The Authority of Jesus
Sermon for January 31, 2021
It seems it is on the news every night. We see pictures of the new President signing executive orders. A few days ago he had a whole stack of them on his desk. I thought what power and authority the President of the United States has. With his signature changes are made immediately regarding issues like climate, health care, and even the military. In the Gospel lesson we heard people amazed and astounded with Jesus’ authority. Jesus was just beginning his work. Not long before Jesus emerged from his baptism hearing the voice of heaven declare him to be the beloved Son of God. But hostile forces were beginning to gather to oppose him. Jesus had to face Satan and temptations in the wilderness. John the Baptist had recently been arrested and thrown into the dungeon. Jesus did not make a decision to lay low for a while. In his baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon him and empowered him to boldly announce his program: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Jesus proclaimed God’s rule and he was in the world to overthrow the rule of sin, death, and the devil. The call to repent was to surrender or give yourself over to Jesus, the one who has the authority to lift you up and liberate you with good news, that is the faithfulness of God who comes and promises never to forsake you.
Jesus revealed the authority of his word. This was shown far before any healing or calming of storms. Jesus met fishermen, two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John. One set was casting their net into the sea. The other set was mending nets. Jesus called them from their nets and become a network of catching people with the gospel. By the power of his word, by the authority of his call, the brothers left their fishing behind and followed Jesus.
It is now the Sabbath and Jesus entered the synagogue and taught the people. The people were not drowsy or drooling with thoughts of lunch. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority and not as the scribes. Now the scribes had their version of authority as well. They were well-educated and well-acquainted with the scriptures. They could quote chapter and verse from memory. They were the whiz-kids of the Bible. Give them credit for they studied hard. No doubt they would pray like the Psalmist, “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.”
Jesus knew the Scriptures too and yet his authority was noticeably different. Try to imagine a scribe from the time of the Bible teaching in front of you today. At the time, unfortunately, the scribes were only men. The lesson is the 23rd Psalm. The Scribe would give a learned talk about that beloved Psalm of David, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Indeed you would be impressed with the knowledge of scripture presented. As you left the church his presentation could very well be lost throughout the cares and concerns of the coming week. Now imagine Jesus teaching in front of you, speaking on the same text, the 23rd Psalm. As he taught it was not like an expert standing apart and revealing his learning. When Jesus taught you were drawn in, as if in the very heart of God to discover how much you are loved. You would feel not as an unknown but as one known by God. Jesus used words that could be written down but you would feel the words of Jesus on your heart where they would remain throughout the week. As we heard in the second lesson “Love builds up.” This would be no flimsy or fair-weather love, but the faithfulness of God who guards your heart and mind with the presence of Jesus. In short Jesus’ teaching, his words had the authority of accomplishing God’s will, and accompanying you, for God’s goodness and mercy to follow you all the days of your life.
Things got exciting in the synagogue that Sabbath when one of the attendees was a man with an unclean spirit. This man suddenly 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.” Jesus focused on this poor soul who was tormented by this unclean spirit. Jesus rebuked the spirit and with authority sent the evil spirit packing. The unclean spirit did not leave quietly but it did leave the man because of the authority of Jesus’ word which accomplishes what it says. The people of course were amazed at what took place in front of them. If they had a coffee hour after the synagogue service the people could not stop talking saying: “Wow! A new teaching—with authority! He commands the unclean spirits and they have no choice but to obey him.”
We can become quite bothered and confused about the words “unclean spirits”. We think of another term, ‘demons’. When you say that word some people will think that is from a more superstitious time millennia ago. In biblical times people would blame illness on the work of demons for they had no understanding of modern medicine and the identification of pathogens like bacteria and viruses. What the New Testament may call demons or unclean spirits may actually be explainable illnesses. I don’t want to dismiss the subject and conclude demons are the stuff of horror movies and Hollywood special effects. I don’t believe Jesus’ rebuking or muzzling the unclean spirits is a fanciful tale. Indeed, the unclean spirit was right: Jesus is the Holy One of God who came to destroy them with the gospel, the good news of the Kingdom of God. When Jesus liberated that poor soul in the synagogue of the unclean spirit that was the Kingdom of God not in theory, but the rule of God, mercy and healing for the afflicted at work. In the First letter of John, the third chapter and the 8th verse says, “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.”
It is interesting that the word “demon” was not used in the gospel lesson, but unclean spirit. That spirit wanted to pollute that poor man’s soul with the power of death. This did not mean the cessation of breathing but the cessation of faith. This unclean spirit wanted to draw this man away from the healing love and presence of God. This man was in the synagogue and perhaps was there every Sabbath. The learned teaching of the Scribes somehow could not reach into the man’s soul where the unclean spirit kept telling him that he was not fit for faith, that God did not love him, that something that happened in his life, or something he did revealed God’s abandonment and unforgiveness. The man kept coming to the synagogue hoping that healing would reach into his very soul. When Jesus came into that synagogue and taught with authority that man was drawn into the love and heart of God, and the unclean spirit knew he and all his lies had to go, and it was gone at Jesus’ command, revealing Jesus authority: new teaching, new life in the kingdom of God. This man would face troubles surely in the days ahead, but he knew from Jesus that he was a precious child of God, and belonging to God would be his fortress and defense.
In the gospel of John we read of no individual accounts of people being freed of unclean spirits or demons. There is one collective, cosmic exorcism: Jesus on the cross. Jesus said “When I am lifted up on the cross the ruler of this world will be cast out.” Jesus promised that on the cross, he would draw us all to him, for the love of God revealed there draws us to him for forgiveness of sins, and the hope of God’s continuing faithfulness to the promise, “For God so loved the world, and has given us Jesus for eternal life, life that counters any lie denying our worth before God. In the gospel of Matthew Jesus famously said, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus is saying live under my authority and know definitively that you are a child of God, forgiven totally, loved unconditionally, and be at peace with God.
In our baptism we receive the gracious gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit uses the Gospel to draw us to Jesus and the authority of his kingdom, his rule in our hearts that heals us by saying ‘you are not a slave to unclean thoughts, unclean fears, unclean spirits, for you are a son or daughter of God. And the Holy Spirit brings us the hope of the gospel, Jesus who died and rose to save us, and now how to tie that hope to service. Jesus came to serve, and he still does. With authority he calls us to follow him and serve with a love that encourages and builds up one another.