If you wanted to find Jesus on a Sabbath day, you went to the synagogue. The synagogue was the “gathering place.” That’s what the word “synagogue” means, a place to gather. We would say, “congregation.” Every sabbath day Jesus went to the congregation. Even if it was “Super Bowl Saturday” (if there had been such a thing), you would have found Jesus in the synagogue.
The sabbath was a holy day. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. You shall sanctify the holy day.” That meant no work. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. Sabbath, shabbat, means “rest.” Slaves work seven days a week without rest; God’s free people worked six and rested on the seventh.
Rest didn’t mean sleeping in until the pregame show started. Nor did it mean getting out the golf clubs for a quick sabbath morning round. Rest meant worship, gladly hearing and learning the Word of God. For the Israelites, rest began on Friday evening with a restful meal, then sleep, then a day full of the Word in the synagogue. Now of course, the sabbath law was fulfilled in Christ and doesn’t apply to us in the form of a day. I need to say that, lest we turn the Christian congregation into a synagogue and Sunday into a new sabbath. What was a law in the OT, punishable by the death penalty for sabbath breakers), is now a free thing in the new. It tells you something about how sinful our human nature is that God had to give a commandment concerning rest and threaten death to those who broke it. God says, “Rest” and the old Adam says, “Do we have to?”
Jesus is our sabbath, our rest. And if we’re rest-less, then perhaps it’s because we don’t rest hearing the Word in the congregation, where “two or three are congregated” and Jesus promises to be there for them, to give them rest.
Jesus taught the people there in the synagogue at Capernaum. That’s what went on in the synagogue. Teaching from the Torah. And Jesus, newly baptized and ordained, would be seen as the new rabbi on the block. What would He have to say? The people were all ears.
What He said astonished the people. He taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. The scribes taught on Moses’ authority. They took great pains to credential their teaching, and themselves, to Moses. (You can’t get any greater than Moses!) Their scribes would say, “I was taught by rabbi so-and-so who was taught by rabbi so-and-so on down the line all the way back to Moses in a kind of “apostolic succession.” The Jews today still believe in an oral tradition, carried on by a succession of rabbis going all the way back in an unbroken string to Moses. And so a scribe’s teaching was only as good and reliable as his pedigree papers proving that his teachers went back to Moses.
But not so with Jesus. Jesus taught with authority: “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” That was different. That kind of teaching the people hadn’t heard before, not since Moses and the prophets. Jesus’ teaching came with the full blast authority of the Lord Himself. He spoke as the Lord Himself, because that’s who He is – the Lord. He was the Prophet of whom Moses spoke, the One who would have the words of God in His mouth. To hear Jesus was to hear it straight from the mouth of God. His words were God’s words; His teaching God’s teaching, and He didn’t need a string of credentials to establish His authority.
The people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching. The people had never heard anything like it before. Every sabbath they heard their teachers of the Torah, but never anything like this. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus was teaching, but we can assume that it had to do with sin, forgiveness, and the kingdom that had come with His coming. In other words, pretty much the same stuff you hear every Sunday, or at least are supposed to hear.
There was a man in this congregation with an unclean spirit, a demon. I don’t know how common that was. It seems to be have been common in Jesus’ day. I suspect the devil and his demons were putting in overtime during Jesus’ three year earthly ministry trying to deflect Jesus from the cross and distract the attention of His hearers. You can be sure that wherever the doctrine of Christ is being taught, the devil and his demons will be working their mischief. There’s nothing the devil despises more than the doctrine of Christ. And there’s nothing more dangerous to the devil than for people to know their doctrine – what they believe and why.
A man jumps up in the middle of Jesus’ sermon and shouts, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” Disorder is always the way of the devils. That’s a good way to tell the devil’s work. God is a God of order. He creates and keeps everything in order. The devil prefers disorder, disruption, chaos. Doctrine is anything but disordered.
Notice too how the demons know who Jesus is, and they even tell the truth about Jesus. It’s always the way of the devil to use the truth in service of the lie. Recall that the devil even quoted from a psalm to try to get Jesus to jump off the top of the temple. The demons know who Jesus is. He’s the Holy One of God. The devil’s desire is to short-circuit Calvary, to get Jesus off the road to the cross, to leak the little secret with some advance publicity. That’s why the demons always shouted that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. The Master Teacher was trying to bring His hearers along slowly, shaping their hearing and reshaping their expectations. But the devil wanted to plant the image of “messiah” in the people’s minds. Get them to think of Jesus in terms of power and politics. Push on their messianic expectations so that they wouldn’t pay attention to this doctrine of the cross, this business of life through death and resurrection. The demons wanted the big messianic secret out way in advance – that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God – before His hour of glory and power when He hung dead on a cross..
The demons would have loved to stop Mark’s gospel at chapter 1, so we could close up the book and never get to chapter 16 and Jesus’ death and resurrection. He would love to have you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God without all this stuff about cross, and body and blood, and death and resurrection. The devil loves “spiritualities” and cross-less, bloodless religion. You remember Peter, who confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. And then Jesus began to teach them what it meant for Him to be the Christ, how He must suffer and on the third day rise from the dead. And Peter, meaning well, said, “Lord, that must never happen to you.” But Jesus rebuked Peter. Those weren’t God’s words, those were the devil’s words. It must happen. The Christ must suffer, die, and rise or there is no salvation for the world.
In Mark, Jesus’ being the Christ, the Messiah, is a secret, a mystery hidden until the end, when He hangs dead in the darkness on the cross. And then a Gentile soldier says, “Truly, this was the son of God.” And no one silences him, because on the cross Jesus is the most Son of God, most Holy One of God, for you and for all.
With a word, Jesus silences the disruptive demon. “Shut up!” He says. I know that’s considered impolite these days to say “shut up” – especially among the preschool set – but you can’t be polite around the devil, and Jesus isn’t. He says, “Shut up,” the same word that He says to the storm that threatened to capsize the disciples little boat on the sea of Galilee. “Shut up, and come out of him.”
I’m always amazed with how easily Jesus deals with the demons. Just a word. And though the demon makes a show of convulsing the man and shrieking, in the end it must submit to the Word of Jesus because Jesus is Lord even of the devil and His demons. That’s why the Luther, in the Large Catechism, calls the devil “God’s devil.” ‘He’s judged, the deed is done, one little word can fell him.” (That word, by the way, is “Liar!” in case you’re wondering.)
Jesus silences the demonic world with a word from His mouth. Now that’s authority! He speaks with the authority of God because He is God in the flesh. He speaks and it is so. He is the Word made Flesh dwelling among us. That’s what this sign is about. It’s not about how Jesus will chase away your demons like a termite exterminator and bring order to your chaotic live if you just dance the right religious dance and believe. I don’t know what, if anything, the people in Capernaum believed about Jesus. And we have nothing to say about the demonized man other than he was possessed by an unclean spirit. And remember, demon possession is a sickness of the soul. It has nothing to do with salvation. Jesus treats it like a case of leprosy or the flu or a congenital birth defect.
This sign shows us where the authority of God is in the church. Not in my pious opinions. Nor anyone elses. Not in some board or synod or voters assembly. Not the powerful majority or the vocal minority. The authority of God rests solely in the Word, in Jesus. He spoke as One with authority, and His Word had authority even over the demons.
This was not simply persuasive preaching. This is a word that cuts through the darkness, that casts out the demons, the changes water into wine, that calms the wind and stills the saves, that cleanses the leper, and lifts the paralyzed man from his bed. It’s a Word that declares with the authority of God that Baptism is your personal rebirth in Christ, that the bread of the Supper is His Body given for you, the wine of His Supper is His blood shed for you. By His Word your sins are forgiven, you are saints in Christ. By His Word He will raise you from the dead. That’s the authority of Jesus’ word.
We need this Word with authority in our day, when the word “authority” is confused with power to control, when authority is abused by those who possess it and coveted by those who don’t have it. We have this Word from the One to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given. We have this sure and certain Word that says “God has reconciled this sin-filled, demon-terrorized world to Himself, and that includes you. Your sins are forgiven. You’re safe in the death of Jesus. The demons cannot harm you. The darkness has no power over you. Death lies defeated.”
Don’t let the demons drag you down. The devil tries his best – creating unrest in the world, destroying marriages, making mischief in our churches. No one is immune. He drives us to doubt and despair. Luther threw ink bottles at him. We alternately take him too seriously and too lightly. The devil stalks around like a roaring lion, Peter says, looking for someone to devour. Resist him by standing firm in the faith, in the doctrine of Christ. He is resistable. Stand firm in the faith of Christ. He’s judged, the deed is done. One little word can fell him, when that word comes with the authority of Jesus, who died and rose to save youl.
In the name of Jesus,