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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – January 28, 2024

Mark 1:21-28

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Our worship services share a lot in common with synagogue worship, both in Jesus’ time and today. We follow an established pattern or order or liturgy which includes the singing of psalms and prewritten prayers and a confession of faith and a schedule of readings. We have people whose vocation is to tend to the Word, to study and pray and then speak on those prescribed readings.

And, both then and now, the authority by which these things are done and said is a derived authority. It doesn’t come directly from the one speaking, but from another. The rabbis preaching in synagogue would quote the rabbis who came before them to bolster their authority. They would quote from the Talmud, a collection of rabbinic teachings and debates. Similarly, I will often firm up a point I’m trying to make in a sermon by quoting recognized authorities in Christian theology, people like St. Augustine or Martin Luther or C.S. Lewis.

Furthermore, when I proclaim to you the forgiveness of sins, every time I say it, I say, “As a called and ordained ministry of the church of Christ, and by his authority,” referring to Jesus. I am speaking with a derived authority. It is Christ’s forgiveness. It didn’t come from me. I’m just the guy who gets to say it! Or when our lectors conclude each reading, they say, “The Word of the Lord.” It isn’t their word. It isn’t something they came up with. It is God’s Word. It is authoritative because it comes from him.

Today in our gospel reading we hear how Jesus went to a synagogue service in Capernaum. In fact, he was the preacher that day. But when Jesus spoke, St. Mark tells us, the people were astounded because he taught as one having authority! He didn’t talk like the scribes, or like pastors, often quoting other people. He didn’t talk like assisting ministers, clarifying that it was the Word of the Lord you just heard. He was the Son of God. He was the Word who became flesh. He was the authority! And so when he forgave sins, he didn’t need to cite anyone else. He had the authority to do so himself! He had the power. He had the authorization. When he read scripture, he didn’t need to say, “The Word of the Lord.” He could simply say it! After all, it was his word! Like no one else before and no one since, Jesus had the power and the authority to say what only God can say. And so the people were astounded.

It wasn’t only the worshippers who noticed that Jesus was more than a guest preacher. The demons recognized him too. There was a man in worship that day with an unclean spirit. This unclean spirit recognized Jesus as someone different, as someone with authority, as someone with power. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” it said. “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

And then Jesus showed his power. He illustrated his authority. He answered the unclean spirit’s question by silencing him and by casting him out. Now the people went from being astounded to being amazed. They saw Jesus’ power in action. “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” they said.

Martin Luther once said that wherever God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel. (See what I did there, quoting other people?) Seriously, it’s a great quote because it is a pithy way of describing something true. The man with the unclean spirit was at the synagogue. He was attending worship. His demon didn’t get checked at the door with his coat. It followed him right into worship. This is how it is for us. God’s people continue to be plagued by demons. It’s true: wherever God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel. Even us who are in worship regularly often face these unclean spirits which torment us, and they don’t stay out in the parking lot when we come to church.

The demons loose in our lives and in our world don’t necessarily look like what you might have seen in The Exorcist. They don’t always manifest themselves with spinning heads and projectile vomiting and screeching violins in the background. They are usually much more subtle than that. They prefer to remain hidden in the darkness most of the time. We shouldn’t dwell on them too much, but neither should we doubt their existence, as is common today. C. S. Lewis once said that the devil’s greatest trick is to convince you he doesn’t exist. (See? I did it again!)

It is instructive to look at the words the Bible uses to describe these malevolent forces in our world and in our lives. The name “Satan” is a Hebrew word that means accuser. The word “devil” is from the Greek word diabolos, which means deceiver. With those words in mind, we can see a little better how these unclean, or ungodly, spirits work. They lie, and they accuse.

Let me illustrate with a personal example. As many of you know, my mother died a couple of years ago from an accidental prescription drug overdose, after years of struggling with addiction. I was a mess following her death and started going to a counselor. One day as I was driving to my counseling appointment, I was listening to the Christian music station and the song “Rescue” by Lauren Daigle came on. I remembered when Amy and I went to see her in concert that she dedicated that song to a family member who struggled with addiction. Some of the words are, “I will send out an army to find you in the middle of the darkest night. It’s true, I will rescue you.”

As I listened to this song, remembering how Lauren Daigle dedicated it that night, it was like I heard a voice. I didn’t literally hear a voice, which, seriously, can be a sign of acute mental illness. But it was like I heard a voice. Let’s call it an intrusive thought. This intrusive thought said, “You didn’t rescue her. You didn’t do enough. You were her son and you’re a pastor and you didn’t rescue her.” I sobbed for the rest of the drive.

I told my counselor all of this.  She is a Christian herself, and she knew the song. She looked at me. She pursed her lips in an awkward smile that said, “Jeff, you big dummy.” (A good counselor would never say that out loud, and she didn’t, but it sure looked like that was what she was thinking.) She finally blurted out, “Jeff, who do you think is doing the rescuing in that song? It isn’t Lauren Daigle! If she thinks she’s the rescuer, then the song is blasphemous! C’mon, you know better than that! She’s singing about Jesus! He’s the rescuer!”

She went on to talk about the accusation I was hearing, the accusation that it was my fault, that I should have been able to rescue her. In therapy they call it maladaptive guilt. In Christian theology we could just as well call it spiritual attack. We could call it the work of the accuser.

And then she leaned in and said, “You did what you could. You did everything you should have. But it was never your job to rescue her. That’s Jesus’ job, not yours. And he did.”  In pointing me to Christ like she did, it was like a demon was being cast out.

The reason I share this story is because I know that many of you hear that same voice in your ears. I know many of you have similar kinds of intrusive thoughts. You have the same unclean spirit accusing and deceiving you day after day. I hear about it all the time in the pastoral care conversations I have with people. I can see it just under the surface in many people’s lives, lurking there in the shadows. Those spiritual attacks come at us especially strongly when we’re grieving, or sick, or lonely, or afraid, or discouraged, or struggling with some aspect of our lives. That’s when the deceiver smells blood. Those demons come along, saying, “You haven’t done enough,” or “You aren’t worthy of love,” or “There is no hope for you.” The accuser comes at us with our sins – whether they are real sins or exaggerated or even completely made up – all in an attempt to put a wedge between us and God.

It is true that we really are sinners, but there is a difference between conviction and condemnation. The Holy Spirit always tells us the truth in order to drive us to Christ, while the devil tells us lies in order to drive us into despair.

The circumstances of our lives might all be very different, but the demons all have the same modus operandi: “bleed them of hope in whatever way you can.” We can’t rescue each other from these demons. We can only point each other to the One who can.

It’s true: wherever God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel. Just as the man in Capernaum went to worship with an unclean spirit, we often come to worship with a devil on our shoulder, with an unclean spirit weighing us down.

The good news is that all these years after Jesus preached in the synagogue, he continues to show up in the church God built. He continues to teach with authority. He continues to cast out unclean spirits by his powerful Word. Although it is a derived authority, do not doubt that when the church hands over the words Christ gave it so speak, it speaks with his same authority. When it says your sins are forgiven, or that you have been marked with the cross of Christ forever, or that this is his body, given for you, it is speaking the words he himself authorized for you to hear. These are powerful words. So powerful, in fact, that the devils in the side chapels of God’s church cannot remain. They must obey him. His power is too great for them. His Word continues to cast them out, so that we might be restored, so that we would live in wholeness and hope once again.

And so when the unclean spirit whispers that you haven’t done enough, listen to Christ teach with authority that what he has done is more than enough. When the accuser throws your sins in your face, real or made up, listen to Christ say that by his authority, all your sins are forgiven. When the accuser tells you that you aren’t worthy of love, listen to Christ Jesus say with all the authority of God himself that you are so worthy, so precious, so loved, that he gave his own life in order to rescue you.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church