[Manuscript of sermon preached at New Song, 1-2-22, first in a three-part series. You can see the video here. I start laughing at 24:02 and speaking shortly after that.]
I’m guessing most of you have not been to Nicaragua. Pastor Tim has. He came to visit us when we lived there. So, for those of you who have never been to Nicaragua, what is one thing you know about the country? Like one basic thing?
Nicaragua is an impoverished nation in Central America where they speak Spanish. Wealthy people will often speak English, and English is probably the most useful tool in getting a good job, but most people there living in poverty–which is most people there–speak little or no English.
I’m very good at English. If I may boast, I am excellent with the English language, both spoken and written. I can even sing it pretty well. Guess what language I’m not great at?
The Wenatchee Valley is full of people who are fluent in Spanish. My wife is a gifted language learner and, though she spoke little Spanish when we moved to Nicaragua, she acquired it quickly. As did my children.
But there’s this saying about old dogs. How does that go?
“Trying to change the world when you struggle to get out of bed” is my way of summarizing the conundrum we’re all in when we talk about the Kingdom of God.
Jesus followers are the people who are trying to live the Kingdom of God here, now, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus came, fully God, fully man, and taught and modeled and lived this reality that challenged, well, nearly everything. He taught about loving God with all our heart and soul and strength, loving our neighbor as ourself, loving our enemies–our enemies, for Pete’s sake–and instead of pursuing power over others, seeking to serve others. It’s crazy stuff.
Jesus died to atone for our sins and reconcile us with God. That doesn’t mean “Oh, you horrible sinners.” It means “You people I love, I’m doing for you what you can’t do for yourself, because you’re my beloved.”
He said more crazy stuff like, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” and “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
So we come in here on Sunday and talk about how God loves us and we abide in Jesus. We talk about this Kingdom of God in which all people, all people, have value and reflect God’s image, all people are beloved of God. We don’t have to earn it. It’s ours, by the love and grace of God. What a beautiful vision.
Then we turn and look at the world, at what’s happening in the world. Instead of making a horrifying, comprehensive list, I’m going to ask you just to think about the one thing–or two, if you can’t choose–that most upset and discourage you about the world, local, national, international, right now.
Jesus says, “This vision I’ve given you? This Kingdom of God? Go make it a reality out there.”
This, then, is a three-part pep talk on why we, the grossly underqualified, are exactly the people to be bringing about this vision.
When I say “Struggle to Get out of Bed,” I’m talking about me. I’m not referring to laziness or that whole “morning is hard” thing, though of course it is. I’m talking about struggling with depression and that deep feeling of being…inadequate… incompetent. Looking at other people and thinking, “How do you do so many things well when I can barely keep track of my bloody car keys?”
The first thing we need to do is not figure out how big the problem is. I promise, it isn’t that. Today, we’re just working on grace for our brokenness, for our shortcomings, for our feelings of incompetence and our honest recognition that our hearts aren’t completely into this. IT’s a cold, hard world out there and God has blessed me pretty good right here. Maybe I could just kind of avoid the nastiest sins and keep to myself and, you know, be nice?
We’re going to do a little Bible Exercise. Ready? Of the people who Jesus involved in his work, who was the worst? I mean, of those Jesus interacted with and in one way or another included in his ministry–not talking about people who opposed him and attacked him–who were some really not promising ones?
I’m going to give two examples, to make sure you know what category I mean, and these aren’t bad ones: John 2, Jesus was at a wedding. Mary, his mother, came to him and told him that they were out of wine, an absolute travesty at a first century Jewish wedding. Jesus and his mom have this fascinating back and forth, then Mary tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Jesus tells them to fill these gigantic containers with water–six of them, twenty to thirty gallons each, then take a sample to the chief steward. “When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom…” We know how that goes. As far as we can tell, these guys do exactly what Jesus says–including bringing a scoop of water from a purifying vat to the chief steward, which had to take some nerve–and what else do we know about them? Nothing. They’re the only ones besides Jesus’ disciples who have first-hand knowledge of this miracle, and that’s it. They worked with Jesus.
Another is the Centurion in Luke 7 who asked Jesus to heal his servant. He sends messengers with this request, but then what does he have the messenger tell Jesus? “You don’t have to come to my house. I’m not worthy. I know you have power. Just say the word. That will heal him.” Jesus is amazed at the man’s faith–the Bible says Jesus is amazed and not in a negative way–and heals the servant, just as the Centurion asks. I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
So those are wonderful examples, and I used them because I didn’t want to steal anyone’s. I’m not looking for the “right” answer here, just what comes to mind. Who are some challenging people Jesus works with? Give me a name and a few words or a sentence why this person is difficult or challenging?
[Peter, Zaccheus, Samaritan woman at the well were offered as examples]
Okay, I want you to take that in. Jesus worked with a bunch of people. Many of them are messed up in big and small ways. Jesus didn’t care. That didn’t stop him.
I really like the woman at the well in Samaria. Remember her? Jesus asks her for a drink. They get talking. Jesus tells her about this water that he has that will keep her from ever being thirsty again. Jesus tells her to go and get her husband and come back. “I have no husband.” “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”
Jews were not supposed to talk with Samaritans. Unrelated men were not supposed to talk with strange women. And this one has been married five times and has a sixth…something. Considering that women in that culture had few means of supporting themselves if they had no husband, I’m inclined to give her slack, but Jesus brings it up. It doesn’t stop Jesus from making her part of his work though, does it? She’s the one who tells the whole town of Sychar about Jesus–“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
But here’s my favorite, Luke 8:26-39:
26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
Okay, for our purposes today, I’m not getting into the whole swine issue. Sorry.
Jesus approaches this man. The man is filled with demons. Just for reference, a Roman Legion had 4,000 to 6,000 soldiers. It wasn’t going well for this man.
He’s naked, not in a sexy way, and he’s living among the tombs. He’s scratched and scraped and lacerated. Jesus approaches him and commands the demons to leave him. The man falls to his knees and starts screaming “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”
Just for the record, that isn’t a cooperative response.
But the demons beg Jesus not to “order them to go back into the abyss.” Okay, that;s creepy. Instead, they beg Jesus to let them enter the swine. The swine plunge off the cliff. The man has no more demons, thanks to Jesus.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.
I find that response absolutely fascinating. The man broke shackles and chains, lived–if you can call it that–in the graveyard, naked among the tombs–and screamed and hurt himself. Now what? He’s sitting at Jesus feet, he’s dressed, and he’s coherent. This scares them.
If I had predicted the ending to one hundred Bible stories, I think I might have done okay, but I guarantee you I would have gotten this one wrong. The townspeople all beg Jesus to leave. “Please go. Please go, Sir. Please leave. You scare us.”
Jesus did what they asked.
So he [Jesus] got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
I’ve shared before that for many years I found this inexplicable. Just couldn’t explic it. If ever in the world a guy could use a few months or years of discipleship, a little training, maybe some healing and nurturing, isn’t it this guy? Nope. Jesus sent him away. But not “I don’t want you with me.” “Go back where you came from and tell people about how God helped you.” God. I mean, Jesus. So the man went. Jesus sent the man out to be part of Jesus’ work, to spread the word. You might think a guy who was possessed by some indeterminate thousands of demons would hope to put his past behind him. Maybe go somewhere new, you know?
Okay, so you and I are picking teams. Remember doing that in elementary school? You pick, I pick, you pick, I pick. This time, we’re picking teams for doing Jesus’s work. You know, Kingdom of God stuff. If that were here, would you pick Pastor Kelsey or Pastor Tim first? Delete that question. We’re doing it in the country of the Gerasenes. You see where I”m going with this, right? Who are you going to pick very, very last? Isn’t it the guy with thousands of demons? In fact, one of us is going to argue “No way, he doesn’t count! I shouldn’t have to pick him!”
Let’s address that for a second. I’m guessing several of you have serious questions about this whole “demon possession” thing. It’s theoretically shocking what the Bible is describing here, but in practice, probably most of us haven’t seen someone possessed to give us a point of reference. Some of us may have. Have you seen someone fully taken over by addiction? Or maybe you’ve experienced that yourself. You begin by making choices, but at some point the addiction takes over and it no longer feels like you are in charge. The only thing that matters is feeding the addiction. The person becomes unrecognizable from who they were before. As my high school friend Dan, a recovering alcoholic for thirty years, says, “the only choices are recovery or death.” When I read “possessed by demons” in the Bible, that’s my picture: someone who has given over their will and is now almost completely under the control of something that will destroy them. There’s a ton of alcoholism going generations back in my family. There but for the grace of God go I.
I want you to let all this sink in, how wildly unlikely that man was to be partnering in Jesus’ Kingdom, other than as a sad object lesson –but now clothed and in his right mind, now proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus has done for him. Doesn’t matter how unlikely it was, because it happened. There was grace for his brokenness, for his demon possession, for his addiction, for his having given himself over to something horrible.
I don’t claim to know how God works. Most of the time, God is a mystery to me, and if I’ve grown in wisdom at all, it’s that I can walk in that peacefully. I don’t need to know. God loves me and has redeemed my life.
I could find you hundreds of people in the Wenatchee Valley better equipped to go live in Nicaragua for seven years. But when God asked me–more kind of told me–I said, “Okay.” And Kim said, “Great, when?” Because my wife is amazing like that.
But it’s more than willingness. There is grace for our brokenness. That means our brokenness does not disqualify us. But the wild thing, the very Kingdom of God thing, is that I’ve begun to suspect that our brokenness actually plays a crucial part in Jesus inviting us. Listen, I don’t say “makes us qualified,” because I just don’t think it works that way. “Qualified” suggests some objective criteria that we have to muster, some resume’ we must turn in. Seriously, what did the healed man of the Gerasenes put on his resume’? What did he tell people when they asked, “So, where did you work before this?”
Here’s the punchline: grace for our brokenness makes us the people who can live the Kingdom of God. Jesus healed the man of some horrible stuff, but notice that everyone else begged Jesus to leave. The man had experienced grace and didn’t question when Jesus sent him. Of course he would tell others about that. T/here were some amazing, competent, jump-out-of-bed, people in that city. But this man knew grace.
If we can’t accept grace, if we refuse to acknowledge our need for God, our messed-up-edness, our sins and shortcomings and struggle to get out of bed, then we spend our lives either trying to fix ourselves or pretending we don’t have these issues. Jesus offers grace, each for our special circumstances, and as we learn to receive that grace, we begin to embody this Kingdom. This is the great news, it isn’t “okay, here’s the grace, figure out how to receive it and be healed, now go do the job.” The receiving the grace is the beginning of living the Kingdom of God. It’s happening. When the man is healed, he is already working in the Kingdom of God. In my experience, our problems don’t suddenly get solved–and sometimes we spend inordinate energy just maintaining, just dealing with ourselves. And that’s okay. God’s goal isn’t finding the most competent people, it’s changing us as we’re willing to try. Hear that: God is transforming us as we’re willing to try. Faithfulness just means willing to try. “Okay, I have doubts and it sounds difficult, but okay, I’ll try. I’ll show up.” That’s faithfulness.
Next week we’re going to talk about how much of this big job is ours. Here’s a sneak preview: it’s not all ours and it’s not none ours. It’s gonna be somewhere in the middle of that that is our job.
The measuring sticks of our culture, our good looks, our “success,” of getting ahead or high caliber, these are not Kingdom measures. The measure of benign part of the Kingdom of God is saying, “Yep, I have a struggle and I need your grace, God.” Amen.