Sermon from Sunday, March 8, 2020
It was my first time standing on that fabled shore, and yet I had been there hundreds of times in my mind, to steal a line from a friend. Many places we build up in our imaginations so much, that when we finally get there, the reality is a bit of a let down. That was NOT the case for me with the Sea of Galilee and all the little villages dotting the shoreline where much of Jesus’ activity happened. How could the Creator God limit his incursion to such a relatively small piece of real estate? Imagine most of Jesus’ ministry taking place around a place like Lake Mille Lacs?
While Jerusalem’s past is buried and crowded out by the modern city bustling with activity, Galilee is still a quiet retreat like region where villages remain small and fishing and tourism remain the main preoccupations up there in the hilly northern terrain of Israel. We arrived in Galilee after one of the rainiest winters in memory, and just in time for the peak of the short-lived springtime boom of green grass and flowers. I was told it will be brown again within a 2 or 3 weeks, as it is 11 months out of the year. My photos show the beauty of the moment—even if I enhanced the color ever more with some filtering.
I heard time and time again, from many lips, how surprised we were at how much more hilly and mountainous this region was. When you picture Jesus followed by his band of disciples roaming the land, picture the Appalachian Mountains or the hills of Scotland, not a flat arid desert land—not in Galilee, not in Northern Israel!
It was a Sunday morning, and I was given the privilege to share my mini-sermon when we reached our first stop that morning at Tabgha. This is where Jesus prepared breakfast on the beach after his resurrection and reinstated Peter by asking him if he loved him three times. There is a little chapel built on the large rocky shoreline, and a sacred rock inside that is called the Table of Jesus where he prepared the fish over a crackling fire.
But my sermon text that morning and here today, is not on the quaint and cozy scene that took place on this side of the lake, but rather on Jesus’ invitation to all of us to leave the comfort of this familiar side of the lake and to get into the boat of discipleship and boldly go with Jesus on mission to the Other Side of the lake. Let’s open to Mark 4 and 5 to enter into the story.
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. He taught them many things by parables …
This is a very familiar scene for all of us—a scene played out every Sunday in churches all around the globe: Jesus’ followers gathered together to listen to inspiring sermons. After a series of long, Baptist sermons, I’m guessing the disciples and crowd were ready to wrap things up with an altar call and head to Scotty Bs for a hearty brunch and spend the afternoon on the couch watching the Galilean football. Not this day.
As the story continues, we come upon seven words of Jesus that have reverberated in my soul for the past decade, and set in motion events that forever changed my life and helped give birth to MainStreet Covenant Church. Many of you are part of this church because you let these seven words interrupt your life. Standing on that very shore, a few weeks ago, I now had the thrill of my life as I got to utter them aloud to our small crowd of disciples. What are these words that we need to hear afresh today? Mark writes, “That day when evening came, Jesus said to his disciples,
“Let’s go over to the other side.”
Let’s be honest: We like to remain on the familiar side of life. We feel comfortable over here. We feel safer over here. We know our way around this side. This side is home. This side is routine. These are our people. Yet, Jesus calls us time and again to leave the familiar, the comfortable, and to follow him to the “other side.”
Pastor John Ortberg’s bestselling book claims that “If you want to walk on water, you gotta get out of the boat.” I get his point and I agree. Yet, let me suggest that if we want to walk with Jesus, we first gotta get off the beach and our butts, and get into the boat of discipleship and mission. When we do get into the boat of active discipleship, we’ll find ourselves traveling with Jesus…
From safety to uncertainty.
From comfort to courage.
From passivity to participation.
From knowledge to obedience.
From home turf to unfamiliar territory.
From hearing the Word to being doers of the word.
There’s a crazy idea going around that when you give yourself to Jesus, he will transform your troubled life into a serene walk on the beach. But listen to what happens next:
36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 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?” 39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. 40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” …
Yes, sometimes Jesus comes to calm the storms in your life. But the disciples find themselves caught up in this raging storm precisely because they left the quiet Galilean shore and got in the boat with Jesus. Should we expect anything less from a faith whose initiation rite is a symbolic drowning in the waters of baptism—the pastor plunging victims under the water saying, “You have been buried with Christ”?
So, why do disciples—both then and now—keep heeding the call to go over to the other side? What’s waiting on the other side of such a decision? What’s at stake if we choose to ignore those seven words of Jesus?
A lot as it turns out.
Standing there by the shore, the ancient breeze tickling the hair on the back of my neck, I pointed across to the region of the Gerasenes where Jesus’ boat would have landed. A seven mile sail across the green-blue water would turn the disciples’ world upside down, as they watched the One who “commands even the wind and the waves” turn another person’s world right side up again. Seven words got them into the boat and seven miles across gets them to the heart of Jesus’ mission to save a life hanging in the balance:
5:1 They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. 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. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of 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.
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.
Let me cut to the chase and share why I broke into sobs minutes after preaching my little sermon on the beach. On the other side, just seven miles away, Jesus and his disciples come upon a man who had been wrestling with an “impure spirit”, battling some kind of strong demonic stronghold that had him in chains, living in isolation, and careening down a path to self-destruction. While we may use different language today, we are all too familiar with this story.
We all know someone who has battled, or is still battling, their own personal demons. We have all watched loved ones harm themselves and others, under the influence of drink or drugs or gambling or pornography or some other enslaving addiction. We know the hollow and shame-filled look of despair in the eyes of someone who has tried to break free from their chains too many times to count, yet keep relapsing. We all know Legion’s power, even if we call him by different names. Such suffering and despair can always be found no more than seven miles away.
On a different occasion, Jesus had spoke about the powers of darkness and his own mission telling his disciples, “The thief comes to seek, kill and destroy. I have come to bring life—life to the full” (John 10:10). Now, after a seven mile trip to the other side of church-as-usual, the disciples are face to face with a man in need of Jesus’ liberating power and healing touch. The dramatic story has a happy ending for this man, as he is set free from his affliction and given a new lease on life. Salvation is always ready to travel seven to save a life from peril.
Just stop and stare across that water for a moment. Now ponder: What if Jesus didn’t bother crossing over that day? How would that man’s life have turned out differently?
Later in the afternoon, we pulled our bus over by the steep slopes on the other side of the lake where the story reaches its climax. The evil spirits are cast into a herd of pigs that are just minding their own business on the grassy hill, and 2,000 pigs go flying off a cliff and are drowned in the sea. The traveler can explore the entire shoreline of the lake, and will not find any cliffs hanging over the sea. Yet, the text doesn’t say “cliff”; just a “steep bank” leading down to the sea. And the place we stood called Kursi or Gergesa, fits the story very well. Our friend Peter had lots of fun with his drone camera at this high lookout point, flying the camera down the grassy hill and off the bank toward the sea giving us a “pigs-eye-view.”
But back on the beach, still morning, I just stood transfixed, starting across the lake and playing the biblical drama out in my imagination—seeing evil spirits drowned in the watery abyss, going back to where they belong and a man skipping away healed for good. That’s how we wish the story always ended, but sadly it doesn’t.
Sometimes help doesn’t arrive on time, and sometimes Jesus’ people show up too late on the scene. Sometimes the pigs go off the cliff, but tragically sometimes a precious child of God goes off the cliff. Sometimes those chained by addiction to a living grave-yard end up in an early grave. Something deep in our being revolts against this alternative ending to this story. It’s not supposed to end this way.
Standing on that beach a few weeks ago, looking looking at the other side, I was overcome. My pastoral heart was wrenched and my soul pierced by all the lives that are cut short because a sea-like gulf seemed to separate God’s healing power from a besieged soul on the other side.
Could it be that just seven words could be the difference between 1) a church that quietly goes through the motions every Sunday, singing songs and listening to sermons in comfort on this side, and 2) a courageous, mission-minded church that boldly moves toward people who are suffering on the other side? Could it be that just a seven mile trip out of our comfort zone could be the difference between life and death?
So, church, what’s it gonna be? Are we going to settle for sermons and serenity on the safe side of the lake? Or are we going to get into the discipleship boat, and join Jesus on mission bringing hope and healing to those perishing just seven miles, or even a seven-second phone call away?
Pigs will fly when God’s people get on the move. So, let’s keep experimenting with new ways to bring the healing power and liberating truth to people in need. This is precisely why our 2020 Vision has us experimenting with new forms of ministry and outreach. Yesterday, a dozen people attended our second “Soul Care Workshop” where we are trying to preemptively work on our personal wellbeing—spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, relational, and vocational.
Workshops and worship, podcast discussions and huddles, spiritual direction and counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous on Monday and Thursday nights—each of these ministries serves as a sacred vessel attempting to carry God’s help to those in need. We don’t need to wait until pigs fly to offer a hurting world God’s healing power. So, MainStreeters, let us get off our butts, get into the boat, and join Jesus on mission to the other side.
I leave you with a benediction from E. A. Skogsbergh, Swedish Covenant church pioneer, who once ministered along the shores of Lake Minnetonka where I write this.
LET US GO, LET US GO
WHILE THE DAY IS AGLOW
LET US BE ABOUT OUR FISHING
HOW CAN WE STAND IDLY BY
WHILE A LOST WORLD CRIES
FOR A WORD FROM THE SAVIOR OF MEN.
In memory of Scott Hedin and Craig Duffy