The 4th Sunday After Epiphany January 29, 2006
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
2, 375, 339, 283
Then they went into Capernaum and immediately on the Sabbath [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee.
In Christ Jesus, whose Word is our life and light, dear fellow Christians:
Would you be willing to set aside several hours of free time every weekend in order to dress up, travel anywhere from a few blocks to 30 miles or more, and sit in a building which may be chilly in the winter and overly warm in the summer? Once there, instead of watching a new movie or cheering for a basketball team, would you sit and listen to some familiar words, respond with words and songs of your own, and then return home? Would you do it? We are doing that every time we come to church, aren’t we?
But there are people who don’t understand it. Why make weekend activities fit around Sunday worship? Why come to church when there are so many other places we could be and other things we could be doing? Is it really worth the trip?
Perhaps there were some in the synagogue at Capernaum who were asking that question too. But if so, Jesus quickly swept their doubts away. The people were amazed at Jesus’ words. They had heard other guest preachers. It wasn’t uncommon for a visiting rabbi to be invited to address the congregation. But no one before had ever spoken like Jesus. Was His voice exceptionally deep and rich like that of James Earl Jones? Did the windows rattle when He preached? I don’t think so.
But He did speak with the authority of someone who knew what He was talking about and who had a right to say it. If you’re not feeling well and you describe your hacking cough, fever, and chills to the neighbor next door, he may tell you that you have the Bangkok flu and you should stay home in bed. But why listen to the neighbor? You may decide to ignore his advice and keep going. However, if that neighbor is an infectious disease specialist at the Center for Disease Control (CDC), you would likely take his words much more seriously. He may not say them any louder or differently, but because of who he is, his words have greater authority.
Jesus’ words have great authority because of who He is. There had been many prophets and teachers before, but through Moses God had promised to send a prophet above all others. “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (Deuteronomy 18:18). Jesus was that one special Prophet.
What set Him apart from others like Moses and Elijah was that He is much more than a mere man. He is also true God with all the authority of God. His words then are God’s direct message to us. John makes that point in his Gospel account: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14). Since Jesus and the Father are one, His words carry all the authority of God. We can be sure they are absolutely true and unchanging, just as God is. For the three years of His earthly ministry Jesus preached with that divine authority.
If the Lord Himself were to stand before us today, we would be amazed and astonished too. What an incredible opportunity to listen to words from God Himself! It would be worth the trip! We do have that opportunity today and every time we gather here. Even though we don’t see Him with our eyes, Jesus promises, “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). He is here with us and, at the same time, with our fellow Christians in San Francisco and Florida, and with our brothers and sisters in the faith at Uttukottai, India and Efa, Nigeria.
Not only is He present with us, He speaks to us through His Word. He told the disciples, “He who listens to you listens to me” (Luke 10:16). We come here to listen to words, but not just words. They are words direct from God, which come with the promise of Jesus’ presence and blessing upon us. That makes it worth every mile of the trip!
We don’t know exactly what Jesus preached in Capernaum that Saturday morning, but the congregation described it as a new doctrine—a teaching different from what they had heard before. They were used to the teaching of the Jewish Bible scholars called scribes. The scribes talked about the Bible a great deal, but completely missed the point. They saw it as a collection of rules, which if a person kept well enough, he could get to heaven. With that in mind, the Jews added hundreds of other rules designed to make sure they would keep the Law. They twisted Scripture to make it say what they wanted it to. Jesus summed it up like this: “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Matthew 15:9 NIV).
The same thing is still happening. Many churches and religious leaders talk a lot about the Bible, but mangle it to make it say what they want it to. They may talk about the prophecies in Revelation, but then interpret them according to their own preconceived ideas. They may zero in on social issues like fair and just treatment without prejudice for all, and say that is what God’s Word is all about. Some point to what the Bible says about the Christian lifestyle, and teach that if you try your best to live that way, God will be pleased and you will be saved.
But there is nothing new in any of that. It reflects the world’s approach to everything in life. It is the basic idea that mankind can improve his world and take care of himself by his own intellect, will, and action. “If you want or need something, go out and do whatever it takes to get it.” In that way of thinking, the burden rests on us to do and perform.
It’s a burden no one can successfully carry. What do you do when you have tried your best to improve yourself spiritually, and your conscience still condemns you as guilty? What do you do when mankind has tried since the beginning of time to overcome death, and yet it is still 100% fatal? The world’s response is “Keep trying! It will just take time.” But that begins to sound hollow and unconvincing before long.
Jesus came with a new kind of message, not a self-help program, but a free giveaway. He said through Isaiah: “The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2 NIV). This was new, eye-popping, amazing news! Rather than preaching the same old “Do this, don’t do that, and you can make things right with God,” Jesus taught about God’s unconditional love and how that love would move Him to do everything necessary for the salvation of mankind.
God’s Law demands perfect obedience. We can’t do it, but Jesus announced that He would do it for the world. God’s Law states that the punishment for breaking even the smallest command of God is eternal death in Hell. Jesus left the disciples speechless when He explained to them that He was going to Jerusalem, not to be crowned king, but to suffer and die as the payment-sacrifice for sin.
All week long we hear about problems and tragedies and conflicts in the world. We experience them in our own lives. We hear all kinds of promises and expert advice on how to deal with them. We don’t need more of the same when we come here. Here the Lord Himself speaks to us with words that are just as new and fresh as they were in the synagogue of Capernaum. He doesn’t load us down with more burdens and obligations. Instead, He tells us that He loves us with an everlasting love, and has taken all our burdens on Himself. He gives us the righteousness we lack free of charge. He sweeps away all our guilt by telling us that He already suffered for it on the cross. He tells us all is right now between us and God. Hearing that is well worth the trip every week!
There is an expression which says, “Talk is cheap!” Political candidates crisscross the country making promises of what they will do if elected President. All those words, though, are worthless if they are not followed by action. The Jewish scribes could change the outward lives and actions of the people with all their religious rules, but they could not change the heart and attitude.
But Jesus’ words are more powerful than anything else in heaven or on earth. Even Satan’s strength is no match for Jesus, as we see in the synagogue. The man who was possessed by a demon cried out in fear, “Leave us alone!” He recognized the Lord’s power and trembled. And when Jesus told him to be quiet and come out, the demon had to release his victim and leave. Throughout Jesus’ life on earth there was an ongoing war between the Lord and the Devil, and Jesus won every battle. It led finally to the cross where Jesus once and for all silenced Satan when He called out in victory, “It is finished!” With that, the Devil’s stranglehold around the world’s neck was broken. The sin which had kept us under his power was paid for in full. We were set free!
Jesus’ word still works powerfully and miraculously in our lives every time we hear it. What can calm and give real comfort in the face of problems, a hospital stay, or even death? Where can we find real security, not just for the present, but for all time? Where can we find a joy and purpose to life that is far more meaningful than the pursuit of dollars and possessions? Nowhere except in the words of Jesus.
That word also gives us the power to believe and act on faith. St. Paul worked at a pace which would have exhausted a far younger man. He showed unequaled bravery. He was optimistic even when shackled and locked in prison stocks. How could he go on? He tells us, “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 NIV).
Look to Jesus’ words for all the power you need: power to trust in the Lord, even when your reason says, “Don’t,” power to speak out for the Lord, even when you’re afraid, power to overrule natural selfishness and give generously for the Lord’s work, power to follow Jesus when the Devil shows us an easier path. With the power of Jesus’ words, we, too, can do all to His glory.
Every week we gather here to listen to the Lord’s words. It is not always convenient, and there are always other things we could be doing instead. It takes time, money, and effort to be here. Is it worth the trip to hear just words? You can stake your soul on it, because it is not just words, but the Word of God which is always new and fresh, and which will work miracles in our hearts and lives. No wonder David wrote, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Psalm 122:1 NIV). Lord, we do too! Amen.
Precious Jesus, I beseech Thee,
May Thy words take root in me;
May this gift from heaven enrich me
So that I bear fruit for Thee!
Take them never from my heart
Till I see Thee as Thou art,
When in heavenly bliss and glory
I shall greet Thee and adore Thee.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.