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Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1:21–28

James T. Batchelor

Epiphany 4, series B
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  
Hoopeston, IL

view DOC file

Sun, Feb 1, 2015 

When you investigate the history of war, you will find that even ancient civilizations had rules of engagement.  There are places where you can fight and places where fighting is prohibited.  There are honorable ways to fight and dishonorable ways to fight.  Even today, the United States and many other countries subscribe to the Geneva Convention.  We put the Nazis on trial for crimes against humanity.  In these and various other ways, we acknowledge that there are rules even in war.

We might be inclined to believe that there are also rules in spiritual warfare.  We might be tempted to believe that the angels who rebelled against God and became demons also fight fair.  Todays Gospel shows that there are no rules for demons.  Our only protection against demons is the protection God provides for Jesus sake.

Jesus was in Capernaum on the Sabbath and went to the synagogue.  This was pretty normal behavior for all God-fearing Jews.  Furthermore, He taught in the synagogue.  Jesus had demonstrated that He was a superior theologian already at the age of twelve when He went to the temple with His parents.  The synagogue ruler often invited gifted theologians to teach in the synagogue on the Sabbath.  So far, things are still pretty normal.

Todays Gospel tells us that Jesus teaching was of a higher quality than other teachers.  The people who heard Him were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.  Apparently the scribes spent a lot of time quoting authorities.  They might say something like, Heres what the text says and Rabbi Josef has this to say about it.  On the other hand Rabbi Schlomo disagrees and says this.  Then there is the teaching of the Talmud which says something else. It seems as though the scribes talked a lot, but never really said very much.  Jesus was different.  He taught as though He was the authority.

Jesus teaching style was so superior that the people were astonished.  This is consistent with one of the major themes of Mark.  Jesus regularly astonished people so that they asked questions like, What does this mean, and Who is this Jesus?

In contrast to all the human beings who encounter Jesus and ask, Who is this guy, there are others in the Gospel according to Mark who know exactly who Jesus is.  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 arethe Holy One of God. The human beings in the synagogue did not know who Jesus was, but the unclean spirit who inhabited this man knew exactly who Jesus was.

Demon possession is a strange and confusing topic.  This is because of the nature of demons.

First of all, demons are evil angels.  They were good when God created them, but they rebelled against their creator.  The Bible is not clear about the nature of their rebellion.  It just informs us that they fell and they are under Gods curse.  They will forever be Gods enemies and they are therefore our enemies.

Because demons are evil angels, we cannot detect them.  That means that we cannot touch, smell, hear, or see them.  Todays Gospel demonstrates that they can exert an influence on the physical world, but this influence is only a disguise. They are not physical beings.

Because demons are spirits, the demon in todays gospel may have regularly attended synagogue along with his victim.  Who knows how long this demon attended synagogue with the man it possessed weeks months years a lifetime.  Who knows how many times the members of this synagogue gathered together and never noticed that this man had an unclean spirit.  This Sabbath began like any other Sabbath.  Everyone came together and saw their friends and neighbors, and everything seemed to be fine.  Most of the time, people with unclean spirits do not look like raving lunatics.  Most of the time, they look normal, just like you and me.  They work undercover like a spy.  The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to describe this by saying, [2 Corinthians 11:14] Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.

The ability of demons to act natural helps us understand the answer to another question.  Why are there so many examples of demon possession in the Bible, but no examples in our modern culture?  When we understand that demons can disguise themselves, then we can understand that this is a matter of demonic strategy.  Demons have worked out that they can do the most damage in our modern culture by working quietly, behind the scenes.  It is possible that there are just as many demon possessions now as there ever were, but they are choosing not to act out.

This tendency to lurk behind the scenes may make demons even more dangerous.  At least when you see a raving lunatic you know hes a raving lunatic!  And you can see the danger.  After all, If Satan popped up in front of you in red pajamas with horns, a pitchfork, and the strong smell of sulfur, you would run and hide.  It wouldnt be very tempting.  On the other hand, demons tempt us with things that appear harmless.  The temptation may even be fun and pleasurable.  It might even be something that seems good.  Dont be fooled.  The powerful lure leads to a powerful trap and slavery to sin.

There is another reason for the demon in todays Gospel to immediately act out.  Its cover was blown.  Although demons are quite capable of hiding from us, they cannot hide from their creator.  When this demon heard the words of authority that came from the mouth of Jesus, it recognized the word and authority that created the heavens and the earth.  It recognized the word and authority that commands the heavenly host of angels.  It recognized the word and authority that had cast Satan and his followers (including this unclean spirit) out of heaven.  It recognized that that same word and authority had come to earth and taken on human flesh and was now speaking that same authoritative word!  And immediately the unclean spirit cried out because it could not endure those authoritative words.  It cried out not only in agony and fear, but in subjection and humiliation as well.  The demons have no choice but to know the voice of God when they hear it.

Jesus rebuked him, saying, Be silent, and come out of him! And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.  The unclean spirit has no choice.  It is no longer in control.  It must submit and come out.  Jesus is Lord even over the demons.  It is just as James, the brother of the Lord wrote, [James 2:19] Even the demons believeand shudder!

The power of Jesus over demons is pure Gospel.  The most powerful demon can no longer rule you.  Jesus has come.  He has come to expel them and set you free.

The expulsion of the demon in todays Gospel was an early skirmish in the war that leads to the cross.  Jesus finished this war with His death on the cross.  His death overcame sin, death, and the power of the devil.  It is on the cross that we hear Jesus say, [Luke 23:34] Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross for the sin of the world.  With that sacrifice, our forgiveness and cleansing, is won.  Jesus does not drive us out as He did the demon.  Instead, He makes us His own so that we may live with Him forever.

Listen to the response of the crowd in the synagogue.  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. Note how they phrase their wonder.  The ability to command unclean spirits is teaching with authority!  They saw the exorcism as an extension of His teaching His word.

Jesus still comes with the authority of His teaching even as His word shows up in churches all over the world.  Even though the church is made up of people who are sinners, the Holy Spirit sanctifies us and makes us saints.  While we still struggle as saints and sinners, Jesus has given His authority to His church on earth to proclaim and give His wonderful forgiveness to all nations in His Name.  We have this authority because Jesus carried the uncleanness and captivity of all nations to the cross.

So, the authority of Jesus Christ comes to us even today as we hear the audible Word of God in our readings and preaching as we feel the wet word of God in baptism as we hear the forgiving word of God in the absolution as we taste the forgiveness of sins as Jesus gives us His very body and blood in the bread and wine.  This is the full power and authority of the cross applied to you.

We need the authority of Christ every day for demons still attack us.  In many cases, they work undercover so that we will be tempted to believe that they a fairy tale dreamt up by ancient imaginations.  Never the less, demons are real.  They are spirits, so they never grow tired and they never rest.  Their hatred knows no rules.  Their one desire is for you to suffer hell along with them.  So dont be fooled.

Instead, look to the authority of Christs teaching. [Acts 16:31] Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.  It is by His teaching with authority that you are safe from the attack of the evil ones and have eternal life.  Amen

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