[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, yesterday.]
N.T. Wright tells the true story of an incident that happened several years ago. You may remember it.
The operators of a tourist boat, filled with cars and people on their vacations, failed to close the boat’s doors properly.
After the boat had shoved off, water began to pour into the boat. People began to panic. People were terrified and their shrieks of fear filled the air.
Suddenly, a passenger--not a crew member--took charge of the situation. In clear and confident tones, he told people what to do.
A sense of relief began to replace the panic as the man’s fellow passengers realized that someone was taking charge. Many were able to get on lifeboats that they might otherwise have missed in the dark and the frenzied rush.
The man who took control also went down to find people trapped in the hold, then formed a human bridge, holding onto a ladder with one hand and the mostly submerged ship with the other, enabling more people to cross to safety.
Later, this man was found drowned in the boat’s hold. As Wright puts it: “He had literally given his life in using the authority he had assumed—the authority by which many had been saved.”
In today’s world, we don’t much care for the whole idea of authority. We don’t want anybody telling us what to do, even when the person in authority seems to know what they’re doing and to have our best interests at heart…even when the authority figure in question is God.
It’s so hard for us to trust even the God we meet in Christ. Yet Jesus tells us (and backs up the authority of His words through His death and resurrection): “I am the way, and the life, and the truth. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
Do you believe that Jesus has the authority to make that command and that promise? Or do you repose greater trust in yourself, your family, your work, your wits, or your pleasures?
Do you believe that Jesus is the one and only "God and human" chain that can connect you to God and the life you were meant to live?
The choice between heaven or hell, life or death, purpose or futility, connection to God and others or utter, stark eternal aloneness inheres in the issue of who you will give authority over your life.
In first-century Judea where Jesus lived, there was no shortage of people who claimed to have authority. Roman governors and soldiers, priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, scribes, tax collectors: They all barked out orders, religious and secular.
And while they could command submission, none could command respect. None of them acted like the passenger who saved so many on that tourist boat, a man many of his fellow passengers had probably never met, but were willing to follow. And none of the would-be authority figures people encountered in Jesus' day spoke or acted or lived or talked like Jesus.
All of this may help to explain our Gospel lesson for today, where we’re told that Jesus’ fellow Jews in the synagogue at Capernaum were “astounded” by Him, because, verse 22 says, “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
What gave Jesus authority? Two things, I think.
First, Jesus taught as one who wasn’t looking out for himself.
Later in Mark’s gospel, we learn that Jesus said of Himself, “…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, to give His life a ransom for many.”
We don’t know if Jesus used those same words in the synagogue at Capernaum, but the worshipers there that day would have clearly sensed that when Jesus called them to follow Him, He wasn’t doing it to feed His ego, fill His wallet, or gain political power.
The New Testament says that though Jesus was equal to God the Father, He “emptied Himself,” became our slave and died on the cross for our sins so that the Father could raise Him up, opening eternity to all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus.
Jesus had authority because He was looking out for you and me, not Himself. That's why He prayed in that garden, “Father, not My will, but Your will be done.”
Here’s the other thing that I think gave Jesus’ teaching authority: He taught as one with un-derived authority.
By that, I mean when Jesus spoke, He wasn’t quoting the God of the Old Testament, the God Who spoke to Abraham and Moses and the prophets. Jesus was and is the God Who spoke to the world into existence, founded the nation of Israel on the barren womb of Sarah, led His people out of slavery in Egypt, and promised that Israel would fulfill its mission to be a light to all the nations by being the birthplace of the Savior of the nations, Jesus.
Scholars say that when rabbis taught in the synagogues of Jesus’ day, they would preface their points with phrases like, “Moses said…” or “Rabbi So-and-So taught…”
Jesus had no need to resort to citations or footnotes to buttress the power of His words.
Though the worshipers at Capernaum could not have articulated a confession of Jesus as God in the flesh, the Messiah King, they knew that there was something more authoritative, something more powerful, about Jesus’ teaching than the teaching they ordinarily heard.
Like the disciples who, several years later, met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, not at first recognizing Him as He taught them God’s Word, the worshipers at Capernaum must have felt too: “Were not out hearts burning within us while He…was opening the Scriptures to us?”
But if the worshipers there that day couldn’t say with certainty that Jesus was more than just a carpenter from Nazareth, someone there knew the facts.
Please look at verses 23 and 24 of the Gospel lesson. Mark says: “Just then 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.’”
The demon understood that Jesus was God in the flesh.
The problem, from Jesus’ viewpoint, was that the people of Capernaum didn’t yet understand the full truth about Jesus. And unless people understand that following Jesus means submitting to the daily crucifixion of our sins and our inborn desire to be the ultimate authorities over our lives, they’re not ready to follow Jesus.
That’s what Jesus meant when He said later in His ministry: “If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross [meaning, take responsibility for your sins and ask Christ to destroy their power over us] and follow Me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
There are many people who follow Jesus because they see Him as a cosmic rabbit’s foot or a dispenser of blessings for which they can make deals.
But Jesus isn’t making any deals.
He is in the gift-giving business: He gives forgiveness and new life to all who surrender their lives to Him.
But surrender means the crucifixion of our old selfish ways.
And, even when we do that, day-in and day-out, Jesus doesn’t promise that all will go smoothly.
Think about this: Even after Jesus brought his good friend Lazarus back from the dead, Lazarus had to die again! Bummer!
But Jesus does promise to be with us always and, as He said to Lazarus’ sister on the day He called Lazarus from the grave: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.”
Jesus couldn’t risk seeing the people of Capernaum come to follow Him on the testimony of a demon, though. When the enemies of God define what it means to follow Jesus, they always get it wrong, either turning Christian faith into a spiritual Disneyland with no difficulties or a painful struggle to please an unkind God. In Jesus’ cross and empty tomb, we see that neither picture of God is true.
But, at Capernaum near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, neither cross nor empty tomb had happened yet. So, Jesus did something that, afterwards, His early disciples would see as a sign—an epiphany—of His identity as God in human flesh.
Look at verse 25. “Jesus rebuked [the demon], saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of Him!” Jesus later used the same word translated as “be silent” when He commanded a roaring storm that had Jesus’ disciples fearing for their lives. “Be still!” He told the wind and waves, causing His disciples to ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?”
Good question! The answer can be found in Genesis 1, where we’re told that before the universe was formed, God’s Spirit moved over “the deep,” a roaring storm, and spoke to it—“Let there be light…” “Let there be dry land…” “Let there be grass and fields and trees and fruits…” “Let us make human beings in our image…”
The people of Capernaum didn’t understand yet that Jesus was God as well as man. But they were astonished. “What is this?” they ask one another. “A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.”
A friend of ours came home one day to discover that his wife had left him to take up with another man. He was devastated.
In a vain effort to drown out his pain and claim control of his life, he threw himself into long workdays punctuated by non-stop busy-ness. He didn’t have a demon. But the devil seemed to be riding on his back.
Another friend finally got to him. He talked with him about how Christ had helped him through tough times and gave him hope for tomorrow.
Our friend finally heard Jesus telling him, “Be still and know that I am God.” Day after day, he let Christ take authority over his life.
That didn’t make all his pain or his questions go away. But as he began to walk each day with Christ by his side, the need for frenzy did go away.
He didn’t have to keep trying to assert the control over his life that he once thought he could have or needed to have. Christ had set him free. He came to know peace in the midst of the insanity and pain of life in this world.
Christ wants to give you that same peace today. Turn from a self-driven life. Turn to Christ. Jesus has the authority to change your life for eternity. Let Him do it. Surrender to Him. Amen