Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 1, 2009)
“The Authority of Jesus” (Mark 1:21-28)
How can you tell that someone is speaking with authority? Are you more apt to listen to someone if they have a number of academic degrees? Will you trust the word of someone who has published scholarly articles and books over against someone who has not? Or is the way they carry themselves that gives them such authority? Is it their skillful and eloquent way of speaking that adds weight to their words?
Jesus did not have any academic degrees. He wrote no articles or books, as far as we know. He took no speech classes at “Nazareth High School.” Jesus was a carpenter’s son. He was from a town of no particular significance. Yet he was acknowledged as a rabbi, a teacher and expositor of Holy Scripture. When Jesus visited the synagogue in Capernaum, he was invited to speak as the visiting rabbi, since it was customary to offer that privilege to guest teachers.
And the people noticed something different about the way Jesus taught. The evangelist writes, “They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” They were dumbfounded. You can imagine the people gathered there, leaning forward, watching him carefully, hanging on every word that came from our Lord’s mouth. Towards the end of today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, the people say, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!”
What exactly was it that made Christ’s teaching so different? Was it the manner in which he presented it? Was it the content of what he was teaching? Probably both are intended. The scribes were the scholars of the day and were experts in the Law of God and its application. But apparently their teaching was dull, concerned with nit-picky details. They were concerned with the man-made traditions of the elders. They quoted many different rabbis as authorities, but had difficulty coming to a conclusion about anything. But Jesus ... here was someone different. We don’t know what he said to the gathering there in Capernaum. Perhaps it was similar to other discourses of his, like the Sermon on the Mount, or some of his parables. Whatever it was, it was not dull. He spoke like one of the prophets of old. He spoke as if he could be the prophet like Moses promised in Deuteronomy 18, with the very words of the Lord being placed in his mouth. And in fact, he was that very prophet, and so much more than a prophet. When Jesus spoke, he spoke on his own authority, and not anyone else’s. When Jesus spoke, it was God himself speaking.
But wherever Jesus displays his authority, there is resistance. A man with an unclean spirit enters the synagogue. The demon asserts his authority over this man’s mouth and cries out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What is there between you and us? Leave us alone! Get lost!
Now, first, I want to make a comment here about the reality of evil spirits, or demons. Demons are fallen angels whom God has caused to remain in their fallen condition and who are now adversaries of both God and mankind. In the absence of the Holy Spirit, evil spirits can take possession of someone’s faculties, as we see in the case of the man in today’s account. Some people in our day and age would deny the existence of evil spirits. They claim that the descriptions of possession in the Bible are not really demon possession, but they are simply reflecting the common beliefs of the day. They read the accounts of demon possession and make the claim that these were probably examples of epilepsy or mental illness, but not to be attributed to some evil force. However, in the accounts of various healings by Jesus, the Gospel writers make distinctions between cases of demon possession which cause certain physical ailments and other cases where someone has an affliction but there is no mention of any evil spirit causing the affliction. So the writers of Holy Scripture acknowledge the existence of evil, unclean spirits. We don’t seem to run into them in the same way as Jesus did during his earthly ministry. That’s probably because Satan and his evil forces kicked into high gear when Jesus walked on the earth, although you do hear today, from time to time, cases of what seem to be true demon possession. The challenge today is to avoid the extremes. We need to be careful not to overestimate demonic power. At the same time, we need to be careful that we don’t underestimate it either. It is real and it resists Christ’s authority. It resists anything that has to do with God.
As baptized believers in Jesus, you and I have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. We don’t have to worry about a demon taking over our body. But why, then, do we still resist Christ’s authority so often? It’s because we still have our old sinful nature clinging to us. It does not like being told what to do and what not to do. We like to have things our way. We think that Jesus takes the fun out of everything. It would be more fun if he would just leave us alone and get lost.
And unlike the synagogue crowd, we don’t hang on every word that comes out of our Lord’s mouth, especially when it comes from the mouths of preachers who may not be the most exciting or entertaining. We wish that things could get spiced up a bit. Christ’s teaching has failed to astonish us. God’s Word has become boring.
But these attitudes have their source in the devil and the devil’s kingdom. The devil and our sinful flesh try to wrest control from God’s hands and to seize it for their own. But when we try to wrest control from God’s hands, that’s when things get out of control. Just look at the chaos that a demon caused in the life of this man and others in the Scriptures. Just note the demonic chaos that sin has brought into the world, a world which resists Christ’s authority and rejects the reconciliation that he won for us at the cross.
Nevertheless, Jesus is and always will be in control. The unclean spirit cried out, “Have you come to destroy us?” Jesus doesn’t answer with words, but he does in deeds. The answer is “Yes,” as he drives the demon out of the man and destroys the devil’s damnable works (Lenski, Mark, p. 79). St. John wrote, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8) Jesus came to destroy the devil’s kingdom and all that is associated with it. Jesus took away the curse of God’s holy Law that hung over us ever since Adam and Eve were led into sin by the Serpent. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’” Jesus fulfilled the Law in our place and took the curse of the Law upon himself at the cross. And Jesus conquered death when he rose again on Easter morning and will raise to eternal life all who have been brought into his kingdom by faith, as 1 Corinthians 15:26 says, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
St. Mark records Jesus’ healing of this man with an unclean spirit right off the bat in chapter 1 of his Gospel. It’s as if he’s making the point right away about Jesus’ divine power and authority over the devil and his kingdom. But Jesus’ miracle-making is never the main point. It’s his preaching. In fact, just a few verses earlier, Mark tells us that Jesus came preaching “the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Gospel.” Jesus came to destroy the devil’s kingdom and bring us into his kingdom, not by a show of power, but by bringing people to a repentant trust in his saving work.
Elsewhere, the Bible says that when an unclean spirit has gone out of a person, they pass through “waterless places seeking rest” but finds none. (Matt. 12:43; Luke 11:24) But our gracious God sends us into the waters and gives us rest. God the Holy Spirit enters in through water and the Word of Baptism. The unclean spirits who would seek to control us flee. Jesus brings us into his kingdom so that we can repent, and believe the Gospel ... turn away from our sins, and turn in faith towards our Lord who died for our sins, restored our relationship with God, forgives us, and grants us everlasting life. He drowns our old sinful nature and washes our sins away. Jesus gives us rest in the forgiveness of sins that he applies to us personally through water and the Word.
Jesus is the Holy One of God before whom we bow in homage and worship. The unclean spirit called him “the Holy One of God,” but not in faith. That’s why Jesus told him to “Be quiet!” He will not have anyone speak his name apart from faith. To do otherwise is blasphemy. Rather than kicking against Christ’s authority, we submit to his authority. We are amazed at his teaching, and not just because it is new and novel and creative, but because it is the truth. This is true freedom, freedom from our bondage to sin and self and Satan. Apart from the authority of Christ, there is chaos and anarchy. But under the authority of his gracious Gospel, there is life and peace.
Jesus silenced the demon, but there was no silencing the crowds. St. Mark records that “at once his fame spread everywhere.” Today, Jesus sends us out, and there is no silencing us. He sends us out with his Word to repent and believe the Gospel. Having heard his Word, and having received his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of your faith, Jesus sends his Church out today to “spread his fame everywhere.”