A sermon on Mark 1:21-28
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
January 31, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.—Mark 1:27
Today’s sermon begins with a story from the life of John Calvin.
Calvin was one of the original leaders of the 16th Century church movement known as the Reformation. He has been described by one historian as “the most formidable intellectually of all the Protestant Reformers.” He was well-versed in the Scriptures and in the writings of the early Church fathers. He had also been trained as a lawyer, which gave him prodigious skills both as a writer and an orator. His multivolume masterwork Institutes of the Christian Religion is one of the all-time classic theological works of any time or place. Calvin’s influence as a Christian thinker is still strongly felt even six hundred years later, as his teachings form much of the basic beliefs undergirding the Presbyterian Church and the various other churches in the Reformed church tradition. Many Baptist groups have also embraced Calvin’s teachings throughout history to a greater or lesser degree. Some still do even today…
In 1533, a twenty-four year old John Calvin had a spiritual awakening and felt called by God to lead the church back to its original New Testament teachings. He made his main base of operations to be the city of Geneva, Switzerland where he was the popular pastor and preacher of Saint Peter’s Church. But in his work, he often ran afoul of Geneva’s governing city council over issues of church and state and other doctrines. In April 1538, he was preaching at St. Peter’s one Sunday morning when he received the news that the council had decided to expel him from the city. So he left Geneva in mid-sermon and fled to the city of Strasbourg. There he served as the headmaster of an academy and as pastor of a church for French refugees.
Three years later, the mood in the city had changed and the Genevans invited him back. He was at first reluctant to return to what he called “the gulf and whirlpool” that he had experienced before he was forced to leave. Still, he was persuaded that it was God’s will for him to return and continue the work of reforming the church there. So he went back.
On his first Sunday back in Geneva, Calvin entered the pulpit at Saint Peter’s church. The gothic cathedral was crammed with curious people, expectantly anticipating what he might say after his exile. Calvin strode into the pulpit and, after saying a few words of introduction, went on to say, “Now to continue with our study in the book of Ephesians,” picking up his sermon in exactly the same spot where
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he had left off some three years earlier…1 He was so focused on his work of preaching and teaching that he did not miss a beat, despite the three year interruption…
In today’s gospel passage from Mark, we find Jesus early in his earthly ministry. He has been baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River and has called his first four disciples. And then we are told that Jesus and his disciples went to the city of Capernaum.
Capernaum was the hometown of Peter and Andrew, two of Jesus’ first followers. It was located near the northern most point of the Sea of Galilee and a center of the fishing industry. In the book of Mark, it serves as a kind of base of operations for Jesus as he embarked on his Galilean ministry.
On the first Sabbath day after their arrival in the city, Jesus made his way into the local synagogue. It was the custom of the day for recognized visiting preachers to preach at the synagogue, using the daily reading from the Law or the Prophets as their text. And so, as a visiting rabbi, Jesus was invited to speak to the congregation.
We are not told what text he used. Nor are we told what the subject of his teaching was. All we have is the congregation’s response, as recorded in verse 22, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
Normally when rabbis taught in the synagogue, they based their teaching on what other rabbis and teachers—both current and historical—had taught and written. They would say things like, “According to Rabbi So-and-so, this means thus-and so. But on the other hand, this other famous rabbi interprets it this way,” giving the listener a broad perspective on differing viewpoints, often without giving any indication of any definitive conclusion.
It was obvious from the beginning that Jesus was different when he taught. He did not cite any rabbinical authorities in his teaching. He did not compare and contrast different interpretations of a particular passage from the scholars of his day. He did not need to quote anyone. He spoke with the authority that could only come from God alone. And it said that the people were “astounded.”
This word “astounded” is a translation of the Greek word explēssanto. It is a compound word that has the word plēssō at its root. Plēssō is a very strong word that means “to strike” or “to smite.” It would be fair to say that that Jesus’ teaching was striking…or that they were smitten with him…They felt that way because Jesus didn’t teach the same old stuff as the other rabbis.
1 Gordon S. Wakefield, ed., The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), 64, and C. Douglas Weaver, A Cloud of Witnesses; Sermon Illustrations and Devotionals from the Christian Heritage (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 1993), 62-63.
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Then a remarkable thing happens. It is the first of 16 recorded healings that Jesus performed in the book of Mark. A man in the congregation interrupts Jesus and bursts out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!”
We do not know much about the man responsible for the outburst. Was he someone known to the congregation? We do not know. Was he actually sitting as a part of congregation or did he burst through the door as he was speaking? We do not know. Had his affliction been a long term situation or was it a more recent development? Again, we just do not know. Whatever his story, Jesus calls the evil spirit to come out of the man and commands the spirit to be quiet. And immediately the man went into convulsions and shrieked out loud before the demon came out of him. Wow.
And then, remarkably, Jesus returned to his teaching as if the healing had been no big deal. He picked up his message right where he left off. I’ll bet the people were listening a little bit more closely to him after that! After demonstrating his mastery over the demon, I imagine that the people were all ears. That’s because Jesus not only taught with authority, but his actions also demonstrated his power as well…
As mentioned earlier, Mark does not tell us exactly what Jesus said on this Sabbath day that astonished and amazed the people in Capernaum. But the other gospel writers give us some clues as to the content of Jesus’ early preaching. In Matthew 4:17, Matthew tells us that “Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near.’” And in Luke 4:43, Jesus tells his disciples, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’”
So what is this “good news” that Jesus was talking about? What was it about Jesus’ teaching that inspired such a positive response in his listeners during the early days of his ministry?
In Jesus’ preaching, he taught that “The kingdom of God is near”—“The kingdom of God is within you”—“The kingdom of God is among you.” These were the images that our Lord used in describing the kingdom and its coming into the world.
Here is the difference of what Jesus taught and the teachings of other itinerant rabbis of his day. He did not talk all that much about the need to obey all the commands and laws that had been given in the Old Testament—let alone all the traditions passed down by the elders through centuries of interpretations.
Simply put, Jesus saved his harshest criticisms for those who insisted that, in order to become right with God, one had to scrupulously follow a list of rules and regulations. He called those people hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, and blind guides leading the blind.2 For Jesus, it did not matter how long that list of rules and regulations might be. It did not matter how arduous those rules were and how difficult they were to follow. The plain truth of the matter is that Jesus’ teaching would have nothing to
2 See Matthew 23:23-28 for one example.
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do with following laws in order to make one right with God. That is what made his teaching different from those scribes and the other religious professionals of his day who taught in the synagogues.
Being right with God is not a matter of doing the right things as much as it is being the right things. Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God was this: Boiled down to its essence, Jesus taught, “Be right in your motives and thus you will do right. Be kind, especially to those who are unkind. Trust the goodness of God [in your life and in the lives of others]. Pray. Live for that real world that encompasses our world of time and space…[For you] are intended to live on a deeper level than that of your eyes and ears.”3
That is Christ’s gospel—the good news of the kingdom of God. Have you responded to his call? Are you doing the things that he calls his disciples to do and to be in order to be right with God? Have you invited Christ’s Holy Spirit into your life, so that God may begin the process of changing you into more of who you were created to be?
That’s the message of Jesus—in Capernaum 2000 years ago and today as well. It is the same message that his first hearers found astonishing and amazing. Christ’s message is still the same today. How will you respond to his call?
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
3 George A. Buttrick, Christ and Man’s Dilemma (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1946), 68, 104.