Text: Mark 1:21-28 W 4th Sunday after Epiphany
“Have You Come to Destroy Us?”
In the name of him whom even demons know to be the Holy One of God, dear friends in Christ: We heard in this morning’s Gospel lesson that the people Jesus addressed in the Capernaum synagogue were astonished by his teaching. And it doesn’t seem to be so much what he said to them that shocked and surprised them (since the Evangelist doesn’t tell us what that was); no, it was how he said it to them. Unlike their usual worship leaders, we’re told, Jesus taught them “as one who had authority”.
That might require a little explanation. You see, if you attended a typical Jewish synagogue service in the time of Jesus – indeed, if you attended one any time say between the sixth century B.C. right up until the present day – the last thing you’d likely hear is someone standing in the pulpit reading a text of Scripture and explaining what it meant. Oh, you’d hear the Scripture all right; but then instead of a real, honest to goodness expository sermon that unpacked and applied God’s Word to your life in any meaningful way, what you’d hear instead is a lot of name dropping and gobbledygook. It would go something like this: “Of this passage the famed Rabbi So-and-So said this: blah, blah, blah. Contradicting him, Rabbi What’s-His-Face (of blessèd memory) said this: yada yada yada. Then again, Rabbi Who’s-it the Wise believed this passage to be an elaborate allegory representing this, that, and the other thing.” And so it would go, maybe for an hour or two. And when it was done, far from being anywhere close to actually understanding the true meaning of the passage, you’d be pretty much convinced that it might mean anything – or perhaps nothing – at all. And even if you thought it probably meant something, you’d be convinced that there was no way for you to know for sure what it was.
But that isn’t how Jesus taught. His approach was simple and direct. When he spoke on a text of Scripture, you knew exactly what it meant and how it applied to you. He didn’t leave you any wriggle room. And he didn’t quote a bunch of so called “scholarly authorities” to impress his hearers with how well read he was, nor, I might add, to avoid taking responsibility for what he taught. That’s a big reason most synagogue preachers only spouted forth confusing and contradictory quotes from the “experts”: it was to avoid the risk of being proven wrong. After all, if you never say anything definitive, if you never take a firm stand on what you declare to be the truth, no one can accuse you of teaching falsely. They can’t even argue with you because you haven’t asserted anything of your own to argue against. Of course the other reason preachers taught the way they did was to avoid offending anyone in the congregation. If you simply talk around a text and offer up a dozen or so possibilities concerning what it might mean, allowing your hearers to pick the explanation that best suits them, no one can be mad at you. You’ll be very popular. But then again, your hearers won’t learn anything of value. And because they are effectively choosing only what they want as if from a smorgasbord of choices, there’s no possibility of them being challenged or changed by God’s Word. Jesus didn’t teach that way. He didn’t come to leave people in their self satisfied sin and ignorance. He took ownership of and responsibility for what he taught. He taught God’s Word with conviction and with the voice of authority—his own authority. And it made people sit up and pay attention. They were surprised at the way he taught, surprised that they were actually learning something, and surprised too, I’m sure, that they were being changed by the power of God’s Word.
And just a sideline here, this is one reason I’m not the biggest fan of some of the in-home Bible studies that people sometimes get involved with. Don’t get me wrong. I want people to read their Bibles and discuss it with others. That’s great. But what happens in a lot of these studies is that they’ll read a passage of Scripture and then ask everyone, “What does this passage mean to you?” Someone will say, “I think it means this.” Another person says, “I think it means that.” And someone else says, “It reminds me of a time in my life when …” and what follows is a long story that isn’t even remotely related to the topic at hand – but somehow the passage sparked a memory that the person felt just needed to be shared. Now, there may be some social value in a gathering like that; but I think it’s a far stretch to call it a Bible study. Unless there’s someone there actually assuming responsibility for what’s being taught and speaking authoritatively, so that as a result his teaching can be questioned and judged by those present in the light of God’s Word, then what’s going on is not so much Bible study as it is what’s commonly called “bull session”. (There. I’m glad I got that off my chest.)
Now, if it surprised you that I said that, or even if you’re a little offended by it, then you have some small inkling as to what the folks listening to Jesus felt as he taught. The difference is that they were thoroughly astonished (and for good reason). But I think if we take a closer look at this text, we too just might find a few things that will surprise us.
One of them is where it takes place. It’s in a synagogue – what we would call a church. I’ve run into many people over the years who speak against gathering for public worship in a building dedicated for that purpose. They hold a popular view that Jesus was the great outdoor preacher – that he opposed the institutional religious structures and forms of his day, and had more of a simple “back to nature” approach. People who say this to me think we should do the same, and that they, following faithfully in the pattern of our Lord, do their communing with God out in nature (specifically while hunting or fishing, or while at the lake, softball field, or golf course). At least, that’s what they use as their excuse for avoiding public worship. In response, it’s certainly true that Jesus did some teaching outdoors. We have for example the Sermon on the Mount, and the time he taught from a boat to a crowd on the beach. There are other examples too; but the fact is that his usual custom was to teach in the synagogues. As a matter of fact, in today’s text where it says “on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue”, what the Greek text actually says is “on the Sabbaths (plural) Jesus would go into the synagogue”. The idea is that it was his regular routine. So far from opposing the outward structures of the faith, Jesus embraced them and used them as his normal means of reaching people. And he still does today – which isn’t really surprising; but it seems to be to some folks.
Anyway, another thing we might find surprising is that in this synagogue there’s a man who has an unclean spirit, that is, a demon living within him. I’m sure it surprised the other people there that day. They believed that demons inhabited what they considered to be unclean places like tombs and public outhouses. Particularly evil people too, the worst sort of sinners—that’s the kind of person who might have a demon. They certainly wouldn’t have expected a demon to be found in a synagogue – a house of God – and especially not in a fellow who was a regular at their church and who was probably a pillar of their community.
We too might wonder how it could happen. Wouldn’t the demon be ill at ease in a synagogue of all places where it would be subject to hearing God’s mighty Word and surrounded by a worshipping congregation? You’d think. But the truth is that it’s not that hard to understand. Considering the normal way teaching was done in the synagogues, completely lacking any kind of conviction or authority, it’s exactly the kind of place a demon would be comfortable calling home. God’s Word is only a threat to demons where it’s understood and believed by those who speak and hear it. Where there is no emphasis on truth and sound doctrine, where everyone just picks whatever they want to believe from a multitude of “equally acceptable” choices—that’s the safest place in the world for an unclean spirit because it won’t ever be challenged or confronted. And its host will have the added benefit of appearing to be an upright and religious person: it’s the perfect camouflage for evil.
I hasten to add that even where God’s Word is being taught with power and authority you should expect to find the devil and his wicked cohorts hard at work. In fact, it’s especially where God’s people gather to hear his Word that you’ll find them, for that’s where the battle is being fought. Satan has no need to deceive those who are outside the church; he’s already got them. But in the church he can distract, tempt away, and confuse those who hear. He can apply pressure on teachers to soften their stance and water down the Word in order to remain popular or to avoid persecution. He can try to corrupt doctrine by appealing to human reason and worldly wisdom. He can work on the hearers to get them to complain, tear down, gossip, and spread rumors about their teacher or each other, it doesn’t matter, as long as it interferes with the faithful transmission of God’s Word—because that’s what the demons fear.
And they aren’t the only ones who are afraid of it. You see, even if he hasn’t got any of his actual demons planted in a congregation, Satan still has a lot of allies there. One per customer, you might say, because each one of us has a corrupted sin nature – that is, an unclean spirit within us. Not a fallen angel, but a fallen person. And that unclean spirit in you wants very much to protect its turf. It wants to remain comfortable and unchallenged – which it can do only when God’s Word is not being taught or heard as it should. So if there are times when I’m preaching that you don’t feel convicted of sin, if your sin nature doesn’t feel that it’s under attack, then either I’m not teaching God’s Word right, you’re not listening to it as you should, or both. Because where God’s Word is being taught with authority and it’s being received as such, then our sinful natures are going to fear eviction and cry out in panic just like the unclean spirit in today’s lesson.
And this too might be something of a surprise. The demon asks Jesus, “Have you come to destroy us?” That’s not a role we normally associate with Jesus. If you think about your favorite images of him, what you picture in your mind’s eye when you think of him, or what you see in most religious art or in motion pictures … that Jesus is usually kind of soft. He’s gentle guy with children sitting in his lap. He’s tenderly reaching out to the poor and needy. He’s cradling a lost sheep in his arms. He’s sort of a hippyish peacenik kind of guy. He’s a visionary. He’s a builder. Rarely do we think of him as a destroyer.
But the truth is that the building up of his kingdom can only take place where the enemy has been defeated and destroyed. It’s no accident that in the Scriptures one of the most common images used to represent God’s Word is a sword – that is, a weapon used for inflicting death and destruction. One of the biblical stories we Christians tend to shy away from is that of conquest under Joshua, when the Israelites seized control and ownership of the Promised Land. Then the Lord gave them an extermination order. They were to allow none of the Canaanites who were the current occupants of the land to be left alive. They were to destroy them all. Now, that sounds so heartless and cruel to us. It’s not at all consistent with the way we like to think about the Lord; but he had good reason for ordering such drastic measures. It was to keep his people from mixing in marriage and making inevitable compromises with the godless, wicked, idol worshipping people who lived there. The Lord ordered the Canaanites to be destroyed so that they would not become a snare to his own people. He told them if you fail to destroy them, you will by your mingling with them and adopting their ways cause your own destruction.
That, incidentally, is exactly what happened. The Israelites did fail to destroy all the occupants of the land. They got the job part of the way done and said to themselves, that’s good enough. All this fighting is hard and dirty work. So, we’ll be kind and compassionate. We’ll be tolerant. We’ll let them live among us. And they probably felt pretty good about themselves for it, thinking they were more merciful that the Lord even; but just as the Lord had said, it resulted in the swift seduction and the ultimate ruin of the majority of God’s people. They were destroyed by their failure to destroy that which was unclean in the land.
And now in today’s reading, Jesus has come to do the job they failed to do – except the battlefield isn’t the Promised Land, it’s the hearts, minds, and souls of men. He’s come to destroy the power of evil, the deceptions of the devil, and the chains of ignorance and unbelief with which Satan binds people’s hearts and keeps them captive to sin and guilt. Jesus is here to drive out unclean spirits by the power and authority of his Word: both the demonic kind that lived inside the man in the story and the sinful human kind that lives in each one of us. So though it may surprise you, you’d better believe that Jesus is here to destroy everything that’s unclean in you – and that he won’t be satisfied leaving the job only part of the way done.
But what’s most surprising of all is how he came to do it. With Satan and his demons, he does it by sweeping them away with the authority of his Godhead and the powerful sword of his Word. And so it is that we heard how at the command of Jesus the man convulsed and cried out with a loud voice as the unclean spirit released him and fled. But when it comes to attacking and destroying the sin nature in us, Jesus does it by turning the sword of God’s judgment on himself. In his mercy and love for us, he takes upon himself our uncleanness and he carries it to the cross. There he suffers for our sin. He convulses, wracked with the pain that we by our sins deserved. And when that job is one hundred percent complete, he cries out in a loud voice and releases his own Holy Spirit.
It’s the same Holy Spirit he sends now to you and me by means of his authoritative Word. And this is the message: that he is the holy God gives him the authority to condemn sin in us; but that he was condemned in our place gives him the authority to forgive and release us from our sin and its consequences. His Spirit working in us gives us the faith to trust in this saving truth. And now, redeemed and forgiven, he calls upon you and me to join him in the fight to completely conquer this fallen flesh of ours. He wants us join him in carrying out the extermination order; to commit ourselves to hard, dirty job of destroying all that is evil, selfish, and unclean within. He wants us to assert his authority and rule here by his Word precisely so that we won’t be seduced, deceived, led away, and destroyed by our failure to destroy.
So, surprising as it may sound, Jesus has indeed come to destroy us. May we, trusting in the authority of his Word, persevere with him in the fight from now until that day when job is done and this sinful old flesh is destroyed for good. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!