The following two articles appeared in the media in 2016. They show how the public arena is becoming progressively free from Jesus and his influence:
MENOMINEE, Mich. (WWJ/AP) – A nativity scene that’s been displayed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as part of a longtime Christmas tradition has been taken down following years of complaints.
Menominee City Manager Tony Graff tells WLUK-TV that the display was taken down shortly after being put up this year. He says the city attorney determined that the display was “a violation of our own policy” governing what can be put up on public property.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation had sent several complaints to the city. Ryan Jayne, an attorney with the foundation, says the group first reached out to the city in 2007 after a complaint from a Menominee resident.
Following the decision, Graff says he hopes a local church will put up the display.
“The nativity scene is something of Christmas and we all personally understand that, but when it’s the government we have to take a little separation,” Graff told the station.
A nativity scene in St. Bernard has drawn opposition from a national watchdog group that says the display violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of separation of church and state and wants it removed.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation says the Hamilton County village could face legal action if the display isn’t removed.
Foundation officials say in a statement that they recently sent a letter to St. Bernard saying it cannot continue to display a nativity scene on village property and asking for a written response after it is removed.
Michael Peck, the village’s law director, said the village administration understands concerns by groups like the foundation, but has “no intention of removing our nativity scene.”
It is merely part of a larger display including other secular symbols of Christmas, and the village is confident it doesn’t violate the Constitution, Peck said.
The nativity scene in front of City Hall depicts the figure of an infant Jesus lying in a manger and surrounded by other figures, including Mary and Joseph, according to the foundation.
The letter from foundation’s attorney Sam Grover to St. Bernard’s law director says the nativity scene “conveys a preference for religion over non-religion and for Christianity above all other faiths.”
“The City Hall building should accommodate everyone within St. Bernard, not just those in the Christian majority,” the foundation’s co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said in the group’s statement.
A middle school in southern Ohio removed a portrait of Jesus from school grounds in 2013 in a settlement of a lawsuit filed against the school by the foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. The groups charged that the portrait illegally promoted religion in a public school.
In 2016 Jesus’ authority and influence was further marginalized in our own lives and in the larger community. The movies and T.V. shows we watched mentioned him little, if at all. The Facebook posts used Jesus as a weapon to ram home our partisan politics. We sought to show how Jesus was on our side to beat the opposition into submission rather than submit ourselves to the realization that we had lost Jesus’ spirit in our angry tirades. Jesus was allowed to take his place alongside Mohammad, Gandhi and JFK in lists of influential figures, but when it came to the practical day-to-day we moved further away from the freedom of religion to the Freedom from Religion. All faiths are equally ignored because authentic discussion brings conflict. Authentic exclusion of faithful ideas leads to a more faithless system. Children wander through and become money-making machines to keep the economy reproducing itself without meaning. This is how a nation slides into anarchy. Anarchy is not purely chaos and disorder, it is self-governance. It is where the individual makes isolated decisions believing that power and authority rests in the self. We have distrusted institutions for so long, like the church and the government, that we are now skeptical of organized faith, leadership or companies. The individual is God and we do what is right in our own eyes. We select into groups which accept us as we are with no uncomfortable push to change our ways and make ourselves better. I am born without sin, I am raised without flaws, I am celebrated in my job, and I am far short of all that I was created to be. Rather than submit to words of truth that can make us better, we demand the world exclude those who are more left-wing or more right-wing than we are. We breed ignorance in the name of intelligence. We create on-line masks to hide our isolation and we mask our isolation through binge watching, binge eating, or binge drinking. The world is dark because we have rejected an authority outside of ourselves. The world is at odds because it does not listen in order to self-examine. We listen in order to affirm and in affirming all things we are complicit in the results. Proclaiming an ancient truth is arrogant. Not supporting the insanity is perceived as intolerance. Because of Christian intolerance we are not tolerated. There are cracks in the foundations of our community because there are cracks in the foundations of the individuals. We can be better. Jesus shows us how.
We can begin 2017 by looking to Jesus and challenging ourselves to live a different life. When we read about Jesus in the gospels, who is he revealed to be? When we see Jesus speak who does his words show he is? Let’s look together at Luke 4: 31-44:
And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority. And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Ha! 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. And they were all amazed and said to one another, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” And reports about him went out into every place in the surrounding region.
And he arose and left the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them.
Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.
And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.
From this brief story about Jesus in Capernaum I want to communicate six points about Jesus’ word and what it reveals about who Jesus is. Then I want to communicate what our response to this person and his word should be as we enter 2017.
The context is Capernaum on the north east corner of the Sea of Galilee. It was a commercial hub in the Galilee region and a good place to start a ministry that would influence the whole Galilee region. Jesus had been rejected in his home town of Nazareth, but he did not leave his home region. He left the hill country and went down to a town that is 684 feet below sea level. He called a band of followers to him. He established himself as a rabbi and he began to teach. He didn’t just teach through what he said, but his words and actions were harmonious teaching tools working in symphony with each other. As he said, he acted. As he acted, he said. There was an authenticity which the best of us can not replicate. There was a strength of character that set Jesus apart. The passage we have read reveals this.
Jesus’ word is emphasized in Luke 4. In Greek it is the familiar word logos. In John 1 we read how Jesus himself is the embodiment of the creative, all-powerful word (or logos) of God. The incarnation is the Word Become Flesh. It is appropriate at the Christmas Season to remember the fusion of the cosmic reality of Jesus preincarnate and his emptying of himself to be contained in a baby’s body in a manger. In Luke 4, though, Jesus is grown up and he acts. Words are central to The Word Made Flesh.
The most important fact that is established at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in each of the gospels is that Jesus has authority. His word has authority.
The first evidence of Jesus’ authority is in how he taught. The rabbis in Jesus’ day communicated truth by rooting what they said in scripture or in tradition. This is wise. The Bible is the revealed word of God and the tradition of God’s people showed God’s character by revealing how he has worked through the centuries. However, Jesus uses the word of God sparingly and he communicates from his own insights. The people are amazed that he departs from the script. You can imagine the effect as being as jarring as someone playing thrash metal versions of traditional worship songs. Unlike most thrash metal, though, this is from God. This is right. This is good. Of course, there are those who will think Jesus is arrogant for basing his own teaching in his own authority. It would be right to challenge a person who persuades the masses to submit to his will. Unless, of course, that person is God.
In this passage Jesus’ authority is also evidenced in two rebukes. The first rebuke is made to a demon. There is a power-struggle in Palestine. The authorities wrestle for dominion over the people and the land. However, rather than the focus we have today on material settlements in ‘occupied’ West Bank or East Jerusalem lands, the deeper reality of spiritual conflict is brought to the fore. The struggle we have on this earth manifests itself in very physical ways, but the spiritual reality underpins and permeates the one that we perceive with our five senses. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6:12 that “… we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Jesus cannot help but challenge the forces that are in opposition to him. They see him coming and they bring the hidden spiritual conflict to the surface. What follows is a power struggle – demon against deity. The result, of course, is never in doubt. The demon tries to gain the upper hand by naming Jesus for who he is. It was understood in spiritual warfare that if you named a person you could control them. “I have your number!” says the demon, in effect. However, the people roundabout don’t know who Jesus is. Jesus doesn’t want the demon declaring who he is. He doesn’t want his authority to rest on demonic testimony. So he simply silences the demon and orders him to leave. We all know how humiliating it is to be silenced by a parent or teacher. We know what it is to be subject to such authority. The demon cannot rebel. He has no comparative power. He becomes mute and leaves.
We have trivialized demons and made them part of fantasy or fiction. We watch demons wreak havoc in horror pictures, but they are stopped by a smart human who closes a portal to hell. Demons are not to be trifled with in reality. A human against a demon would always lose. However, demons are nothing when faced with their creator. In this case, the school bully has been sent to the principal’s office.
The second rebuke is spoken over physical illness. To speak authority over a demon is comprehensible. To speak a word over an illness and have it be gone seems laughable in our overmedicated world. We would not really pray over a headache, so praying over a serious fever seems even more futile in modern situations. However, Jesus is not us. That is the point. Jesus’ word has power in ways that we cannot comprehend.
To rebuke someone biblically means to stand in opposition to them. To state your opposition. In the New Testament Jesus rebukes humans, demons, and nature itself. The idea is that humans, demons, and nature can work in opposition to the peace that God wants to bring. They perpetuate chaos and disorder. They prolong evil. The whole of creation is in rebellion against God. Jesus is the authority, the last word, on any issue. He stands opposed to illness, decay, grief, and worry. He calms the chaos. He cools the brow. He brings peace. Because of Jesus’ authority and the word of power he speaks, by the end of the passage, the demons and the illness are gone.
I have not seen many people whose words carry great authority. However, my mother tells me that my grandfather Jack had a voice like thunder. He was kind in his actions and thoughtful in nature. However, he was strong and imposing. He only had to say, “Oi” and his children would jump and stop whatever they were doing. This is a weak illustration of what happens when Jesus says, “Oi.” However, when Jesus speaks with authority demons and illness stop what they are doing. They have no choice.
The second effect of the word of Jesus is that it upsets traditions. The miracles performed in this passage are the first of a series of 5 miracles in Luke which Jesus performs on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was a day of rest, but it had become a day of oppressive rule-keeping. People policed each other vigorously in ancient Israel as to what rules broke the Sabbath and which obeyed its spirit. The spirit of the Sabbath was heavy and restrictive. It had even got to the point where truly good things could not be done on a Sabbath because they would break a law. The people obey the laws. We see this in the detail that the people came to him in droves as the sun began setting. This was officially the end of the Sabbath. When the sun was up they believed that they had to keep suffering in isolation in their particular corner in and around Capernaum. This seemingly God-centered religion was standing in opposition to the good that God wanted to do in healing his people. But Jesus can’t help but heal. It is what he does. He breaks the rule-keeping traditions of the Jewish people to release them into a life of freedom and joy with their God.
In the T.V. series This is Us, the Pearson family is enslaved to family tradition. They all go to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving and everyone hates it. Mama Pearson feels judged regarding the quality of her cooking. The kids feel judged by Grandma and restricted in their movements. The parents are tense and when a tire explodes on the way to Grandma’s so do the family. They end up spending Thanksgiving in a run-down cabin where the heat is stuck on high. They have no turkey and no trimmings. However, out of the necessity of the moment they break with the stale traditions of the past which have enslaved them and they create new invigorating traditions which have stayed with them into the present.
The third effect of Jesus’ word that I think we should note is that it astounded the surrounding people. The people’s reaction shows how remarkable all that happened was. These words were for the people reading Luke and the inference is that the desired reaction was amazement. Some, like Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) have trivialized the miracles as showmanship. Being amazed is made parallel to being entertained today by a common magician who pulls a rabbit out of a hat. However, the word translated ‘amazed’ can also be translated astonished and astounded. Jesus’ actions do not just cause a reaction based on the actions themselves but also point to their significance. It is more than the astonishment people feel when a football player refuses to stand for their national anthem. It is amazement that goes beyond the act itself to its possible meaning.
A fourth effect of Jesus’ word to consider is that it cleanses and heals. ‘Unclean’ and ‘evil’ are used to describe spirits and illnesses in the New Testament. God’s goodness is pure and unblemished. God creates the world to work in accordance with his design. Making God’s creation impure is an abomination to God. We can trivialize these things and even accept them as normal. God works against sickness and death. He works against all evil. The Son of God heals the evils of sickness and the impurities in the system are eradicated.
The Heavenly Man was recommended to me by students from Moody and I find the book challenging. In The Heavenly Man, Chinese towns are reached by Jesus doing wonderful acts of healing. I do not doubt that God, in his sovereignty, worked such acts to usher in a revival in the region. The author’s life is changed by a miraculous healing in his own household. Those who witnessed it were amazed.
I am not convinced that people today have the same gifts or abilities as Jesus. There are those who say that Jesus promised that we would do more and so that means that we will do more powerful acts or reach more people. I am not sure that is possible. Jesus raised people from the dead. What is more powerful than that? The Holy Spirit acts in ways that are not easily predictable. However, when I read of God using great healings to reach people as he does in The Heavenly Man, I am challenged. Although I don’t want to make demands of God, I also don’t want to hinder God when he does want to heal and restore.
The fifth effect of Jesus’ powerful word is that it spreads. The logos resounds in the community and cannot be contained in one place. The religious life in the synagogue is challenged by new teaching. The domestic life of Peter is challenged by healing. However, as Mark’s account makes clear, the people of Capernaum were scared of losing God’s blessing. God had reached out to them through Jesus and they wanted to make sure that Capernaum kept the miracles and the blessing coming. Jesus was sought after. They wanted to hold him. Jesus would not be held to one place by obligation to one group of people. His word was not a word of scarcity but a word of abundance. The priority was not to please those who wanted to keep what they had found. The calling of Jesus was to release a new way of life into ever increasing circles. We call the new way of life Kingdom Living because it refers to the Kingdom of God. Jesus was sent to communicate that the Kingdom has come. He is the king of the kingdom. It is not a worldly kingdom of typical wealth and power. It is a kingdom where people become right with God. Jesus knew that he couldn’t limit the kingdom and be enthroned in Capernaum. So he didn’t do the will of his friends, his students, or his family – he did the will of his Father, God.
I think of the message starting at a point in Galilee. Cana was affected. Capernaum. Corazzin. Then Judea becomes set ablaze by the word of Jesus. Then Samaria. Tyre. Sidon. By the end of The New Testament the Roman Empire is aware of God’s word communicated in simplicity and power in Palestine.
In Rogue One the Death Star is tested. It is a symbol of power, all be it evil imperial power. It tests its weapon on a small scale on a religious city on the moon Jedha. As the death star pinpoints the religious city, the ground erupts in waves that spread concentrically from the epicenter. The physical power of the Death Star is adequately displayed. The evil onlookers from the Death Star even comment that the display of such powerful destruction is beautiful. In a spiritual way Jesus’ word emanated waves of change just as powerful on the earth 2000 years ago. The beginnings were strategically focused and limited, but the reverberations have now encircled the whole planet. The good news, though, doesn’t bring destruction from a star of death. The gospel brings light and life.
The final aspect of the word of God is its point in the narrative. Although the passage doesn’t explicitly state that the words were written that we may see who Jesus is, that is the direction the passage points. The identity of Jesus is so powerful that it shines through his actions. To the uninitiated it verges on the unbelievable. Demons keep shouting his identity in the text, but who would believe what a demon tells you? From all the healing and restoration in his wake, his identity must be clear. This is the Messiah. This is the Anointed One of God. As he walks into the wide world his disciples will follow him. However, those who want to rule themselves will sneer. They will find reasons to disbelieve. They will find reasons not to bow the knee. If these stories from Capernaum are to be believed they change the foundation of everything.
Only God performs these kind of miracles. If these stories are to be believed, there is a God. There is a God who is not distant and uninterested, but he has come to earth and he is willing to restore all that has been lost through the centuries of mankind going their own way.
Mankind is represented as weak and lost. Mankind is plagued by evil and in need of restoration. Sickness and decay ravage the body. We need a saviour.
The ultimate value of Jesus is the ultimate value of everyone and everything. All things were created by God and for God. Jesus points the way to his father by submitting to his will before family, friends or his own, personal, agenda.
The passage points us beyond the physical world to a spiritual reality. A true perspective sees beyond the physical and focuses the mind there. In seeing the spiritual reality beyond the physical world, we handle the physical world better.
Jesus’ word has an authority we can trust. If we know what he knows, we know things as they are. Jesus is the first teacher we should learn from. He is not an afterthought to be turned to when all other options are exhausted.
In The Princess Bride, Wesley does acts of service for his beloved Buttercup. Each time she sends him on an errand he says, “As you wish.” The narrator informs us that each time he says that word, Wesley is really declaring his love for Buttercup. Later in the movie Wesley appears thinly disguised wearing a mask and a pencil moustache. When Buttercup pushes the man she supposes to be The Dread Pirate Roberts down a ravine, he reveals his true identity with the words, “As you wish!” Jesus’ word reveals who he is in a much more powerful way than Wesley. However, the listeners to Jesus are overcome with amazement. They are puzzled as to what kind of human-being can speak in such ways.
So how do we apply the passage to our life today?
In the passage we see that Jesus speaks his word in topical and contextual ways. However, the context of the passage and the reaction of the people ought to point us away from taking this approach too often ourselves. Jesus’ topical preaching is meant to show us that he has the insight of God and the knowhow that goes beyond human wisdom accumulated over the years. He adds to the rabbinical tradition by being the exceptional rabbi. The Holy Spirit does empower and inform us. However, the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination works to help us understand the scriptures. We have to appeal to the authority of scripture to tell us how to live. We can not appeal to our own minds and promote our own insights in the way that Jesus did. The point is that his word is the word of God and attempts by well-meaning preachers today to come up with their own helpful advice on relationships, careers and finances fall short of the mark when they do not start with profound study of the authoritative word of God.
Too many pastors and elders prepare sermons or teaching series around a felt need or a great idea. They generate ideas which they think they might have seen once in the biblical text. Having confirmed in their own minds what they want to say before appealing to any authority beyond themselves, their communication is shallow at best and profoundly misguided by their own hobby-horses and prejudice at worst. We have Jesus’ word in the biblical text and allowing it to penetrate our own hearts deeply is a great starting point for communication. We have the inspired words penned by the prophets and apostles. It is fear, arrogance, or ignorance that tempts us to go beyond the words of scripture for our inspiration when preaching. The people who listen to sermons in North America are often only basically literate in the content of God’s word. We must still speak to cultural issues, but the authority in the conversation must be the word. We sound like one more voice in the masses if we sound out our own opinions and hope the world will find Jesus. We, like Jesus, will have enough to say if we speak from the authority of God’s word. Jesus embodied the cannon authority, he did not replace it with a license for his followers to start just speaking whatever comes into their heads as if every word is inspired.
A second application from the passage is that Jesus never had to prove himself. He knew his boundaries. He also didn’t let others define his life for him. Of course, the Bible advocates that we listen to the counsel of others. We should seek wisdom from godly people. However, when you know in your heart that God is calling you in one direction and you cave to the nagging, whining, or helplessness of those pulling in another direction, you sin. Paul makes this clear in Romans 14 and James makes this clear in James 4. Our responsibility is to God. We go where he calls and we speak where he calls us to speak. Jesus left needy people in Capernaum and helped equally needy people in the rest of Galilee. However, the Kingdom of God expanded as people saw that Jesus’ message was truth. He would have been limited if he caved to pressure and so would we.
Some will say, “You don’t know what responsibilities I have. I just can’t …” I have heard students say they couldn’t disobey their parents because it would be unbearable at home. As if years of grief and subjection to guilt are cause to submit to years more. In such circumstances the true word is not that I can’t, it is ultimately that I won’t. We may feel helpless, but God has made humans people with a will. Our will can be beaten to the point where it takes great courage or change of heart to get up. However, in the end, if God is calling you to walk in a direction that your family can not endorse, you choose God.
There are many who suffer in a world that is not as it should be. Jesus’ word changed the physical and the spiritual realities around him. This is why Christians have started hospitals, schools, and other social institutions. Whether we believe that healing comes through direct Holy Spirit gifting, or whether we believe that healing comes through doctors and hospitals, we need to invest in creating a world where all physical, emotional, and spiritual evils are addressed. Jesus has authority over his people and he sends us out into the world with good news. The good news includes reconciliation for lost people with their heavenly father. However, the good news includes food for the starving and hope for those in war-torn regions. We are agents to turn God’s world right side up. There was a fear at one time that the fundamentals of the faith would be lost if we engaged in what was seen as a liberal social gospel. A false dichotomy was formed between those who cared for the body and those who cared for the soul. However, in this passage we see our master leading the way in caring for people body and soul. Our gospel brings both temporal and eternal welfare. The Kingdom of God changes everything. Is there an organization in your community doing good in 2017 that you can partner with? Is there a way that people can be reconciled with God and the plentiful resources to live a better life that he offers? Who cares for the orphans? Who houses the aged in your community? It would be good to pray for those less fortunate than yourself. Then follow God’s calling to help those who need assistance.
Finally, the New Year is a time of making resolutions. We often engage in a new beginning. Each person needs to build on a sure foundation. The Bible tells a story of all time. It ends with Jesus coming again to establish the eternal Kingdom, but our story today shows a taste of what that is like. Romans 12:2 teaches that being a follower of Jesus means having a transformed mind. There is a different conception of the world that we call ‘worldview.’ It is how we think. It is how we organize our day. To build on a shaky foundation would be an error. We see the strength of our views when adversity comes. Where did the cracks show in 2016? In a world of darkness Jesus came and showed a different perspective. He showed that God is real and really involved in the day-to-day lives of everyday people. He is present all the time. This permeates everything we do. Is 2017 going to be a year where the cracks in your thinking become chasms? Will we commit to knowing the Word of God and living by his principles? Will we turn the pages of scripture and live by its truth? I could do better in 2017, not through shame, but desire. I don’t have to do better to deserve acceptance from Jesus. I can choose to do better because I am healed by the power of Jesus word because he has already reached into my life and accepted me.