FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

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FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (ESV) John 8:31-36

 When we talk about following Jesus, there are certain things that we can do that are like opening up channels to the Holy Spirit. If we are serious about the fact that Jesus is our Lord and savior, we ought to do these things, in order to grow closer to him, and be the people that he intends us to be.

I’m talking about things like  reading your Bible every day. Now, don’t sweat if you a miss day, or even two or three, once in a while. But if want to allow God into our lives in greater measure, if we want to grow spiritually and become what we were meant to be, we can’t do it without regular infusions of God’s Word, which we get from the Bible.

Prayer is another one. If  you are struggling in your Christian life, and you never pray, there is no mystery about why you struggle. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says we ought to pray continually. It’s like a long, ongoing internal conversation with God, along with times that are dedicated specifically and only for prayer.

There is also fellowship with other believers. If we don’t have regular Christian community, our walk with Jesus will suffer. The same is true of worshipping God with other believers, and also serving others. All of these are practices and disciplines that are channels between us and God. The Lord can and does use things to pour more of his love and grace and joy and peace and so on into our lives. We really cannot expect to move closer to God without them.

Now, I want to make sure we have this straight. We don’t do them to please God, or to motivate him to bless us. These are means by which we can connect with the Life he offers. He still has to choose to bless us – we can’t make him do it. But he has designed us as human beings to need these things, and also to have them as resources to help us.

If we do these things regularly, it is likely that we will, at God’s chosen pace, grow in our faith, and also grow in the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

However, there are a few situations in which these things are not enough. The first situation is one that I have experienced during the past few years. At times, the Lord calls his people to suffer. No matter how hard we try, there is at least part of life that simply cannot work, because God has given us the honor of growing through suffering. This is a mystery, of sorts, but there can be wonderful grace as we suffer for him. Sometime, I’ll expound more on this.

There are times, however, when we suffer unnecessarily. You see the Bible insists that we are in a spiritual war. Sometimes, we face struggles and hardships because we are not paying attention to what is going on in that war. Listen to some of what the Bible says about this:

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).  We are urged to participate in that war:  We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a disciple because…it’s just hard.  But why is it hard?  Because we have enemies who make it hard for us.  These enemies are not flesh and blood.  Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (1 Timothy 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of evil spiritual entities called the devil and demons.

Now, there are two mistakes we make in the spiritual war. The first is assume that neither the devil nor his demons are real, or that the threat they pose is not significant. Prior to September 11, 2001, in the United States, Americans were only dimly aware of radical elements of Islam that hated the United States. No one took the threat seriously, and that resulted in tragedy. Let’s not make the same mistake with regard to the spiritual war.

The second mistake is to imagine that everything that ever goes wrong is because of the devil. If you never maintain your car, and it breaks down on the way to church, that probably is not spiritual warfare. Sometimes mental illness is medically based, requiring medications and other treatments. Sometimes, life just doesn’t go the way we planned. It is not necessarily all the fault of the devil.

This is tricky, for instance, when we talk about something like depression. My wife Kari has struggled with depression off and on throughout her life. One time, we prayed about it, and we were convinced that her depression had a spiritual cause. We engaged in spiritual warfare, and the depression lifted for several years. After many years, it returned. We prayed, and we realized that Kari’s life was very hard at that time, and her depression was a natural result of her circumstances, and so we needed to change some things.  A third time, the depression returned, and this time we were led to seek medication, and found that in this third case, there was a chemical imbalance. I encourage you to seek out all possibilities, but do not discount the spiritual one until you have investigated it.

The Bible also tells us that these entities work against us primarily by influencing how we think and feel. The battleground of the spiritual war is in our mind and emotions.

And so, at times, there may be a kind of spiritual block that is interfering in your relationship with Jesus. The Bible calls these spiritual blocks: strongholds.

A stronghold is a place in your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus. Maybe it helps to think of it as a room in your house that is locked off from the rest of the house. Inside that room, it is not Jesus who is in charge. We may think we are the one in charge in that area, but the truth is, if we have locked it off from Jesus, that area will be under the influence of the devil and his demons. If you walk past that room, they can use that as a base to dart out and attack you.

3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (ESV 2 Corinthians 10:3-6)

If there is some area of your life where you seem stuck, where you can’t get victory and you just don’t understand why, there is the possibility that it is because of a spiritual stronghold.

Bitterness and unforgiveness are major sources of spiritual strongholds. In Ephesians 4:26

26 And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 for anger gives a foothold to the devil. (NLT Ephesians 4:26-27)

Jesus himself said that when we refuse to forgive others, we are closing our selves off from God’s forgiveness:

14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NLT) Matthew 6:14-15

Now, I don’t think God is being vindictive. I think that unforgiveness creates a major stronghold that interferes with us being able to receive God’s grace. It isn’t God being mean, it is us cutting ourselves off from his grace.

Other strongholds can be created when we make a firm decision – what I call, an internal vow – that excludes God. Perhaps a woman grew up in poverty. At some point, she felt so humiliated by her family’s condition that deep inside, she made a vow, something like this: “I will never, never allow myself to be poor again.” But what if the Lord calls this woman to marry a missionary, or to have a career in some area that doesn’t make much money? Her vow excludes God’s authority in her life, and it will cause all sort of issues later on.

Some people make vows that they will never allow themselves to be emotionally hurt badly again. Sometimes this works in the short term, but usually that sort of thing gives an opportunity for the devil, because God often calls us to self-sacrificing love for others. That sort of stronghold could really play havoc in a marriage. It could seriously interfere in someone’s ability to be close to others.

Addictions often accompany strongholds, or vice-versa. Without consciously saying it, we have decided God can do anything he wants, but he just can’t touch my habit of….fill in the blank.

Any area of your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus will be unfair game to the forces of evil. Any place where you are excluding God can become a stronghold.

There is, however, terrific news. One of the reasons we create strongholds in the first place is because we don’t trust that God will truly do what’s best for us. Or, we think he will do what’s best for us, but we believe that we find that very unpleasant. You will indeed find God’s purposes for you to be troublesome and unpleasant for as long as you hold on to your own right to manage your own life. However, when you surrender to the Lord and receive whatever he wants to do in your life, you can find grace and joy in any situation.

I know what I’m talking about. I have suffered severe, intense pain for the past four years. The short description is that it feels like I have been trying to pass a kidney stone, 24/7 365 days a year, for more than four years. The first two years were horrible in every possible way. I still find it daunting to get through some days. However, I also find a great deal of joy, peace and meaning, even in the midst of this, because I am accepting whatever the Lord is doing. I believe he is good, he is powerful and he loves me. The pain has impressed that into every fiber of my being. So, even that which looks terrible from the outside can become joy and blessing when we surrender to Him.

The good news, we can be free, and the Lord has made it simple to be free.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (ESV Galatians 5:1)

In the first place, Jesus took all the guilt of our sin upon himself at the cross. In Jesus, you are now declared “not guilty” – even of the sins you have committed. Second, through the cross, Jesus defeated the powers of evil:

13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. 14 He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. (NLT Colossians 2:13-15)

The spiritual powers of evil – including those which inhabit any strongholds – have been disarmed by Jesus. They have suffered a public defeat. Therefore, when we command them in the name of Jesus, they must go. They go, not because we are strong enough to resist them, but because Jesus will back us up when face them. He will make them go way when we tell them to.

The Lord has already defeated the devil. So, for us, destroying a stronghold has three simple parts. First, we identify the stronghold. Next, we repent of it, and ask Jesus to come and take control there. Finally, we speak a prayer by the authority of Jesus, telling the powers of evil to release that stronghold. I have helped many people clear there lives of various spiritual strongholds. I have cleared a few out of my own life, also. It can be shocking to see how free and joyful we can be when all areas of our lives belong fully to Jesus.

I don’t mean that we are perfect, and we never thwart his will. But a stronghold is a place where we persistently, continually thwart God’s control of our lives. When are free of such things, it makes a tremendous difference.

Really what I am talking about is taking inventory, and consciously allowing Jesus to be in control of every single part of your life. Paul did that, and that is why he wrote this:

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (ESV, Galatians 2:20)

That life, by the grace of God, is a life of love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. It is also a life filled with tremendous hope.

Take  a moment right now to examine your heart. Pick a time this week when you will spend an hour – or several – thoroughly surrendering every part of your life to care of our loving savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.

LORD OF THE NATURAL AND SUPERNATURAL

demoniac

Sometimes it is hard to believe in the supernatural. But it should be obvious that there are giant swaths of reality that will never be explained as anything but supernatural. For example, take the idea of freedom. You can describe what the idea of freedom means, but you can’t study it in the same way you study what we call a “natural phenomenon” (like an eclipse). Instead, it is something “metaphysical,” or, in the old parlance, “supernatural.” There are many other supernatural things as well.

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Matthew #29 . 8:28-34

When He had come to the other side, to the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met Him as they came out of the tombs. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, “What do You have to do with us, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time? ” Now a long way off from them, a large herd of pigs was feeding. “If You drive us out,” the demons begged Him, “send us into the herd of pigs.” “Go! ” He told them. So when they had come out, they entered the pigs. And suddenly the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. Then the men who tended them fled. They went into the city and reported everything — especially what had happened to those who were demon-possessed. At that, the whole town went out to meet Jesus. When they saw Him, they begged Him to leave their region. (Matt 8:28-34, HCSB)

Mark and Luke record this same incident, but with one fairly large difference from Matthew: they tell of only one demon possessed man (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39). This is one of those places that is used by some people to suggest that the Bible contradicts itself and is not reliable. However, I think this misses the point entirely. It reminds me of an old joke. Joe and Jack went down to the lake with Joe’s dog. Joe said, “watch this!” He picked up a stick and hurled it far out into the lake. “Fetch, boy,” he said. The dog immediately went bounding toward the lake, but instead of swimming, the animal ran out on top of the water, picked up the stick, ran back, still on top of the water, and then lay down a few feet away and began gnawing on it. His fur wasn’t even wet.

“So, what do you think?” said Joe.

Jack shook his head sadly. “Pathetic. Your dog didn’t release the stick to you, and he can’t even swim.”

The point of this passage, and of the parallel ones in Mark and Luke, is how Jesus dealt with a serious case of demonization. All three of them agree about that. Changing the number of men involved does not change the message about what Jesus did and who he is.

Secondly, I think the supposed contradiction is easily resolved. First, Matthew was actually there, while Mark and Luke were not; they were reporting something they had heard from other apostles. Mark and Luke do not say “there was only one demon-possessed man.” Instead, it is just that the focus of their telling of the incident is on only the one man – that doesn’t mean there was no second man there with him.

Kari and I have been married for twenty-two years. There are certain stories from our lives and ministry together that we love to tell other people. But usually, Kari tells a story differently from the way I tell it. She focuses on details that are important to her, but don’t seem that significant to me. If you heard both of us tell the same incident, you might notice apparent discrepancies in various small details. If you probed what we were saying, however, you would find that we don’t actually contradict each other – we just tell the story in different ways, with emphasis on different things. I am quite certain that this is exactly the same kind of thing we find when we compare the gospels to each other.

What I think personally, is that there were two demonized men there, but one of them was in much worse shape than the other. I suspect that Mark and Luke decided to focus on the drama of the worst of the two, and kept the story simple by leaving his companion out of it. Matthew, however, experienced it as it happened. He probably didn’t know the back-story of the one man until later. At the time, the most dramatic thing for him was not the back-story of one of the men, but rather the person and actions of Jesus.

So let’s look at Matthew’s telling and see what the Holy Spirit tells us through it.

I find several things here remarkable, and worth looking at. First, there is something about this story that sort of pulls back the curtain, and gives us a glimpse into a corner of reality that frankly, we would often prefer to ignore. I call it the “spiritual dimension.” Others may call it the “spirit world,” or “the supernatural.” Frankly, the Bible doesn’t usually call it something special – in fact, the bible doesn’t really separate it from everyday life – it is just part of reality.

In the Western world, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that science will eventually be able to account for everything, proving at last that there is no such thing as the spiritual world. For instance, primitive peoples used to think that eclipses of the sun or moon were caused by angry spirits. Now we know that spirits have nothing to do with eclipses. But to any truly thoughtful person, it should be obvious that there are giant swaths of reality that will never be accessible to science. For example, take the idea of freedom. You can describe what the idea of freedom means, but you can’t study it in the same way you study what we call a “natural phenomenon” (like an eclipse). You may come up with some reason, based upon evolution, for the idea of freedom – but that doesn’t explain what the idea actually is. Even if someday scientists are able to isolate the proteins, chemicals and electrical impulses used in the human brain when we think “freedom” they still will not be studying what freedom actually is. If you kill someone who has the idea of freedom, somehow the idea continues to exist. I think it is safe to say that if you raised a generation of people who had never been exposed to the idea, somehow the idea of freedom would find its way into some of those people. Freedom has profoundly influenced entire civilizations – in fact the entire history of the world. Even so, you can’t touch it, or smell it or look at it under a microscope. It has no body; in fact, freedom (strictly speaking) has no physical properties at all. But any intelligent person can see that freedom is a real thing, even if we can’t quite lay hold of it with science.

We know that our reality is filled with non-corporeal things like freedom and hope and love and hate which are real things, and yet cannot be adequately explained or quantified by science. In fact these things are not “natural phenomena” at all. Strictly speaking, we might call them “supernatural,” though most modern people prefer the term “metaphysical.” If we so easily accept supernatural/metaphysical things like these, why should we dismiss out of hand, the idea of non-corporeal spirits?

In any case, if we are to believe the bible, we must realize that this is part of the reality that the bible takes for granted. Jesus, Paul, Peter, Moses, Matthew – all of the biblical writers assume that spirits – both good and evil, are part of what we call reality. In general, it calls evil spirits “demons” and good spirits “angels.” It appears that demons are actually angels who chose to follow Satan when he rebelled against God (Revelation 12:4; Jude 1:6)

I think one of the questions many American Christians have is, “if this is just part of reality, why don’t we see it more?” We always hear missionary stories from places Africa, the Middle-East and my childhood home, New Guinea, describing encounters with demons, but not often from the United States or Europe. I think there are two main reasons why.

First, this passage shows us that in a straight up, power-to-power encounter, Jesus always wins. In other words, demons, when faced with the presence and authority of Jesus, must leave. America and Europe have had, at least until very recently (and perhaps still), a strong presence of Christian disciples throughout the population. If demons operate so obviously, they will be driven out by the authority of Jesus, exercised by his followers. In a culture where there are many disciples of Jesus, it is more effective for the devil to operate through deception and moral corruption, than to risk a direct confrontation with the power of Jesus. In Africa and New Guinea and many other places in the world, the church has not been so strong or present in great numbers. There, demons are less likely to be driven out by the authority of Jesus, even if they overtly torment people.

Second, what there is of overt demonic activity in the United States is often not recognized as such. A few weeks ago I shared a story of deliverance from demonic harassment. If you remember, the individual in question had been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. Let me be clear, once again. I do not think that every psychological or mental disorder is demonic. Many, (perhaps most), of them are simply about brain chemistry or emotional injury. But I do know that there are some times when we mistakenly call something a psychological or emotional problem when in reality it is demonic.

I think is absolutely a mistake to suppose that every negative thing is caused directly by demonic activity. However, I think it is just as much a mistake to suppose that nothing is ever caused by it. For further reading I highly recommend reading The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. He weaves a compelling picture of how the demonic might work in ordinary modern life.

Back to the text, we have these evil spirits, connected with the bodies of these two unfortunate men, recognizing the Spirit of Jesus, in spite of the fact that Jesus also present in physical bodily form. Though there are physically three men involved, the confrontation is almost entirely spiritual.

The demons immediately knew Jesus as the Son of God. This is actually very important, because it tells us something significant about faith. These demons obviously knew who Jesus was. They weren’t denying that he was the Son of God. They weren’t denying his power or divinity. But they did not willingly embrace his authority over their lives. They knew who he was, but they rejected him as Lord over them. James writes:

You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe — and they shudder. (Jas 2:19, HCSB)

This goes along with the discipleship theme we spoke about a few weeks ago. Sometimes, we think that Christianity is simply about agreeing with a certain set of doctrines, but living our lives however we choose. Well, here we have demons who agree with the doctrine that Jesus is divine. But they did not follow him. They did not submit to him. With his power, he forced them to leave, but they did not leave out of willing obedience. You might say, in a narrow sense, that these demons held the correct doctrine about the identity of Jesus. But what they rejected was a relationship with him based upon love, grace and obedience. The demons weren’t wrong in their belief. They were wrong in attitude toward Jesus; specifically, they refused to willingly submit to him and obey him. They were rebellious.

So, as Jesus approaches and these rebellious spirits recognize him, they shout: “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”

The book of Revelation describes a lake of fire, where the devil and his followers are tormented forever (Revelation, chapters 19-20). Jude also predicts the final judgment of fallen angels:

And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— (Jude 1:6, ESV2011)

These demons apparently have some sort of awareness of the great torment awaiting them. Once again, we sort of looking behind the curtain at things we might not fully understand. Even though they remained disobedient, the demons knew that Jesus had the power to force them to do whatever he commanded. That alone is worth a thought or two. We find this surprising thing: they begged Jesus to let them go into a nearby herd of pigs. The impression I get is that Jesus normally sent demons to a place of anguish and suffering; perhaps just being among themselves with no opportunity to torment anything else was a terrible punishment for them. So they ask that he doesn’t send them (presumably) to hell, but instead lets them escape into a herd of nearby pigs. Even more surprising, Jesus grants their request.

The irony, of course, is that the demons drove the pigs mad, and they all killed themselves in the lake, presumably leaving the demons with no place else to go but to the place of torment after all. Evil always finds a way to do harm not only to others, but to self also.

The reaction of the people in that area still surprises me. They ask Jesus to leave, please. Some commenters suppose that they didn’t like the fact that they lost all those pigs, which were certainly valuable economic assets. However, Matthew says that the men who told about the incident emphasized not the loss of the pigs, but the fact that the two demonized men were restored to wholeness. Even so, the townspeople begged Jesus to leave.

I think the unfortunate truth is that the presence of Jesus stirs things up, makes changes in people’s lives, and many people would rather not deal with that. In addition, many people are afraid when they realize the kind of power Jesus actually has. It was more comfortable for them if Jesus would simply leave them alone. Yes, it was a hassle that no one could go near the tombs where the demon-possessed men were, but they were used to it, and had learned to work around it. Now Jesus comes along, and anything might happen. It wasn’t a comfortable thought for them. They would rather remain comfortable and live with their issues, than have him come in and shake things up.

So what is the Lord saying to you through this scripture today? Did you need to be confronted with the reality of the spiritual dimension? Have you been ignoring the fact that we have enemies there who would do us harm?

Or maybe you needed to be reminded today that Jesus’ power is infinitely greater than that of any demon – even greater than the devil himself. One whiff of the presence of Jesus, one word spoken in His authority, sends any demonic power away. You can trust Jesus. He is Lord not only of nature (as he showed with the calming of the storm) but also of supernature – the spiritual dimension.

Perhaps for you the important thing to hear was that evil finds a way to harm itself. Maybe you’ve been toying with some sin, or some course of action that, deep in your heart, you know is not right. Maybe you think if God just leaves you alone, you’ll be fine. Perhaps you need to remember what happened to the pigs.

Or maybe you need to be confronted with the fact that you’ve been pushing Jesus off to the side in order to keep your life more comfortable. Maybe he’s showing you that, so that you can make a better, choice, a choice to let him work in your life, however painful or scary that may feel.

Another possibility is that you have been hiding behind the same faith that demons have. You believe in Jesus; you have no problem acknowledging that he is the Son of God. But frankly, you don’t want him to have much to do with your life. You want to be in control yourself, rather than let him be Lord. Don’t be fooled: that kind of faith isn’t Christian faith at all. Surrender your “right” to be in charge of your own life, and give it to Jesus instead.

Let the Spirit speak to you right now! Listen and obey.

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WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN JESUS?

no-excuses

Jesus did not give people the option of being half-hearted about Him. We cannot escape the fact that receiving the grace we find in Jesus is inextricably connected, by Jesus Himself, to following and obeying Him, even when it means we have to give up many significant things in this life.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 27

 

Matthew #27 . Matthew 8:14-22

When Jesus went into Peter’s house, He saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. So He touched her hand, and the fever left her. Then she got up and began to serve Him. When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. He drove out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick, so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: He Himself took our weaknesses and carried our diseases.

Starting at the beginning of chapter eight, Matthew has been telling us of several healing incidents. Some commentators like to point out that the first two healings were done to people who were outcasts in the eyes of normal Jewish society at the time, so they say that Peter’s mother-in-law was also a kind of outcast – in that she was a woman. However, you can’t get this idea from either the text itself, or from actual historical evidence. In point of fact, given that Peter’s mother-in-law serves Jesus as soon as she is well (presumably meaning she cooked and served his dinner) and the fact that she lives with Peter, it’s pretty ridiculous to view her as some kind of outcast. I bring this up merely to caution us against trying to make the bible fit neatly with our pre-conceived patterns or biases. It’s unfortunate, but true, that sometimes people misinterpret, or even make up, historical and cultural details in order to get the bible to support their own agenda.

The point here is that Jesus didn’t just heal two outcasts – he healed a whole bunch of people, including good Jewish people like Peter’s mother-in-law. Even more than that, Matthew points out that this is a fulfillment of another prophecy about the Messiah, this time from Isaiah 53:4

Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried our pains

In other words, Jesus’ healing miracles provided yet another confirmation of who He truly was, and backed up his claims to have the authority of God Himself.

It also says that people brought many to Him who were demon-possessed, and Jesus drove out the spirits with a word. There has been some confusion for many Christians about the condition of being “demon-possessed.” The Greek word here is daimonidzomenous, which could be literally translated “being oppressed by demons.” A good shorthand translation of the root word would be “demonized.” The point I want to make is this. The New Testament does not usually paint a picture of someone being completely “taken over” or “inhabited” by demons (though there are a few exceptions). In most cases, when we see “demon possessed” in English, we should probably read it as meaning, “harassed by demons.” The ESV does a good job with this word, often translating it “oppressed by demons.”

I have some friends who have a son. Several years ago, the boy was exhibiting huge behavioral problems, and he was diagnosed by psychiatrists as having a condition called “reactive detachment disorder.” The parents didn’t know what to do, and had very little hope – they had tried everything that psychiatry and medicine had to offer. I talked to them about the possibility that their son was harassed by demons. They said, “We don’t think so. If we know anything, we do know that he truly trusts in Jesus.” They believed, as many Christians do, that a Jesus-follower cannot be possessed by a demon. I believe that too, but I do think that Jesus-followers can be harassed by demons, or, “demonized,” and the language of the New Testament suggests that is true; in fact, that is most often what daimonidzomai means. Anyway, we got together with the parents, their son, and some other friends, and confronted the demonic harassment in the name of Jesus, and their son’s life was transformed. We witnessed a genuine, New Testament miracle brought about by Jesus Christ.

I share all this for two reasons. First, so that if you are struggling with something that seems very difficult to get handle on, and nothing else seems to work, you may consider the possibility of demonic harassment. I certainly don’t think that all mental illnesses or behavioral issues are demon-induced. However, even among Christians, there is that possibility. The second thing is, Jesus is here present with us just as fully as he was in Peter’s house that evening, and through us He can and will still remove demonic oppression and set people free.

When Jesus saw large crowds around Him, He gave the order to go to the other side of the sea. A scribe approached Him and said, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go! ” Jesus told him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”

“Lord,” another of His disciples said, “first let me go bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

It appears that Jesus was not entirely happy about having crowds of people following him. These days, we think that the bigger a ministry or church is, the better and more effective it must be. Jesus didn’t seem to think so. He wanted to get away from them, and (it seems, from what follows) even thin out their ranks a little bit.

A man in the crowd comes to him. This individual was a scribe, which makes him one of the educated elite, and probably even wealthy. He calls Jesus “Rabbi,” or, “teacher.” He seems enthusiastic as he declares his commitment to Jesus and you would think Jesus would want to encourage him. These days, if an educated elite person came to a modern Christian pastor and enthusiastically said he wanted to join the church, most of us would say, “Oh Absolutely! I know you are going to love being part of our community. Please just let us know how we can minister to you.” Initially, we would talk about the benefits of following Jesus and of joining our church. We would probably feel nervous about suggesting ways that such a person might contribute until he had been with us for a while, and it would probably be even longer than that, if ever, before we pointed out how it might negatively affect his standing in the community and his financial security.

But Jesus’ response to this man amounts to basically this: “Whatever. You aren’t going to be able to keep your home if you follow me.”

If you have never noticed this side of Jesus before, I want you to pay attention now. He is shocking, almost rude. It almost seems like He doesn’t care if the man follows Him or not. I could quickly name a hundred or more church-goers and even church leaders who would chastise any pastor who acted like Jesus did in this situation; but actually, I’m not sure I know any pastor who would risk it.

But the truth is, all four gospels record Jesus behaving like this. Rather than trying to make discipleship appealing, he often seems to say things to discourage people from “joining the movement.” He consistently avoided and distrusted large crowds of people who appeared to be excited about him, at least, at a superficial level. In America, for a whole generation, Christian leaders have been trying to gather large, superficial crowds, hoping that they will move from shallow, non-committal church goers into true disciples. We challenge them only reluctantly and even then we do it very, very gently. However, Jesus immediately confronts people with the cost and commitment level required to follow him.

A second person was with Jesus. Matthew calls him a “disciple” and records that he calls Jesus “Lord.” The ancient church leader, Clement of Alexandria, writing about this passage one-hundred and fifty years later, records a tradition that says this was actually Philip, one of Jesus’ first two disciples, and one of the “twelve,” but we can’t know for sure.

This disciple says that he needs to bury his father before he can come with Jesus. Some commentators have speculated that the man’s father was not actually dead yet, but was elderly, and expected to die soon. In this case, the disciple was saying, “I’ll follow you, but not until I after I have finished dealing with my dad’s illness and eventual death.” The other possibility is that this disciple’s father had just died, and the burial was about to happen, and so he was saying to Jesus that he couldn’t go across the lake with him just now, because he had to go to the funeral.

Either way, Jesus’ response is once again shocking and rude: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” This is another one of those places that is not great moral teaching, or wise philosophy, or a kind outlook. In these two incidents Jesus plainly puts it to people that what he wants from them is to obey Him, and put Him above everything else. It is not good teaching or wise philosophy unless Jesus is in fact, the Messiah, God-in-the-flesh.

Could I put it this way? Jesus is not trying sell people on the benefits of being his disciple. He is up front about how hard it is. The reason to follow him is not because it will benefit you. The reason to follow him is because he is the Messiah, the Savior of the World, God the Son come in flesh.

The Word of God is always relevant. Just this week as I was preparing this sermon, one of the leaders of the largest church in the United States made a statement that the real reason to follow God and worship Him is for what we get out it, because it benefits us, and makes us happy, and that’s what makes God happy. All you have to do is read these verses to know how distorted that message is.

There’s more. This passage is not a specific command for every Christian to sell her house, or let her parents die unattended. But Matthew uses these as examples of the fact that Jesus intends us to put Him in front of absolutely everything and everyone else, and that there are times when doing that results in radical obedience that involves very difficult choices, and giving up things that are very dear to us.

At some point, following Jesus will cost us. Nothing should be more important to us than Jesus, and if it comes to it, yes, we should leave our family in His hands and follow Him, or be willing to give up our home and our financial security to follow him. It may cost us family members or friends, or a career, or the kind of life we think we want.

Let me be a little bold. I know many people who call themselves Christians who have a very difficult time taking even just a couple hours a week to worship Jesus with other believers, let alone dedicating any other time to serving Him. Something like giving up financial security to follow Jesus is not even on the horizons of their minds. Sports get in the way, especially sports for children. Families will think nothing of running their nine-year-old children to practices and games that chew up six to twenty hours in a week, and then say they are too tired to spend an hour or two learning more about Jesus and worshipping him with other believers, or even just hanging out with other Christians who need emotional or spiritual support. Jobs and careers interfere. People get busy with all sort of things: hobbies, home-improvement, social events, entertainment, even television.

Here we read that Jesus confronted one man about having a home, and a second about going to his father’s funeral. What do you think he has to say to you about your excuses for not following him, and not being more involved with others who do?

Following Jesus means he comes first, before everything and everyone. He comes before your home. Before your family, your friends or career. He comes before getting a sports scholarship for your child. He comes before your comfort, your security, your preferences, your plans.

We want to give half-hearted Christians an option. In part, we pastors allow half-hearted Christians in our churches because it feels safer, financially. Honestly, if I had whole bunch of half-hearted Christians in my church who would at least just give some money, I would feel better off financially than I am with these few whole-hearted Jesus-followers. If just don’t offend them, everything will be stable for me We also do it in the name of compassion. We don’t want people to feel bad about the choices they are making, especially if they are not choices to sin overtly. I mean, what’s so bad about sports?

But do we really think we are more compassionate than Jesus? Isn’t it compassion to tell someone the truth? Would you want a doctor to tell you that you were absolutely fine, when in reality you were suffering from cancer, and needed treatment immediately if you were to be cured? Compassion would speak the hard truth: “You need treatment, and you need it now.”

Jesus did not give people an option to be half-hearted about Him. “You want to follow me, you will have no house.” Or, “You want to follow me, you won’t be able to take care of your elderly father, or even go to his funeral.” This is not an obscure teaching of Jesus. We will revisit it again in the book of Matthew, and it appears all throughout the New Testament. Still to come (in just Matthew) are: “You want to follow me, you have to put me above father, mother, husband, wife, children, sister and brother,” and “You want to follow me, be willing to die – to give up everything for me – every single day.” The compassion of Jesus tells us this: If He is not first, if he does not come before everything, we are in danger, and we need treatment.

Now, there is grace to us when we fail to put Jesus first. Let’s suppose for moment that the second man here, the disciple, was in fact Philip. He had been putting his father first. Jesus confronted him about it. We know that Philip humbly received that correction, and he went on to become an important leader in the early church, responsible for sending Christianity to Africa for the very first time. I fail to put Jesus first sometimes. I imagine we all do. He has compassion on us, and forgives us, but he does also call us to correct the mistake.

It often seems like we have made the faith into a set of intellectual beliefs which to which we subscribe. And that’s comfortable, because we can say believe those things, no matter what our behavior. But what the bible calls faith is really just following Jesus. We cannot escape the fact that receiving the grace we find in Jesus is inextricably connected by Jesus Himself to following and obeying Him, even when it means we have to give up many significant things in this life.

“Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world. Happy are those who know that discipleship simply means the life that springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship. Happy are they who have become Christians in this sense of the word. For them the word of grace has proved a fount of mercy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

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