SERMONS - JANUARY 2007
7 January 2007 - Baptism of Our Lord - Luke 3:15-22
The doctrine of the Trinity, in brief, is that there is one true God, who exists eternally in three distinct Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This doctrine can easily become, in our minds, an abstraction - a collection of disconnected paradoxical assertions about something that seems to be very remote from our simple Christian faith and our day-to-day existence. But this is not so. Rather, the mystery of the Trinity is at the heart and center of everything we know about Jesus, and it is at the heart and center of everything we experience as Christians.
When the Lord Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the mystery of the Holy Trinity was made manifest, to the ears and eyes of faith. The voice of God the Father rang out in its divine authority from heaven, declaring to Jesus that he was indeed the beloved Son of God, with whom his Father in heaven was well-pleased. As the Son of the Father in human flesh, Jesus was in this way revealed at his Baptism to be the divine-human Savior of the world. And when the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descended upon Christ, he was thereby anointed, in his humility, for the public Messianic mission on which he was now setting out.
The presence and activity of the entire eternal Trinity - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit - were made known, either audibly or visibly, in time and space on this day. The three divine Persons were all involved in what was happening, and they would remain involved in everything that was going to happen for the next three years, throughout the remainder of Christ’s earthly ministry.
The whole Trinity was involved, and at work for our salvation, as Jesus, the greatest of prophets, taught the Word of God by the power of the Spirit; as he performed miracles by that same power, as a sign of his Messianic office; as he suffered under the weight of the sins of the world, which were imputed to him as our substitute under the law; as he offered himself to the Father on the cross as the ultimate priestly sacrifice for humanity; and as he rose again from the grave, achieving for us a divine victory over sin, death, and the devil. The epistle to the Hebrews tells us that “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God,” purifies our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
In today’s second lesson from the epistle to the Romans, St. Paul explains that in our Baptism we are united to Christ. Across the limitations of time and space, we are united to his perfect life, to his reconciling death, and to his victorious resurrection. Paul writes: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Baptism mystically transports us to Christ and to everything that he did for our salvation. Baptism mystically transports Christ to us, so that all of his gifts can become ours.
In spite of constant claims to the contrary, coming from the world of popular American religion, the New Testament never says that Baptism is a symbol of anything. It is not a symbol, but it is a reality - the reality of Christ’s union with us, and of our union with Christ. This mystical union with our Savior is offered to us, through Baptism, by means of the power of the Word of God, which Christ’s institution has connected to this sacred washing. And this mystical union with our Savior is received by us, through Baptism, in repentance and faith, as we believe what God says to us through Baptism, and as we are transformed by what God does in us through Baptism.
And when our Baptism in this way unites us to Jesus, and to what Jesus has done for us, it also unites us to Christ’s own Baptism. In his Baptism Jesus identified with sinful humanity, and took our sin upon himself to carry it to the cross. In our Baptism he invites us to identify with him and what he has done to save us, and he places his righteousness upon us, to forgive all our faults and to cover over all our blemishes. And when we are united to Christ’s Baptism, we are united also to the whole Trinity, who was manifest in Christ’s Baptism. It is not a coincidence that the formula for administering Baptism which Jesus gave to his church is the Trinitarian formula: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
In his Baptism Jesus heard the voice of the Father speaking to him about his Sonship, and about God’s loving approval of what he was doing. In our Baptism, the voice of the Father declares us to be heirs of heaven with Christ, and beloved members of God’s family. We are adopted as his children for the sake of Christ. In his Baptism Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit, who descended upon him. In our Baptism the Spirit of God descends to us and fills us. We are “born again” by water and the Spirit, and a new spiritual nature, in the image of Christ, is created within us.
In our mystical union with Christ, who came to the Jordan at the beginning of his ministry, his Baptism is our Baptism. The Triune God envelops us and saves us, giving us a Trinitarian faith and preserving us in that Trinitarian faith.
And the Baptism that we receive for our salvation also gives us a Trinitarian life. When we speak of the new spiritual life of a Christian, we are talking about an actual change in heart, soul, and mind; in thinking, in willing, and in acting. St. Paul elaborates on this in today’s lesson: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? ... We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. ... So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
There is probably more superstition improperly connected to the sacrament of Baptism that to any other aspect of the Christian religion. There are no doubt millions of ungodly and profane people in the world who invent for themselves a false and presumptuous comfort based on the historical fact of their Baptism, while at the same time rejecting the faith which alone would allow them to enjoy the true benefits of Baptism. And there are no doubt many outwardly moral and religious people who likewise are spiritually disconnected from their Baptism, and who still trust in themselves, and not in God, for their salvation. Dear friends, make sure you are not one of them.
Jesus said at the end of St. Mark, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” This is significant. The hope of salvation is not attached to Baptism as an external ritual, apart from the supernatural work that God performs through Baptism in the hearts of men, and apart from the faith that receives the blessings of Baptism. Likewise, the hope of salvation is not attached to Baptism in such an exclusive and absolute way that there would be no hope for those who sincerely trust in Christ, but who have not yet had an opportunity to be baptized according to the Lord’s will. Instead, Jesus teaches that it is unbelief which condemns, and it condemns even if the unbeliever in question was baptized at an earlier point in life. Likewise, it is not the absence of Baptism that condemns, but the despising of Baptism.
God does offer real, saving blessings to us in Baptism, through which he engenders the faith that receives these blessings. In the same way he offers real, saving blessings to us in all the various ways by which his Word comes to us. But the blessings of Baptism can be rejected, just as the blessings of the Gospel in general can be rejected. And when Baptism is rejected, the entire Holy Trinity, who speaks and works through Baptism, is rejected.
But when God’s Baptized people daily repent of their sins, and daily put their trust in Christ, then their Baptism is fulfilling in them the work that God wants it to accomplish. As you repent and believe, your Baptism is fulfilling in you the work that God wants it to accomplish. You are forgiven by the Triune God, and you are at peace with the Triune God. And, when you are at peace with God, you are also alive in God.
Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too now walk in newness of life by the glory of the Father, who has raised us up in Christ into a new heavenly way of thinking, of willing, and of acting. And as Paul says in a different epistle - to the Galatians - “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. ...the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control... And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
This is the Trinitarian life that the Holy Trinity himself bestows on us in Baptism, and that he lives out in us. This is the Trinitarian life to which you are united when, in your Baptism, you are united to Christ, and to his Baptism. We do, of course, fall, and fail, often. In the strength of our Baptism we struggle against sin, but in the weakness of our flesh we also sin against our Baptism. But then we repent - every day we repent. And we repent in a Trinitarian way too.
We return in faith to Baptism to be refreshed by the Lord’s forgiveness and restoration. God the Father welcomes us home as the prodigal son was welcomed by his father. Christ the Son seeks us out like a good shepherd seeks out the lost sheep. And the Holy Spirit intercedes for us - from within us - with groanings that cannot be expressed.
And so, in faith we receive the blessings of our Baptism, which unites us to Christ and to his Baptism. And Christ and his Baptism unite us to the whole Trinity, and to everything that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have done and are doing to save us. In Baptism God had provided for us a Trinitarian salvation. He has bestowed on us a Trinitarian Faith. He has called us to a Trinitarian life. Amen.
14 January 2007 - Epiphany 2 - John 2:1-11
God himself instituted marriage and family in the Garden of Eden, when he brought Eve out of Adam, and then presented her to him to be his friend and partner, and the future mother of their children. The institution of marriage did not evolve over the centuries on the basis of human societal needs. It comes from God, and is defined by God.
It is not customary for Lutherans to describe marriage as a “sacrament,” since marriage was not instituted for the purpose of conveying forgiveness to us. The act of getting married does not, in and of itself, bring any special measure of saving grace into your life. It is, however, an institution that is intended to bring many temporal blessings to those who enter it. But in this life, the blessings that marriage is intended to convey are not actually experienced by married couples as they are supposed to be, according to God’s original plan.
Not long after our first parents were given to each other in marriage, they fell into sin. And their sin affected their marriage in a very direct way. Instead of encouraging her husband to remain faithful to God and his Word, and supporting him in that faithfulness, Eve drew Adam away from God’s will and coaxed him to disobey his Lord. Then, instead of taking his proper share of responsibility for his actions, when God called him to account, Adam turned on his wife and blamed her for everything.
Adam and Eve’s harmony with God was broken by their sin, and Adam and Eve’s harmony with each other was likewise broken by their sin. From that point forward, throughout human history, marriage has been consistently characterized by two things: a married couple’s wish to experience fully the blessings of marriage as God instituted it, and a married couple’s failure to experience fully the blessings of marriage because of their sinfulness.
Christians are not immune to these failures. Like everyone else, we do bring into marriage our sincere aspirations for happiness and fulfillment. But also like everyone else, we bring into marriage our sinful nature. As a result, we disappoint each other with our mutual weaknesses and shortcomings. We hurt each other with our mutual pride and selfishness. Again, marriage as such is not a sacrament, because marriage does not convey God’s forgiveness and saving grace to those who enter it. But those who do enter it, and who endeavor to live within it, definitely need God’s forgiveness and saving grace for the many mistakes they inevitably make.
The story of the wedding of Cana helps us to understand how God does in fact provide to married couples - and to every member of the human family - the kind of forgiveness and grace that they always need. Jesus was present as a guest at this wedding. The bride and bridegroom who were celebrating the beginning of their life together had wisely invited Jesus to be a part of that celebration. Indeed, at a deeper level, it is wise to invite Christ to be a guest at every wedding, and to be a continuing part of every marriage. As God in human flesh, Jesus is the divine author of marriage, and he is the guardian and preserver of marriage. And for those couples who, in repentance and faith, invite him to be a continuing part of their relationship, Jesus is also the restorer of marriage.
When the joy of marriage runs out, and when the rich happiness of mutual love and respect is gone, leaving only a thin and watery cohabitation in its place, Jesus in his Gospel miraculously replenishes the wine. He pardons the sins and renews the love. And the joy of a renewed love - seasoned by forgiveness mutually-received, and lessons mutually-learned - is often more satisfying and rewarding than the untried and immature love of a new relationship. As a couple’s marital love is tested and strained, it may break and crumble if the healing grace of Christ is not mutually sought. But when that grace is sought - when we humble ourselves together before the Lord, admitting our faults and seeking his pardon - then a love that has passed such a test can become a stronger love, and a deeper love. The wine that Jesus gives us at such times is better than what we had before.
Self-reliance and self-help efforts will not accomplish this. Relying on his own means and provisioning, the bridegroom at Cana, who was responsible for the wedding feast, did not have enough wine for all his guests. Without divine intervention, the celebration would have been ruined. His lack of preparing adequately for the guests would have caused profound embarrassment, especially because of the heightened importance of such hospitality in that culture. But Jesus saved this man, and his new wife, the public disgrace that these shortcomings would otherwise have caused. He filled in all the gaps. He provided everything that was lacking. He covered over all the inadequacies.
And we, too, because of the original sin that we have inherited, are incapable of being everything that we should be, and of doing everything that we should do - not only in our marriages, but in all our relationships and callings. Our best efforts will always come up short. Always. Holy Scripture declares that all have sinned and fall shot of the glory of God. And it will be that way for as long as our sinful nature clings to us. But where we fall short, Jesus fills in all the gaps. He provides everything that is lacking. He covers over all our inadequacies.
The righteousness that Jesus credits to us - his own perfect righteousness - places the merit of his obedient life into our otherwise empty account. In his forgiveness Jesus assures us that our relationship with God, strained and threatened by our sin, has been restored, and that God is perfectly at peace with us for his sake. As the power of this forgiveness then bleeds over also into our human relationships, it makes them better too. As a reflection and fruit of God’s forgiveness toward us, we forgive others, and in Christ are at peace with them. In Christ we are at peace with spouse and children, siblings and parents. And with others as well.
Notice that when Jesus was invited to the wedding at Cana, he did not come alone. His disciples were also invited, and were there. And that’s the way it is in our relationship with Christ. To be sure, there are some deeply personal aspects to the faith-relationship that we have with our Savior. Some of our inner struggles and regrets, of the past and of the present, are known only to ourselves and God. Some of the private joys and victories of our faith will likewise always remain just between us and the Lord. But as a general principle, the only way to have a genuine relationship with Christ is to have a genuine relationship with his church.
St. Paul tells us in his first epistle to the Corinthians that we were all baptized into the body of Christ, and that we are renewed in our membership in the one body of Christ when we participate sacramentally in the Lord’s body and blood. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” To invite Christ into your life, and into your marriage, is to invite his church into your life and marriage. And it is to place yourself, and your family, into the fellowship of Christ’s church. At a minimum, this means that the place for a Christian family to be on the Lord’s day is in the Lord’s house, among the Lord’s people.
Sometimes, of course, it is not easy to get along with other members of the body of Christ, just as other members of the body of Christ sometimes have a hard time getting along with us. Sometimes our fellow Christians test our patience, even as we test theirs. In the needs and weaknesses of the injured humanity that we all share, we may tend to have a draining effect on each other. When we all become a part of each other’s lives, in the larger fellowship of the church, we, as it were, drink up each other’s wine - just as the disciples of Jesus did their share of depleting the supply of wine at the wedding in Cana.
But again: Jesus, and the disciples of Jesus, come together as a package deal. You can’t have one without the others. If you’re not willing to invite them all into your life and relationships, you can’t invite just the one. As the Psalmist declares, “God settles the solitary in a home.” In your Baptism God gives you a home among his people, imperfect though they may be. He makes you a part of the family to which they belong. He makes them a part of your life.
But it’s not all bad. In fact, it’s mostly not bad. As Christians grow closer to their mutual Lord and Savior, they also grow closer to each other, and in time they become better able to overlook those little irritants that don’t really matter all that much. They become better able to count on each other, and to draw strength from each other. And especially in the gathering of God’s people around Word and Sacrament, where we pray together and confess God’s Word together, Christ replenishes our wine. Through the absolution that his called servant speaks to you in his name, and through the sacrament that his called servant distributes to you in his name, Jesus fills in all the gaps that your sin has created. He provides for you everything that is lacking. He covers over all your inadequacies with the fulness of his mercy.
And the work of God’s Word and Spirit continues on, reaching also into the encounters that we have with each other outside the setting of the worship service. We are a family of families, of various configurations - married couples and single people; the grown children of older parents and the grown parents of younger children. But whatever the circumstances of our home life may be, we are woven together by the Gospel into a patchwork of families that care about each other, that help each other, and that speak the Word of God to each other.
God does not do his healing and restoring work in our lives in spite of other Christians, but precisely through them. God brings to you his words of warning and hope, of rebuke and comfort, through the lips of other people. That’s the way he builds you up in your faith. That’s the way he helps you when you are hurting, or frightened, or lonely. And for those of you who are married, that’s the way he builds up your marital relationship when it falters. That’s the way he restores your marital love, when the wine runs out.
May the inspired words of today’s Gospel text serve to describe not only the events in Cana so many centuries ago, but also the state of the homes and families of each of us today: “On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples.” Amen.
21 January 2007 - Epiphany 3 - Luke 4:16-30
The life and ministry of Jesus Christ fulfilled many prophecies that God had given to his people over hundreds of years. Today’s Gospel describes a particularly important instance of the recollection of such a prophecy, and of the fulfillment of such a prophecy.
According to his transcendent divine power, Christ himself had mystically spoken through the prophet Isaiah several hundred years before his incarnation. He spoke then in the voice of the Messiah: proclaiming the Gospel and preparing the people of Israel for the saving work that he was going to accomplish for them and for all nations. This is the way it was recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God...”
During a visit to Nazareth, Jesus was present at the synagogue on the Sabbath. According to their custom he was invited to serve as the “lector,” so to speak, and then to comment on the sacred text. Incidentally, historians are quite certain that his reading of Scripture on this occasion would have been in the form of chanting, and would not have been an ordinary speaking of the words. The Jewish people at that time in history considered it to be a sign of disrespect for God and his Word to read the Scriptures in the same way they would read any other strictly human writing. After Jesus read, or chanted, a portion of this passage from Isaiah, he sat down and prepared to offer his brief homily.
He began by declaring: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In that short little sentence Jesus actually said a lot. First, he thereby identified himself as the divine-human Messiah promised of old who had prophetically spoken these words through Isaiah. Whenever the priests and rabbis of the intervening years had read these words, they and everyone else knew that they were reading the words of someone else - namely of God himself. Those words had never before been fulfilled in the hearing of the people of the past, because the heavenly person who originally caused these words to be written had never before been the one who was chanting them. Until now.
With the events of today’s Gospel, the Messianic age had dawned. The Messiah himself had come. The words recorded in Isaiah the prophet had now been spoken - literally and audibly - by their true divine author. These words were now anchored down into the moment of sacred history toward which they had always pointed - and from which, mystically, they had always flowed, backwards in time. These words had now been fulfilled in the hearing of the people gathered in Nazareth on that stupendous day.
Second, these words had now been fulfilled in the hearing of the people. The Old Testament uses a lot of figurative and poetic language. Sometimes it’s not easy to tell when something should be interpreted symbolically or literally. This text from Isaiah had spoken of good news being proclaimed to “the poor.” Did this refer to material, earthly poverty, so that there was no good news from the Messiah for prosperous or wealthy people? This text also spoke of binding up the brokenhearted - literally those who are crushed or shattered - and of liberty for captives and release for prisoners. Was the Messiah here speaking about a medical mission, and an amnesty program? Or was he referring to something else?
God certainly does care about the hardships of the poor in this world. He is not indifferent to the suffering of those who are injured or mistreated. In their prohibition of stealing and murder, the Ten Commandments reflect God’s requirement that we also would be concerned about the property, the livelihood, and the physical well-being of our neighbor. But from the explanation that Jesus gives as he comments on this particular passage from Isaiah, we know that these lines are not referring to literal maladies and earthly injustices.
The commentator William Arndt says: “The Isaiah passage does not speak of material but of spiritual blessings, such as are conveyed in the word of the Gospel: forgiveness of sins, peace of heart, true understanding of God and his plans. If material aid were meant, Jesus could not have asserted that the Isaiah prophecy was fulfilled in the hearing of his audience that very day. It follows that the afflictions and the distress spoken of in the Isaiah passage must be given a spiritual significance, too. What is meant is the pain, grief, and sorrow that come through sin.” “‘The poor,’ we may say, are those that lack righteousness; ‘the blind,’ those people who cannot find the way to heaven; ‘the captives,’ the prisoners of Satan; ‘those shattered,’ the people that are crushed by the weight of their sins.” In light of these observations, Arndt concludes: “Jesus definitely describes himself here as the Savior from sin.”
The people gathered in the synagogue at Nazareth may not have been poor in material goods. But because of their sin, they were all lacking in the spiritual endowments that human beings are supposed to have - just as we are. The hometown crowd that heard Jesus on that day may not have been deprived of the use of their physical eyes. But their old sinful nature was just as blind as ours is. Fallen humanity is not able, or willing, to find its own way out of the darkness of error and into the light of God’s truth. Those who were gathered for worship on that occasion so long ago may not have been hampered by iron shackles on their wrists and ankles. But apart from the mercy and deliverance of God, they would have been hopelessly trapped in the clutches of the devil, unable to gain their freedom or even to know what true freedom is. And that would be our situation too, without the liberation that comes with the message of God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness frees us from the guilt of sin, because the Messiah takes our sin upon himself and carries it to the cross. And God’s forgiveness frees us from the dominion of sin, because the Messiah defeats the power of death and hell as he rises from the grave.
The words of Jesus apply all these blessings to us. These words liberate, heal, and restore. The living and powerful words of the Messiah were brought to the crowd in Nazareth, and were fulfilled in the hearing of the people. The same living and powerful words of the Messiah are, by God’s grace, brought to the little crowd of people gathered here, today. And they are fulfilled in our hearing.
It’s important to notice what was fulfilled on that day in Nazareth. It’s also important to notice what was not fulfilled on that day. Jesus ended his reading at a very interesting point in the text - in the middle of a prosaic couplet, in fact. This probably sounded a bit awkward to those who were familiar with the passage, at least from a literary viewpoint. It would be like our saying, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star; How I wonder what you are; Up above the world so high...” And then stopping.
That’s what Jesus did. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, * because he has anointed me | to proclaim good news to the poor. * He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives | and recovering of sight to the blind, * to set at liberty those who are oppressed, | to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor...” And then he stopped. The phrase, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” is the first part of a couplet. But Jesus stopped at that point, and therefore he did not go on to say, as the text in Isaiah does immediately go on to say, “and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Here at the beginning of our Lord’s public ministry, the year of the Lord’s favor had indeed begun. Salvation was freely offered to all, and would joyfully be received by all who repented and believed the Lord’s promise. God’s favor toward men was indeed made manifest in the life and deeds of Christ, and especially in the words of Christ. But the day of vengeance of our God had not yet come. To be sure, those fearful words would be fulfilled, in God’s timing and according to God’s plan. Neither a jot nor a tittle of the Holy Scriptures will go permanently unfulfilled. But the time for the fulfillment of that line of the passage had not yet come.
And it has still not come. Together with the people in Nazareth - most of whom definitely needed more time to be brought to repentance - we can be thankful to the Lord for his willingness on that occasion to allow his public reading from Isaiah the prophet to be literarily awkward. He did not read that next line and announce its fulfillment, thereby ushering in judgment day at that moment. And we can be even more thankful that he has still not read that line, or declared it to be fulfilled, in our hearing or in the hearing of anyone else.
The Lord Jesus Christ, who will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, has not yet come in this way. He has not yet spoken the words of irreversible judgment against the wickedness and rebellion of unbelieving humanity that he will someday speak. The day of vengeance of our God will occur, but it has not occurred yet.
And so, if you are still spiritually impoverished, supernaturally blind, or a captive to dark influences - perhaps in ways that no one else knows about - then rejoice! The Lord’s proclamation of his heavenly good news to you, and his desire to heal you and set you free, still hold good! During this time of grace, his words of life and pardon are still fulfilled in your hearing. Believe what he says, and in faith receive the salvation that he offers. And, the Lord’s words of life and pardon can also still be fulfilled in the hearing of our friends and neighbors, as we share the Gospel with them, and invite them to listen to the gracious pronouncements of their Savior and ours. There still is time. There still is room in the Lord’s house.
And finally, other precious words of the Messiah are also fulfilled in our hearing, in marvelous ways. In just a few minutes the words that he speaks in his Holy Supper will once again be fulfilled, in our hearing. Jesus will announce to his disciples that his body and blood are truly present in the consecrated bread and wine for them to eat and to drink. And he will invite them - will invite us - to receive what he offers. The Biblical narrative of the institution of this sacrament will be recited publicly by the Lord’s called servant in a way that is perhaps reminiscent of how God’s Word would have been reverently chanted by Jesus in the synagogue. And as with the passage of Scripture that our Lord recited from the book of Isaiah, these inspired sacramental words likewise speak of a Savior who is truly present among us - hidden but truly present - to forgive, to heal, and to liberate by the power of his word.
“He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.’ ... And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” Amen.
28 January 2007 - Epiphany 4 - Luke 4:31-44
“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!’” In this way the people of Capernaum described what had happened in their midst when Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter-turned-traveling rabbi, was among them. They heard and saw things on that day that they had never before seen or heard. Jesus had taught them marvelous things about God and his kingdom, and, when the situation presented itself, he had cast a demon out of a possessed person. He did these things simply by his word, and nothing else. But his word had extraordinary authority, and supernatural power.
The Greek word translated as “authority” is a term that is derived from another Greek word, which means “it is lawful.” So, when Jesus speaks of divine and spiritual things, he does so as one who knows that he has the right to do so. He speaks with confidence, because he understands the full depth and breadth of what he is describing to others. When he discourses about something, he speaks from the heart and center of the matter, and he brings his hearers to the heart and center of what he is talking about.
This is in marked contrast with much of the religious teaching that the people of Israel otherwise heard in the first century. The various rabbinic schools of thought within Judaism had developed their respective ideas about what was or was not in accordance with God’s will through a long sequence of deductions from deductions from deductions. This process, taking place over several centuries, was a lot like the way in which our judicial system usually works. Court decisions in our time are based on earlier court decisions, which were based on even earlier court decisions, which were based on even earlier court decisions. With all of these intervening layers - of interpretation built upon interpretation - the more recent rulings of the courts in our country often seem to be very far removed from the simple principles articulated in the Constitution. The traditions of the rabbis, developed over time in a similar fashion, likewise often ended up bearing little resemblance to the simple yet profound message of the Hebrew Scriptures.
But the teaching of this new rabbi from Nazareth was different. There was a freshness and an authenticity to his explanations. As the true son of Abraham, he truly understood the faith of Abraham - a very real and personal faith, in a very real and personal God. Christ’s teachings did not deal with speculative and uncertain deductions. They dealt with repentance and trust - matters of fundamental importance for those who are conscious of God’s holiness and goodness, and of their own sinfulness and helplessness. His teachings were “radical” - that is, they went back to the root and source of things.
Jesus speaks with authority also over against the demon who plays a prominent role in today’s account. At the beginning of his encounter with the Lord, this evil spirit, who was possessing a man, said to him, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” In other words: “What business do you have here in this godless world? Satan is the prince of this place! Why don’t you go back to heaven where you belong, and leave us alone?!” But Jesus wasn’t going to leave this demon - or the whole domain of demons - alone! As the divine-human Savior, he had re-staked his claim on the world that he had made by becoming a part of that world, to redeem it and to save it. And so, when he tells that particular spirit that he has to leave, he has to leave! Christ’s words have authority, and he can speak them anywhere in the entire universe that he wants to.
This also means, of course, that he has the authority to speak his word into your life. He has the right to tell you, by means of his law, what to do and what not to do. What goes on in your relationships is his business. You can’t silence him by compartmentalizing him into some kind of safe and harmless “religious” sphere, and then proceed to make your decisions without reference to his teaching. You can’t just go ahead and do as you please while ignoring the values and priorities that he says are supposed to govern your thoughts, words, and actions.
Even if you think you are getting away with ignoring him now, the time will come when all humanity will have to listen to Christ. On judgment day he will speak, and everyone will listen - some with joy, others with terror. This is so also for those at the present time who, as it were, “put their hands over their ears” when Jesus speaks. They will be allowed to get away with this only temporarily. On the day when Christ returns, it will all come to an end.
All ears will be unstopped, and every human being who has ever lived will have to listen to what Jesus will say: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” or “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” He has the authority to speak these words, when the time to speak them and to bring them to fulfillment comes. And he has the authority to say to us now what he is currently saying to us, through the Scriptures. We’d better listen.
Recalling again what the crowd in Capernaum noticed about Jesus’ teaching: they said, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” Not only do his words have authority; they also have power. The Greek word translated here as “power” is “dúnamis.” This is the same Greek word from which the English term “dynamite” is derived.
In response to the bluster and nonsense that people often put forth in their arrogance and ignorance, we may say, “Oh, that’s just a bunch of talk. There’s nothing in those words.” And often we would be right. But no one can truthfully say this about the words of Christ, no matter how strange and unusual-sounding his words may be. Preachers are often the worse offenders in putting forth words that are empty of true meaning and devoid of power. Sometimes, in their skepticism, they assume that the Bible is filled with myths and legends, and they are doubtful as to how much of what is reported in Scripture really happened. The most that such preachers can say, in catechism fashion, is, “This is most probably true.” But there is no power in such words.
At other times, in their pragmatism, preachers assume that the Bible is filled with principles for successful living, or with various sets of conveniently-numbered steps to success, and they are indifferent to the deeper message of sin and grace that actually permeates the inspired text. The most that such preachers can say, again in catechism fashion, is, “This is most certainly practical.” But there is no power in such words either.
But when the Lord himself speaks, in person or through the inerrant sacred page, there is power in his words. Christ’s message is not a sterile recounting of vague theological opinions and tentative religious theories. Rather, Jesus says things like this: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Jesus can say, and he does say, in catechism fashion, “This is most certainly true.” And in humble faith we reply, “Yes, indeed. What God says is completely reliable. What Christ decrees will undoubtedly happen. This is, most certainly, true!
There is might and strength in the words of Jesus. The words of Jesus are on the offensive as they go out into the domain of darkness and evil. In spite of all the opposition that the world, the flesh, and the devil throw up against them, they will prevail. The words of Christ make things happen. They break down walls, and they build up again where human hands have not worked. They kill and make alive. They have power.
Christ’s words have the power to solve problems, whether these problems are of an “ordinary” variety, or are extraordinary. Through the power of Christ’s words, St. Peter’s mother-in-law was healed of her fever, and she was restored to her joyful work of providing domestic hospitality to her son-in-law’s guests. Through the power of Christ’s words, the possessed man was set free from the wicked entity that had been controlling him, and he was given a new beginning in life.
And the words of Christ have the power to accomplish what Christ wants them to accomplish in your life too. If Jesus were to speak a word of physical healing into your weakened and ailing frame, it would be healed. You would rise up from your sick bed, and your earthly life would be prolonged at least for a time. Christ’s words have the power to do this.
And on the day when the Lord returns, when he will call all of us to come forth bodily from the grave in the general resurrection of all flesh, it will happen. It doesn’t matter how “dead” you will be by then - how far and wide the atoms of your body have been cast abroad across the face of the earth. When Christ calls you forth, your death will be undone. Your body will live, and will be inhabited once again by your soul. Nothing will stop this. The power of Christ’s word to make this happen will not be suppressed.
While we all still await the transition to eternity, the power of Christ’s word in the lives of his people will likewise not be suppressed or restrained when it declares his perfect righteousness to be upon us now, and when it declares his life-giving and cleansing Spirit to be within us now. Christ’s word has the power to make these things happen, and when he speaks to you in his faith-creating Gospel, they do happen.
You might wonder: Can Jesus truly forgive all my sins? - even the really bad ones, which have brought pain not only into my life but also into the lives of other people? Can he really give me a new beginning in life? - over and over again, as often as I fall and need to be lifted up again? The answer is yes! The word of Christ has such power. His word is filled with the power of God himself, because Jesus is God himself, the eternal Son of the Father in human flesh - as even the demons knew. And so, when he tells you that something is so, it is so. When he tells you that your sins are washed away, they are gone. “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven. ...the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” When he tells you that you are a new creature in him, then that is exactly what you are. “Behold, I am making all things new.” “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!’” Amen.