Saturday, January 30, 2010
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (January 31, 2010)
“Christ’s Word has Authority and Power” (Luke 4:31-44)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As a parent, it’s important to learn how to speak authoritatively. If you are trying to stop your three-year old from picking up a sharp knife on the counter, you probably don’t want to say (in a mousy tone of voice), “Honey, don’t do that, okay? You might hurt yourself.” Instead, you are going to want to muster up the strongest, loudest voice possible, declaring a loud, “STOP!” You want to speak and exercise your authority in order to keep your child from harm.
Likewise, teachers are taught something which involves learning how to speak with authority. When you give your students instructions, such as “Take out your textbooks and turn to page 23,” don’t tack on the word, “Okay?” … like I demonstrated with the knife-and-three-year-old incident. When you end every instruction with the word, “Okay?,” it implies that the students have the option to not take out their textbooks or do whatever you have told them to do. You are not making a request. You are instructing them to do something. Say it like you mean it: “Take out your textbooks and turn to page 23.” Period. As a parent I try to remember this little piece of advice, too. When I’m telling my children to do something, I’m not looking for their agreement. I expect them to do it right away. They are the ones whom I expect to say, “Okay, dad.” Now, talk to me after church and I’ll tell you how well that’s going for me.
In today’s Gospel reading, we heard about the authoritative word of Jesus. Prior to this, Jesus was in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth where he was invited to read from the Scriptures and explain what he had just read. If you were here last week, you remember what happened. The people didn’t react so well to his sermon. They ran Jesus out of town and just about threw him off a cliff. Now, here he is in the city of Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Once again, he goes into the synagogue and teaches the people gathered there. St. Luke tells us that the people “were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.” Jesus’ word was not authoritative because he didn’t attach the word “Okay” on the end. St. Mark gives us a clue as to why the people perceived authority in our Lord’s teaching. In Mark’s account of this event, he adds, “he taught as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) In other words, his teaching was unlike the teachers of the law. Their custom was to offer numerous quotes from rabbis who had gone before them in order to support their authority. This was apparently not the case with Jesus. He simply explained the text. Besides, what higher authority can you have than the Author himself?
The Author of Life confronted the Author of Rebellion there in Capernaum (as he did throughout his earthly ministry). The devil is chief of all the angels who rebelled against God not long after creation was finished. Taking the form of a serpent, he deceived Adam and Eve and tempted them to disobey God. In this way, sin came into the world. Remember, sin is not only disobedient actions. It is a destructive depravity. It is a corrupting condition. Every human being now carries a rebellious sinful nature. And all creation is affected by that sin, as St. Paul writes in Romans 8:22, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
Today’s text shows us sin’s powerful effects. The presence of both demons and disease has caused that groaning of which Paul writes.
Demon possession has been the subject of movies like the Exorcist in 1973 and The Exorcism of Emily Rose in 2005. Hollywood has sensationalized the whole topic of demon possession. But demons are real. The Bible makes that clear. They don’t just exist in nightmares or in World of Warcraft (a popular online role-playing game). Demons are evil spirits, those angels who followed Satan in his rebellion against God. Luke describes the demon in our text as “unclean,” as if a demon could be anything other than unclean. Calling this spirit unclean stresses the foul nature of demons, how they are responsible for all sorts of deceptive, disgusting, and destructive behaviors and attitudes. One thing to note, however, is that demons really don’t appear all that much in the Bible other than in the Gospels. It seems as though they kicked their activity into high gear during Jesus’ earthly ministry. After all, they knew who Jesus was. They called him “the Holy One of God” … “the Son of God.” So at the very moment the Messiah was present to inaugurate his kingdom, the devil led his enemy forces into battle to derail that kingdom. Do demons still operate today? Yes, they do, but it seems as though God hasn’t given the same wide berth as we read about in the Gospels. Nevertheless, don’t walk right into the devil’s territory. Don’t walk into that palm reader’s business just for fun. Don’t think that just because someone says that they hear from angels that they are good angels. If you dabble around in things like this, then you are giving the devil a wide berth to walk right into your life and wreak havoc, bringing disbelief and despair.
Disease is another piece of evidence that we live in a sin-broken world. God made the world perfect in the beginning. There were no such things as blazing fevers, diabetes, cancer, or H1N1, to name a few. It’s always a temptation when we are ill to ask, “What did I do to deserve this? Is God punishing me for some particular sin?” But that’s a question that has its origin in the pit of hell, because it leads to doubt and despair. People get sick and die because we live in a world that is damaged by sin and death. It’s evidence that there’s something wrong with the world, not that you have committed any particular sin. We’re all sinners and we’re all dying, even those of us with perfect blood pressure, perfect blood sugar, and whose bodies are in excellent physical shape. Jesus dealt with this when asked about two examples of fatal catastrophes that befell two different groups of people. (Luke 13:1-5) His answer? It wasn’t that the people who died were worse sinners than everyone else. But the warning given is that these events ought to lead us to repent of our sins, since we very well could have been in the shoes of those people who died and face a worse fate than a building falling down upon us.
Yes, sin has some very powerful effects. But it is nothing like the powerful Word of Jesus. Jesus speaks and destroys the devil’s kingdom. The prophet Jeremiah’s ministry was only a prelude to Jesus’ ministry, who was set over “nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jer. 1:10) “The reason the Son of God appeared,” writes St. John, “was to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8) St. Peter says that Satan is like a “roaring lion.” (1 Pet. 5:8) But with his powerful Word, Jesus turns him into nothing more than a muzzled dog. With authority, Jesus says, “Be quiet!” Jesus rebukes the demon who had taken residence in the man in our text. The unclean spirit is silenced. He will not allow the demons to proclaim him, but wants the people to acclaim him on the basis of the works he does as the promised Messiah. Silenced, the demon takes one parting shot at the man, throwing him down to the ground before coming out of him. But in the end, the man was not harmed.
With Jesus and His powerful Word on your side, Satan cannot harm you. He is only a muzzled dog. He may bark and snarl at you. But he cannot harm you. God’s authoritative Word and Name were placed upon you in Baptism. You were brought out of the devil’s realm of unbelief and confusion into God’s realm of faith and peace. The Holy Spirit took up residence in you, so you need have no fear of any unclean spirits taking up residence in you. Your Lord Jesus is a mighty fortress for you. Christ is a “fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls” which the devil cannot break down. (Jer. 1:18) To be sure, Satan “will fight against you.” But resting in Christ’s grace and standing in his strength, he “will not prevail against you.” (Jer. 1:19)
Likewise, Jesus speaks and diseases are healed. Did you notice how Jesus “rebuked” the fever in Simon’s mother-in-law in the same way as he “rebuked” the demon? He rebukes both because they are both evidence of the corruption of our world through sin. And just as demons have to flee at Christ’s word, so does disease.
Some might say that the miraculous doesn’t happen any longer. I would never want to limit God in that way. He does as he pleases. There are people who have had certain conditions disappear which the doctors can’t explain. Miracles? Probably. We can’t say for sure unless we have a clear word from the Lord. One thing I do know. When Jesus heals, it is instantaneous and complete. Simon’s mother-in-law immediately got up and was able to wait on everyone. Also, when Jesus heals, it’s without all the “huffing and puffing” that you see in some circles. But let’s not forget the healing that Jesus does the vast majority of times. Jesus heals today through doctors and nurses and medicine and relief workers today. It is still the powerful Word of Jesus that works behind the scenes and under the hands of those who work in the healing arts in order to bring wholeness and healing to those who are hurting and hospitalized. There was another time when Jesus was asked about someone with a debilitating condition. The disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind.” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:2-3) Jesus proceeded to heal the man in order to display the work of God in his life.
Jesus speaks his authoritative, powerful Word. Demons flee. Disease takes flight. Sins are forgiven. But the works of God don’t always appear miraculous. Words, water, bread and wine seem pretty common. But the Author of Life has attached his authoritative Word to them. He writes you into his story and makes you a part of his life, death, and resurrection and uses earthly things to deliver heavenly gifts to you. And the works of God were certainly on display in Haiti as help and healing flowed in the name of Christ through the tender touch of aid workers following the recent tragic earthquake. But there was still death there. A lot of it. Where is the healing in that, you may ask? Where is God in all of that? For those Christians who died there, and for all Christians who have died anywhere, they have still been healed. They are with the Lord and await the coming resurrection of all flesh, where bodies and hearts and souls and minds once diseased and distraught will be made whole for eternity.