“The War of the Worlds” (Mark 1:21-28)
Have you ever heard of “The War of the Worlds”? No, I’m not talking about H. G. Wells’s classic novel about Martians invading Earth. Nor am I talking about Orson Welles’s radio version of “The War of the Worlds,” which had some people thinking it was an actual news broadcast. And I don’t mean the movie versions that have been made, either.
No, “The War of the Worlds” I’m talking about today is no piece of fiction. It is very real, and it has been going on for a very long time. It is the war we see exemplified in the Holy Gospel for today, from Mark chapter 1. It involves the attacks that Satan and his crew launch upon humanity, to inflict every evil of body and soul upon us–upon you. It is the devil’s domain vs. the kingdom of heaven, and guess which one will have the upper hand? Let’s find out now, as we witness “The War of the Worlds.”
So Jesus is at the synagogue in Capernaum. “And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching.” Jesus is teaching the Word of God there, and doing so with authority. There was something different, something impressive and powerful, about his teaching. It was different from the run-of-the mill stuff the people had gotten from their rabbis. The rabbis of the time were often quoting secondary sources, human opinions and man-made traditions they had added onto God’s law, and not really getting to the heart of the matter as God intended.
But with Jesus, it was different. It was like you were hearing it straight from God–which you were. For Jesus is God’s own Son, the Word of God incarnate, come from the Father’s side, full of grace and truth. Jesus makes God known to us. And the reaction of the people on hearing this? “They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.”
But where Jesus is, there opposition will arise. And it does here right away here in the Gospel of Mark. That’s one of the distinctive things about Mark’s gospel. It launches you into the conflict right away. Already here in chapter 1 we see it. In the other gospels, it may take a few chapters to get into the battle full-blown. But here in Mark, he gets at it right away in chapter 1. Bing, bang, boom! You’re right in it.
“And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” Note the word “immediately.” It’s a favorite word in Mark: “immediately,” “at once.” It’s all over the place in Mark. The study Bible notes that it occurs 41 times in Mark, but only ten times in the rest of the New Testament. Mark keeps you moving. The action shifts from one event to another. Jesus is a man of action. And in his ministry, he engages the war of the worlds “immediately.”
So here is this man “with an unclean spirit.” That means he was afflicted with a demon or demons. Satan was attacking him, body and soul. As you read the Bible, there seems to be an upsurge in demonic activity when Jesus comes on the scene. And that should be no surprise. The devil is a fallen angel who hates God and hates God’s people. And Jesus has come to free us from the devil’s clutches. Thus this spike in demonic activity at the time of Christ.
The demons know who Jesus is and what he has come to do, and so they are shaking in their boots. The demon speaks through the afflicted man and cries 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.” Notice that: The demon knows who Jesus is. He identifies him correctly as “the Holy One of God.” This shows that it is not enough just to know some information about Jesus without trusting in him. It is not enough for people to say, “Oh, I believe in God,” when what they mean is simply that they believe that God exists. Whoopee. Big deal. That kind of knowledge is not true faith. The Epistle of James states: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder!”
Well, right now this demon is shuddering, trembling with fear. “Have you come to destroy us?” he cries out. So not only does this demon know who Jesus is, he also knows what Jesus has come to do. Jesus has indeed come to destroy the works of the devil. 1 John 3 says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” Yes, that is what Christ came to do. The devil’s works are all the lies and temptations and misery and death that Satan inflicts upon us.
It has been this way since the tempter led our first parents into sin in the garden. Jesus calls the devil “the father of lies” and “a murderer from the beginning.” Now of course this does not excuse our sins, because we all fall for the devil’s lies. We can’t just say, as Eve did, “The devil made me do it.” No, we are culpable, we are guilty, for our own sins. But the devil is glad to tempt us and to lead us into sin.
The devil delights to torment humanity with all sorts of evil. Think of all the miseries he laid upon Job. The devil is our old evil foe. But God sent his own Son to do battle for us, as our divine Champion in this war of the worlds. Right upon the fall into sin, when God placed the curse on the serpent, he said, in Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” So this was the start of the war of the worlds between Satan’s empire and humanity. The war has been raging ever since.
But Jesus is the Seed of the woman who will stomp on the devil’s head, dealing him a death blow and crushing his power forever. Ironically, this happened in the very act of Jesus being nailed to the cross, as the nails pierced his feet and hands. Jesus was destroying the works of the devil. Christ our Savior took the death that we deserve. He bore our sins in his body. So now that the Holy One of God has done this for us, we are forgiven, we are clean, we are delivered from the devil’s accusations. This is for you, dear friends! Jesus did this for you!
So this is the mission Jesus is on, already early on in his ministry. Jesus knows it, and the demons know it too. And already now, early in his ministry, Jesus is going to do a little advance cleansing, delivering this poor man from the demon that was afflicting him. Jesus rebukes the demon: “Be silent, and come out of him!” “Shut up!” Jesus is saying. Oh, he’s not fooling around. And the authoritative word of Christ does exactly what it says. The result? “And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.”
Now what has this to do with us? I mean, most of us are not walking around with demons manifesting themselves in this way. I mean, “The Exorcist” stuff–girls levitating from beds, with their heads spinning around, throwing up green shamrock shakes–this is not the norm. We make a mistake if we think the devil only operates in this way. No, he’s got other tricks up his sleeve, more subtle in most cases. He wants you to believe lies about God, either that God doesn’t love you or else that God is some old softie who doesn’t know or care that you sin, or even that God doesn’t exist. And the devil wants you to believe lies about yourself: that you’re pretty good on your own; that if there is a God and an afterlife, surely you are good enough to qualify, because you are certainly a better person than those really bad people.
Well, all those are a pack of lies, designed to get you to doubt God’s goodness, to minimize your sin, and to think that you do not need a Savior, namely, Jesus Christ. The devil’s goal is to separate you from faith in Christ, one way or another. If he can do it through adversity or hardship, so that you blame God, he’ll do it that way. If he can do it through success and the pleasures of this world, so that you think you don’t need God or his church, the devil will do it that way. Either way, if he gets you to fall for his lies, you lose.
And so you have a target on your back. The devil is aiming for you. You see, you are baptized, dear Christian, and that marks you out as one Satan will especially work hard on. Luther observed that baptism gives a child a lifelong enemy, the devil. He will throw all his junk at you, trying to get you to give up on Jesus, trying to draw you away from Christ’s church. Do you feel his attacks? Do you sense you are in the devil’s crosshairs? You are, you know.
But take heart. Jesus has won the victory for you in this war of the worlds. Baptized into Christ, you are God’s own child now. As Colossians says, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Therefore, child of God, now when Satan comes calling, you can tell him off, like we sang in the hymn:
Satan, hear this proclamation:
I am baptized into Christ!
Drop your ugly accusation,
I am not so soon enticed.
Now that to the font I’ve traveled,
All your might has come unraveled,
And, against your tyranny,
God, my Lord, unites with me!
Dear friends, the people at the synagogue were amazed and astonished at Jesus’ authority. They said: “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” Truly, Jesus’ word has authority to do what it says. It still does. When Christ says, “I forgive you your sins,” you are forgiven. When Christ says, “I give you eternal life,” you have eternal life.
Baptized brothers and sisters in Christ, by his death and resurrection, Jesus has won the war of the worlds, crushing Satan’s head, releasing you from the domain of the devil, and bringing you into the kingdom of light. And now Jesus delivers this victory to you by way of his word, in Holy Baptism, in Holy Absolution, in the preaching of the gospel, and in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. So now, in the war of the worlds, you stand with Jesus, victorious on the battlefield.