Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“The people were amazed at His teaching.”
We sometimes miss the fact that Jesus was a Rabbi, or teacher. But unlike most rabbis of His day, Jesus traveled around to various places and went to teach. But where did He usually go first? He usually went to the synagogue in whatever town He visited. This became the practice of the apostles in the early years of the Church, too, especially Paul. As a well-educated Pharisee, Paul would have a great deal of credibility with the Jews he was trying to convert, and so he made the synagogues his first stop. Usually, they would at least listen and hear him out, even if many eventually rejected the message.
The synagogue was the place of worship for the Jews. It was where they went to hear the word of God. They would sing psalms, hear readings from what we would call the Old Testament, and then would listen as the Rabbi expounded on some point from the Torah, or the Law.
The roots for our worship service today, the part we would call the Service of the Word in a communion service, are actually very similar in form—if not exactly in content—to what would take place in this Jewish synagogue.
And so it is that as Jesus was traveling around Galilee, He went to Capernaum. Jesus went to the synagogue, and at the proper time, He began to teach. But there was something different about this man, this teacher.
“The people were amazed at His teaching, because He taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.”
What were they so amazed about? What made the teaching of this carpenter-turned-rabbi so very different?
Well, there is one word that unlocks how this came to be. Jesus taught as one who had authority. When we think of authority today, we often think in negative terms. Authority is about someone having power over you, someone who is trying to oppress you or keep you down. Maybe that’s what we’ve inherited from the Sixties, an anti-authoritarian outlook on life. We all want to be in charge of our own lives and decisions. Order is bad. Freedom to do whatever we want; now that’s good, we think.
But Jesus taught as one who had authority. From where did this authority come?
“You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”
Remember those words? Those are the words the Father spoke to Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan River.
How about, “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him!” Those are the words that will be spoken later in Jesus’ ministry, at His Transfiguration. In both instances, the Father established Jesus’ authority as one who spoke for the Almighty God. Indeed, Jesus is the very image of God Himself. So when Jesus spoke, He spoke with authority. His words are those of the Creator of Heaven and Earth. In our Old Testament lesson, we hear that the Lord would raise up a prophet who was like Moses, but who would speak the words of almighty Yahweh, who would convey His will to the people. Jesus is that prophet, for He knows the will of His Father perfectly. He is the messenger of the Lord, and He came to earth to preach that message.
And what was the message that Jesus spoke?
“The kingdom of heaven is at hand: Repent and believe the Gospel!”
You heard about that last week. Jesus called them to be turned from their way of sin and death, and to be made alive by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That was the message of Jesus which was so amazing to these people in Capernaum.
They lived in a time that, though not as technologically advanced, was not so unlike our own. That is, many believed that if you follow a certain code, if you do certain things, then God will be pleased with you and you will be saved. So there came to be a constant argument and squabbling about particular points of the Law. How many steps can I take on the Sabbath? Which kind of foods are we to eat? How should I dress? Their life was defined by their behavior. In many ways, the focus had moved away from the God who brought them out of both Egypt and Babylon, the God of Gospel and grace. They had turned the Lord into a God of Law and legality, who carefully watched what they did, to make sure they did the right things.
But we shouldn’t be so hard on them, for we do the same thing. Pop-Christianity today would define the Christian life as basically being about behavior, too. Almost a hundred years ago, a man named Charles Sheldon wrote a book called In His Steps.
Maybe you’ve read it. In this book, Sheldon recounts the story of a town which tried to ask the question “What would Jesus do,” before doing anything. And in the book, this town became a little heaven, where everyone was nice to each other, kind, honest and friendly. If that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is!
Many people in Christianity today would have us make that sort of environment and behavior into what it means to be a Christian. Although it’s faded a bit in recent years, it was all the rage not that long ago. It generated T-shirts, bumper stickers, and bracelets asking the same question that Sheldon posed in his book: What would Jesus do?
In this mode of thinking, being a Christian is primarily doing good things, essentially keeping the Law. So, to this way of looking at Christianity, it is a religion of works. “Deeds, not creeds” is a motto you hear even today. God doesn’t want your belief, they say; He wants you to do good things!
Could there be anything more wrong, more diametrically-opposed to the teachings of the Scripture? Anything that runs harder against the grain of “Whoever believes in Him will be saved”? Against, “By grace you have been saved, through faith, not because of works”? It’s a very sneaky and horrible trick that Satan is playing against us with this so-called “deeds, not creeds” faith, because every real Christian knows that God demands perfection in your deeds. Even in your thoughts and words, for that matter. So, then, measuring our faith by our works is risky business, indeed.
It is a very hard existence, letting go of trying to do it ourselves, and letting God be gracious to you. You are in Christ, and are to dwell in Him, and so your actions do have significant effects on those around you, particularly your family, friends, co-workers, and fellow church members. How often have you caused other Christians to stumble, when you decided that you had something more important to do on a Sunday morning than to have your sins forgiven? When others have looked around, and asked themselves, “I wonder where so-and-so has been? I haven’t seen him, or her, or that family, in worship very often lately.”
What have we conditioned ourselves and our children to think, if we have repeatedly shown them and even convinced ourselves that what you give to God is the last thing on the bill paying schedule, the leftovers, if any? Our actions, then, certainly can become a stumbling block for the weak, particularly our own families.
And Satan knows that. So he either tries to puff you up to revel in how great a Christian you are, or he tries to drive you to despair because of what a failure you are in your Christian life. And when the focus is away from Christ and on what you do, you are left with that terrible, plaguing question, Is it enough? Have I done enough? Have I been friendly enough, have I helped others enough, have I done enough to get me into heaven?
It is a terrible existence, for there is no certainty with that way of life, only questions. For the answer is simple: No, you haven’t done enough! You can never do enough, because you are a sinner that can never please God left to your own devices.
As Saint Paul wrote in our Epistle lesson,
“The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.”
If it were true that Christianity is finally about keeping the Law, then it is no longer about Christ. And that was what was so amazing about Jesus’ teaching. These poor Jews were living under the oppression of the Law. They believed that if they obeyed these certain laws that they would be saved. It wasn’t true for them back then, and it isn’t true for you now. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “Get over yourself! You don’t know what you’re doing, so stop pretending you do. You can’t save yourself. Only I can save you.”
And almost as if to demonstrate His point, Jesus has an encounter with a man possessed by an evil spirit. This evil spirit, this demon that had possessed this poor man, knew who Jesus was, and cried out,
“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
This demon, this fallen angel sent only to destroy and kill, this demon knew who Jesus is! He knows, and He is afraid, for this demon thinks Jesus has come to destroy him.
He’s right. All the way back to the Garden of Eden God had promised that the offspring of Eve would crush Satan’s head, but that Satan would bruise His heel (Genesis 3:15). God was talking about Jesus, the one who came to destroy Satan, at the cost of His own life.
This demon demonstrates that knowing the right information isn’t enough. There are plenty of people that know about Jesus. They can give you facts and figures and tell you His whole life story. But without faith, it is all nothing.
The demon knew who Jesus was, but He did not have faith. He did not trust God as the giver of all good things, and so his life was one of a cursed existence, where all He could do was lash out and try and destroy others.
And so Jesus says to the demon,
“Be quiet! Come out of him!”
And so the demon left with a shriek and a violent shake. Both Jesus’ teaching and His actions were amazing, for they showed Jesus to be the Son of God; the Holy One of God, as the demon called Him. And this Holy One of God came to earth for a purpose. As we confess in the creed, who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. Jesus did not come down to earth to teach us how to live better lives. He didn’t even come down to earth to make us happy. No, Jesus came to earth for one purpose only. His purpose-driven life was that He came for our salvation. He came to crush Satan’s head, and to buy us back, to redeem us from the crafts and assaults of the devil by His death on the cross.
And this place, St. Paul, is the place where He continues to destroy Satan for you. In the Church, every time there is a baptism, the power of Satan is trampled underfoot and the kingdom of God comes down to earth to reign in the heart of a new child of God. We had a baptism last Sunday, and angels rejoiced with us, while demons shrieked and trembled. When there is repentance and faith in your confession, and a declaration of His forgiveness in the absolution, the power of God’s active, creative word accomplishes His purpose once again. And when He comes to you in His own Supper as He will again today, His body and blood is given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
On the other hand, the things that you do: Your pledging; your financial giving; your serving on boards, committees, groups, and events; and all your work on behalf of God’s kingdom here at St. Paul: These things are not done for your benefit, but for others. They aren’t actions you can take to put yourself in better standing with God, either.
In fact, they aren’t even actions that can be done to benefit God. He doesn’t need them, and He isn’t going to be impressed or affected by them. If you’re doing them out of selfish motives, or out of guilt, or to impress others, you’re on the wrong path.
Rather, your giving and your serving are to have their roots in the same soil as the giving and serving of your Lord and Savior: Sprouted and grown out of no other seed than pure love. We don’t have that sort of pure love, of course, so we must realize and continually repent of the worldly, selfish, and demonic motives that taint our giving and our serving. But the Spirit will not let us slip entirely into the abyss of total selfishness where we do nothing at all, or the spiritual minefield of doing it for all the wrong, self-serving reasons.
The Holy Spirit will lead you, if you let Him, to the right thoughts, the right answers, the right numbers, the right actions. If you surrender to God’s will, His Word that you have heard, and Spirit that was given you in Holy Baptism will shape and guide you. Then you won’t ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” but rather, “What would Jesus have me do?” He will show you. Not for your salvation, for we can contribute nothing to that. Not for God, for the Lord of heaven and earth already has power and dominion over all things.
No, you will do it for those across the world and in our community who still need to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, incarnate, born, suffering, dying, and rising again for them and for their salvation.
You do it for your brothers and sisters in this congregation, who—like you—need to be continually reminded of God’s love; we who regularly need to receive His gifts of faith and forgiveness, strength and encouragement.
You do it for your family, so that they have a place to receive these same gifts, to learn what faith and sacrifice and love of others looks like, and so that together as Christ’s Church we can carry God’s message to your grandchildren and to future generations not yet imagined, much less born.
You can’t do it all yourself, but you can do something. It’s never enough, because there is no perfect response to God’s perfect love, no adequate response to His infinite giving. But it’s a start. We give of what has been given us, each according to what God in His wisdom has provided us.
We just have to set aside the fear and the doubt, and embrace the confidence and the faith that being bound to the death and resurrection of Jesus through baptism has given us. Jesus does not want you asking, “Have I given enough? Served enough? Done enough?” The answer to that is always, “No, apart from me you can do nothing.”
Jesus bridges the gap of our helplessness and shortcomings for us, laying His own body and blood as a span of life across the chasm of sin, death, and despair. He connects us to His Father, to life, to heaven.
Jesus wants you to receive all that He gives to you. For He has done enough. He has come into our flesh to be our Savior, and He gives you that very gift of life and salvation now, today, in this house of God. When you receive His body and blood for your healing, you are made one with Christ and His Father and the Holy Spirit, again and again. One with your brothers and sisters in this congregation, and one with the Church of all times and all places.
Satan cannot overcome the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. It is here that all your fears and shortcomings are set at the foot of the cross, and cleansed by the Water of Life. Satan has no place in your life. As the words of a certain hymn tell us: Jesus has come and brings pleasure eternal.
Let Him come to you, bringing you His teaching, and may you be amazed by the wonder of it. His authority comes from the Father above, to bring you forgiveness and life everlasting. Amen.