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Epiphany 4 – January 31, 2021

“Powerful Words” – Mark 1:21-28

1. Three surprising things

There are at least 3 surprising things in this brief Gospel reading today. The first surprise is a demon in the synagogue. The second surprise is the brevity and authority of Jesus’ words. The third surprise is the response of the people. I want to talk extensively about the middle surprise, but let me talk about the first and third ones a little bit, too.

   a. A demon in the synagogue

OK, so I said the first surprise was the presence of a demon in the synagogue. Actually, it was a demon-possessed man… but a demon was there, in the man, in the synagogue, in the place where God’s Word was regularly read and discussed and applied to daily living. The last place you would expect a demon to show up would be the Jerusalem temple, for that was considered by the Jews to house the very presence of God. The second last place you would expect a demon to show up would be a local synagogue, where God’s people gathered to worship God and discuss God’s Word and God’s things. You might expect a demon to show up where people were spiritually weak and physically burdened. You might expect a demon to show up where there were a lot of sinful and unbelieving Gentiles. You might expect a demon to show up where business was taking place, where a leaning toward selfishness and greed was rather natural. But in the synagogue, in Capernaum, on the Sabbath Day? No, the presence of a demon in that location was unexpected and surprising.

I don’t think I have ever – in over 36 years of being a pastor – had a demonic influence audibly disrupt a public worship service. I have had to speak over a baby’s cry during a Baptism. I have had to sit down to preach a couple of times, because I felt like I could faint. I have had an organist start playing the wrong hymn or had a lector start reading the wrong Bible lesson, but I wouldn’t call ANY of those things demonic. Perhaps the one occasion that I can remember that I would call decidedly demonic was right here in this sanctuary three or four years ago. It was a funeral for someone with a very loose connection with our church. During the message, when I was talking plainly about Jesus, one of the family members made gestures meant for me to see – gestures which indicated that he wanted me to stop speaking about Jesus. A moment later, he and a handful of other people walked out of the sanctuary before I was even finished. That I chalked up to the presence of the devil in that man, and those people.

That’s not to say that, on any given Sunday, there are not people here in the sanctuary, in the very presence of God, that do not honour God or believe in Him, that are here for show, that resent being here, and that would very well like to disrupt the service and walk out. Whether you kindly leave that in the realm of hypocrisy or call it what it is – a demonic influence, or wolves in sheep’s clothing, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount – we can’t say that our churches today are immune from that Capernaum synagogue surprise in Jesus’ day.

   b. [Stay tuned… still to come]

   c. The amazement of the people

Now… surprise number 3 – the surprise and amazement of the people of Capernaum. This is Mark, chapter 1. Jesus had just been baptized by John in the Jordan River, then he had been tempted by the senior devil in the wilderness. He called His first disciples by the Sea of Galilee. But we have to understand that He hadn’t been on the public scene for very long when He began to teach in the Capernaum synagogue. He didn’t have a reputation or a following.

It’s like me coming to Hope Lutheran ten years ago. Nobody knew me. I didn’t have a reputation or a following. It took a while for people to get to know me, for people to get used to me, for people to trust me. It takes time to earn and develop a good name for yourself.

Jesus was new on the scene, but people marveled at His teaching, and His authority. No other rabbi taught like Jesus did. And His authority extended beyond His words, all the way to the unclean spirits who obeyed His commands. We heard a couple of weeks ago that Nathanael wondered if anything good could come from Nazareth. These people were surprised that something good, and amazing, and authoritative DID come from Nazareth. And that news spread like a wildfire on the prairie grass.


2. Moses’ words

   a. Memorable words

Now, let’s direct our attention to the more important second surprise – the power of Jesus’ words. But to give us some background and context, let’s start with Moses in our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy 18. Oh, and let’s make this interactive, too, so pull up your computer or phone keyboard and get ready to type in a comment. Think about Moses. Remember Moses. He was the main character in 4 consecutive books of the Old Testament. Moses had some pretty powerful and memorable words that he spoke, and some other memorable words that He spoke from God to the people. So, if you can remember some of those Moses-words, why don’t you type them in as a comment right now, and I will read some of them out from my phone. (Oh, and thanks for helping me with my sermon today!!)

READ some of the comments…

[Ten Commandments; “Let my people go!” “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…?” “See I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse…” “Fear not, stand firm… The Lord will fight for you.”]

Those are great… thanks!

   b. “A prophet like you”

In our Deuteronomy 18 reading, God says something prophetic and powerful TO Moses. God says, “I will raise up a prophet like you… and I will put my words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him.”

God promises here to raise up another prophet, a new prophet, like Moses, but better than Moses. This prophet would have a unique relationship with the Lord, one that no other prophet enjoyed, one with a new kind of teaching – namely the Gospel, not the Law that Moses presented. God would put His very own words into the mouth (on the lips) of this new prophet. Those words would be authoritative, powerful, and the people were to listen, for His words would be true! This passage clearly expresses a hope for the great prophet, the Messiah.

3. The second surprise: Jesus’ words!

   a. The details

Now, let’s get back to Mark 1 and Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue. Let’s pay attention to the words. It says, “They went into Capernaum.” Jesus had just been at the seaside, calling Peter and Andrew, James and John to discipleship. That’s who the “they” were, and they moved from the seaside into the town proper. Then “immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching.” Perhaps the very next day was the Sabbath, and as was His custom, Jesus went to the synagogue with the other men from town to hear and discuss the Torah – the books of Moses. And Jesus was the teacher! There was a custom that allowed visiting teachers to participate in the worship service by invitation of the local synagogue leaders. I wouldn’t put it past God to plan the coincidence of having that Deuteronomy 18 passage as the appointed reading for that day. It would make the “authoritative prophet like Moses” passage really stand out! Especially after the demon episode.

But even without that, the people recognized that this rabbi packed some power in his words. Compared to the usual teachers, the scribes, who derived their teachings from human authorities – writings of those who had come before them – Jesus spoke directly and uniquely with the authority of God, His heavenly Father. And that’s what amazed and astonished those who were present that day.

I had a similar experience a couple of years ago. I was at a conference where a seminary professor – Dr. Reed Lessing – spoke to over 2000 people. His topic was the Isaiah 6 call of Isaiah to be a prophet – where one angel said to another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” and then Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Dr. Lessing spoke for an hour, without notes, walking back and forth across the stage, and he had those 2000 people – including me – spell-bound with attention. I wish I could remember everything he said. Unfortunately, I can’t.

  b. Memorable words… not here, but elsewhere

Unfortunately, in Mark 1, we similarly don’t have the content of Jesus’ powerful teaching that day in the synagogue. We just hear the spell-bound response of the listeners. But at other places in Mark’s Gospel – and in Matthew’s and Luke’s and John’s – we do hear the content of Jesus’ genuine, meaningful, and life-changing messages – messages that are still relevant today. So, cozy up to your keyboard again, and help me out. In the next minute or so, would you write down in the comment section some words of Jesus that were powerful and that impacted people in a dynamic way. Maybe you can remember the exact words – and that’s great… write them in… hopefully it’s fairly brief. Or maybe you can summarize a longer section. Or maybe there’s a phrase that is a well-known description of the content of Jesus’ teaching – that counts, too… write that in. And as they are coming in, I’m going to read a few of them. But the rest of them will trickle in in the next minute or two and hopefully you can read them at home.

READ some of the comments…

[(to a paralyzed man) “Your sins are forgiven.” / (to wind and waves) “Peace, be still.” / (to various people) “Your son is well” or “Your daughter is just sleeping.” or “Your faith has healed you.” / (Golden Rule) “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.” / (Beatitudes) “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Lord’s Prayer) “Our Father who art in heaven.” / (Great Commission) “Go and make disciples of all nations…” / (Gospel in a Nutshell) “For God so loved the world…” / “I have come to give my life as a ransom for many.” / (to His disciples, to us) “This is my body, this is my blood of the new covenant.”]

That’s great… thank you so much for your participation.

  c. To the unclean spirit: “Silence!”

So, yes, we have seen so many of Jesus’ powerful and authoritative words. We can’t forget the words we read in Mark 1. Remember this is a man with an unclean or demonic spirit. This isn’t just a rude man making a little bit of a raucous in the synagogue – rustling his gum wrapper, talking to the guy beside him, shuffling his feet on the pebbles. This is a demon who disrupts the orderly processions of the day by saying, “What do you want with us, Mr. Jesus? We know who you are!”

In response, and as a scolding, the Greek New Testament records Jesus saying just five words: “Silence, and come from him.” That’s brief, with the authority of this God-man Jesus. Immediately the unclean spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a loud voice. It shows that a demon has no alternative but to obey the Holy One of God.

And the people who were there that day – and the Jewish people of Jesus’ day often attributed sickness and disease to sinfulness and demonic influence – the people who were there that day were especially amazed that “He commands the unclean spirits, and they obey Him!” No one else in their community exercised that kind of authority, or exorcised with that kind of authority.


4. Jesus words for our lives

   a. Red Letter words

So, let’s bring this story, this message, these powerful words of Jesus home to us today. How does this account impact our own lives?

Well, first, and quickly, I just want to say how important it is for us to pay attention to the powerful words of Jesus in His teachings and in His interactions with people. A couple of years ago we did some Bible studies and sermons on a book called “The Red Letter Challenge,” which highlighted some of those influential teachings of Jesus – maybe red letters in your Bible. I want to encourage you to continue reading your Bible and taking to heart those special and authoritative words and messages of Jesus… for you!

   b. Jesus purpose: defeating the devil

Second – and here we want to acknowledge the very mission and purpose of Jesus coming to earth – we need to see in this passage the living out of what we heard last week. A few verses earlier in Mark 1, we heard Jesus’ first “sermon” which included the words, “The Kingdom of God is near.” Jesus came to bring the Kingdom of God near to people, and an essential part of that was the undoing and dismantling and destroying of the devil’s afflictions in and influence on people’s lives. Casting an unclean spirit out of one man in the Capernaum synagogue was a microcosm of Jesus’ overall mission – defeating sin, death, and the power of the devil for us, for all of us!

[Maybe that’s what I should have said to the demonic influence of the man who was visibly trying to distract my Jesus message at that funeral, “If you don’t like what you’re hearing about Jesus, you can just leave.” You know… “Silence, go out from here!”]

   c. Defeating the devil’s impact

I don’t know if the devil has got a hold of some part of your life – maybe it’s a foul mouth that utters curse words or that too easily criticizes and judges someone; maybe it’s a heart that holds onto money and possessions too tightly; maybe it’s an egotistical spirit that wants others to constantly be serving you; maybe it’s an unrecognized addiction to something – alcohol, pornography, tobacco, painkillers, gambling, internet, video games, food, even work. Any and all of these can be evidence of the devil’s influence on and control over your life – leading you into sin, and leading you away from God.

Jesus came into this world to say to the devil’s evil impact on every person’s life: “Come out of him, come out of her!”  He came to restore us to a right and holy and pure relationship with God.

Ultimately, Jesus brought the Kingdom of God near to us by His suffering and death on the cross. It’s there, and with authority, that He defeated the devil once and for all. It’s there that Jesus says to our sin, “Come out of him, come out of her!” Oh, the memorable words that He used from the cross were, “Father, forgive them…” And the memorable words spoken about Jesus a couple of days later were, “He is risen from the dead.” And those words are, for us, unspeakable grace, lavish love, inexpressible joy.


5. Our powerful words

What’s left for us? To make our words powerful, too, carrying the authority and blessing of God our Father. In your interactions with others – with your family, with your friends, with your colleagues at work, with your church family here – use your words to affirm people, to offer them encouragement, to remind them of God’s forgiveness and yours, to lift people’s hearts in times of despair, to let your words be life, to let your words be truth, to let your words be the sounds of God’s grace, to let your words bring healing over the heartache and contentment over the fear, to assure them of Jesus’ love for them.

Jesus’ words that day in the synagogue were brief, but they were powerful. Jesus’ words, spoken through you, to others, are also powerful even if they are brief, for they bring the blessing of God to those who need it. Speak those words of grace with confidence and with joy, in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Why don’t you do one more thing with your computer or phone keyboard today… would you take a moment and share a few brief but powerful words of encouragement, blessing and love with your sisters and brothers in Christ who are participating today.

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