Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
You probably know that our Sunday readings come to us on a three year cycle. Many of our Gospel readings came from St. Matthew last year. This is the year of St. Mark. For the next two Sundays, for example, the church brings us into the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. We will see our Lord preaching and teaching and working miracles. We watch him as he reveals himself to the people of his time.
We join him this morning at the synagogue in Capernaum. He is our teacher. Teaching is a demanding profession. Teachers master their material and how to present it. Teachers can do us a lot of good, especially when they challenge us to use our brains in ways that are new to us. If a teacher is good and we’re listening, he or she can also encourage us and lift us up.
Jesus was this kind of teacher, only more so. Can you imagine what it must be like to have God as your teacher face-to-face? Mark says that the folks in the synagogue were amazed. He wasn’t using the word in the everyday sense, as we might say we are amazed when the Maple Leafs or the Raptors do well. He meant really and truly amazed, astonished, astounded, filled with wonder. I have to be honest and say I don’t know when I’ve ever experienced that kind of amazement.
Jesus spoke with authority. He didn’t rely on the opinions of experts or get bogged down in minor details. He spoke from the heart of God about his listeners’ needs and heaven’s loving care in such a way that his hearers believed that what he said was true.
What did Jesus say to them? Mark’s Gospel moves along rapidly; he doesn’t always include what we might want to know. If we look at the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we find what Jesus said on a similar occasion. He applied a passage from Isaiah to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me. He has appointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Imagine what the people must have felt. He wasn’t an upstart or deluded; he didn’t make claims he couldn’t back up. He may have told the people at Capernaum, as well, the words we heard last week: “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe.” Surely, he told them that they were saved not by their own diligent efforts to keep the law, but by God’s grace through faith in him.
Though it wasn’t really a new teaching, the people in Capernaum hadn’t heard it before, because experts at God’s law had buried his Word beneath a crust of regulations. Instead of relieving burdens, they added to them and crushed spirits down. Jesus came to remove the human traditions and customs that weighed on people’s hearts and to bring them into direct contact with God, from whom salvation may be found. John the Baptist foresaw that in Christ all flesh would see the salvation of God. This salvation now appeared in Capernaum, the old prophesies were fulfilled in Jesus, and the people were amazed.
As a teacher, Jesus was unique. He taught with divine power. He didn’t just discuss salvation, he offered it to his listeners as a free gift from God’s gracious hand. He didn’t only talk about hope and joy, he gave it through faith in himself. He was God, inviting his hearers to come to him without conditions attached. In this sense, he was new. No one had ever met anyone like him before, so we aren’t surprised people were amazed.
To demonstrate his authority, he gave the people in the synagogue a sample of what it means to teach with divine power. He healed a man who was possessed by an evil spirit. The Old Testament mentions the devil from time to time. He appears in the Garden of Eden and the story of Job. While he always acted against the interests of God’s people, he is not a dominant figure in the Old Testament. The situation was different at the time of Jesus’ ministry. He came to defeat the devil, and so Satan was especially active in his attempts to attack the Savior. He took possession of the souls of unsuspecting people. He entered territory that Jesus claimed for himself – the hearts and minds of humanity, so he needed to be driven out. Jesus accomplished this miracle in a public and unmistakable way. The people who saw him drive out the evil spirit must have talked about it for days and days and brought other people to ask about Jesus.
Now, what does this incident from the first part of Jesus’ ministry have to do with us?
For one thing, Jesus is still our teacher. We receive his guidance in the gospels and the rest of the Bible, since he is the ultimate author of all our Scriptures. Everything that exists has a spiritual aspect, since God created everything. The world is filled with spiritual messages, but Jesus alone offers salvation through faith and deliverance from evil. His love leads us through the tangle of messages that come our way to the truth. He invites us through the Bible to rest in him; he brings us satisfaction and contentment that we belong to him and to no one else. If we did our best to pay attention to his wisdom and instruction, we might find ourselves, like the people in Capernaum, truly amazed as his goodness to us.
In the second place, this morning’s Gospel reminds us that there is a dimension to life that we can’t perceive with our ordinary minds. Satan challenges God day in and day out; he uses the human race as the pawns in his game. Paul wrote that we do not contend against flesh and blood, but against principalities, powers, the world rulers of this present darkness, and against spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places. Jesus fought the battle before us; he equips us to fight alongside him. He gives us his armor to wear: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, together with faith, salvation, and his Word. The battle is ours to win, for Jesus promises to give us the victory.
The incidents in this morning’s gospel point to another benefit – God’s intentions to restore. My father used to say that he was born just before the start of the First World War, and the world hasn’t been right ever since. The Bible teaches that the world hasn’t been right since the fall of Adam and Eve. Thanks to God, the world keeps on going and there are many good things for you and me to take advantage of. One of them is this: the expulsion of our first parents from the Garden of Eden prompted God to give them hope for a Messiah to come. If the world were perfect day after day, we would have no need for a savior. So in a sense, we are better off than Adam and Eve before the fall because the general human sinfulness has brought us to knowledge of Christ. As a result, we live in certain, unshakeable hope of better days to come. God promises that he will restore the conditions of the Garden of Eden in the next life, only the situation will be much better because we will reign with Christ as kings and queens of heaven, and we will sing wonderful anthems in the eternal heavenly chorus. Jesus invites us to trust by faith that his invisible power is at work on our behalf. He has put his brand on us and commands us to live in hope.
The fourth benefit our Gospel text is that it invites us to think about our own lives. What kind of people are we? The complete revelation of Scripture is at our disposal. Our savior has defeated the devil for us. We are neither ignorant nor demon-possessed. Our Savior’s blood washes us clean. We live in faith and hope. Jesus commands us – he gives us the opportunity to be like him.
Generally speaking, imitation of Christ means two things – that we listen to his teachings so that we may live by faith day by day and also that we love God and our neighbors. Our Lord doesn’t give us an easy path to follow, for Christian love can be difficult, especially if our neighbors make themselves unlovable. But as our Lord carried on, so do we persist. We bear our neighbors burdens; we offer Christian testimony; we learn the art of forgiveness, for this is the hallmark of every Christian. Christian love means to want for others what the savior wants for them – salvation and life in the heavenly kingdom.
When Jesus visited the synagogue in Capernaum, he had one thing in mind – the salvation of the worshipers there. When he tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, he wants us to consider their eternal salvation. We rejoice with them; we bring comfort; we speak the gospel. We don’t whine or make unreasonable demands; we don’t indulge sinners in their folly or let them take the lead. We don’t put our own salvation in danger. Our task from God is to help him bring our neighbors into the kingdom.
I don’t know what tests of Christian love you’ll face in the weeks ahead, but I do know that God will guide you. When Jesus calls a person to represent him, he strengthens her or him. He doesn’t call us to be doormats, who have no will of our own. He protects us; he gives us a sense of detachment from the turmoil of the world. He calls us to receive instruction and refreshment from his word, then he sends us out.
It must have been a wonderful thing to hear the Lord in Capernaum. The people there must have sensed that he knew them thoroughly and that he cared about them. He knows us just as well; he cares about us no less. Jesus’ love for us is truly amazing. He is present with us as we hear his word this morning. He will watch over us as we live with him in the days ahead. And this is another benefit our Gospel text puts us in mind of: the presence of Jesus in our lives. He chastens, he comforts; he guides and forgives. He doesn’t put burdens on us but makes our days lighter. We rejoice in his presence and ask him to be with us again and always. In our Saviour’s Name we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.