“A New Teaching with Authority!” (Mark 1:21-28)

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 29, 2012

“A New Teaching with Authority!” (Mark 1:21-28)

Our text today is the Holy Gospel, the story of Jesus teaching in the synagogue and rebuking an unclean spirit, and the people’s reaction to what he was doing. They rightly saw that this was “A New Teaching with Authority!”

“Jesus entered the synagogue and was teaching,” our text says. We sometimes forget that Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher. During his ministry, he would travel around to various places and teach. And one place where he regularly went was to the synagogue. Now the temple in Jerusalem was the place for the nation as a whole to worship, and all the Jews would go there several times a year. But the synagogue was the local place of worship, right in their own town, and the Jews would go there every week on the Sabbath. They went to the synagogue to hear the word of God. They would sing psalms, hear readings from the Scriptures, and listen to the rabbi expound on some point from the Law or the Prophets.

And so it was that Jesus went to the synagogue in Capernaum, on the Sabbath, and he began to teach. But there was something different about this man and his teaching. It says the people were “astonished” at his teaching, because “he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” The astonishing thing about the teaching of this rabbi, the thing that was so different from what they were used to, was, in a word, his “authority.”

Jesus “taught them as one who had authority.” What kind of authority is this? Where does his authority come from? It is divine authority, coming from God himself. Remember what the Father said to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The Father was affirming Jesus’ authority to speak and act for God himself. For Jesus is the eternal Son of God, come from the Father, come to do his Father’s will. He is the very image of God. When Jesus speaks, he speaks with authority, because his words are Spirit-filled, life-giving, powerful, effective, creative words of God. His words do what they say. Jesus speaks and acts with divine authority.

In the Old Testament reading for today, from Deuteronomy 18, God said that he would raise up a great prophet from among the people of Israel. The Lord said, “I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” That great prophet is Jesus Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh. “It is to him you shall listen.” For Jesus knows the will of his Father perfectly, and he came down from heaven to proclaim it and to teach it–indeed, to do his Father’s will, to carry it out, to bring the will of God to fulfillment.

And what was the content of Jesus’ preaching and teaching? Jesus summed it up like this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Jesus spoke clearly, calling people to turn from their way of sin, which leads to death, and to be made alive by the good news of forgiveness and salvation. That was, and still is, the teaching of Jesus. That’s what he is speaking to you today, calling you to repent from your self-chosen ways and to receive the life that he gives. That voice of authority–that authoritative teaching was what astonished the people in the synagogue in Capernaum.

“And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” What Jesus was teaching was a new teaching to them, and it came with authority. Those people in the synagogue were used to the teaching of the scribes. Their scribes, their religious experts, taught that if you follow a certain code of behavior, that if you do certain things, then God will be pleased with you and you will earn his favor. So there came to be a focus on particular points of the law. And not really even God’s law. It was their own man-made additions to the law that they emphasized. All sorts of little regulations that they came up with, which ironically made the law into something they thought they could master. How many steps can I take on the Sabbath? How many tassels should I have on my prayer shawl? The scribes and the Pharisees defined the righteous life by this kind of external, manageable behavior–all the while ignoring the deep-rooted pride and hypocrisy within their hearts. The focus had moved away from the Lord God speaking to them and saving them and had moved instead toward a God who watched what you were doing, to make sure you did the right things–and if you tried hard enough and looked good enough on the outside, you could make it.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on those scribes, for we do the same thing. We think that we’re basically pretty good people, that God must be pleased with us. “I try my best–well, maybe not all the time, but at least I’m better than the guy down the street or those bad people on TV. God had better be pleased with me, or else I’m going to have to dump him as a God.” That’s the attitude of the world all around us, and it seeps into us. In fact, it comes rather naturally to every one of us. “I’m a good person. God must like me. I do enough and I’m good enough to please him.” That, in essence, is a religion of works, a religion of the law. And it’s not that much different from the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees.

A religion of the law, a religion that focuses on your goodness, will do one of two things. It will either puff you up with pride or drive you to despair. On the one hand, you may become proud, thinking that you are a good enough person, who deserves God’s favor. Or, on the other hand, if you’re honest with yourself, and you realize that you cannot keep the demands of God’s law, that you’re not good enough, then you will be driven to despair, losing hope that God could ever love a rotten sinner like you. And your adversary, Satan, knows that. The devil will try to keep you focused on yourself–either to take pride in how good a person you are or to get stuck on what a failure you are. Anything to keep your eyes off Jesus.

If religion finally is about keeping the law, about you being good enough, then it is no longer about God saving you through Christ. And when the focus is off what Christ has done and instead is on what you do, then you are left with a terrible, nagging question: Is it enough? Have I done enough? Am I good enough? There is no certainty in that way of life, only doubt. For the simple answer is, No, you have not been good enough. You can never do enough. You are a sinner, lost on your own, in spite of what the world teaches. The teaching of the scribes, of a manageable law that you can master–this is not the authoritative teaching that Jesus brings. No, he brings a new teaching with authority.

The astonishing thing about Jesus’ teaching was that he broke through the fog that the scribes had created and he spoke with the bright clear beam of heavenly light. He spoke straight from God, with a voice that penetrates the heart. Can you hear him today? He is speaking to you, saying: “Get over yourself! Stop pretending and playing games. You can’t save yourself; only God can save you. Receive the forgiveness I bought for you with my blood on the cross. And with that forgiveness, I am giving you the Spirit and the strength to live as a Christian, as a child of God. Rely on me, day by day.” Jesus astonishes us with his straight-from-heaven, straight-to-the-heart teaching! And that’s how he astonished the people in the synagogue–with his authority.

And then, as if to demonstrate the authority of his teaching, Jesus has an encounter with a man with an unclean spirit. This unclean spirit that had come into the poor man cries 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.” This demon knows who Jesus is! He knows and is afraid, because the demon thinks that Jesus has come to destroy him.

Well, he’s right! Jesus did come to destroy the works of the devil. All the way back to the Garden of Eden, God had promised that an offspring of Eve would crush Satan’s head, even though Satan would bruise his heel. Of course, God was talking about Jesus, born of the virgin Mary–Jesus, who would destroy Satan, at the cost of his own life.

And now here was a demon, an agent of Satan, afflicting a child of God. And so Jesus rebukes the demon and commands him, “Be silent, and come out of him!” Hear the authority in Jesus’ voice! Amazing authority! The demon did come out of the man, leaving with a shriek and a shake. Jesus’ words are powerful and effective. They do what they say. They reach the target, they accomplish their purpose.

The Holy One of God came down to earth for this purpose: For our salvation. Christ came to crush Satan’s head and to redeem us, to rescue us and set us free, free from the snares and assaults of the devil. Jesus, by his sin-atoning death on the cross and by his life-bestowing resurrection from the dead–Christ Jesus won the victory for you, you who realize your own helplessness. It is victory over sin, over Satan, over death and the demons of hell. And he delivers this victory to you by his word, the very word you are hearing right now.

“A new teaching with authority!” Christ Jesus speaks and acts with astonishing, amazing authority. Jesus doesn’t give you the same old thing, the empty works-religion of the scribes or the “good-enough” religion of our own time, a teaching that can only lead you to either pride or despair, and thus would lead you straight to hell. No, this is a new teaching with authority. Jesus speaks straight from God and straight to your heart, and his words do what they say. They lift you up to heaven! Jesus speaks the forgiveness of sins into your ears, and it is so. He speaks his word with the water, and it is a baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace. He speaks his word with the bread and wine, and it is the blessed sacrament of his body and blood, giving you forgiveness, life, and salvation. Jesus speaks, and demons flee. Jesus speaks, and we are free! Truly, a new teaching with authority!

Published in: on January 28, 2012 at 8:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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