"WHO'S IN CHARGE?"
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 4, 2018
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
The whole city was gathered together at the door. And [Jesus] healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And He would not permit the demons speak, because they knew Him.
Mark 1:33, 34 (ESV)
Quite a number of years ago, at a Southeastern District convention that I attended, we presented our synodical president with a gift of appreciation for his faithful service. It was a baseball cap, but instead of having one visor on the front (as baseball caps usually do), this cap had two visors--facing in opposite directions. On the front of the cap, where a sports team logo is usually displayed, was this message: "I'm their leader; which way did they go?" It is said that humor is best when it's based in truth. One of the most challenging things about leadership in the Church (or anywhere else, for that matter) is keeping up with the people who the leader is supposed be leading. This becomes especially challenging when the people are not all heading in the same direction. In other words, it's not always easy to be the one who's in charge.
This morning's Gospel, on which today's sermon is based, continues to emphasize one of the themes of the Epiphany season, that theme being the authority of Jesus. As a matter of fact, all three of today's Scripture readings deal in one way or another with authority. In the Old Testament Reading Isaiah speaks about the fact that God is in charge and uses His authority for our good, no matter what misfortunes may confront us and no matter how severe those misfortunes may be. In the Epistle Saint Paul speaks about the need for missionaries to lay aside their authority as ministers of the Gospel and even their Christian freedom at times in the interest of the salvation of lost sinners. And here in the Gospel we see Jesus demonstrating His authority in miraculous ways. In particular Jesus shows Himself here to be in charge of people, of diseases, of spirits, and of circumstances.
The fact that Jesus is in charge of people ought to be obvious from the passage before us. No matter how misguided or uninformed the people in these verses may have been, they knew that they needed Jesus (or, more specifically, they knew that they needed something that Jesus had to offer). This still happens today. A lot of people who couldn't care less about the Gospel of Jesus Christ nevertheless call on the Church of Jesus Christ from time to time. They may have it all wrong, but somehow they still can sense that Christ is the answer. They usually never recognize that what they really need is forgiveness for their sin. They think that they need something else: a ceremony to be performed, a bill to be paid, or perhaps some social or political cause to be promoted. Sad to say, most of these people never receive what they really need--what Jesus Christ and His people really have to offer (namely, the Gospel)--because they are intent on their own agenda that they won't listen to anything else.
Jesus' authority over diseases is something that has been greatly misunderstood through the centuries and has been and still is abused at times, even by some of those who belong to Christ. I would not for a minute deny that miraculous healings have taken place and still do take place in the name of Jesus Christ. But that's not the point. Do you know what word the Bible uses when it speaks about miracles? It calls them signs. Jesus performed miracles to demonstrate His divine power and His concern for those in need. The healing that Christ really gives us is healing for our sin. That's the real disease that we struggle with. All of the other tragedies that come our way in life--illnesses, injuries, conflict, depression--are really nothing more than symptoms. We get sick and die because we are sinners. There is not always necessarily a direct cause-and-effect relationship between our particular sins and the symptoms of those sins. It's simply that you and I and everyone else is conceived and born with this terminal disease called sin. We're going to die. There's no getting around that. But Jesus, in granting to us healing for our sin, also makes it possible for us to deal with and overcome all of the symptoms of sin--especially the most obvious and tragic symptom of all, which is death itself.
Jesus Christ is in charge of spirits. In this passage He exercises His authority over the demons. This is important for us to remember, because a lot of people erroneously think of the spiritual realm in dualistic terms. What I mean by that is that they think of God and Satan as being two equals--a good God and an evil god, as it were. They visualize these two constantly fighting with each other for the upper hand. That's not quite accurate. There is only one God. He is the Creator of everything, including Satan, who He created good but who fell when he rebelled against his Creator. Because Jesus Christ died and rose again, Satan is defeated forever. He has no control over you other than the control that you willingly give to him. Forget about Flip Wilson's old claim that "the devil made me do it." The devil can't make you do anything. He can tempt you (and he certainly does, often and in various subtle ways), but you alone decide what you're going to do. It's a great comfort for us to know that Jesus Christ is in charge of the spiritual realm. Genuine faith in Him can protect even the weakest person from the assaults of the evil one.
Finally, Jesus is in charge of circumstances. Notice here that He would not let the demons speak because they knew who He was. For reasons known only to Him, the Savior chose not reveal Himself at that particular time. There are several instances of this in the Gospels--occasions where Jesus told His disciples, for example, not to tell anyone who He was until later. The theologians call this "the Messianic Secret." But the Lord's glory is visible even if He doesn't proclaim it or reveal it outwardly. To me, one of the most impressive things about the story of Jesus' suffering and death is the control that He had through it all. He was humiliated, but His dignity remained intact. He was tempted with many opportunities to escape this ordeal, but He walked right into it. He wasn't killed; He chose to offer up His life as the atoning sacrifice for our sin. All of this can be a great encouragement for us as we live with all of the frustrations of living the Christian life in this world of temptation and sin. If things don't appear to be going the way that they should, just hold on. The One who is in charge of circumstances will accomplish His good and gracious will in the end.
There is a certain comfort to be derived from the knowledge that someone who we can trust is in charge. There is no greater comfort that we can experience than knowing that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior, is in charge--in charge of people, especially us who are faithful to Him; in charge of diseases, especially the disease that causes all other diseases, the affliction of sin; in charge of spirits, dispatching His angels to protect us from all spiritual harm; and in charge of circumstances, causing all things to work together for the good of those who love Him. This is our comfort and confidence each and every day as we seek to live as His secure people in this world of danger and uncertainty.
May the God who caused light to shine out of darkness cause you to increase and abound in love toward one another and toward all people, as His love abounds for us; and may the glory of His Son be manifested to you and in you, that you may be witnesses to all nations now and until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.