We’re going to open up the Bible in a few moments. Before we do, though, just to get us into it, I want to say: there is something deeply impressive about a naked display of raw power. Don’t you think?
I mean just look at those pictures on our screens a couple of days ago as Hurricane Michael ripped through Florida. They were astonishing, weren’t they?
• Huge trees being just snapped in two as though they were matchsticks.
• Well-founded buildings collapsing like a house of cards
The natural world is awesome in its power, isn’t it?
And it’s not just those large-scale spectacles. You need to go small too. Think about the power of microbes. 36 trillion of them is apparently the number that hitch-hike along with each and every human being. Simple creatures perhaps, but let’s be real here. They have it in their power to make the entire human race extinct or to ensure our survival. And we can’t even see them.
But what about the power of human beings?
It’s often said that no species on earth has left such a deep footprint on the face of the planet as we have. We had another reminder just this week from the environmentalists, didn’t we? This is the last chance saloon, say the IPCC. Unless we change our behaviour right now, there will be no way back from irreversible and catastrophic change. Human civilisation has the capability to loot the resources of our world and rewrite the future of our planet. And we’re using that power very effectively every day, aren’t we?
Maybe though we ought to acknowledge the power of simple ideas.
I mean it’s ideas that drive human beings to do what they do isn’t it? The reason why somebody makes a bomb and slaughters scores of people is because of his ideology. The way a scientist can come up with a medical cure to save millions of lives is though her garnering knowledge. A politician makes decisions that impact a nation based on certain values and convictions. And so on. The rapper Ice Cube put it as clearly as anyone: ‘Truth is the ultimate power. When the truth comes around, all the lies have to run and hide.’
That’s where the real power lies, wouldn’t you say? Truths, knowledge, convictions. Ideas.
But don’t forget the supernatural world.
I mean you might very easily forget it in a corner of the world like this one. But millions of people see the world through different eyes to the way the way a typical Southampton resident might see things. Think of the power of your dead ancestors in your life today, according to many of the world’s spiritualities. Or even closer to home, I saw a newspaper article the other day. It said that 1/3 of all calls made to Roman Catholic officials in Rome are for – what? Can you guess? To report the need for an exorcism. The movies fuel this, maybe, but for an awful lot of people, the supernatural world is very real and very frightening because it’s very powerful.
Four centres of power, then. The power of nature, the power of humanity, the power of ideas, the power of the supernatural. Each of them just huge in the impact they can make in the world.
But just imagine for a moment – and maybe this a little far-fetched, but there’s no harm in imagining, is there? – Imagine that all those sources of power could be directed from one place. One control room.
Would not that overarching superpower be an awesome thing to behold?
We’ve recently begun a new series here on a Sunday morning. We’re looking at the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. We started by looking at him as a baby – and saw the promise of what was to come. We looked last week at where things stood on the eve of his launching into public ministry. He was establishing his credentials – you might say: his endorsement by God himself; his committment to the work of God. But today we’re looking at a snapshot of his early ministry. We’re on to ‘a day in the life of Jesus’.
The place is a small town called Capernaum – about 100 miles north of Jerusalem. And the day is a Saturday morning in AD 27. We don’t know much more than that. Except for where the focus of interest lies. But the focus is very clearly on one man whose command of the world around is proving to be absolute mindboggling.
I’m going to lead us in a prayer, and then we’re going to read today’s extract in Luke 4.
Well before the reading, I asked you to imagine that scenario. The scenario where all four of those power-centres I mentioned turned out to be at the beck and call of a single agent. But what Luke seems to be showing us is that actually we don’t need to imagine. This really is how things stand.
Here is a man, first, then who has extraordinary power over the world of ideas.
Have a look down at verse 31. It’s the Sabbath, so of course in this culture, that means it’s synagogue day. Jesus has already established himself as an A-list guest preacher back in Nazareth. Controversial but impressive – seems to have been the verdict. And word has no doubt reached Capernaum. So it’s little wonder he’s invited to fill the pulpit. End of the verse there: ‘he taught the people’.
And the question we’re expecting to have answered is presumably: ‘what?’ What did he teach them? Did he go back to the prophet Isaiah as he did in Nazareth? Or something else? What was his theme? What did he give them?
And the answer is: I haven’t a clue. It’s not there is it? I mean, can you see it? We don’t get the passage, we don’t get the theme, we don’t get what he said about the theme. Nothing. All we get is how he taught. Verse 32.
32 They were amazed at his teaching, because his words had authority.
I don’t know if there are any stand-out candidates in your mind for the worst teacher you ever had. I’ve got mine right here, ready and waiting to go. Year 7 history. Mr Hillier. He would sit down get out his book, ask us to get ours, and spend the entire lesson simply transferring the contents of his book to ours.
• Top line of the page. Capital letters. The Russian Revolution.
• Take your red pens. Underline once.
• Blue pens again. Leave a line blank. Indent one inch. Capital I.
• In March 1917, in Petrograd. Open brackets. Now Leningrad. Close brackets
And on it went. That was the sum total of our history lessons. You probably think I’m exaggerating. But I’m not. It was dictation – plain and simple. There was apparently no activity going on in Mr Hiller’s mind. And I can assure you there was certainly nothing going on in our minds. That’s not teaching, is it? In fact there was no indication other than that book of his that Mr Hiller knew anything at all about history. He could have been a greengrocer who happened to find this book in a second hand bookshop and fancied a change of career.
Well you can let me know later if you have someone in mind who could give Mr Hiller a run for his money in the ‘worst teacher ever’ awards.
But do you see that Jesus couldn’t have been more different. And the key word here in verse 32 is that word ‘authority’. His words had authority.
Authority – as you can probably guess – comes from the same root as the word ‘author’. And it’s not hard to see the connection, is it? An author has the undisputed right to say exactly how it’s going to be in her novel or whatever it is. The author gets to come up with the rules of the game. The character. The plot. The tone. To write the script – literally.
And that is what Jesus seems to have here. When he opens his mouth to teach, when he puts ideas out there about the big questions of life, it’s not as though he’s just regurgitating something he read in a book, like Mr Hillier. No, it’s as though he wrote the book. When it comes to the world of ideas about the world and where it’s going and how to live in it, he shows himself to be the one wrote the script on this stuff.
And so you see the reaction to Jesus in verse 32: they were amazed!
Undisputed power in the world of ideas.
And again, there’s his power in the world of the supernatural.
Look at verse 33.
33 In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, 34 “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
35 “Be quiet!” Jesus said sternly. “Come out of him!” Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him.
Now I know, we struggle to know what to make of this kind of thing. It’s just very alien to us, isn’t it? How are we meant to account for an event like this?
As a young man I lived in Lima for a while with a female Peruvian exorcist and her family. There was certainly some interesting dinner table conversation there, I can tell you. If you were going to ask a simple question like ‘how was your day’, you needed to be prepared for some pretty eye-opening stuff! I found it all quite weird if I’m really honest. But one thing I don’t think was in dispute is that the spiritual world she saw was real. It’s not just for movies about vampires and the like. There is real-life evil. This stuff really happened.
It’s worth being clear on that, I think, because there are people who just dismiss these accounts as some kind of fairytale.
A large-scale national survey was conducted a couple of years ago about people’s attitudes to Jesus. And it turned out that even the existence of Jesus was a matter of serious dispute. 39% of respondents said they either thought Jesus definitely was a mythical character or else they weren’t sure. 39% weren’t convinced Jesus ever even existed. Well, if that’s the case – if a rock-solid, well-established historical figure like Jesus seems unbelievable to so many – it’s hardly surprising that such strange events in his life like this one are just too much for some.
But remember this biography of Jesus is based on painstaking historical research. Just flip back to the very beginning – Chapter 1 of Luke’s gospel – and you see the kind of methodology the writer uses: there’s talk in verse 2 of eye witnesses; v3 careful investigation… an orderly account.
As I say, this stuff really happened. It was checked out thoroughly.
Back to chapter 4.
This evil spirit really was there.
• It was knowledgeable – it gets who Jesus is even more than the people around: v34 – I know who you are’
• It was powerful: it had clearly taken over this man – causing him to yell out.
• But one more thing: however powerful this manifestation of the supernatural world might have been, it met its match in Jesus. V.35 ‘Come out of him says Jesus, sternly’ – and it does
And there’s that word again in verse 36. Do you see it there in the reaction of the people?
36 All the people were amazed and said to each other, ‘What words these are! With authority and power he gives orders to impure spirits and they come out!’
Astounding power in the world of the supernatural
But there’s more, in this one man Jesus, there’s even power over the world of nature.
You might think after all this action that Jesus had earned a break. A bit of me time. Glass of wine and the Su Doku from the paper. Something like that. But no. Verse 38 – he’s straight off to his friend Simon’s place to see to his mother-in-law. Her temperature’s sky-rocketing. And unless something happens fast, they’ll soon be ordering the coffin. Well, hats off to Simon here for bringing Jesus back for her. I mean you’ve heard all the mother-in-law jokes I’m sure.
• ‘What’s the punishment for bigamy?’ says the boy to his dad. Back comes the answer quick as a flash: ‘Two mothers in law’.
• ‘How does a mother-in-law change a light bulb? She holds the bulb in the socket and waits for the world to revolve around her.’
Too close to the bone, anyone?
It can be a tense relationship can’t it? And yet, for all that, Simon really does want to see his mother in law right. And he’s not disappointed.
What does Jesus do?
39 …he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her.
And far from letting the world revolve around her…
She got up at once and began to wait on them.
It’s an amazing story. And of course it’s not alone. This is one of 24 specific recorded healings Jesus performed, and that’s on top of the mass healing sessions such as we see in v.40.
Every one of them is clearly a gesture of love and kindness by Jesus. But it does seem to be more than that.
I wonder if you’ve done a big painting project. It’s a clear weekend. Nothing in the diary. Let’s start repainting the house, you say. And so what do you do? You zip out to B&Q and you come home with one of those little test pots of paint. You know the ones? You use it to paint a little patch. A couple of square feet perhaps. And then what? Well, then you stand back, don’t’ you, and you imagine. You imagine the whole house looked like that. You extrapolate from what’s in front of you until in your mind’s eye you get a vision of what the entire place will be. And so you’re inspired to get on with the job.
That is what this healing of Simon’s mother-in-law is. It’s a little test pot to show us what the Kingdom of Jesus will one day look like. Everything that’s bad will be banished. Everything that’s wrong with the world and wrong with people’s lives will be made right.
And not just physical illness, but mental illness too. I mean there’ll be some here for whom just getting out of bed this morning, and making it here to church, and getting this far through without having to leave – will have been the most enormous achievement. Nobody else can see the anxiety in your mind, or the stress, the self-loathing, the depression – but you see it. Can you imagine – all that gone? Being made whole again?
That’s the promise held out to us in this healing. It’s a little picture, a little testpot, of what is to come when Jesus returns and we see the Kingdom in all its glory.
We’re not there yet. I mean you might say: why doesn’t Jesus just heal everybody right away? That’s what they want him to do, isn’t it? Verse 42 – he heads out early to a ‘solitary place’. He’s gone to get a bit of personal space to plan the shape of his ministry. They want to keep him there, cracking on with the healing ministry. But no, for Jesus, it’s the preaching that needs to come first. Verse 43:
‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent’.
You see what the alternatives facing him are, don’t you? It’s immediate relief for the few here versus eternal relief for the many. Physical healing for some now versus the thing that physical healing points to, whole-person-cleansing including forgiveness and being brought into God’s family, for people all over the world. It’s not actually a hard decision, is it, when you put it like that?
For the time being though, we simply note that even sickness, this horror of the natural world, melts away before the power of Jesus.
And with all this in the background, it’s no wonder Simon and his friends end up responding as they do – and we begin to see the compelling power of Jesus over even the world of people.
Chapter 5 starts with Jesus preaching by a lake to the crowd gathered round. He soon switches to using one of the boats on the lake as his stage, facing back to the people on land. But when he’s done, he treats Simon, the boat’s owner, to yet another vision of his power over the natural world. These fishermen had caught nothing all night. But Jesus says: give it one more shot. Verse 4 ‘Put out into deep waters and let down your nets for a catch.’
And lo and behold, they net enough fish to bring the entire fleet of fishing boats to sinking point.
And not surprisingly, Simon senses the greatness of the one before him. Verse 8: he fell at Jesus’ knees.
Even those around him realise something unusual is going on: verse 9 ‘they were astonished’.
And so when Jesus commissions them to a new role as fishers of men, they realise they have found the new focus for their whole lives.
11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.
Well, they may have been the first people to hitch their wagon to Jesus. But hundreds of millions have followed in their footsteps ever since. Jesus has quickly become perhaps the focal point of human history. Everyone needs to pursue something or someone in life. And many in the world, and certainly here in this room, have chosen Jesus.
And so the obvious question for us to ponder as we go our separate ways in a few minutes is surely: am I too following him? And if I am, how closely am I following?
We’ve got to ask it, because of course so many of the things that people do follow are so disappointing.
• You pursue wealth, and you never have enough. You’re always left dissatisfied, because you always need just a little bit more.
• You pursue beauty and looking good, and you always feel ugly, because there are always people more attractive than you
• You pursue recognition at work and promotion up the ladder, and your career soon starts taking over every aspect of your life
• You pursue intellectual recognition, and you’ll live your life feeling a fraud, with that terror that any moment you’re going to be found out.
They’re all cruel masters. They destroy those who pursue them. But you set out to follow Jesus, and you find yourself walking in the shade of one who has not only all the power and the authority as we’ve seen, but also the love and the care and the compassion, to make everything right that needs to be right.
So do you not want to start following Jesus? You could start today – simply come to him in your heart and say: ‘Jesus, you are now the leader of my life. I will follow where you lead. I will trust you to take me where there is life, into the very kingdom of God’.
But for those who are already following him, it’s worth asking – as I say – how closely are you following. How singleminded are you in your pursuit of Christ?
Our Christian faith can feel weak, can’t it? At our worst, it feels like just a bunch of lifehacks – little more than that. Hints and tips on how to have a little bit more meaning in purpose in life. It feels pretty lame. We’re certainly conscious it looks very lame to the watching world. You sad Christians with your outdated moral compass and your absurd intellectual framework.
It all feels very weak.
But the truth is: to follow Jesus is to plug in to a power source the like of which the world has never seen outside of Jesus Christ. One who speaks and commands. And fights and wins. And promises that one day that command, that victory will be seen by all.
One day the whole house will be painted this colour. ]
• All will see the truth of his teaching
• All will recognise the reality of evil and see it conquered
• All will the stains of sin and suffering wiped out
• And all will acknowledge what the evil Spirit saw that Jesus really is the Holy One of God. The King of Kings, the only leader left standing