Sermons, Uncategorized

Authority Issues

“Christ Preaching at Capernaum” by Maurycy Gottlieb

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“They went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath [Jesus] entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

When you mention the word “authority,” it’s likely you’ll have to qualify what you mean. Depending upon the audience’s background—and the current context—“authority” may have an extremely negative connotation. It may suggest oppression by a dictatorial governmental official, an overbearing boss, or an abusive parent. In that setting, an “authority” is a ruler—a ruler who uses you for his own advantage. And so, it’s no wonder that many of us have authority issues.

But there are good authorities as well—ones who use their authority for the benefit of others instead of themselves. This use of authority is seen as beneficial and orderly for society. Good parents, good teachers, good bosses, and good governmental officials—ones who develop trust in the people of their charge.

Jesus exercised good authority. Like other good authority figures, Jesus didn’t seek authority; it was given to Him (Matthew 28:18). In His state of humiliation, Jesus submitted Himself to the will of the Father, using His Father’s authority for the good—for the salvation—of all mankind. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus demonstrates His authority by His teaching and power over demons.

The scene is familiar. Jesus enters the city of Capernaum, a place where He lived for some time. Its situation on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and at the intersection of several important trade routes made Capernaum an ideal base for carrying the Gospel into the regions of Galilee and beyond. Besides, Capernaum was also the home of Zebedee and his sons, James and John, and the home of Peter, whose mother-in-law was living with him.

On the Sabbath following their selection to become fishers of men, Peter, James, John, and Andrew, together with Jesus, attended the synagogue service. Since synagogues had no resident ordained ministers, the rulers of the synagogue would invite some rabbi or scribe present to teach the lessons. So, it happened that Jesus was often invited to address the congregations.

The synagogue served mostly as a place of the Word. Whereas the temple was mainly a place of worship and sacrifice, the service of the synagogue would consist of prayer, reading Scripture, and an exposition of the Word. Therefore, the synagogue was the ideal place for the true Word, Jesus, to reveal Himself.

What Jesus’ specific message was on this Sabbath, Mark does not tell us; he does tell us about the impression His preaching made on the worshipers. They were amazed, for Jesus did not teach as the scribes did.

The scribes extracted rules and regulations from the Torah for almost any situation. Generation after generation of scribe passed down this oral law, which was committed to memory. Since they were the experts of this unwritten code, they were also the ones judging individual cases. They were considered the final authority on interpretation of God’s Word, particularly regarding moral living.

Jesus wasn’t preaching about endless circumstances for choosing the right behavior, but rather sin and grace. His message wasn’t “What should I do?” but rather “What has God done for me—because of what I’ve done and left undone?” Jesus was boldly preaching contrition and faith, the full counsel of God. He simply told them how it is—on no less authority than God Himself. This wasn’t just some new teaching, but a dusting off of timeless teaching. It was a teaching that through the coming of the Messiah, forgiveness would be won for helpless man. Jesus is the final authority. He is the one who in word and deed reveals to us the undeserved love of God for sinners incorporated in His own person. Through Him and His Word, God’s authority issues. His, is the final Word.

But this refreshing message of good news isn’t always received with joy and amazement, is it? Often, we see, even in quite different settings, the rejection of the good. Because of our sinful nature, we all have authority issues. We all want to have the final say, to be our own god. And the sinful world and Satan are all too eager to help us toward this deadly end.

“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’” (Mark 1:23-24).

At this crucial moment in Jesus’ ministry, why should there be a demon-possessed man showing up in the synagogue, that gathering place of God’s people? We might expect a holy, secure setting for Jesus’ teaching. Yet, this is the beginning of His ministry, a beginning that recalls Genesis 3 and the unanticipated appearance of Satan in the paradise of the Garden of Eden. It has been said where God builds a cathedral, Satan sets up a chapel next door.

It is not at all surprising that Satan, despite his recent defeat in the wilderness, was not ready to let such a message and such a preacher go unchallenged. It was the devil who caused this man in that synagogue to cry out against Jesus, for it is clear that this man was not speaking for himself. He could not of himself have known what he said about Christ.

However, Satan and the evil spirit that possessed this man knew who Jesus of Nazareth was and what His purpose was. They knew He was the Son of God and that He had come to destroy Satan’s hold over mankind. With his words Satan revealed himself wiser than many modern theologians. This knowledge did him no spiritual good; it only filled him with fear and trembling. He knew that He faced hell and the Gospel was not meant for him.

But Jesus wouldn’t take it anymore. Even though what the demon said was true, it certainly was no endorsement. It was like having Adolf Hitler as your character witness. Besides, Jesus was not yet ready to proclaim openly that He was the Messiah. Most of His audience would have read political aims into that word. So, Jesus shut him up. Literally, in the Greek, He “muzzled him.” Jesus says three little Greek words—that’s all it took to vanquish the wicked one. No magic show—no long incantation—just three words: Be silent and come out!

“The unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 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’” (Mark 1:26-27). This is what Satan and his angels most despise: to be put in their place, to be reminded that they never had, and never will have, ultimate authority. They can never be God. Jesus is God.

So, it’s a nice story and all, Jesus speaks with authority and casts out a demon, but “What has this to do with us?” you may be asking.   

I would like to go back and have you to listen more closely to the language of the unclean spirit. The spirit confronts Jesus and cries 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.” Notice how it speaks in the plural: “us.” Mark clearly tells us the spirit is singular (it is “an unclean spirit”). Yet, the spirit speaks in the plural: “What have You to do with us?”

This could be a case where the spirit is one of many, like the situation of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:9). Or it could be the spirit is speaking of a realm of uncleanness. Or it could be the spirit is intentionally seeking to deceive Jesus, presenting itself as many when it is only one. I wonder, however, if the spirit could be making a bolder claim. Is it possible the unclean spirit is claiming the people in the synagogue as its own? This unclean spirit already has laid claim to this man. The man is described as, “in the unclean spirit,” and the spirit is later able to convulse him. Is it possible the unclean spirit sees things differently than we do?

We look at the synagogue and see God’s people gathering in worship. The spirit, however, sees uncleanness and lays claim to all which is unclean as its own. God’s people have gathered in worship while there is a war going on, and this war has two opponents: The Kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God. There is no middle ground. You are either Satan’s or you are God’s.

When the spirit first appears in the story, Mark makes it sound like there may be a middle ground. “And immediately, there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” The synagogue belongs neither to God nor to Satan but to the people of Capernaum. The spirit then makes a claim. Its claim is that all the people gathered in worship are the spirit’s. They are unclean and cannot be in the presence of the “holy One of God.” What does God have to do with those who are unclean? Nothing. So, the spirit cries out and reveals that the people of Capernaum, gathered in worship, are under the threat of being claimed by Satan.

But then Jesus reveals who He truly is. He is more than a man from Nazareth. He is more than a prophet like Moses. He is more than a teacher with authority. He is the cosmic Christ. This is His synagogue, and these are His people. His rule is over all things, visible and invisible. His power is without equal. He has come into this world to fight against Satan and to defeat him. He will set free all the people Satan claims as His own.

How are the unclean made clean? How are the captives set free? By the gracious work of Jesus, bearing the curse of our uncleanness on the cross that He might rise and bring the blessing of God’s holiness to us in His authoritative Word.

For almost a year now, we have been experiencing the disruptive effects of COVID. One of the things that has happened is it has changed how we view our ability to gather in worship. I fear some have found worship to not be so essential. But many others have begun to see why being able to gather for worship is truly a gift. Mark’s Gospel this morning takes us one step further. He reveals the divine gift of worship. We are Christ’s Church. The One we worship is the One who has come to rescue us from the power of Satan. We live in the midst of a battle. Satan seeks to lay claim on our lives. But for us fights the valiant one: Jesus. The cosmic Christ who has come today claims us as His own.

Jesus’ authoritative teaching and power over the unclean spirits create an immediate stir among those beholding Him in the early days of His ministry in Galilee. Today, we often see the same thing. People continue to be interested in and even amazed by Jesus’ teaching, and yet many fail to depend on Him for life and salvation. By the power of His authoritative Word and Spirit, however, others are indeed brought into saving faith and life.

As He promised, the Lord our God has raised up “a prophet” like Moses, namely Jesus, our brother in the flesh. “To Him you shall listen,” because the Word of the Lord is “in His mouth” (Deut. 18:15–18). Indeed, He is more than a prophet and more than a scribe of the Scriptures; He is the incarnate Word, and He speaks “a new teaching with authority” (Mark 1:22, 27). He enters “the synagogue” of His Church and provides true Sabbath rest, using His authority to silence and cast out “even the unclean spirits” (Mark 1:21–27). By His Word of the cross, He removes the accusations of the Law and of the devil, and He cleanses our consciences before God the Father.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sermons, Uncategorized

The Little Ones Who Believe in Jesus

10249_1521253692125Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

There are certain things that you observe around you that let you know you’re in an election season. Campaign signs, mailers, televised debates, and endless commercials. And whether it’s a candidate or a proposition or school bond issue, one way they attempt to influence the voter is by making an appeal on behalf of the children. Candidates are pictured with children around them. Initiatives are promoted through children smiling and waving, perhaps even speaking words of their own scripted endorsement so that you, too, will support it. Either the person or the idea is presented as good because it is good for the children. And what kind of monster doesn’t want to do what is good for the children?

While some of this material is a shameless emotional appeal to mothers and fathers who want the best for their own children, such campaigning is also based on a premise that cannot be denied. Children are our future. The children of today are the grownups of tomorrow. And it is the same for the Church on earth.

Our Lord stresses heavily the upbringing of children, for the Church itself is always but one generation away from extinction. God does not mass-produce Christians. He makes them individually through the Holy Spirit creating faith in their hearts by means of His Word and Sacrament. This faith must be fed and sustained, just as the body must be continually nourished with food and water. And like the body, faith also can fall victim to disease, but not to the flu or a cold. Faith suffers the illness of being scandalized. A literal translation of Jesus’ words is “whoever scandalizes one of these little ones who believe in Me.”

To scandalize someone is to cause them to stumble—to shake the faith that they have in something or someone. We may have come to know the word scandal in our culture to be nothing more than juicy gossip that gives newspapers their cover story day after day—usually about a famous person’s private life. But in the biblical sense, the concept of a scandal is much more sinister. Jesus doesn’t leave any room for His people to be flippant about their behavior toward others, the little ones in particular.

Our text this morning follows the events of the reading from last Sunday, in which Jesus took up a child in His arms and declared that whoever receives such a little one in His name receives Him. This child is still in their midst today when Jesus warns against causing such a little one to sin.

Throughout the New Testament, little children are held up as the example of faith to the church. Jesus said explicitly that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. Why is this? We know from Scripture that children are not sinless. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The wages of sin is death, and we know that children, too, are subject to death. We know that they are conceived and born in sin, and that, like adults, they would be eternally lost without God’s saving grace. So what makes little children the examples of faith? Why is childlike faith revered above all?

We begin to understand the danger of scandalizing a little one when we come to realize the nature of a child’s faith. The faith of a little child is a faith that has been given through her baptism and is fed through hearing about her Savior Jesus. It is a faith that has not yet been subjected to the temptations of the world. A child is sinful by nature, but she doesn’t yet receive reinforcement of sinful behavior from others. She also has not yet been subjected to schoolteachers and college professors who will ridicule her because of her faith in Jesus.

A little child receives God’s Word, Christ Jesus, and trusts in Him without being attacked on all sides. A little child isn’t afraid of talking about her Savior because of what others will think! Hers is a complete faith and trust in her Redeemer Jesus. She may not be able to articulate it. A little child may not yet be able to understand the full meaning of all the words of the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed, but the faith of her heart is not contingent on the ability of her mind to process it.

This is another important aspect to remember, that faith is of the heart and not of the mind. Faith is not a mental exercise or a deliberate action of the will. Faith is not a decision that is entered upon and then never subject to second thoughts. Faith is God’s instrument for receiving His salvation by grace. It is God’s work, and it is His gift to us. And the faith of a little child is one that has been received and has not yet been polluted by the world. It is focused on Jesus and is not divided between Him and other things. The little child believes and has not yet been taught to doubt. Thus, the faith of a little child is the strongest and purest of all.

Woe, therefore, to anyone who would damage the faith of these little ones! Jesus isn’t being dramatic when He speaks of a millstone being hung around one’s neck, mob-style, and being thrown into the sea. It truly would be better for such a scandalous person to have that happen, because at least in the bottom of the sea one would not be able to scandalize any more children.

At this point, your thoughts might be focusing on a couple of more obvious scandals to children that receive such prominence in our day—child abusers and child predators. But as heinous as such crimes against children these may be, we need not go so far as physical abuse to truly scandalize a little one and cause them to sin. We need only consider what is needed to sustain a child’s faith and realize our own failings in our responsibility as Christians to nurture that faith.

At the end of our text, Jesus speaks of the saltiness of salt, and tells you to have salt in yourselves and be a peace with one another. Now, our Lord is not speaking of the level of sodium in one’s diet. Rather, He speaks about salt as it has always been used by man —as a preservative and seasoning. All our conduct as Christians is to be seasoned with salt. Our lives are not to be lived according to our sinful nature, but seasoned with God’s gifts of grace, which strengthen us against the temptation to sin and also enable us to give a faithful Christian witness to everyone. Your conduct, therefore, in every situation, must speak well of your Lord, and this includes your conduct toward His little ones.

Children don’t need any help being sinners, but woe to him who provides such help. This includes not just teaching one’s children sinful behavior by means of bad example, but also failing to bring up one’s children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Jesus does warn against outward sin against little children, but He speaks here more broadly against anything that damages a child’s faith. And there are plenty of ways that remain rampant among Christians.

Parents who bring their child to the waters of Holy Baptism promise to teach their children the ways of the Lord, and when they fail to do so, they not only break their promise, but they also cause their little one who believes in Jesus to stumble, because they starve their faith. A parent who doesn’t properly nourish their child with food, clothing, and shelter is charged by the state with neglect and child endangerment. A parent who doesn’t nourish a child’s faith neglects and endangers the child’s soul. It would be better if a millstone dragged such a teacher to the bottom of the sea, where they could not harm others.

The Christian congregation in general also has the responsibility to its young people to provide an example to them. Christians are to show love for the children of their parish and rejoice that they are there on the Lord’s Day to hear of Jesus and know that He died to forgive them of all their sins. Christian adults should be ready and willing to tell the little ones about Jesus in Sunday School. Pastors have the honor and privilege of assisting parents in the instruction of their children by meeting with the children during the week, to help them to examine themselves for worthy and prepared reception of their Lord’s body and blood in the Sacrament.

All Christians have the duty before God to nurture and encourage the Christians of tomorrow. We all have the responsibility to let our light shine before men and provide an example to those who are most impressionable. This applies not just to little ones, but even to adults who are still “little ones” in the faith. No one should conduct oneself in such a way that others are surprised to learn that one is a Christian. Your Christian faith should be known to others by the fruits you bear. Just as a good tree bears good fruit, so also does a true faith show itself through good works and example.

Your children are watching you, and so is the world. The world is waiting for you to slip up and provide them with the dirt of scandal. The world rejoices when the Christian causes the little ones to sin, for it confirms itself in its own rejection of Christ Jesus and basks in your failures.

Don’t give the world what it desires in finding excuse to reject the Gospel! As James said in our Epistle reading, resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Be humble, and speak evil of no one. Be imitators of Christ, who returned no evil for evil, who endured the cursings and revilings of the world, but who did not apologize for the truth and went to the cross for it.

Christ Jesus went to the cross for you. He went to the cross and died to atone for all of your weaknesses and all of your failings. He took all of your poor behavioral examples, all of your indifference, all of your lacking, and nailed it to that cross. He hung a great millstone around all the things you do as a sinner to cause His little ones to sin, and has cast them into the deep.

Your Lord Jesus has blessed you, His people of this particular time and place, with the gift of His Word that makes you wise unto salvation. And He has entrusted it to you for the instruction of the little ones. He gives to you His Word and faith to keep and preserve you, to equip you in your responsibility to future generations. And He invites you to receive from Him the strength to remain in that faith that trusts in the crucified and risen Lord.

This same faith He provides to the little ones that they would believe in Him unto life everlasting. His promises are as much to them as to you who have confessed your God-given faith. Therefore go, and in service to Him, render God-pleasing service to His little ones. Encourage them in the faith, teach them in the way they should go, so that when they are old, they do not depart from it.

Our Lord bless and keep you strong and steadfast in His Word, and sustain you according to His faithful promise, that you would be an example to the little ones who will carry the faith to the end. Go in the peace of the Lord and serve Him and with joy. You are forgiven all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.