounds keeper in the graveyard.  Maybe some evil he committed opened his heart to the invasion of this beastly legion of demons.  Whatever they case, they could dismiss him now, as the sole possessor of evil.  They had to deal with him as a community member, a neighbor and brother.  Their whole worldview was upset at this change in things.

But didn’t they celebrate their friend’s healing?  O no.  After putting the pitchforks down and hearing the story once again from the swine herders, the town elders quickly reached a conclusion.  Their eyes fixed on the one thing that paralleled the drastic changes of events.  A group of Jews had come to town.  No one doubted that the leader, Jesus, had done this.  No one questioned his power.  They simply did not want any part of it. 

There’s a lot of begging in this story.  The demons who exerted a hideous sort of tormented authority over the region were reduced to begging.  They begged Jesus to let them enter the pigs.  He did.  They died.  The town elders, supposedly the leaders in town, begged Jesus to leave.

What do we do when Jesus comes along?  The coming of Jesus is the coming of God.  The moving of the Holy Spirit is the moving of God.  What do we do when God moves in our lives and confronts us as a people, as individuals?  Do we beg God to let us leave, run away?  Do we beg God to leave?  If He stays everything changes.  If He stays, He gets to be in charge.  There can only be one Lord and it is Him.  So, in life, He will come along.  Every person has that moment when they have to decide about God.  Do we beg that we might be allowed to run away?  Do we beg God that he might go away?

The person healed of the demon possession knew that the coming of Jesus meant everything changed.  He had been living like a crazed animal, a rabid dog who couldn’t even find relief in death.  His was a living Hell that the 1000 demons in him perpetuated.  With no end in sight, he wanted everything to change.  He desperately wanted out.  When Jesus freed him from the grip of Hell, he begged Jesus with everything in Him.  Let me go with you.

When the demons begged for pigs, Jesus gave pigs.

When the terrified town elders begged for relief from Jesus’ holy presence, he left.

But, when the now healed man, in his right mind, begged to be with Jesus, Jesus said no.  The Gospel of Mark includes several miracles where Jesus tells all involved to say nothing.  Here, it’s the opposite.  “Jesus refused [him] and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you’” (5:19).  Was that a joke?  This guy had lost all his friends a long time ago. 

He did what Jesus instructed, kind of.  He into town and then throughout the Decapolis telling everybody how Jesus healed him.  Decapolis was a region of 10 mostly gentile cities.  The demonian of the graveyard was surely a local legend.  Now he was on the preaching circuit, showing himself, healed, sane, and ready for life because Jesus had come.    

Sure, Jesus left. But he also stayed.  The results of Jesus’ work, the man, healthy, living, breathing, and in the very center of society in those 10 important cities, daily testified that the Kingdom of God had come and that Jesus was and is Lord.  The man testified to Jesus with his words, but his very presence was testimony.  Ephesians 2:10 says, “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”  This was Jesus’ workmanship. 

Had the man gone off with Jesus, the town elders could have downplayed the entire event.  They could have found a new scapegoat on whom they would load all of the town’s guilt.  That type of buck passing would never work as long as the healed demoniac was around, speaking of Jesus.  I used to read these types of stories and wonder why Jesus wouldn’t let the healed people come.  Now, it makes sense to me. 

Before the cross, before the resurrection, before the birth of the church, before the missionary age in which Jesus followers spread out over the globe to share the good news of salvation in his name, Jesus walked the earth.  He told stories about seeds and lamps and pearls.  And people had to respond to the stories.  He calmed raging storms at sea.  He calmed raging people and exorcised the demons who tormented them.  And people had to respond to his actions, his miracles.  He taught with wisdom that exceeded Israel’s greatest religious minds.  And the crowds had to respond to the lessons he gave.  Before there were a billion people on this earth claiming the name ‘Christian,’ Jesus was known in a small nation.  God in human flesh came and announced that the Kingdom had arrived.  How would people respond?

How do we?

It’s the age of the church – the body of Christ doing God’s work in the world at the leading of God’s Holy Spirit.  Do we beg Jesus to let us just run away?  Do we be God to go away from us so we don’t have to deal with Him?  Or do we beg Him to let us go with Him?  It doesn’t get easier that way.  And we give up authority because He is Lord.  But then, that’s the real challenge.

Will we give up authority and live under His lordship?  One – at the last judgment, we will do that whether we want to or not.  Right now we can choose to do so.  The man possessed found out that Jesus is the one who heals, the one who rescues us from death and gives us eternal life and abundant life.    Because Jesus saved Him, he chose to follow Jesus and tell the world about the salvation Jesus gives.

What do we choose?  How do we respond to Jesus when He shows up in our lives?


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