The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

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“Following or Fleeing”

Mark 1:21-28

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jesus comes preaching the Gospel of His Father on the lakeshore, and fishermen follow.  Now Jesus comes teaching the Word of His Father in the synagogue, and demons flee.  But whatever happens-following or fleeing-those who encounter Jesus know that nothing can ever be the same as it was.  You can almost see the Light spreading and the darkness stumbling backwards.  It’s like the sun coming up on a brilliantly cold winter morning: that red-orange crown that burns on the horizon, until the whole sun is above the edge of the earth and you cannot look at it anymore.  Even on the coldest morning, the temperature is forced upward by the appearance of the sun.  The darkness and the cold will not hold sway forever; this is what Jesus comes to announce-what He comes to make true.  He is the only Man who can silence the hordes of hell with the voice of God.  This is not a duel between equals.  The outcome is not in doubt.  The demons have no choice but to flee.  With a single word of command, Jesus put an end to the tyranny of darkness in that unnamed man.  He pulled him out of the realm of the unclean spirit.  Literally, the man was in an unclean spirit.  There are only two spirits in which you can be, and you are in one or the other: either you are in the realm and under the sway of the unclean spirit; or you are in the realm and under the sway of the Holy Spirit.  If it is the unclean spirit, it is largely irrelevant whether it shows itself in phenomena worthy of The Exorcist or whether there is nothing out of the ordinary.  Whether the unclean spirit cries out in foreign languages, or cries out in simple unbelief; whether the unclean spirit throws its victim around in convulsions, or throws him into one “small” sin after another; whether the unclean spirit expresses itself through a human mouth in spitting epithets and blasphemous insults, or we hear only the cries of an infant sinner, it makes no difference.  You are either under the eternal reign of the Lord Jesus, or you are under the reign of the temporary lord of this world, the devil.  There is no in-between.  There is no gray area when God looks unblinkingly on His creation.  And His creation, even at this late date, appears dead set on keeping its course into deeper and deeper darkness.  The sort of thing that we hear about in Mark’s Gospel is not confined to Galilee.  Demons roam here, too.  But the Epiphany Light of Christ has shined also in this place; it has shined, in fact, so many times that the amazement has faded from our eyes.  We gaze on the greatest miracles, as if they were simply footnotes to the hard facts of reality; maybe quaint rituals, maybe cute customs, but certainly not the actual intervention of the Triune God on our behalf against the devil.  Neverthless, it is true: with a single command, Jesus put an end to the tyranny of darkness in you[, as He has done for Salem]: I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  What we have in the Gospel is only one instance of the spreading Light that removes people from under the father of lies and puts them firmly under the Father of Light.  Where this Son shines, eyes are dazzled; where this teaching is heard, ears are opened.  Jesus is here; He is speaking; and He is driving back the demonic darkness in you and in me.  “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8, ESV).

In Mark’s Gospel we see the truth: Jesus comes in the power of His Word and the demons tremble (James 2:19).  The amazement of the people is a by-product of that teaching; amazement does not equal belief.  But the demons know that Jesus’ teaching does equal action.  God’s Word is never simply words.  When God speaks, God acts.  When the Man who is God commands a demon to be silent and come out of a man, the demon is cast out.  When Jesus speaks, the demons flee; or else the sinner flees, still bound to the demonic.  We should be clear: if God’s Word is faithfully and truly preached, resistance is inevitable.  The devil cannot allow the Word to go unchallenged.  So he rages through the amateur arguments of atheistic apologists; he calls your sins mistakes and your lies white; he mocks the mysterious mercy of the holy Meal; he bellows that newborn babies don’t need baptism.  In all of these ways-some obvious, some not-the devil aims at the very heart of your faith and mine.  He does not aim at producing moral failures as such, at simply deafening our ears to both the Law and the Gospel, at sometimes silencing our tongues at God-given opportunities to speak of the hope that is within us; those sins are all means to the devil’s end: the destruction of your faith, which clings to Christ and His Word alone for protection and defense.  You know as well as I do the tendrils of doubt that dance through minds captive to the Word of God; the substitution of the demon’s knowledge for the disciple’s faith; the subtle speed with which the worries of this world and the priorities of pleasure can overwhelm you, dragging you down into water too deep for your churning arms and legs.  But Jesus will not long allow the speaking of demons, even if they speak the truth.  His rebuke sounds loud and clear: Be silent and come out of him!  Be silent and come out of her!  Depart, you unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit!  That is the effective Word which Christ first spoke to you as the water and the Name were poured over you.  But recall again the words of Luther about baptism: “Therefore, you have to realize that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child but also to hang around the child’s neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy” (Baptismal Booklet).  [Thus it will be for Salem from now on.  And] We who are baptized should hear Jesus’ words as a warning: “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’  And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order.  Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there.  And the last state of the person is worse than the first” (Luke 11:24-26, ESV).

The reason we come to be in the presence of Jesus, to sit at His feet while He fills our houses and forgives and feeds us, is not because going to church in itself saves anyone, or because a person can be saved only if she is in a particular building on Sunday morning.  But those who ignore the Lord’s teaching and break His commandment by not holding the Lord’s Day sacred have simply swept their houses clean and put them in order and they are in danger of falling back under the sway of the unclean spirit.  Every week of the Christian’s life is warfare; every day is full of battles won and lost by us.  But the Lord never loses.  His Word always defeats the darkness in the world and in us.  We will only see the full and final defeat when He comes again in Judgment, to condemn to the eternal darkness of hell the unclean spirits and those who remain in their realm.  But by the fact that He casts out demons, He proves that His victory is good now.  It is as certain as His crucifixion and as real as His resurrection.  You are crucified with Christ, [as sure as you saw Salem in the water this morning], and you are alive in His resurrection.  But Jesus does not stop speaking once He has re-claimed you in Baptism.  When you are where His Word and His Body and His Blood are, Christ is wrapping His holy arms around you to keep you from the unclean spirits in your flesh and in the world.  He has given you His Holy Spirit as a guarantee.  And nothing can ever be the same again.  You are followers, not fleers!  Jesus has claimed you from your dead-end life under the devil and given you the permanent promise of a place in His new creation-and that, by the grace of God, is the message that goes out in all directions from this place, to all the places where you go.  The report about Jesus cannot be silenced; it is going out: into your home, as you speak forgiveness to your children and bring them to the place where Christ welcomes them; into your neighborhood, as you speak of the Lord over death to the man who has lost his wife of fifty years; into your school, as you speak of Him who is a friend to the friendless and prove it by doing the same.  In these ways and more, the Lord continues to rebuke the unclean spirits in your life and the lives of all people: be silent, and come out of them!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/27/09

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