Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 31, 2010
“His Word Possesses Authority” (Luke 4:31-44)
“All talk and no action.” “It’s only words.” “Those are just empty words.” “Blah, blah, blah.” “Yada, yada, yada.” Notice how we disparage talk that is only that, mere words, without power or effect. But that is certainly not the case with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. His words are far from empty. When Jesus speaks, things happen. It was true in his ministry in the first century, and it remains true in his ministry now in the twenty-first century. You see, the good news for us this morning is this great fact about our Lord: “His Word Possesses Authority.”
“His Word Possesses Authority.” That is the thing that jumps out most prominently in our Gospel reading for today: Jesus’ authoritative word. His word carries with it the power to do the things he says. And they are great and powerful and amazing things. Things we need. Things we cannot do. But Jesus does them, and he does them simply by speaking the word.
Let’s look at some of those things Jesus does with his authoritative word. I see four main works Jesus is doing here in this review of his early ministry: Teaching the truth. Casting out demons. Healing the sick. And preaching the good news. Let’s take them now one by one.
First, teaching the truth. This aspect of Jesus’ ministry is summarized here just in a single sentence, but it covers a lot: “And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.” As we saw last week, it was Jesus’ habit to go to synagogue on the Sabbath–when people would be off work and “go to church,” if you will–Jesus would use the occasion to teach. He would open up the Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and expound their meaning. On subjects such as the keeping of the Sabbath itself, clean and unclean, marriage and divorce, prayer and sacrifice, righteousness and hypocrisy, love for God and love for neighbor, the purpose and intent of the Law of Moses–on all these subjects, Jesus would teach.
Not as the rabbis, the scribes and the Pharisees taught–they who could not see the forest for the trees; they who tried to make the Law a matter of surface observance, so as to make themselves look good; they who cited one another and added on man-made laws of their own–no, that is not how Jesus taught. When Jesus taught, and what Jesus taught–then you were hearing a word that possessed authority. Because it came straight from the Author himself. This was a word from God, the author of truth, spoken by the Son of God come in the flesh. Jesus is divine wisdom incarnate. He knows what the truth is. He is truth. Our Creator knows what his will is for his human creatures, what is best for us. Jesus comes speaking that truth. Wisdom! Let us attend!
Jesus’ teaching is not just information for us to fill our head with, for a game of Trivial Pursuit. Nothing trivial here. These are weighty matters, matters of life and death, eternal life and eternal death. This is wisdom for daily living, walking righteously as God’s own children, people who know and experience the power of love, people who receive love and give it away to others. That is how Jesus teaches, and his word goes straight to the heart. His word kills and quickens; it tears down and builds up. Jesus’ word does things in you. It changes you. You, you who are here today, you who are Jesus’ disciple: His word is changing you, making you more and more into the image of your master. His word possesses authority.
So that is the first thing we see Jesus doing in our text: teaching the truth. And that seems fairly familiar to us–we’ve been to Bible class, after all. But the second thing–the second thing sounds foreign and strange to our ears: Jesus casts out demons. Listen: “And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Ha! 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.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent and come out of him!’ And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. And they were all amazed and said to one another, ‘What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!’”
Jesus casts out demons, and he does it by the power of his authoritative word. Notice, there is no long Exorcist-style struggle back-and-forth. Jesus rebukes the demon and casts him out. He tells him “Shut up and get out!” And that’s it. The unclean spirit must obey. Now that in itself is truly amazing, that Jesus has that power. But the first thing that strikes us as strange is the very existence of demons and their activity in people. We’ve come to pooh-pooh that notion and dismiss it as the stuff of fiction and movies. But it’s not. The Bible throughout attests to the reality of the demonic realm. And particularly in the gospels, when Jesus arrives on the scene, the demonic activity seems to kick into higher gear. It’s like the devil knows the one who can decisively defeat him, once and for all–Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God–is about to undo his empire, and so Satan and his hordes get really busy. The devil is real, demons are real, and especially at the time of Christ and his apostles, demonic activity became more evident. In the New Testament, we see people attacked by unclean spirits, demonized, the demons tormenting their souls and afflicting their bodies, inflicting both spiritual and physical harm.
Is the devil, are demons, still active today? Yes, but not always necessarily in spectacular ways. Now it is possible that some criminally insane people, for instance, who do great harm to others and themselves–evil, horrific, inhumane things–it’s possible that the demonic realm is at work in their minds. We can’t be sure of it, that they’re “possessed,” but it is possible. The devil, though–the devil doesn’t have to work that hard or act that showy to accomplish his goal in most people. For Satan’s goal toward us is ultimately very simple: unbelief. The devil doesn’t want you to believe in Jesus. And most people are already there, stuck in unbelief, without Satan having to resort to parlor tricks. There are a lot of perfectly sane, normal people completely caught up in Satan’s domain, because they have no use for a Savior named Jesus. Thus they are already in Satan’s hip pocket and don’t even realize it.
But now here’s the good news for us today: Jesus has defeated the devil. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil,” 1 John reminds us. And Jesus has done just that: defeated and destroyed the devil and his evil empire. Jesus did that, of course, in the most strange and peculiar way: by dying on a cross. What looked like Christ’s greatest defeat was in reality his greatest victory, a death blow to the head of the serpent, delivered by the woman’s seed. Jesus fulfills the ancient promise, going back to Eden, of one who will stomp that old snake on the head. For in his death on the cross, God’s own Son took all our sin and death into himself, suffering for us the Big Death that covered us all like a shroud, so that now that death-shroud is lifted and we are free. The devil no longer has any hold on us.
Anticipating that victory, Jesus can speak a word and cast out demons. His authoritative word carries with it the power of his conquest on the cross. So now the devil has no power over you. Rather, you conquer through Christ. The old story is that Martin Luther, when he would feel himself attacked in his soul or mind by the devil–Luther would recall how God had claimed him for his own, and he would shout out the words, “Baptizatus sum!” “I am baptized!” Well, that is you, too. You are baptized. You are God’s child. Christ is your Savior. The devil has no power over you. Christ’s authoritative word makes it so.
Teaching the truth. Casting out demons. The third thing we see Jesus do with his word is healing the sick: “Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them.” Just like Jesus rebuked the demon, now he rebukes the fever. His authoritative word brings wholeness and healing. Jesus healed all sorts of diseases. With his word, with his touch, Christ brings healing to bodies weakened in this fallen creation. “But what about me?” you say. “Simon’s mother-in-law had a fever, and you healed her. Where is my healing? Speak the word, Jesus! Heal my body, my body that is full of aches and pains and getting older and feels like it’s falling apart. Has your word lost its authority?”
By no means! Jesus comes today with healing, healing for your soul, healing for your body. For if your soul is healed, that is the guarantee that your body will be also. That is the benefit of the Sacrament you will receive today. Jesus’ authoritative word says, “This is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. By giving you this Sacrament to receive into your body, Christ is showing you that he has redeemed both your soul and your body. This is Christ’s pledge that he will raise your body whole and glorious, no longer subject to death and disease, on the day when he returns. His pledge is sure. His promise is true. His word makes it so.
The fourth and final thing we see Jesus’ word doing in our text today is a simple summary of all his work: preaching the good news. “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” Jesus came for the purpose of preaching the gospel. It is the good news of God’s kingdom that he brings. Again, this is not an empty word. It is powerful and effective. It delivers what it announces. The good news of the kingdom means that the new age has dawned upon us. Christ the King is here with his grace and blessing. He ushers in the new age in his person. Christ’s word calls us to turn from the old ways of sin and death, to repent, to turn to him in faith and believe the good news. God has something better in store for you than what you have living on your own. God is calling you to come to him, turn to him, for everything you need: forgiveness for your sins, life in place of death, hope for the future, love to live by. The kingdom of God has arrived; it comes in Christ your Savior. And his word announces it and delivers it to your address, with your name on it.
“His Word Possesses Authority.” Jesus Christ’s powerful, effective, authoritative word does what it says. Today his word is teaching you the truth, delivering you from the power of the devil, promising you perfect healing in the resurrection of the body, and proclaiming to you the good news of the kingdom. His word possesses authority, and it is authority exercised to give you life.