The people of Capernaum were of two minds about Jesus. On the one hand, what He said struck them. Mark says they “were amazed at His teaching.” Jesus knocked these people for a loop because it was so different from the sermons they usually heard. When their rabbis taught, they cited Rabbi So-and-So and precedent such-and-such. They piled commandment after commandment upon them as they built fences ever further away from God’s Word so that people wouldn’t accidently misstep.
When the Rabbis taught, Jesus said, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders…”, and in so doing “make him twice as much a son of hell.” People could not love God’s Word from rabbi’s lips, because all they heard was, “You must do this and you must do that to please a holy God. And if you do this, and if you do that, you will dwell in heaven forever.”
But when Jesus spoke, He amazed the crowds. When He spoke, the words of the Psalmist came true, “How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.” For the people were crying out, “When will you comfort me?... Save me, for I am yours.” And now they hear one saying, “The time has come, and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” When Jesus preaches, everything tastes differently, because He points the people not to themselves and their own works, but to Himself and His work. And so they are amazed, astonished, and in their amazement rejoice.
But then He muzzles the demon and casts it out. And again, Mark says, “The people were all so amazed.” But he didn’t use the same word as before. This word describes an astonishment and amazement tinged not only with joy, but maybe with some fear and terror. We’ll run into that throughout the Gospels. Sometimes when Jesus heals and casts out demons the people rejoice and say, “He does everything well.” But sometimes they ask Him to get out of town as quickly as He can.
At first this startles us. How can you fear Jesus? Think about what this teaching and exorcising tells us about Jesus. It tells us about His authority. Twice the Capernaum crowds used that word too. “He taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” And, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” Authority means rule, control, power. And now they see that Jesus has those things.
When He teaches, He says, “I tell you,” or “My Father says,” or “It is written.” He doesn’t appeal to the other rabbis and doctrinal textbooks of the day. His only authority is His own. Deuteronomy 18 stands fulfilled in Him. "The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him…. I…will put My words in His mouth.”
And when He speaks to demons, they can only obey. When He tells them to be quiet, they get just as quiet as the stormy seas Jesus commanded. And this raises hackles. It turns joy into fear, because an understanding develops: “Jesus isn’t a cuddly teddy-bear. He punishes and judges. He destroys. He rules and controls all things.” As Hebrews says, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
And my sin-nature hates this. Because it means bowing to an authority. An authority that’s not me. So hateful is this authority that others who recognized it – Herod, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, the people of Jerusalem, Pilate – conspired to murder the Holy One of God. So hateful, so odious is this authority to us, that we think reliance on simple knowledge and facts is enough. Like the demon, we cry out, “I know who you are!” But we don’t live out that knowledge. We don’t repent. We don’t acknowledge that authority. We don’t listen to what it says. We conspire to ignore His Word, to twist His Word, to let His word be not the authority, but one among others, if that. That’s what sin is. Sin takes the authority away from Christ and puts it somewhere else. Sin forgets that Jesus is what Paul declared Him to be, the One “through whom all things came, and through whom we live.” And we hate that, because it makes us accountable. It makes us responsible. It requires that we repent and obey someone other than our own selfish desires.
Think about it. Over the years you’ve feared your parents, your friends, your bosses, and your government. You fear losing friends, getting mocked, losing a job, getting audited or arrested. But where’s your fear of God, fear made manifest by fastidiously hearing, listening to, and doing what God says? It’s not evident when you decide to break whichever of God’s commandments you’re breaking at a given moment. Like that unclean spirit, we convulse, we rage, we try to tear all things asunder when God makes a demand upon us. But when our parents, or a friend, or a boss, or the government makes a demand, we acquiesce, and we say, “But I have to.” As if all those things are bigger than God. And while God did say to honor, serve, and obey those other things, about none of them did He say, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” As Luther explained those words: "God threatens to punish all those who transgress these commandments. Therefore we should fear His anger and not disobey what He commands."
And when we don’t, we’re no better than the demon. That demon said, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God.” Others called Jesus, “Son of God.” But Jesus told them all to shut up. Because reciting a fact isn’t faith. And how often do we just recite facts? It sure looks that way when we say one thing in confession, or during our public examination and confirmation, or in our wedding vows, and live a whole other way later. And because we do, Jesus sternly rebukes us as well: “Be quiet! Repent! Or else what happened to this demon – being cast back into hell – will happen to you!” Throughout God’s Word, that’s what His law does. It condemns sin in sinful man – us! It silences our mouths. It declares us guilty. It shows us just how little our sinful flesh, our own deeds matter and count before a holy and righteous God. Hearing that, seeing Jesus in action, we must stop babbling on and on, excusing ourselves, justifying our behaviors. Instead, we must recognize what the people of Capernaum, what even this demon from hell recognized: Jesus equals authority. “You must listen to him.”
And hear Him well. “Repent and believe the good news,” He preaches. “Fishers of men,” He calls His new disciples. “Come out,” He says to the demon in that poor man. Because while Jesus comes and announces woe upon all who would cling to their sins, at the same time, He comes and with authority declares that He is the God “showing love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep my commandments.”
He shows us that He is the answer to the prayers of the people, “When will you comfort me? I am yours, save me!” Because He is willing to use this authority on your behalf, and not just to cast out demons or cleanse lepers. But to forgive sins. And to win that forgiveness for the entire sinful, human race at a cross. And to declare that forgiveness won by rising from the dead. And to hand out that forgiveness in the Word preached, the Baptism applied, the Supper handed out – FOR YOU!
In those moments He does not say to YOU, “Go to hell!” but He calls you to faith and thus He says it to the devil that possessed you. He says it to your sinful nature. He says it to your sins. He casts them into hell. He removes you from their power. So that you might look at Him and see Him and hear Him and see the One lifted up for you, the One given for you, the One who perished so that you need not. The One condemned so that you are not. So that you can fear, love, and trust in God above all things, gladly hearing and obeying Him who loved you first. Amen.