Back to School: You've Been Left Behind
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For the next few weeks, young people from across the country will head off to college— many leaving home for the first time. For a student, especially a new college-bound teenager, it’s an exciting time. But with all the anticipation and excitement that surrounds the individuals leaving home and heading in a new direction, there’s also a certain amount of somberness for all those still at home. Whether you're a parent or sibling watching a family member go off to college, or just a friend seeing all your former classmates leave for far-off experiences, being the one still at home can be lonely.
I remember sitting in church as a junior in high school, seeing a handful of my friends who were a year older graduating. I was happy and excited for them, but being one of the ones left behind can be kind of a bummer. Now, years later, I volunteer with the youth at my church, and it’s cool to see the kids I’ve been working with get ready to take the next step and move away to college; but for all the students who aren’t going anyway, I can tell it’s bitter-sweet.
We’re all familiar with the stories of the apostles and their adventures following Jesus, but there are also a few stories in the Gospels that talk about what it’s like being the ones who are left behind. After all, Jesus touched many people with His ministry, but only a handful were selected to follow Him.
Mark 5 tells the story of the demon-possessed man of Gerasenes. When Jesus and His disciples travel across the Sea of Galilee to the town of Geransenes, they’re met with one of the strangest characters in the New Testament. Here’s how Mark describes 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 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 (, NIV).
In other words, this guy had some serious problems.
The region, known as Decapolis, wasn’t exactly a friendly place in general at the time, especially if you were in ministry. Aside from the superhuman demoniac roaming around graveyards, a crowd of locals ended up chasing Jesus and His disciples away shortly after they arrived. This was a land of worldly Gentiles — no place for religious Hebrews.
Many people are familiar with the rest of the story: Jesus casts a legion of demons out of the man, they overtake a herd of pigs, who then run into the sea and drown. But next the part of the story is often overlooked — the less sensational but just-as-significant portion. “As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him” ().
Imagine what it’s like to be this poor guy. Your life is so messed up and overwhelmed by evil that you’ve literally been cast out of society. If you think God has delivered you from a bad situation, just look at this guy. Not only are people terrified of him, but everyone knows that he is too far-gone to even associate with.
Then Jesus comes along.
But after miraculously changing this man’s life — literally in an instant — Jesus doesn’t allow him to come with Him. No, Jesus wanted him to stay right where he was. Here's what Jesus tells him:
“‘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 here’s the best part; the Bible says, “And all the people were amazed” ()
This may seem a little over-the-top when talking about having to say goodbye to students going away to college, but it speaks to the desperation that’s often felt by being left behind.
How many times do we beg God to let us go with Him and the people getting to go do really cool things? God, I want to serve you on the mission field. God, I want to have adventures in exotic places preaching your word. God, I want to be one of the ones going off to college! Those are all great desires, and many times God calls you to do those things. But sometimes, He wants you stay right where you are at. Even when that’s harder than leaving.
The formerly demon-possessed man had a tough road ahead. Can you imagine facing an entire town of people who only knew you as a mad-man prone to Incredible Hulk-style rage?
Let’s not forget that the guy was so grateful, that he literally begged Jesus to allow him to come along for the rest of the ride. But Jesus wanted to show us something — we may not have to live in a city after being known as the town lunatic, but staying behind isn’t always easy. Sometimes though, staying home is exactly what God wants us to do.
There are indications that this was the first experience many people on that side of the Sea of Galilee had with Jesus. It was a land of Gentiles who hadn’t yet heard the Good News Jesus came to bring. But after staying long enough save the demon-possessed man, Jesus and His entourage of disciples got on their boat and left.
You have to read between the lines a little bit to figure out what happened next, but scripture is clear that through the testimony of one man — the man who Jesus left behind — an entire region became receptive to the Gospel. In Mark 7, when Jesus finally returns to the region, He finds a much different reception. Instead of being chased off by a handful of terrified locals like last time, this time around, 4,000 people are waiting when His boat appears on the horizon. The crowd followed Jesus and intently listened to His teachings.
So what happened? What changed an entire region from being hostile to the Gospel to a place where multitudes gathered to wait for the return of Jesus? It was the testimony of one man — one man who was obedient to Jesus and stayed behind when all the disciples got in a boat and left for more adventures. The guy who was left behind.
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