Sunday, March 27, 2011

I am Convinced that Freedom is Possible

I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We are in our third week of our series “Convinced” and we’ve already established that God’s love overcomes all obstacles that Satan throws in our way and that unity in the Holy Spirit always leads to victory. Today we continue in Mark 5:1-20. Today as you read the scripture, I want you to sit back and imagine you are in the scene. Picture yourself there. See the sights, the lake, the shore. Smell the lake, the boat, the disciples. Feel the breeze on your face. 
Listen for the sounds of water, of the disciples pulling the boat up on the shore.

Now read, not just with your eyes, but with all of your senses.

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke through 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.

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? Swear to God that you won’t torture me.” For Jesus has said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!”

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.

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 evil 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.

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.

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 family 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.

Where were you in this scene? For years, I have been in the same place. I was one of the disciples, mostly an observer to the proceedings. I watched, somewhat fearfully, as the man came from the tombs, bleeding and screaming.

But as I was reflecting on this scripture this week, I realized something. I have never been just an observer. There have been many times in my life when I have better related to the man coming from the tombs than to the disciples.

It’s one thing to see this guy as an observer might. He’s a bad dude. He is trouble. There is nothing anyone can do with him; they’ve even tried chaining him up, but he snaps the chains and breaks irons off his feet. Do you remember the scripture we read last week? Jesus said that no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. (Mark 3:27) This guy is living in the power of the strong man, and nobody has proved strong enough to bind him. They’ve tried everything to no avail.

But what is it like to be this man? When we meet him, we find out that he’s been living in the tombs, alone, tortured, crying out, and self-injuring. Can any of you relate? I can. We live in a culture full of people like this. 
Our world is full of lonely, hurting people. Is anyone here brave enough to admit that you can relate?

People often extol the virtues of a small town; family is near, friends are life-long. But there are downsides as well. If you don’t belong or if you don’t have family nearby, it can be extremely lonely. And there is gossip in large towns, but it just doesn’t move as quickly or have the staying power that gossip has in a small town. In a small town, there are automatic barriers to authentic, open, intimate community that people rarely talk about; there are things you just don’t share in church because you know that you’ll immediately be rejected.
Anyone here brave enough to admit that you’ve felt rejected? Or that there are things you won’t share because of that?

If you slow down long enough to look around you, you will find people all over who look more like the demon-possessed man than Jesus or his disciples. In pain. Suffering. Sad. Lonely. But what’s worse is that often the people who are most in the dark don’t even realize it. This man’s daily and nightly routine was wandering among the tombs, crying out and cutting himself.

Some of you are wandering among the tombs. You feel like you’re going about normal day-to-day routine, but the truth is, unless your daily routine is bringing God glory, then all you are doing is wandering among the tombs. There are some who have been in churches for years doing a lot of things that don’t matter a bit. I think I told you about my uncle’s funeral; he was an active church member for years and even held important positions in the church. Yet in his funeral nobody talked about him making any impact for Jesus. In fact, they didn’t talk about Jesus at all. They went so far as to sing “My Way” as the special music. “I did it my way.” 

Friends “my way” was wandering around the tombs at night. That’s all it is. Darkness and death. Unless your life is lived to bring God glory, you, too, are walking in darkness, hanging out in the tombs. As Proverbs 4:19 says, “But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.”

I don’t know about you, but I can relate to this guy. I’ve felt lonely to the depths of my soul. I have surrounded myself, unintentionally, by death. So it’s awesome to see that immediately when Jesus arrives on shore, this guy seeks him out. He comes running and falls to his knees. The demons know Jesus. They know exactly who he is; there’s no “some people say you’re…” they cut to the chase, identifying him as Jesus, the Son of the Most High God. And they beg him not to torture them.

Some of you think that if you show up in the immediate presence of Jesus, that he will torture you. If you don’t believe this, why then do people joke about lightning striking them if they go into a church?

I have to include this: the Christian life is not a cakewalk. It’s not easy. It’s a rough road of self-denial, of cross-carrying. It is forty days in the desert, surrounded by wild animals, being tempted by Satan. But there is a freedom in Christ that cannot be achieved by any other means. The Bible says that God can turn darkness into light. Psalm 18:28 – You, O Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light. Or look at Psalm 107:13-14 – Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the deepest gloom and broke away their chains.

I want you to notice that the demon begs Jesus not to banish it to Hell. Ancient thought held that spirits were territorial; gods or demons were attached to physical locations. In the Old Testament, you’d see a certain people worshiping a certain god but when they moved somewhere else, they would begin to worship the gods of the people there. It was a radical thought that Yahweh is no mere territorial god, but that He is the God of Heaven and Earth. He isn’t just one of many, but is The One True God. At the same time, Satan has laid claim to the earth and has given his demons dominion over places. So we have a both/and situation. Yes, there are some places where I have walked into a building or driven into a town and I’ve felt a heaviness that can only be described as a black cloud. But the power of Jesus is clear in today’s scripture; he casts the demons out of this man.

In last week’s scripture, Jesus told a parable about binding the strong man and taking his possessions from him. Today we see a strong man. These demons are so strong they break chains and shackles. Nobody can bind the man. And when Jesus asks its name, it tries to intimidate. After all, in ancient thought, knowledge of someone or something’s name was commonly thought to give power over that entity. So the demons dodge the question, telling Jesus how powerful they are. “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

Have your problems ever seemed “legion?” Overwhelming and overpowering. That’s a tactic Satan uses frequently. Here’s a quote you can throw back at him: Don’t tell God how big your problem is; tell your problem how big your God is! Sometimes we are overwhelmed. I can remember crying over the checkbook, wondering where the money would possibly come from to pay our bills. Do you honestly think that God, the Creator of the Universe, gets worked up about money? Do you think he ever looks at us and says, “Oh well, there’s not enough money for that.”?

So Jesus allows the demons to leave and to go into the nearby pigs. A lot has been made of this. But remember that Jews were forbidden to eat or even touch pork. The pig was an unclean animal. They shouldn’t have had pigs to begin with! But they were still mad. It’s like if the city of Columbus wouldn’t let Penn National build their precious casino in the arena district, they’d be mad. It’s their sinful means of getting money for themselves. Of course the owners of the pigs were mad. It also demonstrates that the demoniac wasn’t the only one living in utter darkness, and that’s true today, too. If money (or anything else) is keeping you from following God’s calling in your life, then you’re in the same position as the pig owners, and you’re living in darkness.

The other piece of this is that Jesus didn’t send the demons into the pigs; he allowed them to go in. This is a good time to remind you that God has given Satan permission in this world. Satan tested Job, having received permission to do so. And Satan tests us daily. These aren’t simple, easy tests. I don’t want to make light of those who lost their livelihood as their pigs ran over the cliff. But I pose this: if they gave God total control of their lives, he would take care of them.

This is simply God’s character; it’s who he is. Listen to God’s words from Isaiah 65:1-5, “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’ All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations - a people who continually provoke me to my very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick; who sit among the graves and spend their nights keeping secret vigil; who eat the flesh of pigs, and whose pots hold broth of unclean meat; who say, ‘Keep away; don't come near me, for I am too sacred for you!’ Such people are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day.”

What a beautiful picture of God, who reveals himself to those who hadn’t asked for him or sought him, who holds out his hands to those far from him, to those who sit among the graves and spend their nights keeping secret vigil; who eat the flesh of pigs…. Is it a coincidence that Jesus went directly through a stormy night at sea to meet up with this particular person? I am convinced that God is still doing that… and not just to the troubled and tortured, but to the comfortable and complacent. Going to individuals like you and me, giving Himself.

And we can see the result of accepting God’s call in the next scene. We find the man, formerly tormented by demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind. What an awesome picture of wholeness! Could someone see the fulfillment of prophecy here? Isaiah wrote: This is what the LORD says: “In the time of my favor I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you; I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land and reassign its desolate inheritances, to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’” (Isaiah 49:8-9a)

This is the time of God’s favor! This is the day of salvation! But instead of celebrating, the people got all riled up. Jesus healed this guy – they all knew him, and I’ll bet some of them had been the very ones who had seen his horrible, destructive power, and they had the broken chains to prove it. But they weren’t celebrating. They were terrified. Everyone was talking, and they settled on their response. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region. (Mark 5:17). Until I was a pastor, I never understood this. Why would any of them, maybe aside from the pig owners, want Jesus to leave? But I’ve found out that speaking truth, Holy Spirit truth, isn’t popular. It offends. People have left this very church because they are uncomfortable with the truth.  In Jeremiah 6:20, God asks, “To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.”

If you’re walking through the graves in darkness, all the while calling it light, then you’re not going to find pleasure in God’s word. Best case scenario is you’re going to feel threatened and vulnerable. I have a friend who was in the middle of sin and he withdrew from another friend, because that second friend was very spiritually discerning and the first friend “just knew” that the second friend would call him out. I have talked to non-Christians who think that if they meet Jesus, he will take away all their fun. When I was in seminary, a family member asked me in an incredulous voice, “What do you do for fun? Sit around and read your Bible?”
I believe the townspeople plead with Jesus to leave because they were afraid of being exposed. Their fear of exposure was greater than their desire for freedom.

Here’s the thing: I am convinced that freedom is possible. Not just “possible” like “it’s possible that I could win the lottery” but freely available. Remember that prophecy from Isaiah? God is reaching out today, even to those who have never acknowledged him. Memorize this verse: Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.(2 Corinthians 3:17b). Today can be the first day of your freedom. You don’t have to wait. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I am Convinced that Unity Leads to Victory

Mark 3:20-30

Last week we started a new sermon series on Spiritual Warfare in the book of Mark – but we’re looking at it through the lens of God’s love. I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We were reminded that before Jesus started his earthly ministry, God spoke in an audible voice, saying, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Before Jesus went into ministry, His identity was already sealed – as God’s beloved Son. So when Jesus faced forty days of temptation, he was able to withstand it, because love overcomes.

Today as we begin, I have a question: Did anyone here used to be a LeBron James fan? Anyone a fan of the Miami Heat? For anyone here who isn’t a basketball fan, LeBron James is possibly the best basketball player in the world right now, and he won quite a few games with the Cleveland Cavaliers before he decided to “take his talents to South Beach.” He moved to Miami to team up with Dwayne Wade, another of the best players in the NBA, and Chris Bosh, another talented player. Their plan was to gather the best players together in order to win the NBA title. But there is trouble in South Beach. Last week Blaine Keene forwarded me an article about Wade and James, one that detailed the rough relationship between these two stars. They can’t get along; though they have the talent to win, their egos are getting in the way. The Miami Heat used to be Wade’s team, and now it’s LeBron’s, and that doesn’t sit very well. They are living out today’s scripture: a house divided against itself cannot stand.

We’re only 3 chapters into Mark, but already Jesus is stirring up controversy. He has been healing people on the Sabbath, and the religious leaders are upset because they think this violates the Law against doing work on the Sabbath. Some of them are already looking for a reason to accuse Jesus (Mark 3:2). Crowds were following Jesus everywhere, so he was having to take creative measures just to have some alone time with the guys he is mentoring. He is so overwhelmed by the crowds that he and his disciples aren’t even able to eat. Some of the religious leaders are threatened by his power and popularity – like we said last week, whenever God is on the move, we will encounter resistance. We encounter resistance even in places where it seems like we would be safe. Did you notice that Jesus’ family even thought Jesus had gone nuts? (as an aside, that makes it even more impressive to read the book of James, written by Jesus’ brother).

The teachers of the law from Jerusalem ( in other words, the top religious experts), knew something was going on; nobody could deny that Jesus had power. So they decided to try to undermine him by questioning the source of his power. So they denounced Jesus as being possessed by demons. This is a slick tactic Satan uses; instead of facing the real issue head-on, he tries to confuse things, to deflect attention to peripheral matters. Once someone called me to complain about the church – the person first told me we weren’t United Methodist enough. I asked for clarification, because I take that seriously. I have taken a vow to uphold the doctrine and polity of the United Methodist Church. That wasn’t the person’s real issue; it was a personal issue with someone else. But instead of taking that issue up with the person, the complainant decided to confuse things, to attack peripheral matters. In churches that often works like this: someone moves a piece of furniture, and people get furious. The preacher can preach heresy, but don’t anybody move the furniture.

This is one of Satan’s goals. He knows full well he cannot defeat Jesus Christ in a head-to-head battle, so he will try to confuse the terms of battle and blur the battle lines. Whenever we bring that “open war” to Satan’s doorstep, he blurs the lines to confuse us about who the enemy is.

So we live in a country horribly divided by Republican/Democrat, Fox News/MSNBC. Tea Parties. Conservative/Liberal. Red State/Blue State. For or against collective bargaining. And the United Methodist Church is just as divided. If you’ve been to Annual Conference in the last five years you have seen the Conference worship powerfully and play cheerfully together, but when hot-button topics come up, you’ll see a whole different side of people. When it comes to voting on resolutions, it gets downright ugly. I am convinced that if someone wrote a resolution that said, “We should love God and love people,” there would actually be discussion on the topic and some people would vote against it, simply based on the affiliation of the person who wrote the resolution.

Who is the enemy anyway? Jesus knows what’s going on, and he tells the religious leaders as much. He tells them that even Satan knows better than to fight against himself. Satan comes to kill, steal, and destroy. His fight isn’t against himself; his fight is against Jesus and the Kingdom of God. But Jesus doesn’t ascribe undo power to Satan; he says that he has come to defeat Satan, and he calls his followers to unity toward the same purpose.

I am convinced that unity leads to victory.

At the beginning of February, I preached a sermon called “Why Unity” – and I told you that we’re not going for unity simply for the sake of unity. We won’t ignore issues and pretend they don’t exist just to project the image that we get along. But Jesus calls us to unity, true unity, which is only found when we are led by the Holy Spirit in the same direction.

The tragic thing is when Satan tricks Christians into fighting amongst ourselves. In my last appointment there were two churches in town, and there was always an underlying tension between them. Though we did some programming together, I frequently heard the complaint that we would have an idea and they would take it over. There were tensions between our choirs; we sang to a pre-recorded track while they didn’t. There were all sorts of tensions between the churches; I made friends with the pastor of the other church, and he and I are still close friends. But when a new pastor came to serve the UMC there, that friendship never came about, and now those two churches are more divided than ever.

This isn’t a new technique Satan just came up with; he used it in the Garden of Eden; the first thing that happened when God confronted Adam about eating the forbidden fruit was Adam blamed Eve. And we’ve been fighting amongst ourselves ever since. Satan knows that division leads to defeat, so he has been doing everything he can to drive wedges between God’s people ever since. Ryan Bash, one of the pastors who has been collaborating with us on this sermon series, described it this way: “To be honest, I’m not sure Satan really cares about what churches fight about, as long as they are fighting. I’m not sure he has much interest in who’s right and who’s wrong, as long as we’re refusing to treat one another with love and grace in the midst of the disagreement.”

We can be divided about all sorts of things: worship style is always a big one, as is the use of technology, but there are also theological debates, paint colors, carpet colors, changing elements or order of worship, even something as simple as a microphone can become a fight in a church. And when our energy is consumed with fighting among ourselves, we will continue to be useless in our fight against Satan. If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.

The only way to reverse this is through unity in the Spirit, and I am convinced that unity leads to victory. Jesus says that when we are unified, we will defeat Satan.

Jesus makes a point about spiritual warfare that needs emphasized here. He says that nobody can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob the strong man. Who do you think Jesus is talking about?

In John’s Gospel, three times Jesus uses the phrase “the prince of this world” In John 12:31, he says, “Now the prince of this world will be driven out.” In John 14:30, he says, “The prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me.” In John 16:11, he says, “The prince of this world stands condemned.” Satan is the prince of this world; he has laid claim to this earth.

This is why Peter calls us “aliens and strangers in this world” in 1 Peter 2:11 Because we live in his domain, unless Satan is bound, we have no claim to freedom, and if we are not free, we have no victory.

In Acts 19, we see what happens when we try to fight the battle under our own power. Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of Jesus, who Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day an evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He have them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. (Acts 19:13-16).

If you think you have a claim to freedom on your own, if you think Satan is some little pansy weakling in a red suit, you are sadly mistaken. Satan is strong, and on our own, we cannot defeat him. Satan is strong, and his demons are strong as well. On our own, we have no means or ability to defeat him or drive him out. But Jesus makes this clear: Satan can be bound. It takes someone stronger than Satan to bind him, and Jesus has demonstrated that He Himself is that Stronger Man. And what’s more, we have the assurance that Jesus Christ himself lives within the Christian. If you have accepted Jesus Christ, He has come to live within you! Do you realize how powerful this makes you? Because of his presence in you, you now have authority over evil.
So why is it that we often don’t exercise that authority? There are some people who been living in Satan’s prison so long that you don’t know that you’re in bondage. Beth Moore defines bondage as anything that hinders the abundant and effective Spirit-filled life God has planned for you.

Are you living the abundant and effective Spirit-filled life that God has planned for you? Or have you settled for less? Some of you have accepted Satan’s rule as normative. You just do what you have to do. You come to church because it’s just what you’re supposed to do. You fellowship with others, not because Jesus is there, but because they’re your friends. You enjoy nature, not because God made it for you, but because it’s pretty. Maybe you get along with other people, or maybe you’re constantly crabby. Maybe you don’t realize that when you’re talking about other people, that’s gossip. Maybe Satan has you so snowed that you don’t even recognize or acknowledge that I might be talking to you here. There is a scene in C.S. Lewis’ final book in the Narnia series in which Aslan the Lion had brought the dwarves into the glories of the New Narnia, which stood for heaven or the kingdom of God. These stubborn dwarves sat smack in the middle of a sunlit meadow full of wildflowers and were being fed fruit and vegetables more exquisitely flavorful and fresh than anyone had ever before imagined was possible.

Yet their minds were darkened, their hearts were cold. And so they were convinced they were sitting in the middle of a stinky old stable being fed moldy bread and cow manure. When one of the other characters asks Aslan what can be done for these hapless figures, the answer comes back that nothing can be done. When black becomes white and white becomes black, when evil is good and good is evil, people are gone. God can’t get through to them. The reason the unpardonable sin can never be forgiven is because it will never, ever be recognized as a sin. Even if God came to such people bearing the sweet fragrance of his grace, all these people would smell would be the stink of a rotting corpse. They won’t be forgiven because they cannot be forgiven and they cannot be forgiven because they have come to believe that the gospel’s elixir of life is strychnine: pure poison.(Illustration by Scott Hoezee,

So how do we come to recognize the victory that Jesus has already won for us?

You first have to know that such recognition is the work of the Holy Spirit. Not only does the Holy Spirit bind up Satan, but he also demonstrates to us that the work has been done. But if you don’t recognize his voice, you won’t hear what he says. Jesus told his disciples, My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27). Do you know his voice? Do you really? If you’ve never heard his voice, it’s not because he’s not speaking; it might very well be because you’re not listening or because you don’t know his voice. If you’re not hearing God’s voice, what have you done to help yourself hear him better?

When I was coaching JV soccer in Kentucky, I had this little guy named Brandon on my team. Brandon had all manner of physical limitations and disabilities, but he loved to be on the team with the guys (and because he was playing on the team he was in good shape, good enough to postpone a serious heart operation he was facing). Brandon was deaf for all practical purposes, but since he could read lips, I would make every effort to be pointed toward Brandon when I spoke to the team. But I made it clear to Brandon that he was responsible to get himself into position to “hear” me and to ask appropriate clarifying questions if he needed to.

There are some of you who don’t hear from God and you, implicitly if not explicitly, blame God for it. If that’s not what you’re doing, what are you doing? What’s your excuse? Are you studying the Bible? God speaks through his word. Are you asking the Holy Spirit to speak to you through the Word when you read it? Are you actively seeking others to discuss scripture with? Are you praying with other Christians? If not, what’s your excuse? Really. What’s your excuse? We have a prayer group that meets on Sunday nights. We have a women’s Bible study on Mondays. I lead a Bible Study on Wednesday evenings. We have cell groups meeting various times throughout the week. Someone shared with me this week that they are unable to make it in the evenings; if there is a desire for me to repeat my Pastor’s Bible Study in the early afternoon on Wednesdays, I would be glad to do that.

Whatever the case, it’s time to get in to God’s Word, to immerse yourself in it, to listen to His voice, to accept the unity of the Holy Spirit, the unity that leads to victory.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

I am Convinced that... Love Overcomes

Today we start a new series, just in time for Lent. It’s a collaboration between me and my pastor cluster. We decided to call the series “Convinced” and focus on this truth: I am convinced that there is nothing that can separate me from the love of God. Let’s get started!

We are a people at war, and there are casualties all around us. Almost everyone has been affected in some way or another. We are in the midst of a terrible battle, yet some don’t even realize we are at war. This is because the war isn’t one that is merely held in the physical plane; it is a spiritual battle. All you need to do to see the effects of this spiritual battle is look around you. Our country is a mess – politically, financially, and morally. And we’re the good part. It seems like a day can’t go by without a new suicide attack somewhere, usually with religion as its stated rationale. Sex crimes are reported all the time, and the perpetrators are priests, pastors, family, and other trusted members of society. Addictions are rampant: alcohol, drugs, gambling. Marriages are crumbling. We don’t even have to look outside our own church to see problems. In our very church I see a battleground. We have been experiencing crisis over the past several years. Most recently, we have entered into a financial crisis, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. When I arrived here in Millersport, we did a sermon series on the full armor of God. I told you that when we start to acknowledge the reality of spiritual warfare, that Satan will renew his attacks on us. In my favorite movie, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, we find Theodin, King of Rohan, discussing war with Aragorn. Aragorn is trying to convince Theodin to send the warriors of Rohan into battle, but Theodin is concerned with the safety of the people of Rohan. “I cannot not risk open war.” Aragorn responds by telling him, “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.” Rather than meet the opponent head-on, Theodin would rather retreat to the safety of their fortress and hide.

Many of us respond the same way. We need to be reminded that open spiritual warfare is upon us, whether we would risk it or not. In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

Focusing on spiritual warfare can lead us to either extreme; many of us have a practical disbelief in spiritual forces of evil, unbelief in Satan, and refusal to accept that there is an unseen battle around us. We explain away what others explain as spiritual attacks with rational and logical explanations.  Or we can go overboard and attribute every bad circumstance to the devil.  Those of us old enough to remember him laugh as Flip Wilson offers his punch line, “The Devil made me do it!” (if you don’t know who Flip Wilson is, you can find him on YouTube).

Here’s the deal; spiritual warfare is upon us. But that’s not the end of the story. Paul writes to the church in Rome, saying: I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

As we go through Lent this year, we are going to be looking at Spiritual warfare in the Gospel of Mark. But there is no sense in giving the devil credit and airtime that he doesn’t deserve. Instead, we will be looking at it through the lens of Jesus Christ. I am convinced that Jesus Christ wins, and through the Book of Mark we can see how we can have that victory as well.

Let’s get started. If you’ve got your Bibles, we’re going to be looking at Mark 1:9-13 today.
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Mark doesn’t go into the birth narrative or the genealogies; he starts with a brief introduction to John the Baptist and immediately goes into the passage I read. We are first introduced to Jesus, who hasn’t done anything yet. He’s being baptized by John, and he sees heaven torn open and the Holy Spirit descending and God the Father speaks audibly to him. Amazing! How many of you experienced that at your baptism?
Now I don’t know how God speaks primarily to you, but He usually uses His Word and His people to speak to me. Sometimes He has spoken miraculously to me, but honestly I have never heard that audible voice. So when God speaks audibly, we ought to take note.

God tells Jesus: You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased. I love this verse. There is nothing random about this verse, including where it occurs in the Gospel. What has Jesus done up to this point? If you answered “nothing” then you’ve got it right. God the Father tells Jesus the Son that He loves Him – independent of Jesus’ actions, God loves him and is pleased with him. This is true for us as well, and this is the first lesson we need to understand when we are dealing with spiritual warfare: God’s love for us is independent from our actions.

Paul puts it this way: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8). I am convinced that God’s love will always overcome. There is a reason God spoke His love audibly to His Son at the beginning of His ministry. Because God knew that even for His Son, living for God will always encounter resistance.

Immediately after God pronounces His love for His Son, Jesus is taken to the desert for forty days of temptation. I am convinced that whenever God is on the move, Satan attacks. As you might know, several of my pastor friends are collaborating with me on this series, and my friend Rob, the pastor at Summit Station, shared his experience with us. God is obviously moving in a powerful way there; they have vibrant ministries to children and families, they are doing significant mission work, and their worship services are jam packed. Rob knows that God has more in store for them, so he started preaching a series on the vision of the church, and every time he preaches on God’s vision for the church, crazy stuff happens. On the first Sunday when he began talking about vision, two squirrels fought up and down the window sills around the sanctuary, distracting the congregation through the entire message. Coincidence? Possibly. The next week, a cat got into the sanctuary just as Rob began to preach. After ten crazy minutes, Rob finally caught the cat by the scruff of its neck and took it out… and the cat took a chunk out of Rob’s finger. Another coincidence? The very next time Rob preached on vision, they had a first-time visitor who heckled Rob through the whole message and who continues to call the church and leave long, rambling messages. Rob hadn’t heard from him in a while, but as soon as he began to speak on the vision again, guess who called on that Sunday morning?

You could always find a logical explanation for all of this, but I’m convinced that Satan is trying to distract that congregation from what God is doing. Rob shared that there weren’t that kind of attacks when he was in another church where God was not so obviously on the move.

I share that to say this: our church is going through some tough times. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that when we made a deliberate move to grow spiritually that Satan’s attacks started. When I got here, on top of the bookshelves in the church office was a grand drawing of a new church building. I was told that a building program was imminent, but that the goal needed to be spiritual growth first. So we put all of our emphasis toward spiritual growth, beginning the cell group ministry, focusing youth ministry on depth, teaching significant classes on hermeneutics, marriage classes, Rudy’s current class on Jesus, depth in our Sunday morning messages… And we’re being attacked.

Did you notice that Mark doesn’t detail the temptations Jesus was tempted with? Matthew does, and Luke does. But Mark doesn’t. I think that’s deliberate. After all, Matthew and Luke only show three temptations, but Mark lets us know that Jesus was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. The temptations are ongoing. We undergo ongoing temptations. Satan has tempted me to temper down my sermons, to focus on other true aspects of scripture, but not to go after him. To offer self-help sermons “how to be a better you” instead of offering the one Truth that Satan fears most: Jesus himself. I have been tempted to defend myself from the downright nasty, unchristian things that have been said about me. I have been tempted to not talk about hot topics like money, just because I get complaints – by the way, you can go with the Old Testament command to tithe (that’s 10%) or you can go with the New Testament mandate that it all belongs to God – and you can’t serve God and money and it’s pretty obvious that this is an issue in our community and church. There have been times when I have been tempted to just throw up my hands and say, “forget it all.”

But I am convinced that love overcomes.

There is a little phrase in the scripture that I often read over without even thinking about it. Jesus was in the desert, being tempted, and this is what Mark records: He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. Did you ever notice that? When I think of wild animals, I think of lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) – fearsome animals. Jesus is in the midst of them, yet angels attend him. He has nothing to fear.

We are in the same situation. There are wild animals all around us, whether they take the shape of financial woes, discord at home, troubles with a job, whatever realm Satan is attacking in. Open war is upon us, whether we would risk it or not. To go back to the situation I opened with, when Theodin, King of Rohan, finally decided to go to war, he brought his troops against a mighty opponent that outnumbered them tremendously. Then at the last minute, reinforcements came. But we don’t even have to wait for those reinforcements, because they are always with us. Much like the angels who attended Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit with us.

The work of God will always encounter Satan’s resistance, but remember this: No matter what happens, no matter what you’ve done, no matter how Satan accuses and attacks you, you are beloved by God. That will not change. And remember that through our temptations and struggles and Satan’s attacks, God will never leave us or forsake us.

As we begin this journey in Lent and this study through the Book of Mark leading up to our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter, I invite you to pray with me for this church. I have been praying that God will do something here that only God can take credit for. I don’t want it to be something that gives me glory or any of us glory; I want God to be glorified. Please join with me in focusing your prayers during this time. I have been working with six other pastors for several months on this series, and we have committed to pray and fast for one another. Every morning I pray for them by name and for their churches, and they are praying for us. This is the only way to fight Satan; to be fully committed and connected to God through Jesus Christ, led by the Holy Spirit.