You might imagine all sorts of things that Jesus would do to begin his work of Messiah-ship. Great deeds, greater teachings, great people and places should all be swept up in His mighty mission. You might imagine these would come first, but you’d be wrong. The first thing the Messiah and His newly called disciples do is go to church. (21) “And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.”
Why is Jesus wasting His time in going to church, when He could be out in the world doing so much good? The church is where the Kingdom of heaven most noticeably touches earth. The church belongs to God. The church is the one place on this planet where you should be able to hear of repentance and belief in the Gospel. But that is exactly why the church is where the devil is trying the hardest to cast doubt upon God’s authority, replacing it with anything and everything else. Our churches are far too often seats of all sorts of useless activities, false ideas, and the wrong authorities. Immediately, in our text, as Jesus enters Capernaum, we encounter those engaged in just such useless activities and false ideas, because they are given over to wrong authorities.
Capernaum was, for it’s size a very important place. It was right near the Sea of Galilee, The Jordan River, and major trade routes. It was the site of a customs station and a military outpost. The people of Capernaum were familiar with Roman secular authority. But for over 300 years Capernaum was also one of the most important sites of Rabbinical Judaism. The authority of church traditions ran strong here. Indeed, archaeologists have uncovered one of the most splendid synagogues ever found in the ancient world right there in Capernaum. Nearby another, older synagogue, has also been uncovered. It is most likely the very same one Jesus taught at in our reading.
The cultural life of Capernaum revolved around these synagogues and the rabbis who taught in them. Their methods of teaching are well documented. Such commentary works as the Talmud and the Midrash comes out of this tradition. Rabbinic Scribes were teachers of the Law. But it was man’s law, not God’s. A rabbi’s entire message might not speak of God’s promise even once. Philosophical arguments, quotations from other well supported rabbis, and rote memorization of formulas was the sum and order of most teaching in the synagogues. In other words, most of what went on in God’s house was not about putting oneself under God’s authority as shown in His Word, but in constantly trying to make oneself an authority by talking about God’s word!
Is it any wonder then, that right in their very midst was a man possessed of an unclean spirit? There would be little in such an environment that would make it uncomfortable. Indeed, the devil and his minions love nothing better than trying to be a recognized authority on God. He always tries to get the first word in, to sway people to talk about God, instead of talking to God. The more impersonal and hypothetical the better. (23-24) And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” What is said is not a lie, but it is certainly misleading, disengaging, and subtly dangerous!
It is the same kind of thinking and speaking seen far too many church leaders today. Those who KNOW ABOUT God, but who do not really believe in God. Those who can tell you all sorts of interpretations of ancient texts without ever once actually listening to what the text is saying. Those who can quote every other scholar out there with great accuracy, but who cannot speak the smallest phrase in the true spirit of God’s Word. It is the difference between hearing and listening; knowing and believing; memorizing and trusting.
And the sad thing is that you don’t have to be like the ancient scribes to fall into this trap of the devil. Far too many church members suffer under false authorities too. A lack of study and commitment can bring it about just as surely as too much of the wrong kind. Placing work or family, fortune, fame, leisure, or anything else in the seat of final authority is just as bad. Knowing one should go to church, but simply not wanting to. Knowing one should give more, or do more, but not liking what that might mean. In these ways and so many more, we find ourselves beset by sin and unclean spirits just as surely as the man in the synagogue. Maybe even to the point of sometimes going through all the churchy motions, and not even caring or understanding why. “Yeah, yeah, Jesus of Nazareth … I know who he is, the Holy one of God now lets get on with it, times a tick’n …”
But Jesus IS the Holy One of God. Just because a demon is the first to give public witness of this, does not make it untrue. Jesus is the very one promised to Moses in our Old Testament reading. (Deut. 18:18 ) “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. Jesus’ words to us are God’s words to us. When He speaks even those who are uninterested must stop and listen.
This Jesus of Nazareth holds all authority over heaven and earth, life and death. And he does it in something as simple as His Word. What this Christ teaches has never been taught before. It is a message straight from heaven. It doesn’t rely on human interpretation or human wisdom. It is not complex or confusing like much of our human philosophy. It is the essence of God and his love for us sinners. It is his plan for our salvation. It is unconditional forgiveness through a cross and a tomb. It is a word that ALWAYS has an effect on those who hear it. (22) “And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.”
But, this authority can also be seen in Jesus’ every deed. His words and his actions are one. They cannot be separated, unlike the wisdom and teachings of we humans (who often must proclaim “Do as I say, not as I do”). When Jesus speaks of his authority to save and his desire to set us free from all that enslaves us, his actions must do the very same. The man with a demon tries to question and cast doubt on Jesus’ authority. The Holy One of God proves without a shadow of a doubt that he not only has the right to do and say as he does, but that he has the ability to back it up. (25-26) “But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” With a single word the demon is subjugated. Not one more word can he speak in the presence of the Word made flesh. Christ’s authority, in word and deed, is absolute. All that is left in the face of the One who has true Authority is a shriek and a convulsion of frustrated, impotent, rage.
And all that this Christ does in Word and in Deed, he does out of love for us, the unlovable. His teaching and preaching repentance and belief in the Gospel, his working of miracles, was all done to point to his authority. His authority to take our sins upon himself and pay their price forever more. His authority to demand that the price is settled and the debt zeroed. The authority to walk through death to bring life to those dead in their sins. The authority to set aside a place in the Heaven itself for all who believe.
The Words to those in the synagogue were given in love to show them God’s heart, not the merit of men’s brains. The casting out of the demon was done to show them Jesus’ ability to follow through with the wishes of his heart, regardless of the obstacles. And the Words and Deeds of Christ continue to be done, even now, out of love for us. In the Word and in the Sacraments Christ Himself lays down his authority to guide and protect your life. In Holy Baptism he claims you as his own and vows to stand with you no matter what evils beset you. In the Lord’s Supper, he signs and seals your forgiveness in his body and blood. A guarantee of all that he has promised he is still doing. In the Scriptures Jesus gives you a glimpse of his very heart, and everything he has, is, and will be doing just for you. The authority Christ wields he wields for you.
And why does the Messiah show His authority to us in this way? So we in turn, can be prophets of Him in all our words and deed. So that nurtured by the Word, comforted in our Baptism, fed in the Lord’s Supper we might by the authority of him who sent us, lead the world to meet for themselves The Holy one of God. Then in word and deeds, He’ll take care of the rest. (Mk 1:27-28 ) “And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.” I’m no authority, but when it’s said that way, evangelism seems almost too easy!