I Am Second Week Two - "Struggles"

This week I am preaching the second in a three-part sermon series based on the "I Am Second" program.  This program is designed to connect people to Jesus in earthy, messy and awesome ways.  I describe it like this because that's the way human beings relate to one another, and to the world---and the way that God tends to want to relate to us, when we are paying close enough attention to see it.

As I see it, the I Am Second program invites us to a new way of knowing and being known.  It invites us to begin living life to the fullest.  It invites us to a new way of being defined by a relationship with Jesus, not by religion.  And the stories that we're studying over the next several weeks demonstrate the kind of transformation into this new way of living and being that occurs when people encounter Jesus.

In fact, this particular sermon is going to focus on a story of dramatic transformation when a man who is plagued by a host of demons comes face to face with Jesus.  This man was in the middle of some serious struggles--he'd lost everything.  And in the middle of his struggles Jesus shows up and gives him strength and healing.

Before we dig into the story, though I have to make a confession.
When I was a senior in high school, I made my English teacher cry.

It's not something I am especially proud of, honestly.  And come to think of it, she should have thicker skin.  But it happened.  I made her cry.  It happened because I was struggling with my faith, which isn't exactly an excuse for making someone cry, but it sort of explains my action at the time.

I had reached this point in my life where I had seen way too much hypocrisy within the Church.  I thought that Christianity was just a system of beliefs like any other system of beliefs, just not as fun.  I also knew enough about the Bible to know when it was being taken out of context, misused or otherwise abused in order to enforce rules I thought to be arbitrary and capricious.  The fact that I attended a fundamentalist Baptist church school didn't help matters any.

I wasn't that sure that I believed in God, and I decided that even if I did, my God didn't look at all like the God people like my English teacher worshipped. I figured that God didn't really seem to care all that much about what I said or did and that my non-Christian friends were no different than my so-called Christian friends.  I was starting to think that everything I had been taught about God was nothing but a fabrication.

So one day my poor English teacher said something about the Bible and holiness or something in class---something about how if a person doesn't lead a holy life, they're not doing what the Bible says, and if they don't do what the Bible says then you have to wonder if they are even saved.  And I began to lash out at her.  I quoted Scripture to her, I countered every thing she tried to say in her defense with derisive and superior arguments.  I wanted everyone in the room to see that she was wrong, to point out the holes in her statements of faith. To see how flimsy her ideas were...

And it worked.  She realized she was backed into a corner.  She had nothing to say in response to my onslaught of angry rhetoric.  So she burst into tears.

Everyone got mad at me.  I was suddenly a jerk.   My English teacher's husband cornered me the next day and threatened to beat me up.  I retreated. I was sorry for what happened, but never would admit it.  In the middle of my struggle with faith, with God, with Church---there were casualties.  I did my best to just act normally, but I worried deep inside that things were never going to be "normal" for me again.

I also realized that when we are waist deep and sinking in the struggles of life, we can drag other people down with us.

Life is not without struggle.  The tricky part is how we live and move in the middle of the struggles we encounter. How do we find hope, peace and joy in the middle of struggles?  Is it even possible?  And what do we do when the struggles never seem to end?

We've all been there.  Many of us face physical struggles---with disease or chronic illness.  Some of us face mental struggles, either with depression, anger, grief and pain.  Others of us face spiritual struggles with fear and doubt.  And some of us struggle emotionally with sexuality, addiction, relationships...

And sometimes we take casualties as we struggle... and sometimes we're numbered among them.

What I've discovered over time is that how we face our struggles can make all the difference in the world---we can choose to face them alone, or we can embrace a truth that's bigger than any of the struggles we face:

God heals and gives you strength through your struggles.  

I know some of your are thinking, "Leon that sounds good... But what do you do when things are so bad... you can't see the end in sight?  What do you do when it's hard to believe?"

I think that the story we're studying today will give us some insight into the way Jesus responded to these questions.  We're going to be reading Mark 5:1-20

1.  They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.

This is an area that the Gospels commonly refer to as "the other side."  It's the shore of the Sea of Galilee that is opposite the Jewish fishing villages where Jesus spent most of his ministry.  The towns that dotted the hillside on "the other side" were Greek cities known as the Decapolis.  

2 When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3 This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 4 For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

This man is in seriously bad shape.  He's afflicted by spirits, homeless, outcast, broke and alone.  He is plagued by debilitating and life-threatening addictions and unyielding habits.  All efforts to cure him have been hopeless.  He lives in the graveyard---he's as good as dead.  He's lost his family, his livelihood, his home... his struggles have cost him.  His plight seems hopeless.  

6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him.

I love this.  Everything is messed up.  They guy has no hope of ever being right, but he sees Jesus "from a distance" and runs to him.  

7 He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” 8 For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” 9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” 10 And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

The Scripture is mysterious here.  There are so many things wrong with this guy that they can't be numbered.  The spirits inside him just indicate that they are "many," and for some reason don't want to be cast out of the area of the Decapolis.  

11 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12 The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” 13 He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

It's kind of weird and awesome that Jesus does this.  Pigs were unclean to Jews, and this gesture is kind of a tongue in cheek way of shaking up the people of this area.  The moment of transformation for this man is so incredible that his entire surroundings get transformed along with him.  

14 Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15 When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. 17 Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

Let's get this straight...  They see a man who was so possessed by evil that he could not be held with chains... a man that had lost everything... that ran naked through the graveyards... they see this man sitting with Jesus, dressed and in his right mind and they want him to leave???  You know, sometimes when you get delivered from your struggles, there will be people who don't get it, and who will never see... 

18 As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19 Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

The man wants to go with Jesus---wouldn't you?  But Jesus sends him back into his life as a witness.  It would have been very easy for the man to go and follow Jesus.  But Jesus knew that he would be a greater witness if he stayed in his home region and testified to the people who knew him and had seen his struggle...  

The awesome part of this story is that the man didn't know that much about Jesus, but he turned to him.  And after he was restored, he still didn't know everything he wanted to about Jesus, but he knew that he healed him.  He didn't know how, but Jesus had showed up in his struggle and seen him through it.

There had been casualties in his life.  Lots of them.  But when the moment came for him to choose whether he would continue alone, or would rush to the One who would see him through---he ran to Jesus.

What struggles are you facing?  Do they seem as though they are too much for you to bear?  Have you taken casualties as you struggle?  How would your family answer that question?  Your friends?

As you have been sinking in your struggle... who are you dragging down with you?  What have you lost as a result of trying to struggle alone?

Here's the thing.  Jesus is not interested in having more fans.  He's got lots of fans.  People who buy his t-shirts and come to his shows.  He's not interested in more religious people.  There are way too many of those, who just show up and go through the motions---repeating rituals to make themselves feel better for just a few more moments.

What Jesus wants is for you to run to him.  He wants all that you've got to give... even if it's not very much and even if you've run through every ounce of faith you've got...

Because in the end, what he knows is that He will be enough to get you through... even when it seems as though things won't get any better.

Pastor Ed Dobson was the pastor of a mega-church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He preached to thousands of people each week and had seen his ministry grow to unbelievable heights.  Then he discovered that he had contracted ALS, Lou Gherig's disease, a debilitating neurological disease that would eventually kill him.  He was told that he had two to five year to live.  He had never faced a struggle like this in his life.  It was then that all of the words he ever preached came to land upon him like a ton of bricks.

So he decided to spend at least one of the years he had left living like Jesus.

Here's is essentially what he learned...

As his muscles began to fail... as his movements became labored... as the voice he had used to preach the Gospel for years of his life cracked... Ed decided that he wasn't strong enough to struggle on his own.

So he ran to Jesus.  And he found healing.  His body may still be wracked with disease---but his spirit is free and soaring to new heights of joy and hope.

There are times when Ed wishes that he could just go home to Jesus.  That Jesus would just let him get into the boat and sail away.... But for these past several years Jesus has sent Ed back to his village, so to speak to bear witness to what Jesus has done and is doing in his life.

I don't know where you are struggling, but I do know this.  Jesus is near.  Run to him.  Let him heal you.  He will see you through it.
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