The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany January 31, 2010
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
340(1-5), 417(1-4), 417(5-7), 340(6-9)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He 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.
Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
One of the rare but pleasant occurrences in life is that of encountering someone in a field who really knows what they’re talking about and knows how to get it across to you—to meet someone who “gets it”! Perhaps you’ve taken your car from one mechanic to the next and heard the same worn-out remedies that you need to change the fuel filter, you need a new muffler, belt, and so on.” Then finally, you hit upon the one who knows right away what that weird sound is coming from and what is more, you know that he knows and you’re confident that he’s the one to fix your car. The same is sometimes true with doctors and other professions as well. It is a real blessing to come across one who knows what is ailing you, knows what to do about it, and can communicate that to you.
In today’s text, we see people who had that same marvelous experience of finally hearing from someone who really knew what He was talking about and who also knew how to impart that wisdom to His hearers. On top of that, they found out that He had the authority to back it up. Here was someone who “got it,” who had it, and who could prove it. No wonder the word quickly went out and around the country about the marvelous authority of Jesus’ word. I. It prevails over human doctrines, and II. It prevails over demonic power.
We first see the marvelous authority of Jesus’ Word in the fact that it prevails over human doctrine. Today we sometimes hear of “information overload.” Never before in the history of mankind have we had such abundant opportunities to get our hands on every conceivable bit of information. With the radio in the car, TV news broadcast at every hour of the day, and the mother of all rumor-mills—the internet—readily available, we have access to far more information than we could ever need or absorb. Certainly, there is a place for trying to keep abreast on developments in the world and for exchanging ideas, but we also realize that we are constantly stuck with the wearying job of sifting out the truth from layer upon layer of fiction.
You might think they had it easier back in Jesus’ day—simple agrarian village life, and all that—but that’s not so. They had a definite information problem too though not necessarily a lack of it, just a lack of good information.
In Jesus’ day, Jewish religious life centered around the synagogue. The Jews only had one temple and that was in Jerusalem, but ever since the return from Babylon their daily local worship-life was centered around gathering-houses—the synagogue. A copy of the Torah—the Law—was kept in the synagogue and the rabbis taught the people there. The problem was that the rabbis spent much of their time not so much in telling and expounding the words of Moses and the prophets but in retelling the teachings, judgments; and opinions of previous rabbis. When we hear Jesus criticized by the Pharisees because they noticed that Jesus’ disciples did not follow the tradition of the elders in hand-washing practices, their idea of tradition was more than a mere cultural habit. Tradition in the synagogue life of the Jews had to do with teachings that were handed down from one generation to another. The rabbis felt it was their duty to teach these warmed-over notions to their people. What made it all the more wearying was that there were generally conflicting traditions handed down, often presented in the form of debates between long dead rabbis.
The tragedy was that this tradition of teaching the doctrines of men in preference to the solid Word of God tended to obscure the sobering and glorious truths of the Word of God. Jesus had it right when He called it a case of the “Blind leading the blind” (Luke 6:39).
But along came Jesus one Sabbath to a synagogue in Capernaum. He began to teach the people and He taught them from the source—the Law and the Prophets. He didn’t just rehash some moral-sounding passages. He laid the powerful Word of God on their hearts. We’re not told specifically what He said, but we can draw some assumptions from some other examples in the Gospels. He would have preached the Law—man’s obligation and accountability to God as He did in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said ‘you shall not murder.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…” (Mathew 5:21-22).
But Jesus also saw fit to lift up people’s hearts, to revitalize them with hope in the gracious work of the God of their fathers. So He opened the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, which drew on all sorts of concepts of the Old Testament: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3-5).
Jesus’ authority to preach the Word of God and to lay it so firmly on His hearers came to Him naturally, for He is God’s Son in the flesh. He repeatedly assured people that He was there only to do the will of His Father. He had no personal agenda. In His will and goals, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). The bottom line is that Jesus’ words in themselves were so rooted in the eternal truths of God’s Word that people immediately saw the difference between His message and the confused gobbledygook that they heard from others. But they were in for more than just a good sermon. They were about to see a marvelous testimony to the power of Jesus’ Word.
The authority of Jesus’ Word appears as it prevails over demonic power. The Devil and his fallen angels, or demons, are all around us and always have been. Luther pictured this fact when his friends tried to dissuade him from traveling to Worms to testify before the Emperor: “Go and tell your master that even should there be as many devils in Worms as tiles on the housetops, still I would enter it!” But there was something strange and horrible going on in Jesus’ day as there are many cases of demon possession mentioned in Scripture. Demon possession has been known before and since Jesus’ time, but not in the intensity of the days of Jesus’ ministry. Such possession was not just a primitive description of common medical or mental problems. Satan clearly was trying to ramp up the terror and confusion of people of the day in his war against the Kingdom of God.
Satan’s activities in this world are proven in the idolatry and superstition that have gripped people throughout the world across the ages and even today. He deceives people into thinking that their fate is linked to the alignment of the planets or the phase of the moon. He perverts their worship from honoring the unseen God to worshiping “four-footed beasts, and birds, and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). It was in that sort of context that Moses told the Israelites that the Lord would send them a prophet saying, “Him you shall hear,” and warned them to have nothing to do with the idolatry and superstitions of the people in the Promised Land (Exodus 18:15ff).
In this case, a demon-possessed man publicly confronted Jesus while He was teaching in the synagogue. The presence of Jesus aroused the demon, no doubt causing a lot of fear among the people. He identified Jesus, first by His home town and later by His divine origin. The Gospel accounts indicate that this was a pretty common feature of such encounters. Satan and his armies knew very well what Jesus was doing on this earth and they were clearly livid about it.
Jesus silenced and expelled the evil thing from the man. He didn’t leave easily, but was powerless to resist Jesus’ command. It is strange for us to contemplate such a case of demon possession in the first place, it is even harder to imagine how wonderful it was for the man and the people around who saw with their own eyes what Jesus had done. The man was freed of a strange and horrible power and could go forward with his life in thanks and praise.
This miracle, of course, serves notice of the powerful and wonderful mission of Jesus which was not just to cast out the occasional demon or deliver a man from a miserable bout of flu. It was to crush Satan’s kingdom once and for all and deliver us from the power of darkness—the darkness that separates our hearts and minds from the source of all that is good, the eternal and living God. Jesus, in the course of actions that Satan thought he himself was orchestrating, would go to the cross to atone for all sin by laying down His own innocent and precious life. With the guilt of sin lifted, man is reconciled to God and Satan loses the power of convincing us to hate God and love sin.
It is God’s kingdom against Satan’s kingdom, and God wins.
The words of Jesus are the proclamation of that victory. Jesus spoke with authority because He had been sent to proclaim that all who are oppressed by the Devil with guilt, shame, or terrible circumstances, are forgiven, freed, and healed through His redeeming work. The most significant thing we ever hear from Jesus in a synagogue was when He came to His hometown, went to synagogue, and was invited to read. He read the words from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,” and then announced with authority, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.18ff).
Thanks be to God, that we still have that Word and the victory it brings into our lives with all the authority of Jesus Himself. May God grant us grace to be able to filter out all the confusing messages of this world and to reject all the advances of the Evil One by listening with full attention to the voice of Jesus, the Lord. Amen.
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.