Exorcism: Demons & Pigs, 27 August 2017

Exorcism: Demons & Pigs
Series— Mark’s Gospel: The Real Jesus
Mark 5:1-20
Series Big Idea: The shortest gospel is filled with good news about Jesus!
Big Idea: Jesus has power over the supernatural…and we do, too.
The pig is also unclean; although it has a divided hoof, it does not chew the cud. You are not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses. (Deuteronomy 14:8)
Thus begins the context for today’s passage of scripture.
Pigs. Aren’t they cute? Not to Jews. Few things are more disgusting, more offensive. God gave the people of Israel dietary laws thousands of years ago, laws still followed today by millions of kosher people. Pigs are so detestable to the Jews that Proverbs says,
Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion. (Proverbs 11:22)
Does anyone else find it odd we celebrate the resurrection of the King of the Jews with ham?!
We’re continuing our series on The Real Jesus from the gospel or “good news” of Mark. We’ve seen Jesus’ ministry attract crowds and critics through teachings and miracles. Last week we saw him demonstrate his power over the natural world, calming a furious storm. Today’s text shows his power over the supernatural world, an unforgettable exorcism of demons.
Jesus has been sleeping in a boat with his disciples. He is awoken by his petrified friends, commands the winds and waves to be still, and seems upset at the fear and lack of faith his disciples possess.  
They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 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. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones. (Mark 5:1-5)
This scene could’ve inspired the creation of a horror film! Imagine a wild man living in a cemetery so filled with demons that he is given supernatural physical strength. He is a gruesome sight—what with cuts all of over his body—and the sounds are just as bad as he cries night and day. To say he was alone would be an understatement. Nobody dared approach this person who behaved more like an animal.
Before we go any farther let me state the importance of getting to know someone’s story before judging them. Our world is filled with people who look, smell, act, and sound different than us. There are people who offend us. There are people who scare us. There are people who hurt us. Why? Do you know their story?
I’m not suggesting we are to be best friends with everyone or that we are to naively welcome any stranger into our car or home. But hurt people hurt people. There are often tragic stories behind those people we find threatening. Maybe they were abused as a child, victims of injustice, born with disabilities, dealing with serious illnesses, or just prisoners of their own past mistakes.
This man was quite a sight, I’m sure, but he had a story. We don’t know it, but we do know he was a human being created in the image of God with dignity, value and worth. And he was loved by God despite being filled with demons. How did that happen? Again, we don’t know. How are people possessed by demons? Can Christians be possessed by demons?
These are great questions. I have neither the time nor the expertise to fully address these, but let me offer a few thoughts. These are my thoughts, not necessarily absolute truth. If you disagree, I’d love to hear from you. I have a lot to learn when it comes to the supernatural world. But here’s my best attempt to explain some common questions.
1.    The supernatural world is real. There are angels. There are demons, who are often considered fallen angels, cast from heaven along with satan.
The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. (Revelation 12:9)
2.    Demons are personal beings. They know Jesus is the Son of God (Mk 1:24, 34; 5:6). They can lead people astray (1 Timothy 4:1-6; John 4:1-4). They have emotion and fear Jesus (James 2:19).
    Demons have power. They are dangerous. We need not fear them but we should never treat them casually. Their power is limited but real.
    Demons need an entry point. They don’t just take over someone randomly. Scripture prohibits things like trying to talk to the dead and sexual immorality. I believe witchcraft, illicit drugs, the occult and other sinful activities can be pathways to demonic possession. Evil spirits can use the human body to distort and kill people’s relationship with God…and others.
    Followers of Jesus are given the Holy Spirit and, therefore, cannot be possessed by a demon. They can, however, be oppressed by demons and struggle with temptation and sin.
    Demons can and should be exorcised, resulting in freedom.
    In the west, we acknowledge less positive and negative spiritual activity than in other parts of the world. Africa is especially spiritual. There are countless accounts of demonic and miraculous activity. We tend to be in denial about angels and demons and discount supernatural moments.
    Mental illness and demonic activity are often confused with one another. Both physical and mental sicknesses can be the result of demons, but not necessarily. At First Alliance we offer prayer for all types of illnesses, believing they might be the result of spiritual activity and—regardless of the source—God’s power is greater; it is unlimited. And God still answers prayers and does miracles (more on that next week!).
    Again, I’m not an expert in the supernatural and neither deny the reality of spiritual activity nor look for a demon in every Coke can. I participated—more or less as an observer—in an exorcism in college which was real and powerful.
We need to be aware of the supernatural without being scared of it. Though there are battles, Jesus is the ultimate victor. Love triumphs.
You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)
We need not fear satan or demons. God in us—the Holy Spirit—is greater!
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7)
This is how we are to relate to God…and satan!
When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 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!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” (Mark 5:6-8)
Is it the man or the demon shouting? Yes?
Few today would admit they are demon possessed, but so many in our culture live lives screaming at God and God’s Word and values. We can choose to follow God or follow the world, friends. It’s all about God or it’s all about you. Every day—every hour—we choose to follow God or choose to follow the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” 
“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. (Mark 5:9-10)
I have been told demons have names and if you can identify their name you can validate their presence. A legion was the largest group in the Roman army, 3000-6000 soldiers. Notice that final sentence contains both the singular and plural: “he begged…send them out.” It seems the demons are speaking through the man.
The demons knew they had no chance against the power of Jesus so they begged him to not send them far away (Luke 8:31 calls it “the Abyss”). He could’ve cast them into hell, but the time for judgment had not yet come.
God’s timing is perfect. I wish he’d just throw satan and his friends into the eternal fire today, but for whatever reason it’s not yet time. Jesus once said
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41)
A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” 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. (Mark 5:11-13)
This was not Jewish land. Pigs were unclean. Jews were not allowed to eat—or even touch—pigs. Graveyards were unclean, too. Of course, the demoniac was
very unclean! Rome was unclean, too, a nation of pigs. And if you recall from last week, the sea was the place of monsters and Rome was the Monster of all monsters.
Jesus came announcing God’s kingdom, his rule over the world, bringing healing and justice and freedom to the world—Jews…and Gentiles.
The demons begged Jesus to send them to the pigs rather than the abyss. The demons couldn’t destroy the man so they destroyed the pigs.
About 2000 pigs! That’s quite a herd! No wonder their owners were upset! Their livelihood was gone.
Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 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. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region. (Mark 5:14-17)
You would think people would be glad to see Jesus. He did some radical life revitalization in just a few moments. But the pig owners have lost a truckload of pork, ham, bacon and sausage…and everyone else is probably freaked out! What just happened? The wild man? The pigs? The pigs drowning? They were afraid of Jesus’ supernatural power. What would he do next?
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 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.” 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. (Mark 5:18-20)
Jesus often told people to keep quiet about him, but this time he says, “Share the good news of your healing with everyone.” And he did! Just speaking would be a wonderful testimony to people of God’s power. This was also a Gentile region, a pagan area where Jesus was not so well-known and where the Jewish religious leaders would not be trying to kill him. Rather than staying with Jesus, the freed man is commissioned to tell others about Christ and his power. 
So What?
We are, too! Has Jesus forgiven you? Has he healed you? Has he transformed your life? Has he turned your despair into hope, your mourning into dancing, your bondage into freedom, your anxiety into peace? If so, tell the world! Good news needs to be shared, especially when most of it seems to be bad or fake…or both!
Our world is hurting. They need to know hope is available, healing is available through Jesus. If we don’t share Jesus—in word and deed—with others, how will they know?
And if you’ve ever felt unqualified or unprepared, look at this once-demonized man. He didn’t go to seminary. He wasn’t a priest or pastor. He never even went to Sunday School! He simply encountered Jesus and shared his story with others. Do you have a story? Don’t keep it to yourself! Nobody can argue with your story. You don’t have to prove scientifically the existence of God through archaeology or scholarship—though many have. You simply need to let others know what Jesus has done—and is doing—in your life.
As we think about Jesus and all he has done for us, I’m reminded of these words from N.T. Wright:
At the climax of Mark’s story Jesus himself will end up naked, isolated, outside the town among the tombs, shouting incomprehensible things as he is torn apart on the cross by the standard Roman torture, his flesh torn to ribbons by the small stones in the Roman lash. And that, Mark is saying, will be how the demons are dealt with. That is how healing takes place. Jesus is coming to share the plight of the people, to let the enemy do its worst to him, to take the full force of evil on himself and let the others go free.
We live in the space between…Jesus’ first and second comings. We have the Holy Spirit. God is alive and on the move, but the battle rages on. We see it every day on the news, in hospitals, in rehab centers, in bankruptcy and divorce courts, at funeral homes.
Demons are real. They seek to indwell mankind. Evil is real. Satan is real. But Jesus is greater!
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)
We have been given power and authority by Jesus who said:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
After 72 of Jesus’ followers returned from ministry…
He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:18-20)
Jesus is alive and he has entrusted his Church to us, his world to us. Let’s go and let the whole world know Jesus loves them and is still bringing deliverance and healing to the hurting and broken willing to surrender to his lordship.
One more thing: demonic activity is all over the New Testament and I don’t believe it has ceased. If you or someone you know would like deliverance, we’d love to pray for you. That doesn’t mean you are possessed or oppressed or that you’ve done anything wrong, but if you feel defeated by sin, perhaps you need deliverance. The name of Jesus is still driving out demons and making them tremble today. Hallelujah!
Credits: some ideas from NT Wright, J. Vernon McGee, Scott Pinzon, Richard Niell Donovan, and David Garland.

  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.
  • Power: Winds & Waves, 20 August 2017

    Power: Winds & Waves
    Series— Mark’s Gospel: The Real Jesus
    Mark 4:35-41

    Series Big Idea: The shortest gospel is filled with good news about Jesus!
    Big Idea: Jesus has command over all things—natural and supernatural.
    As we continue our series on The Real Jesus from the gospel or “good news” of Mark, we’ve seen Jesus’ popularity—and opposition—growing. The crowds love Jesus because he teaches them, heals them, and loves them. The religious people hate him because he’s more popular than they are…and he seems to have a great comeback for all of their questions and criticisms. In a word, they are envious. Mark records several of Jesus’ parables but one lingering question remains…who is Jesus?
    As I often say, this may be the most important question for any human to answer. Who is God and who are you? If you ask people today, “Who is Jesus?” you are likely to get a variety of responses: a good teacher, a prophet, a famous figure in history…
    In today’s text it’s obvious those closest to Jesus don’t truly realize Jesus is God, Jesus is the Messiah.
    That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. (Mark 4:35-36)
    Why did Jesus cross the lake? To get to the other side, of course! But seriously, the crowds followed him everywhere and he likely wanted a break, among other things. The departure seems sudden. Perhaps Jesus said, “Let’s get out of here…now!” Jesus is fully human. He is tired. He also has confidence in God that allows him to fall asleep.
    A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.  Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:37-38)
    This body of water is beautiful, surrounded by mountains which make it susceptible to sudden storms. This wasn’t just a common thunderstorm, though, but rather a furious squall.
    Have you ever been in boat in a storm? It can be pretty scary.
    The most violent storm I’ve ever experienced on water was on a cruise ship. I know, poor me! We were in the Caribbean with my extended family and this huge ship was really rocking. I found it relaxing, but then again I was inside, safe, and immune to any seasickness so I was not terribly worried.
    I have, however, been in the middle of some serious turbulence on airplanes. Even though I know the odds of a plane crashing due to weather are almost zero, I still find myself scared sometimes when I feel like I’m on a roller coaster…with no track!
    These squalls came suddenly so even veteran fishermen could be surprised by them, and there were at least four seasoned fishermen in the group, which makes this story even more significant. They understood the difference between rough weather and deadly storms.
    Jesus is exhausted, sleeping on the cushion that was usually placed under the steersman’s seat. It’s a great image Mark includes in his biography. He must’ve really been tired to sleep through this squall. No cushion could be that comfortable in such conditions!
    I find the reaction of the disciples to be startling. They wake up their exhausted leader and ask, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Did they think he would teach his way out of the situation? They probably wanted him to help bail water out of the boat before it sank. They certainly had no idea he would respond as he did.
    He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. (Mark 4:39)
    He uses the same words he spoke to silence the demons. The original Greek might best be translated, “Put the muzzle on and keep it on!”
    In Jewish thought the ocean represented chaos, the unpredictable place where evil originates. In fact, Genesis 1:2 is commonly translated, “Now the earth was formless and empty” but has also been translated, “The earth was chaos.” Only God had authority over chaos. He seized it and created our beautiful world from it. The disciples likely knew only God could control the sea, the chaos, the storm.
    He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40)
    “How can you be such cowards? Don’t you have any faith?”
    And then what? For all we know, Jesus went back to sleep!
    They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41) 
    Who is this? Who is Jesus? The answer is obvious: Jesus is the Son of God. He is the Messiah. No magician could do this. It wasn’t the result of a knowledgeable teacher. It certainly wasn’t a coincidence. There is no other explanation: they are in the presence of God!
    You may recall Mark began his book with these words:
    The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, (Mark 1:1)
    Jesus did things only God can do. I doubt they thought it at the time, but as they reflected upon this miracle, perhaps Psalm 107:29-30 came to mind:
    He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven. (Psalm 107:29-30)
    Note: other examples of God’s dominion over the waters can be found in Job 26:12-14, Nahum 1:34, Psalm 65:5-7; 74:12-14; 89:8-9; 93:4; 104:5-9.
    They knew Jesus had power, but they never imagined this type of power could exist.
    Yet their faith remained weak.
    You would think it would be enough to see demons exorcised.
    You would think it would be enough to see the sick healed.
    You would think it would be enough to see storms stopped.
    People often say, “I would believe in Jesus if I could see him,” but they’re wrong. So many people saw Jesus and witnessed miracles and still dismissed him…or worse.
    They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41) 
    Who is this? Who is Jesus? I’ve met him, friends! The great song, “My Redeemer Lives,” has this wonderful line which says, “I spoke with him this morning.” Yes! I did. You can. Our faith is not built upon rules and checklists but rather upon a person, a living person, Jesus Christ, fully human and fully God. Through the Holy Spirit he is alive and well on this planet, living inside every one of his followers.
    Some have ignored the literal nature of this story, finding the miracle too…supernatural! There were, however, many eyewitnesses to this and Jesus’ other miraculous activities. Mark records various details such as “there were other boats with him” (verse 36) which would be unnecessary if he was simply telling a myth or allegory.
    So What?
    The most common command in the Bible is…fear not. Fear not. Don’t worry. God is sovereign—he is in control of the supernatural world. He’s also in control of the natural world.
    I know, if he can control things why doesn’t he wipe out every evil leader, every bad guy, every hater? I can’t say I always understand, other than the simple fact he is in control but gives us freedom. We’re not angels on assignment, but rather people given choice. He allows us to cherish our blessings or waste them away, pursue him or pursue money, sex and power, to be filled with hate or love, to support life or death. We can even choose to be afraid and worry, but Jesus says it’s a waste of time and energy because he has given us power, authority, and his presence. He is with us. The only one we should fear—and ultimately revere—is Him.
    What storms are in your life today?
    A stormy marriage? Physical health issues? Depression? You’re not alone.
    Struggles with addictions to alcohol, porn, or drugs? You’re not alone.
    Same-sex attraction and gender struggles, greed, envy, pride? You’re not alone.
    Financial chaos? Job challenges? Broken relationships? You’re not alone.
    Grief and loss? Uncertainty about the future? Learning disabilities? You’re not alone.
    I say you’re not alone for two reasons. First, you’re not alone in this room. There are people here in the midst of every storm I mentioned. This is why we have been given the gift of family, the opportunity to do life together, to weep when one weeps and to rejoice when one rejoices. We weren’t made to do this thing called life alone.
    Second, if you are a follower of Jesus, he is with you. The Holy Spirit is living inside of you and you need only to empty yourself, surrender, confess your sins, and welcome the Spirit to take control of your life. Let go and let God. It may not be an instant cure-all, but raising the white flag is the first step toward truly experiencing the presence and power of God in your life.
    In Jesus’ famous Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel, he sends out his followers to make disciples. But he doesn’t end there. He concludes by saying
    And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
    He is with us. He can calm the storm. He’s got this…even if his timing may be slower than our timetable.
    To quote composer Scott Krippayne, “Sometimes he calms the storm and other times he calms his child.”
    He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. (Mark 4:39)
    Jesus may need to say to your storm, “Quiet! Be still!”
    Jesus may need to say to you, “Quiet! Be still!”
    Credits: some ideas from NT Wright, J. Vernon McGee, Scott Pinzon, Richard Niell Donovan, and David Garland.

  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.
  • Investment: Lamps & Seeds, 13 August 2017

    Investment: Lamps & Seeds
    Mark’s Gospel: The Real Jesus
    Mark 4:21-34

    Series Big Idea:
    The shortest gospel is filled with good news about Jesus!

    Big Idea: Jesus blesses those who listen to his stories…and pursue him.


    Stories. We all love stories. We read them, we watch them on television and at the movies, we listen to them on podcasts, we tell them every day. Some are true, some are imaginary, and some are outright lies. Stories can inform, educate, warn, or entertain. They can be as simple as recounting what you ate for breakfast for as complicated as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

    As we continue our series on Mark’s Gospel: The Real Jesus, we have seen Jesus’ early ministry, his rise in popularity among the common people, and the growing envy and hostility toward him among the religious leaders.

    This week we will continue to see Mark turn his attention from Jesus’ actions to his teachings, specifically special stories called parables. The original Greek word, parabole, means “putting things side by side.” Jesus is constantly teaching about one thing these people knew nothing about…another world…far, far away…called the kingdom of God. The central message of Jesus’ teachings was the kingdom of God, and he used parables to help his audience understand this new reality, this exciting world about to be born. We’ll look at two stories today, the parables of lamps and seeds.

    Before we look at today’s text, it is important to understand the purpose of parables. First, there is always a context. I believe much of the problems people have with the Bible stem from ignoring context.

    Jesus is a Jew. His people were oppressed under Roman rule. Israel as a nation had experienced tremendous victories and agonizing defeats. Jesus the storyteller has an important message, but it’s a dangerous message. It is not politically correct. He could—and would—get in so much trouble a contract would be out on his life! Rather than just speak plainly about things, he chooses parables as a literary device to code his teachings.

    Imagine, for example, a political cartoon featuring a donkey and an elephant. If you lived in Africa, you might just think of survival of the fittest, the zoo, or even mascots of sports teams without deciphering the message of conflict between Democrats and Republicans.

    Likewise, it’s easy for us to miss those messages, the context and symbols Jesus used two thousand years ago. Fortunately, Jesus often explains his stories to those who seek. But not all of the parables are clear to us. Sixteen commentators on a passage may yield sixteen different interpretations—which is not to say the Bible itself is unclear. Much of it needs no explanation—don’t murder, love your neighbor—but Jesus’ parables are deliberately for those who have “ears to hear.” I pray we do!

    He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:21-23)

    In the previous verses, Jesus described the kingdom of God. He is continuing here, saying again, “If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.” We might say, “Listen up! Pay attention!”

    The original Greek text asks, “Does the lamp come for the purpose of being placed under the measure? Does it not come for the purpose of being placed on the lampstand?” It’s as if the lamp is a person…which most believe it is! King David was the lamp of Israel (2 Samuel 21:17; 1 Kings 15:4). Jesus may have been speaking of himself, in which case he’s talking about how his presence is a secret. Since the word “bed” may be a couch, one writer suggest maybe Jesus is saying, “The Messiah has come but he’s been shoved under the couch…until after his death and resurrection when he will be ‘brought out into the open.’”

    “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Mark 4:24-25)

    Here again he begins by saying, “Pay attention.”

    Back in the day, you couldn’t go to the grocery store and buy a pound of flour off the shelf. You would go to the market and ask the merchant for two measures of flour…or four or however many you wanted. He seems to be telling them to pursue God, and that if they seek, they will find. Again, his audience is mixed. There are critics, curious onlookers, and genuine God-seekers. He’s separating the fair-weather fans from the truly serious.

    Our faith is not based upon a to-do list, but rather a person, the person of Jesus Christ, God who came to earth in the flesh. We can’t study people like we study rocks or flowers. People are complex. They can be mysterious. I’ve known my wife for almost 32 years and I’m still pursuing her, getting to know her, dating her, and making discoveries about her. God is even more fascinating. The title of A.W. Tozer’s classic book
    The Pursuit of God says it all.

    What about you? Are you chasing after God? Do you, like the psalmist, long after God like a deer panting for streams of water? Do you truly want Jesus to be LORD of your life…or is he just an interesting person to study for an hour on Sunday?

    He also said,
    “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)

    Again Jesus announces the subject of his metaphors: the kingdom of God. Of the four gospels, only Mark records this parable. What is most provocative is the phrase “all by itself.” The Greek word is “automatos,” the source of our word automatic. We know from last week the seed is the word of God. The sickle most likely refers to judgment day.

    If you recall from last week, the Jews are waiting for the Messiah to come and overthrow the Rome, but Jesus is in no hurry. He’s saying the kingdom will emerge slowly. We must be patient. Yes, we long for the return of Jesus and even say, “Maranatha! Come quickly LORD Jesus!” but rushing the kingdom of God is like digging up crops hoping to harvest before they are grown. We are to sow the seed, the word, and trust God’s timing for the harvest.

    Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

    The kingdom of God begins small…like a tiny seed. A mustard seed looks like a grain of sand. It’s so small! But it will grow! Many mustard bushes are twelve feet tall!

    Similarly, from Jesus to a ragamuffin dozen to billions around the world, the kingdom of God has been growing and advancing. Even in 2017 when we hear bad news about the decline of Christianity in the west, it is exploding in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Hallelujah! It’s also advancing here in the Midwest.

    With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. (Mark 4:33-34)
    Years ago, I wrote for a Christian music magazine doing album reviews and feature articles. One of the perks was getting backstage passes, meeting musicians, and seeing how they really behaved out of the limelight. The disciples must’ve felt special to get time alone with Jesus—and they were! Not only did they get to be with him, they were able to hear the explanations for the parables.

    The aforementioned A.W. Tozer said:
    To have found God and still to pursue Him is the soul's paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too-easily-satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart…Come near to the holy men and women of the past and you will soon feel the heat of their desire after God. They mourned for Him, they prayed and wrestled and sought for Him day and night, in season and out, and when they had found Him the finding was all the sweeter for the long seeking.
    Jesus spoke in parables not to keep people from understanding the kingdom of God, but rather to see who really wanted truth, who really wanted to know God.

    Do you? Are you a God-seeker? If you pursue God, you will find him.

    Credits: some ideas from NT Wright, J. Vernon McGee, Scott Pinzon, Richard Niell Donovan, and David Garland.

    Sower: Soils & Spoils, 6 August 2017

    Sower: Soils & Spoils
    Mark’s Gospel: The Real Jesus
    Mark 4:1-20

    Series Big Idea:
    The shortest gospel is filled with good news about Jesus!

    Big Idea: Not everyone is ready to enter the kingdom of God…are you?

    Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. (Mark 4:1)

    Jesus is so popular he can’t even just stand up and speak. The crowds will mob him so he does his teaching from a boat.

    He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. (Mark 4:2-3)

    One hundred years ago the most common occupation in the United States was farmer. Today, of course, it is rare to meet a full-time farmer, but everyone in Jesus’ audience knew about farming. If they wanted to eat, they needed to farm—or live near someone who did! Jesus begins by commanding them to listen. Not everyone would. Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. Unlike today’s sophisticated farms, the ordinary Jewish farmer had a small plot of land, used every inch, scattered seed everywhere and then plowed it under along with the thorns, weeds, and anything else on the ground.

    As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. (Mark 4:4)

    Those stinkin’ birds! Okay, some birds are wonderful, but others are annoying. If you scatter seed without caring for it, they will disappear!

    Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. (Mark 4:5-6)

    This is common, too. Plants start to grow but die without strong roots.

    Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. (Mark 4:7)

    Here we see another crop killer…thorns.

    Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” (Mark 4:8)

    Obviously this is what is supposed to happen, though Jesus surprised the crowd with these numbers since an average harvest was only seven or eight times the amount of seed sown and a good harvest would be about ten times.

    Then Jesus said,
    “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:9)

    He says again, listen! He knows not everyone will hear. Parables reveal the truth to some while concealing it from the rebellious.

    Jesus is not giving instructions on agriculture. There’s a much deeper message, but it wasn’t obvious. In fact…

    When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 

    “ ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” (Mark 4:10-12)

    They missed it! Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10.

    In revelation, God’s people are trained about the requirements of the kingdom.
    In concealment, those who oppose God never understand the kingdom.

    Much of Jesus’ teachings was about the kingdom of God, a radical contrast to the kingdoms of this world. Jesus was a revolutionary declaring an alternative reality, a different society, casting visions for a counter-cultural life.

    His enemies rejected his teaching.
    The crowds were interested in his miracles but not his teaching.

    Parables allowed those who hungered and thirsted after righteousness would be filled. It separated the curious from the true seekers. Seek and you will find.

    By the way, I love how Jesus explained the parable not only to the Twelve but also the others who stuck around to hear the exposition. The only thing that seems to separate those on the inside of Jesus’ explanation and those on the outside is their pursuit of God.

    However, as it is written:

    “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him—

    these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. 

    The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. (1 Corinthians 2:9-10)

    Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to lead us, teach us, and guide us.

    Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? (Mark 4:13)

    I wish I could hear his tone of voice! He was, of course, intentional about how he coded his message but maybe did too good of a job since his closest friends were clueless!

    The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. (Mark 4:14-15)

    Israel has been in exile and this is a picture of Go sowing Israel again in her own land, restoring their fortunes, making the family farm fruitful again. They expected the Messiah to come and rescue Israel in an explosive way, not slowly like farming.
    This is about the word of God, the inauguration of the kingdom. It is coming, but it won’t be as they expect it. It won’t happen instantly, but it will eventually become a reality…and we are in the midst of that today, heaven kissing earth, God’s kingdom coming and his will being done here as it is in heaven. It is not done with power like a military coup, but rather humbly, unobtrusive, and coexisting with evil, an unpopular message with patriotic Jewish seeking revolt.

    Satan loves to steal. He is a deceiver. His goal is to keep us from God.

    Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy.
    But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. (Mark 4:16-17)

    Easy come, easy go. I love God until life gets hard and then I blame him for my trials and walk away. This is so tragically common today as it was then.

    Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Mark 4:18-19)

    Can you relate? I can’t imagine anyone in our culture tempted by wealth or worries! Ha! The world can be very attractive, yet never truly satisfying. Money will make you happy…for a while. But only following Jesus the Messiah will bring true satisfaction, peace, hope, and joy.

    Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
    (Mark 4:20)

    That’s where I want to sow…into the good soil.
    That’s what I want my life to be…good soil.

    So What?

    First, we must be intentional when we sow. We need to work smart, not just hard. A few weeks ago I mentioned six words to define our mission:

    Love God.
    Love Others.
    Make Disciples.

    Making disciples means following Jesus and helping others follow Jesus, passing the baton of faith, mentoring and investing in the lives of others.

    If you recall I mentioned how Jesus spent time praying before choosing his twelve disciples. Similarly, we are not to just randomly scatter seed. We are to love everyone, but we are not supposed to invest equally in the lives of everyone we meet. Some people are FAT: faithful, available, and teachable. They are good soil. They will pass the baton of faith to others (2 Timothy 2:2) and reproduce. Other people have no interest in following Jesus. They’re too busy, too selfish, too prideful, too distracted. Two weeks ago I challenged you to ask, “God, who do You want me to disciple?”

    Obviously not everyone you devote time and energy to will yield the same results. Some people, like Judas, will not produce good fruit. Others, however, will yield a great harvest.

    Second, we must be patient and persevere when we sow. You can’t scatter seed today and expect a harvest tomorrow. Jesus warns the soil must receive attention. Even today farmers water, weed, fertilize, and pray for adequate sunshine in order for the seeds to form deep roots and abundant fruit.

    Many of you served at this summer’s Sports & Arts Camp and I want to say our work is not done. It’s just beginning! We sowed seed, but we need to water it, weed it, fertilize it, and persevere until it produces a harvest.

    Finally, we must give attention to our own soil. How is your heart? Are the investments of others into you paying off? Are you a good disciple? Are you pursuing God, studying the Bible, devoted to prayer, sharing your faith, serving the poor, living a generous life, and discipling others? Or are you distracted with screens, busy with hobbies, and growing a personal garden of weeds?

    It is my prayer for you, myself, and all of us at First Alliance that we would know, share, and experience the kingdom of God and that God would produce a great harvest in and through us in Toledo and beyond for His glory.

    The Lord’s Prayer

    Credits: some ideas from NT Wright, J. Vernon McGee, Scott Pinzon, Richard Niell Donovan, and David Garland.

  • You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.
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