The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany
January 31-February 1, 2009
Text: Mark 1:21-28
Dear Friends in Christ,
I want you to picture a scene. It’s February 1, 1945. We are in a town in Germany, on the western front. The town has just surrendered to the Americans. There are town officials and German officers there, as well as American officers. Then a jeep rolls into town. A man gets out of the jeep. He’s wearing a shiny helmet with three stars on it. He be begins to rattle off orders and point here and there with his riding crop. Everyone, even the Germans, jump to obey the commands as quickly as they can. Of course this is General Patton. He has the authority of the American army behind him. But more than that he has the reputation of a successful field commander. No one would dare to deny him his demands. He is General Patton after all. He commands respect and authority. Even his enemies respect and fear him. There is no mistaking him. He rides into town with authority. It’s in his very person. Authority just oozes out of him. We could contrast this to a feckless bureaucrat who cites rules and regulations. He might get compliance, but he does not have anyone’s respect. He might create fear of reprisal. If you don’t do this you might go to jail, that sort of thing. But no one feels any need to obey such a person just from the force of their personality.
A rabbi in the first century was rather like the bureaucrat. He had a borrowed authority. He simply repeated what the scriptures said and the teachings of the rabbis before him. You can picture a rabbi answering a question with a long dissertation that ends with “but on the other hand...” By this they are not giving a clear answer, but a convoluted one. This is written here, but over here we read that, and so forth. The rabbi can only give this sort of answer because he has no real authority of his own. Even his authority to teach the Word is only human authority. In this, a pastor has greater authority than a rabbi. The office of the ministry was established by Christ. The office rabbi was established by man.
Christ rolls into Capernaum and begins to teach. What is Jesus style of teaching? Moses wrote.... but I tell you. Christ claims no other authority than Himself. He does not deny the Old Testament Scriptures, for indeed those are His words also. But He goes way beyond what any of the prophets said. How can this be? How can anyone claim to teach about God by their own authority? Either they are writing their own ticket to hell, or they are God. Only God can teach about God by their own authority.
Now, lots people claim to be God. In fact if you go into any metal hospital you’ll find at least one person who claims to be God. So the obvious explanation here is that this carpenter from Nazareth has had a few screws come loose. Of maybe we should say pegs, since screws probably weren’t invented yet. But what happens? John, in his gospel, would call such events signs. It’s a good word. Because that’s what follows a sign. It points us in another direction. No, the carpenter didn’t go out in the desert and get His brain cooked. Something very unusual is happening here. You people in Capernaum had better pay close attention.
A demon possessed man cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Let’s stop right there and look at this for a moment. First we must understand that this is the demon speaking through the man. So the question is whether Jesus of Nazareth had come to destroy the demons. What an incredible question. I can’t destroy a demon. I suppose, in theory, I might have some small authority over them, but even that would be a borrowed authority. No human being could do this? But this demon is terrified of Jesus. Why is it afraid? There can only be one answer. There is only one with authority and power to so threaten the demons. That is the One who created all things including the demons. That is Yahweh - I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Only this One could cause such terror in a demon. And indeed the demon goes on: “I know who you are— the Holy One of God.” The exact wording here is key. It’s not a holy one. It’s the Holy One. Once you add the article, that is the word “the”, it can only be God Himself.
Christ immediately orders the demon to be silent and come out of the man. The demon complies. In fact the demon has no choice in the matter. The people are astounded. He teaches by His own authority and even the demons are compelled by His commands. There is something very different happening here. It was clear to the people of Capernaum that this was not business as usual. Sadly, what we don’t see is that the people believed in Him. His fame spread. People knew that something was happening. But they didn’t understand what it was.
Why was this sign given? Why did Christ cast out the demon? To show the world who He is. He is the Lord over the demons. Only God Himself can claim that authority. By this act, Christ is claiming to be God. And as God He can destroy the forces of darkness. He can command them and force them to comply. He has the power to destroy them. He has the power to chain them up in the dungeons of hell.
Okay, Jesus is God. That’s great, but what does this specific claim have to do with me? When mankind fell into sin, we became the slaves of the demonic realm. Even if we could find some way not to sin, we would still be under the accusation of sin. Sin is the weapon of Satan and his minions against us. We stand under condemnation because we are sinners. And Satan is the prosecutor. We see this for example in Zechariah 3. This is somewhat speculative, but I believe that Satan was created to be the special advocate for mankind. His principle act of rebellion was to become our accuser. In order to have a charge that would stand up before God’s judgement, Satan led mankind into sin. Christ came to earth to defeat the power of the demonic realm. He came to break the power of sin and death, Satan’s weapons against us. He came to cast Satan out of heaven and earth and bind him in the pits of hell, where he could no longer accuse us. Then, in the court of heavenly justice, Christ takes Satan’s place and acts as our advocate before the Father. In place of Satan’s accusations, we have wounds of Christ, still flowing for our redemption. Notice that when you see a statue of Christ, He is depicted with the wounds visible. That is because those wounds will never go away. They are the power that breaks the power of Satan forever.
In Capernaum, Christ begins His ministry with a dramatic sign. He teaches by His own authority and casts out a demon. He shows that He, in Himself, has such authority. He had indeed come to destroy the power of the demonic realm. In Christ, their power is broken forever. Sin and death, the weapons of Satan, are overcome. There is only One who could do this. For such power and authority does not arise from within man. Only divine power and authority could do this. And indeed when Christ comes, divine authority just oozes out of Him.