Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Fearsome Savior: Sermon for Mark 4:33--5:20

Can you imagine what that day must have been like for the disciples? They'd spent the afternoon with the crowds, listening to Jesus teach in riddles. Their brains must have been fried, trying to follow all of his words, trying to tease out the meanings of each parable, trying to grasp what it meant for them personally and for the mission they were on. Jesus taught his stories right up to the edge of their ability to even handle it (Mark 4:33). Darkness is falling; they think it's time for bed – and that's when Jesus tells them they're going to be pulling an all-nighter this time, they're going to cross the lake (Mark 4:35). I don't imagine the disciples were thrilled with this news. But how do you argue with the Teacher? You don't, though I imagine at least one of them was grumbling inside.

So as the sun goes down, down toward the horizon and past it, they climb into their boat, all thirteen crowding into the same one – probably 27 feet long, 7.5 feet wide. But it's not the only boat in their party: some of the crowd, some who had yearned to get closer to Jesus, who had crowded around to get the in-depth scoop, are along for the trip, because they can't bear the thought of not seeing Jesus in the morning (Mark 4:36). I wonder how many hours things were peaceful, uneventful, even dull as they made their trip. I wonder what was the first sign of trouble: maybe the wind picked up a bit, maybe a few drops of rain splashed on the bridge of Andrew's nose, maybe a wave sloshed over the edge onto Matthew's shoes. But this was no little storm. It was a strong one, maybe with lightning rolling back and forth between black clouds, with wind whipping the water into a frenzy; and by the time Mark tells can even finish his sentence, it's already in full swing (Mark 4:37).

Was the storm visible on the horizon when they climbed into the boat? Did the disciples assume that it would miss them? Well, if they thought the kingdom mission would exempt them from seeing the storms, they were wrong. Here it is, crashing down upon them with everything that it's got, pounding them into the sea. They're shouting into the wind, and it's stealing their words and sending them flying. The water's filling the boat now – and I picture Thomas, the eternal pessimist (or realist, if you prefer), being the first to have the thought that this is the day they all die – and, knowing him, probably to disregard group morale by announcing so out loud. (You know the kind.) What a waste! Is this where the kingdom ends, with a few dozen skeletons on the lake bed, or bloated bodies bobbing in the sea? They've left house and home, friends and family, to devote themselves to what they've been convinced God is doing – and this is the thanks they get? Rained on. Is the kingdom going to get rained out before it really gets off the ground? Can even Jesus do anything about this – the healer of lepers, the dispeller of darkness – or will he drown too?

The disciples scramble around the boat. Where did Jesus go? Is Jesus still in here with us somewhere? Did he fall out? No, there he is – and what an anticlimax: while the disciples have been rowing, Jesus has nodded off on a little cushion in the back of the boat, and maybe you'd hear him snoring if the wind weren't so loud. Here the disciples are, panicking, frantic, adrenaline flooding their veins, their hearts pounding like each beat might be their last – and the Savior's gone to bed (Mark 4:38). Do you think they were thrilled? Where is God in this storm, this demonic whirlwind, this parody of God's fearsome presence (cf. Job 38:1)? Where is the power of the kingdom, the font of miracle after miracle after miracle? Where is our protector, our refuge and our trust? There – sleeping in the back of the boat.

As far as the disciples can see, when the storm gets rough, the God of their salvation is asleep on the job. And don't we sometimes feel the same way? Living this life, serving the kingdom, we run into our fair share of storms – some mild, some strong, and maybe even a Category-5 hurricane or two. The storms enter to disrupt our lives, to throw us into chaos, to derail our calling. They come to dissuade us from the abundant life that God plans for us, they come to challenge our kingdom ministry. They come to turn our peace into panic, they come to strike fear into our hearts and drown us in burdens we can't bear by ourselves.

I've faced my share of storms. You have too. Maybe you've gotten the call late into the night that there's been an accident, and you need to come quickly. Maybe you've watched the waves agitate as cancer slowly drains the life out of your father, your mother, your husband, your wife, your child. Maybe you've woken up employed one day and gone to bed without a job that night. Or woken up with a house one day and had nowhere to lay your head by the time the sun's gone down – lost to fire, to earthquake, to tornado, or to the bank. Maybe the wind keeps throwing bill after bill into your face, burying you until you gasp for air, fearing you'll drown. Maybe life's roughed you up, maybe your friends have deserted you and fight with you, maybe you've been harassed or vandalized or victimized, maybe everyone's against you and you worry that you'll lose what you've got and you've forgotten what happiness feels like. And you call out to God, and the storm gets worse, and you pray your heart out, and the waves hit your face and the floor jerks out from under your feet, and heaven is silent. For all you can tell, God must be asleep on the job. If you've ever felt like that – and I know I have – then you can sympathize with the disciples on that frightful night.

So the disciples frantically wake Jesus – I doubt it's with a respectful whisper in his ear, more likely they're yelling and screaming and maybe daring to shake him by the shoulders – and they shout at their teacher, asking if he even cares that they're about to be destroyed from the land of the living (Mark 4:38). Jesus stirs from his slumber, he sits up, probably stands up, and goes into action. What, I wonder, did the disciples expect Jesus to do? Did they imagine he'd grab a bucket and start tossing out water? Did they think he'd grab an oar and pitch in to get them to the other side? Or did they dare to think that maybe if he can make the blind see and the crippled walk, he isn't helpless in the face of all nature's fury?

Picture the scene: Wind messing up his hair, his robes drenched and waterlogged, the boat tossing and turning beneath him, he treats the storm like the demon it is: he rebukes it (cf. Mark 1:25), and his voice pierces the clouds as he demands of the Sea of Galilee, “Pipe down and put a sock in it!” – or, if you prefer the more traditional translation, “Peace! Be still!” Who goes around yelling at storms? Who goes around rebuking the elements, trying to put God's creation on a leash – and succeeds? That sounds like the God of the Exodus, the God who “rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert” (Psalm 106:9), the God who “saved them for his name's sake, to make his mighty power known” (Psalm 106:8).

And just like that, the wind grows soft, the boat stands upright, the waves lose their force and drop – and everything just stops. The clouds go find somewhere else to play. Brilliant starlight dots the darkness. The Sea of Galilee smiles, adopting a calm and cheery demeanor every bit as majestic and magnificent as the scowl of the demon storm (Mark 4:39). Coming on so suddenly, the quiet must have been almost eerie. When you get used to the chaos, the cacophany of howling wind and tempestuous waves, their absence is unsettling, heightening the otherworldliness of what's just happened, making your hair stand on end.

And there are the disciples in the boat, staring at Jesus – the man who tells the sea to jump, and it asks him how high; the man who could blow back the wind with the sound of his voice; the man who scolds a hurricane like it's a petulant toddler, and to instant effect (Mark 4:41). What kind of teacher have they been following? This is beyond the territory of anything they've known or dreamed. And how do you look that kind of power in the face when you've seen what he can do with just a couple of words? What goes through your head at this point, looking at the lips that just commanded the weather, the eyes that saw through the storm? What do you make of this Jesus, whose job description is really starting to look an awful lot like your Maker's?

What the disciples learned that day is that Jesus was in control the whole time. Chaos doesn't have the final word. The kingdom of God has the final word. In any storm, it may look like God's asleep on the job; it may seem like he's deserted you, abandoned you, but when the storm has served the purpose for which he permits it, he can disperse it with a word. See, for all his seeming absence, for all his evident silence, God is in control! And not just some abstract God, not some cosmic tyrant or divine butler, not some grand magician or heavenly therapist, but the God whose autobiography unfolded on earth as Jesus Christ. The God who saves when salvation's beyond hope, the God who scolds storms into silent submission. That is the God who is in control. That is the God of the gospel.

As the disciples looked at this strange and suddenly unfamiliar Jesus, they must have waited with bated breath to see if he had any comment to make, any lesson to unveil to them. And they waited: what is Jesus going to say? All he says are two questions: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). Why all this panic, why all this uproar? Why did you let the storm get the best of you? Have you forgotten that there's another way? All this teaching about the kingdom, and don't you get it yet that no matter how wet things get, there's not a storm in heaven and earth to drown the kingdom seed? Don't you yet really believe you're the ambassadors of God's rule? Can't you see that even Jesus with his eyes closed is a living and active Savior? Don't you trust him yet?

Well, how do the disciples react to him? “They feared a great fear” (Mark 4:41) – as frightening as the storm was, there's something more imposing, more intimidating, about their own mentor, their very own best friend. Jesus is no tame teacher. He's our protector, but the disciples are coming to realize that he's not domesticated, not safe. “Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good. He is the king, I tell you!” Not safe, but oh so very good: a fearsome Savior, maybe, a live lion and no tame teddy bear, but a Savior who calls us to faith and to hope and to love that outlasts all things. The storm has passed; there's a great calm.

The boat reaches the other side of the lake – the hour before sunrise, as I picture it. They aren't in Kansas anymore. They've left what's today called Israel and entered what's today is the Kingdom of Jordan. Their boat's landed in the country of the Decapolis, near the town of Gadara in “the region of the Gerasenes” (Mark 5:1). All ten towns were mainly Gentile, settled by Greek colonists. It's a very pagan place, one that might've made the disciples wonder, “Why are we being taken here? What is Jesus up to?” And no sooner had Jesus stepped out of the boat than he and his soggy, tired followers had work to do. Out from the unclean cemetery emerges a wild man, possessed by unclean spirits of immense power and number, thriving on the negativity of death, celebrating madness (Mark 5:2). Here's this man, unrestrainable, a tomb-dweller, a zombie imitator extraordinaire. We've left the survival movie behind, and now we find ourselves written into a horror flick. Here before us is this man: he's the first century's Jason Vorhees, here's Freddy Krueger, here's Michael Myers, this is Dracula and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein's monster, this is the nameless ghoul who haunts the tombs, who treats every day like a dark Halloween. What do you do when the monster presents himself out of the mists before dawn? What is Jesus going to do?

Jesus sees through this apparent monster. Outwardly, he's fierce, unconquerable; he can't be tied down, can't be shackled, can't be chained (Mark 5:3-5). But inwardly he's more a prisoner than most. He's no warrior, fighting strong with sword and shield... or machete. He's not launching gleaming arrows from a citadel. He's himself a lost battlefield, annexed and occupied by Satan's strikeforce, a battalion from hell's gates. And for all his wildness, he's oddly familiar. He's the perfect image of a sadly common reality. Look around the streets, and you'll see plenty of people who build walls to hide their felt inner vulnerability. People who compensate for that inward sensation of weakness by being outwardly cold, aggressive, assertive, dominant over all and sundry.

You'll find them in our prisons; you'll find them in boardrooms; you'll find them in the church. To one degree or another, many of us have been in a place like this. How often do we pretend that the cure for our inner chaos is outward composure and control? How often do we let our past of being victimized compel us to overcompensate, to insist that in order to never be put in that place again, we'll seize the reins and become unchainable? The deeper our fears, the greater our thirst for liberation, the stronger our demand to set the terms for our future, to be accountable to nothing and no one. There's an adage out there: “Hurt people hurt people.” How often do we wield woundedness as a weapon? How often do we lash out in vain attempts to solve or soothe the painful baggage we carry around inside our hearts and minds? That's this man's story.

Jesus sees him for the truth of what he is – and he sees that this man isn't his enemy. Jesus did not come to wage war against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). This man is a lost soul needing redemption, needing true freedom not from outward shackles but from inner occupation. Jesus is up against more than just one unclean spirit, he finds: “Legion is my name, for many are we” (Mark 5:9). But Jesus conquers the unconquerable, not just outside but on the inside. With one command – “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit” – Jesus has confronted hell's army, thousands and thousands of demons, with a one-liner – and Jesus won (Mark 5:8). It did not take a prolonged siege. It was an order, not an option. And so the man kneels, the man bows in worship and submission (Mark 5:6), the demons confess Jesus and beg for mercy, beg that this unexpected start of the kingdom won't mean their destruction ahead of the appointed hour (Mark 5:7). Jesus lets them take up residence in a herd of pigs, which get consumed in their destructive impulses, all two thousand of them (Mark 5:11-13). But as for that man, the one made in God's image, what's his story? Well, there he sits at Jesus' feet, the posture of a disciple, “clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15) – neither of which he was before. He's been changed.

Talk about a message of hope! We all bear inner scars and traumas; we all have our share of pain. At times, the biggest storm isn't the one outside. The biggest storm can be the one on the inside, the storm or demon horde in our own soul. Maybe it isn't cancer that's afflicting us; maybe it's depression or anxiety, whether the clinical kind or the more ordinary type. Maybe on the inside, we feel crushed and abandoned, isolated in our own numbness. Maybe everything we see is filtered by a fog. And we might think, “If only I could be strong, no abuse would befall me. If only I could be successful, everyone would respect me. If I were feared, I wouldn't fear.” And so we make a Faustian bargain with the darkness, we overcompensate, we seize control and so end up losing control where it really matters most.

I've been there. I think I have some understanding of this man. There was a time in my life where I knew what it was like to hear voices. There was a time in my life where, when I'd shut my eyes, I'd see visions of hell. I can tell you what this man learned, what the disciples witnessed with their own eyes: The Jesus who scolds storms is the Jesus who expels legions. The Jesus who quiets the wind is the Jesus who quiets the discouraging voices in your own mind and heart. The Jesus who settles the waves is the Jesus who kicks demons to the curb. This Jesus is the Master of body and soul, of the physical and the spiritual, of heaven and earth and sea and all that in them is; and he's in control over the storms and over the spirits, bringing order and peace and wholeness to the world and to our worlds, to our souls. Like the storms of downpours and gales, so the storms of passions and sorrows will pass through. But Jesus can and will make them be still at the time of his choosing; he will make them pipe down and put a sock in it. And he invites us to just have faith in him, in his goodness and his power and his wisdom. No, he's not safe. But he is the sanity of God in a world gone wild, and he promises to clothe us in his righteousness and restore us to the only right mind we could have – the mind of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:16). “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). That's a promise – you can bank on it!

When this man was healed, you'd think the townspeople would be thrilled. If they've got an ounce of humanity, they should be overjoyed that something good and wonderful has happened to a fellow countryman. Even if they're selfish, they should at least be glad that the scary monster is a monster no more. But they aren't thrilled, they aren't even a bit happy. They don't care about him. They'd written him off long ago, and his good turn of fortune is no delight in their eyes. They look at him, and what they see is the cost: the drowned pigs, the forgone revenue. The image of Caesar on metal outweighs the image of God making wind and dust a miracle on two legs. The God of the Exodus has come to their shore to set captives free – and “they were afraid” (Mark 5:15). Like the demons, like defective disciples, they respond to Jesus not with faith but with fear. They find in him only a fearsome menace, not a Lord mighty to save and not to slay. And like the demons, the people of the Decapolis are reduced to begging. They beg him to leave their neighborhood, to pack up salvation and take it somewhere else (Mark 5:17). The kingdom is a disruptive thing, a costly thing. And they don't want the kingdom. They would rather evict the Desire of All Nations.

Does Jesus stay? Does Jesus force himself upon them? No. No, he doesn't. Jesus turns around, he wades out into the water, he climbs back into the boat beneath the soft light of dawn. Now there's one more act of begging: the ex-demoniac, the finally tamed wild man with control of his faculties now, wants what the demons feared: to leave this region, to be apostolic, to be on mission for the kingdom of God, even in strange and foreign lands, so long as he can be like the Twelve and be with Jesus (Mark 5:18; cf. Mark 3:14; 5:10). That's all he wants. Jesus tells him, “No, I have a better idea.” Jesus has another plan for him, another place he can be most effective: right there, right in his own neighborhood. Jesus sends him out to his own people to “tell them how much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown you” (Mark 5:19). And that's exactly what the man does, preaching to the whole Decapolis, amazing everyone with news of Jesus and the kingdom (Mark 5:20). Years before the Damascus Road, years before Cornelius the centurion, this former host of Legion, plucked out of impurity and chaos, this man set free from demons, is the first missionary to the Gentiles – and he's a Gentile himself! He's the lingering witness to a kingdom that's open to all – no matter whether you're Jew or Greek or even if you've got a past that's packed full of demons. And all he's asked to do is to share what Jesus – the stiller of storms, the sanity of souls – has done out of mercy: “He saved them for his name's sake, to make his mighty power known,” to reveal the kingdom come (Psalm 106:8).

Maybe in these days, you're facing a storm. Maybe you're living with Legion. Maybe you're feeling swamped. Maybe you're breaking shackles and howling at anyone who comes near. But Jesus is the kingdom made flesh, Jesus is the salvation of God drawing close. Don't fear the storms, don't fear the demons, don't fear even fear itself. Trust Jesus. Ask him to pilot you. He wants to make more of you than fish food, more of you than a monster, more out of you than a battlefield or a capsized ship, more than a victim or a victimizer. He wants to make you a kingdom witness, if not out on the road, then right where you live, right in your backyard. No matter what you've done, no matter who you've been, Jesus offers a new start, he offers new dry clothes, he offers a new life and a new mind, he offers his mercies new each morning, to make his kingdom known in the abundant life he gives freely for you (John 10:10). When the storms come, when the voices call, when the tides of fear and grief and anger rise, plead to Jesus, beg mercy the God of peace, the God of great calm given in his time. He's not asleep on the job: “He who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:4). He's the risen Son, he's the living Savior standing in your defense, telling your storms, “Peace, be still,” and your inner darkness, “Come out, you unclean spirit!” Of course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the Kingdom's King, I tell you.

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