Monday, January 30, 2012
A Devil of a Sabbath Day
In Nomine Iesu
St. Mark 1:21-28
January 29, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~
It was a devil of a Sabbath Day for the Savior. The Son of God was right where you would expect Him to be on a Sabbath—in church among God’s people. But it’s a surprise appearance by a member of the enemy camp that threatens to steal the show—or at least spill a few secrets about the Savior.
St. Mark describes this unexpected synagogue visitor as “a man with an unclean spirit.” We might say that he was demon-possessed—that the devil exercised a degree of control over this man in a way that goes beyond our understanding. Any talk about demons, devils and spirits can go terribly wrong in one of two ways. Christian author C. S. Lewis identified these two problematic approaches to devils in his preface to “The Screwtape Letters.” Here’s what Lewis wrote: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”
Lewis’s words are a helpful reminder for us as we dig deep into today’s Holy Gospel. Whatever the Holy Spirit means for us to understand about this man’s condition—whatever is meant by “unclean spirit”—we would do a grave disservice to this text by concluding that the man was just suffering from some sort of mental illness—that those rubes in the First Century were guided by superstition rather than science. In other words, we don’t dare attribute this man’s odd behavior merely to a malfunctioning brain. For as surely as there are angels, there are evil angels, demons, unclean spirits. They seek to destroy everything good—especially your faith in Jesus the Christ. Disbelieve in their existence at your own peril.
But if disbelieving in devils is one error, then the opposite error is just as perilous—what C. S. Lewis called “an excessive and unhealthy interest” in them. And there is something about this man with his unclean spirit that demands our full and undivided attention. And if he captures our attention, then think about all the worshippers who had gathered at the synagogue that day—expecting a routine liturgy, with Jesus of Nazareth as the guest preacher.
If you’ve been attending church for any length of time, then you’ve probably come to expect a few distractions while you’re sitting in the pew: toddler temper tantrums, people passing out, cell phones ringing—even an occasional bat flying overhead. But to have a demonized man disrupt the Divine Service would probably be a first for most of us. We could spend the next thirty minutes speculating about this man and what he was doing in the synagogue that day. Was he a member of the synagogue? What did he look like? What did his voice sound like? (Was it spooky or normal?) But those aren’t the questions the Holy Spirit wants us asking about this account. The Holy Spirit always points us to Jesus—leads us to ask, “Where’s the ‘Jesus’ in this account? What of Jesus is being delivered here? What is Jesus saying and doing for us?”
So let’s back up for a minute and take it from the top—keeping Jesus in mind. It was a Sabbath Day in Capernaum and Jesus was right where you would expect to find Him. Jesus doesn’t sneak around like the devils; He’s got nothing to hide. The Sabbath was a holy day—a day designed for rest. But “rest” didn’t mean sleeping late, or breaking out the golf clubs, or heading out for bagels and coffee. “Rest” on the Sabbath meant rest from work, in order to worship. And worship means hearing God’s Word. “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Coming to church and hearing the Word of God is not work; it is rest. Jesus says so. “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened,” said Jesus, “and I will give you rest.”
At the synagogue everyone was amazed and astonished at Jesus’ teaching, because He taught as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. The difference was that Jesus didn’t quote other rabbis. To hear Jesus preach was to hear God’s Word directly from God Himself. And when Mark reports that they were astonished at His teaching, the word for teaching also means “doctrine.” Jesus was delivering doctrine—law and Gospel that kills and makes alive—doctrine that delighted His hearers.
It was right about then, as Jesus was dishing out the doctrine, that the man with an unclean spirit attempted to steal the show. I don’t know how common demon possession was in first-century Galilee, but it sure seems like the devils were putting in overtime during Jesus’ ministry. And the timing and the place of this first encounter are not mere coincidence. You can be sure of this: wherever the doctrine of Jesus Christ is being taught, the devil and his demons will be hard at work. There’s nothing the devil despises more than the preaching of Christ crucified for sinners. There’s nothing more distressing for the prince of darkness than for you to know what you believe about Jesus and why.
This room is sometimes referred to as the sanctuary. But if by sanctuary we mean “a place where the devil can’t get after us,” we’ve missed an important point of today’s text. Jesus’ first encounter with one of Satan’s lieutenants happened in a room like this—in a gathering of God’s people, in a sanctuary. That tells me that the front lines of the battle against the forces of darkness are not located “out there” somewhere. The front lines of spiritual warfare are located right here. Let me give you an example of what happens right here on the front lines when you come to worship.
You hear the preacher declare that coming to church is a good thing. But the devil tells you that coming to church is the only thing. Just occupy the pew for 70 minutes or so, put in your time, see and be seen, shake a few hands—and then go back to your life of sin, comforted that you’ve been forgiven. It sounds so right, but it’s all so wrong. The forgiveness of your sins offered here is the full and free forgiveness of every sin, BUT it is never the permission to go on sinning in the same old ways—carelessly, casually, comfortably. God’s promised forgiveness can never be used as an excuse to go on living a lie. Lies are the native language of the devil and his demons. But those lies of his are never far from the truth—never so outlandish as to be unbelievable.
In fact, did you notice that when the demon spoke up in the synagogue, he told the absolute truth about Jesus—declaring that Jesus was the holy one of God come to destroy the works of the devil? That unclean spirit was right on all counts. But he spoke that truth to distract, to short-circuit Calvary, to prematurely let out the secret about who Jesus was and why He had come. The devil was desperate to keep the Christ from the cross.
That’s still the work of devils and demons in the church today. They’re not out to give you a good scare; quite the opposite. They want a Jesus proclaimed who was not crucified for our sins and raised again for our justification. They want a Jesus proclaimed who has no teaching—no doctrine—at all, a Jesus who approves and affirms whatever choices people think are right for them. They want a Jesus proclaimed who is just an example to follow, instead of a Savior whose bloody death saves us from death and damnation.
The Jesus who is present with us this morning is the same Jesus who spent one devil of a Sabbath Day in Capernaum. And His power over demons then is the same power at work among us today. With a word, Jesus silenced the unclean spirit in the synagogue: “Be silent.” It was the same word used by Jesus to quiet the wind and the waves. Jesus wasn’t flustered or surprised when the service was disrupted that day in Capernaum. It didn’t take much effort from Jesus to undo the devil’s work there. Jesus just spoke His Word. And that was enough.
Jesus’ Word is also enough for us today. If even the devils must submit to Jesus’ Word, then what is there Jesus cannot accomplish by His Word? Change water into wine. Calm wind and waves. Cleanse lepers. Raise the dead. Forgive sins. Declare sinners to be saints. His Word makes simple water to be a holy baptism—a cleansing splash of life and forgiveness and rebirth through the Holy Spirit. His Word makes simple bread and wine to be His own body and blood for us sinners to eat and drink. His Word works faith in your heart and sustains you when times are tough. His Word brings rest for the weary. And behind every one of Jesus’ Words stands the crucifixion cross of Jesus.
Devils and demons and evil angels are real; but they’re not out to scare you or go bump in the night. Nor do they merely want to get you to say or do bad things. They want to separate you from Jesus and His Word, and so destroy your faith. If that’s a troubling thought for you, you’re in the right place. You’re on the front lines of battle. It’s a devil of a Sunday once again here at Our Savior. But Jesus of Nazareth is fighting for you. Despite all the distractions and all the disruptions, Jesus is here for you. He is the holy one of God, your Savior—come to destroy death and give you life that lasts forever. Amen.