[This was shared during this morning's worship celebrations with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio.]
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells the true story of an incident that happened at sea. 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 were thrown into panic. They 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.” That’s authority!
Do we truly believe that Jesus has the authority to make that command and that promise?
Or do we repose greater trust in ourselves, our families, our work, our wits, or our pleasures?
The choice between heaven or hell, life or death, purpose or futility, connection to God and others or utter, stark eternal aloneness resides in the issue of who we will give authority over our lives: Jesus Christ or ourselves.
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 might gain outward submission, none could command true 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 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 “amazed” by Him, because, verse 22 says, “He taught them as one who had authority, and not as the teachers of the [religious] law.”
What made Jesus so authoritative to these people? Two things possibly.
First, Jesus taught as one who wasn’t looking out for himself. In Mark 10:45, Jesus: “...the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
We don’t know if Jesus used words like those 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.
Philippians 2:5-11 says that though Jesus was equal to God the Father, He “emptied Himself,” became a slave for our sins and died on the cross for them so that the Father could raise Him up, opening eternity to all who move away from sin and turn in trust to Jesus. Jesus had authority because He was looking out for you and me, not Himself. And so He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father...not what I will, but what You will.”
Here’s the other thing that may have given Jesus’ teaching authority that day: He taught as one with un-derived authority. By that, I mean when Jesus spoke, He clearly wasn’t just quoting the God of the Old Testament. 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 Himself.
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…” While He sometimes quoted from the Old Testament, Jesus had no need to resort to citations or footnotes to buttress the power of His words. He spoke with the clarity and authority of God’s own voice. Often, when Jesus cited passages of the Old Testament, He would say things, "You have heard it said...but I tell you." He spoke with the authority of God Himself.
Though the worshipers at Capernaum could not have articulated a confession of Jesus as God in the flesh, the Messiah King yet, they knew that there was something more authoritative about Jesus’ teaching than the teaching they ordinarily heard.
But someone in their presence 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 we 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, we’re not ready to follow Jesus.
Jesus would later say in Mark 8:34, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
There are many people today--many of them filling up the membership rosters of churches--who don’t follow Jesus, but simply hover around Him because they see Him as a cosmic rabbit’s foot or a dispenser of blessings for which they can make deals.
They aren’t Jesus’ disciples. Jesus never makes deals. Instead, He’s in the gift-giving business.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But we know that in order to take hold of this gift, we must let go of the old sinful self. Our old sinful selves must be crucified...every day!
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 friend Lazarus back to life, 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 hover around Him on the testimony of a demon. 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 without difficulties or a painful struggle to please a cruel 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. “‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. “‘Come out of him!’ The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.’” Later in His ministry, Jesus would still wind and waves, causing His disciples to ask a similar question, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Both are good questions! Who is this guy with authority over demons, wind, waves, and, as we’ll see, life and death?
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…”
Jesus spoke to and subdued all that is in opposition to God with the same voice God used to bring creation into being!
The people of Capernaum didn’t see this about Jesus yet. They didn't understand yet that Jesus was God as well as man. But they were amazed. It would only be after Jesus' death and resurrection that His first followers would understand what Jesus had shown and what Jesus had taught them about His identity as God in human flesh.
A friend of ours came home one day to discover that his wife had left him. For months, He tried to claim control of his life by throwing himself into long work days and non-stop busy-ness. He didn’t have a demon. But the devil was riding on his back.
Friends finally got to him though. We told him how Christ helped us through tough times and gave us hope for tomorrow. That didn’t make all his pain go away. But as he began to walk with Christ, the need for frenzy subsided. He knew he didn’t need to be in control. Christ set him free.
That’s what the authority of Christ over the chaos of this fallen universe can do for all who believe in Him. It frees us from sin and death and the need to be our own gods.
Christ wants to give that same peace to you and me every day. May Christ help us to turn each day from a self-driven life and turn instead to Him. May we learn the power that comes from surrender to Jesus, when we give Him complete authority over our days and our eternities. Amen