It's Better than You Think
You've no doubt noticed that I've chosen the option of keeping the altar paraments white during Epiphany rather than switching to green. That's because Epiphany is an extension of the Christmas season, a continuation of the Christmas celebration. But Epiphany is not just more rejoicing; it's more revelation. During the season of Epiphany we see who this Jesus is that we welcomed so happily at Christmas. During Epiphany we see that Jesus does more than lay in a manger. During Epiphany, we see that Christmas is better than we ever thought.
But before things can get better they must get worse. If things don't get worse, we can't appreciate them getting better as Proverbs 27:7 says, "When you've had plenty to eat, you despise honey, but when you're hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet." We need to be made hungry.
The Collect for this Sunday helps us somewhat. We acknowledge that "we are set among so many and great dangers." What might come to mind at first are the dangers of crime, disease, or even traffic accidents. However, you know the big dangers we face are really unseen. Our battle, says St. Paul in Ephesians is not against "flesh and blood but against the rulers, authorities, and lords of this dark world, against the evil spirits that are above." The devil is prowling around the earth day and night seeking someone to devour says St. Peter. Luther said that if we could see how many spears, daggers, arrows, and swords the devil and his demons have aimed at us every minute, we would die from fright. And friend, burglar alarms, health programs, and air bags are no match for demons.
But demonic forces are not our only problem. The Prayer of the Day makes the "many and great dangers" we are set among all the worse by noting the "weakness of our fallen nature." However, we want to be careful with that phrase lest we think our fallen nature is just weak, as if we're just "out of shape" and so if we work hard we can get back in shape and out of danger. We need to remember out catechism training. We call ourselves "lost and condemned creatures" in the Explanation to Second Article of the Apostle's Creed. The Catechism goes on to describe our fallen condition as the "total corruption of our whole human nature." Then it cites I Corinthians 2:14, "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God." It also cites Ephesians 2:1 which says we were "dead" in our sins. And Romans 8:7 which says, "The sinful mind is hostile to God." It not only "does not submit to God's law." It can't do so.
So then, we go about in this fallen world surrounded by unseen demons and dangers bearing a fallen nature that is blind to spiritual things, dead to holy things, and an enemy of the true God. Okay, if this is the case, then how can the Collect for this Sunday go on to say "we cannot always stand upright." You know what that implies? Sometimes, we can stand upright. Sometimes we are a match for those unseen demons. Sometimes we have a little bit of spiritual sight all on our own. Sometimes we have some spiritual life in these bodies dead because of sin. Sometimes our fallen natures are not real enemies of God.
Is that how it is people of God? Do any of you wish to say that sometimes you can stand upright? Sometimes you do defeat those unseen demons of pride, greed, lust, and despair? Sometimes your flesh can see God? Sometimes your flesh is not totally corrupt and dead? Sometimes your flesh is indeed on God's side? I didn't think so. And that's not what the Collect for this Sunday originally said. When it was first written around 600 A.D., it said, "We cannot AT ANYTIME stand upright." This is the way it was used by Luther in his liturgy and in a Litany he wrote in 1529. In 1558, however, Queen Elizabeth of England, not wanting to sound so down on human nature changed it to read "we cannot ALWAYS stand upright."
Friend, it's an ever present temptation to not speak as darkly, as dimly, as bleakly about fallen human nature as the Bible does. John Calvin said in the 16th century that the one who praises human nature always wins. He wasn't agreeing with that, but saying that it's always popular with people to speak positively about human nature. A columnist in last Saturday's paper did that. Rather than speaking of us as sinners, as fallen, condemned creatures, he called us "mistake-makers."
This is much more appealing to fallen humans. We're not by nature blind, dead, enemies of God; we just make mistakes here and there. But friend, if that is your view than you really will miss the sweetness of Christmas, the fullness of Christ, the miracle of redemption. If we are but mistake-makers, we do not need forgiving, redeeming or saving. If all we confess on Sunday is that we are "poor, miserable mistake-makers" rather than "poor, miserable sinners," than all we need is another chance. But if we see how helpless we really are against demons, against our fallen natures, if we see that we cannot at anytime stand upright, then the Epiphany of Jesus really means something to us...and it's even better than we think!
In our text this morning, Jesus, our Christmas Baby, is shown for who He really is. He isn't like many pictures depict Him, weak, anemic, timid even. He comes into the synagogue at Capernaum and He teaches. Then a devil shows himself. Mark calls him "an unclean spirit." Luke calls him "an unclean demon." Perhaps you can't see how frightening this all is. The demon makes an ungodly, terrible shrieking sound. Then he accuses Jesus of coming to destroy them. Now remember, the people in the synagogue have probably been around the man possessed by this demon for years. They don't know this is a demon speaking. This is Joe Blow whom they've known for years, and he is testifying that Jesus is evil and dangerous.
But Jesus is the One whom Scripture identifies as the One stronger than the strong man holding our souls captive. With five words, "Be quiet and come out of him," Jesus rescues this man from the demon. Dear friend, you too have been so rescued. Remember what we say in the Catechism about our Baptisms under the question, "What does Baptism give?" Among other things, we say, "It rescues from the devil." Right then and there in your Baptism you were delivered from the kingdom of Satan, from the grasp of demons, from their power and might. In Luther's Baptismal Liturgy of 1523, you can vividly see that Baptism is where Jesus comes on the scene and drives demons from us. It begins with the pastor saying, "Depart thou unclean spirit and give room to the Holy Spirit." Later the pastor says, "But, thou devil, flee; for God's judgement comes speedily."
But we're not redeemed only by Jesus' power over demons but also by who He is. Jesus appears on the scene in our flesh and blood. He walks the earth just like we do. He bears not only our nature but our heavy obligations under the Law. He walked this earth under the full weight the Law's "do this" and "don't do that." You know how that feeling comes over you: "Everything I do is wrong." You know how nervous we get when we think of all that we are suppose to do. Well, Jesus bore those weighty feelings. Jesus bore all your obligations as a mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, student, worker, and church member too. Such heavy obligations are just too much for the "weakness of our fallen nature." We will surely stumble and fall under them if we try to bear them ourselves. Well Jesus is on the scene to bear them for us.
But there's still more. Jesus isn't just on the scene in Capernaum being the perfect Person for you, in your place. He's there bearing your sins. Remember all the Gospels start with the Baptism of Jesus where He receives a sinner's Baptism. He is on the scene as a sinner. That's why Scripture calls Him "a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." You know that guilt you feel for all that you are not, yet are suppose to be? That guilt was on Jesus. You know that shame you feel for those thoughts and lusts you dare not even mention? That shame was on Him. Jesus was the man Proverbs 28:17 speaks of. He was "tormented with the guilt of human blood."
But don't leave Jesus in Capernaum, in the synagogue defeating devils and bearing sins. You've got to do with Jesus what Mark does. Read the Gospel of Mark in the King James. You will note the prominence of words like "immediately" "straightway," "forthwith." Note how quickly the Gospel of Mark moves. That's because Mark can't wait to get Jesus to the cross, and that's where we need to see Jesus too. Capernaum and devil defeating are just stop overs on the way to the cross where He will give up His life as a ransom for our lives. He will give His body and blood into death on the cross, so that we might live through them. But don't even stop there. Don't stop at a green hill far away in 30 A.D. The Body and Blood He gave there for sinners in 30 A.D. is given here to sinners in 2000 AD. The Body and Blood Christ redeemed our fallen nature with on the cross is given to our fallen natures to save them right here at this altar.
All of this is fine, well and good. But what good does it do to have a Savior who defeats devils and redeems our fallen nature if we cannot at anytime stand upright? If all I can see before me is one sin after another, what hope have I? This troubles some of you. You hear the sweet Gospel; it's precious to you. But you also know how wretched you really are. It's not just that you can't always stand upright, but you can't at anytime stand at all! If what Jesus came into the synagogue to preach that day, and if what Jesus comes to preach today is how we are suppose to go out and save the world for Him, if what Jesus preaches is how we are suppose to glorify His name, if what Jesus preaches is how we are to be His salt, light and hands, where in the world does that leave you and I who can't at anytime stand upright?
However, if what Jesus proclaimed then and proclaims now is what Mark 1:14 says, the Gospel of God and that the kingdom has arrived, well that's better than we think. Our text doesn't tell you what Jesus taught; it just tells you that He did. We have to go back to verse 14 to find what He taught. There we find that He came and stood in that synagogue and dared to proclaim to sinners who can't at anytime stand upright that the kingdom of God was there for them. He dares to come today and proclaim to us sinners the Gospel. That though our sins be scarlet He has made them white as snow. Though our sins be more than the numbers of hairs on our head, He can't find one of them. Though we can't at anytime stand upright, He makes us stand by forgiving our sins.
Isn't this better than any of us dared to think? In Greek mythology, the gods always punished people for thinking "thoughts too great for man." The true God, by contrast, points us to such thoughts saying, "What eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the thoughts of man, that's what God has prepared for those who love Him." Who would think that God would, could, or should save sinners weak because of their fallen natures and unable at anytime to stand upright? But that's the Gospel. That's what Christmas is all about, but we can only see this when Jesus preaches us in Epiphany. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Epiphany IV (1-30-00) Mark 1:21-28