Amazing Encounters with God in Worship
Mark 1:21-28 21 Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. 22 And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 saying, "Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are -- the Holy One of God!" 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be quiet, and come out of him!" 26 And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. 27 Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, "What is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him." 28 And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee.
Many people today look for encounters with God in strange ways. In our new age culture some obey the mantra "look for God within." Others seek someone who can channel them to the spirit world. Some try to find encounters with God in nature on mountain tops or in the forests and fields.
But you should be happy to know that every Sunday, in Christian worship, you are encountering God in the most amazing ways. That’s what I want to talk about today. Each year I devote at least one sermon to worship – to some of the important aspects of worship. I want to focus not only on some of the important parts of the liturgy but also on the elements of worship that you see every Sunday – the Baptismal Font, the Pulpit and the Cross and Altar.
Baptism Font and Candles
Let me begin over here, by the Baptismal Font and these three candles. Baptism is something that we experience at the beginning of our Christian faith. It is an amazing encounter with God.
In baptism, God, not just any god – but the one and only true God – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – comes into our life. The three candles here remind us of this unique God. Each candle stand is of the same material but all three are a little different in size and in the way they are placed here. God is one. Yet He is also three distinct persons. He is a God of relationship. Because God is this way, He is also the God who comes to us. We place these candles here to point us to the encounter we have with God in Holy Baptism.
Often you will hear people say, "Baptism is an outward symbol of our inner faith." This is another way of saying, "Nothing is really happening in baptism, it just symbolizes that God has come into your life in another way – through the hearing of His word." The next time you hear someone say that, listen to hear for any Bible passages that actually teach that. There are no Bible passages. It is an idea. It is man’s reason that comes up with that.
The Bible teaches that in baptism we are experiencing an amazing encounter with God. What happens in baptism aside from getting wet?
Sins are forgiven and the Holy Spirit is given – Acts 2.37-38
Sins are washed away – Acts 22.16
Buried with Christ, Raised with Christ – Romans 6.4
Put on Christ – Galatians 3.27
Given the spiritual circumcision of the heart – Colossians 2.11-12
Saved – 1 Peter 3.18
Made a disciple – Matthew 28.19
When we receive baptism we receive the full grace of God through the power of His word – In this case it is not a chapter or even a verse of the Bible. The word here is His name: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the heart of God’s word. That’s why one of the Ten Commandments is devoted to His name and why Jesus teaches us to pray: Hallowed by Thy name. God speaks those important words through the mouth of one of His servants into our hearts in baptism.
Some people think the only way God’s word can work is if you understand it. But God’s word is more than information. In our Gospel lesson we hear how Jesus encountered a man possessed with an unclean spirit. In this case Jesus didn’t teach the man how to get rid of the unclean spirit. Jesus drove it out. How? With His word: "Be quiet and come out of him."
God’s word and miracle in baptism should continue to be a comfort in your life. When you are tempted, when you trip up and sin, you can call upon that name given in baptism for your forgiveness. If you should ever have an encounter with evil, and if you are brought so low that you can hardly bear it – the last three words that you will probably ever forget – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – will be your refuge and protection. Proverbs 18.10 says, "The name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous run to it and are safe." There is power in the word of God – not just for understanding important things – but also for strength in the face of the forces of darkness.
In addition to God’s word in baptism, we also have a lot of important information, important truth, that God gives us in His word. The person who has experienced the encounter with God in baptism will want to continue to encounter Him in the rest of His word.
Notice these words in our Gospel lesson today: "And immediately He entered into the synagogue and taught." If you could get in a time machine today and go back to meet Jesus, where would you begin to look for Him? You wouldn’t have to wander around the countryside. All you would have to do is go to the synogogue on any Sabbath day and there you would find Him. Luke tells us that Jesus went to the synagogue every Sabbath "as was His custom" (Luke 4.16). Jesus knew that it was vitally important to continue encountering God in His word.
From this pulpit we read the Word of God. Not only that but our entire worship service is an interaction with the Word of God. How did you learn to talk? You learned by listening to your parents and brothers or sisters. You listened and began to imitate them. Before long you could express your own thoughts or feelings to them. In the same way believers learn to talk to God by first listening to Him.
That’s where the sermon comes in. The sermon gives us the opportunity to hear how the words of the Bible all connect to Jesus. In any Lutheran sermon you will hear the words of God that admonish us and warn us of sin. We usually call this the teaching of the Law. But more importantly, you will hear the words of God that encounter us with His grace. These are the words of the Gospel – the good news. When we hear what God has done for us and what He continues to do for us, faith is created and strengthened. This is where we begin to understand what is so important about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God the Father sent His Son, Jesus, to enter into this world and to transform it. He destroyed the power of sin and evil.
Jesus encounters and and comes into our lives through His Word. There are people in this room who know Jesus better than some people who grew up with him in Nazareth. There are people in this room who know God better even than those who saw the thunder and lightning on Mt. Sinai. This is so because they listen to His Word. John 14:23 "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him."
Listen to this interesting portion of one of Martin Luther’s sermons. He is speaking about Mary of Bethany, who sat at the feet of Jesus and listened intently to His Word:
You may be inclined to say: Indeed, Mary had an easy time of it. She had the Lord at her side personally and bodily. He was her Guest. Therefore it was easy for her to love Him. If He were also my Guest personally and bodily, I too, would love Him and do all manner of good to Him, just as she did.
Answer: What would you gain even if He were personally at your side and were your Guest bodily? I dare say you would "love" Him as the Pharisees loved Him. They also had Him personally present. He was their Guest in the body. He ate bread with them. Yet they struck at Him like venomous vipers and serpents. But the Gospel shows us that Mary did not love the Lord Jesus because of His blond hair or because of His person or because He was present in the body. It shows us that she hung on His lips and listened to what He said. The Word which she heard from Him was burned within her heart. If, then, we were to reckon the matter in this way, the fire of love in our hearts should be much greater than that which was in Mary; for we now hear far more abundantly and clearly what He says than she did. (What Luther Says, p. 1464)
The Altar and the Cross
Last of all I would like to focus on the Altar and the Cross. No where in the Scriptures does God direct us to build baptismal fonts. But it does command us to baptize. No where does the Bible tell us to build pulpits. But is does command us to preach the Word. No where in Scripture are we commanded to build crosses or altars. But above all the Scriptures command us to keep the suffering and death of Jesus and His resurrection first and foremost. St. Paul said, 1 Corinthians 2:2 "For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified." In Acts 4:33 we read: "And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus." At the center of all Christian worship is the death of Jesus. Each one of the Gospel could probably be titled: "The Good News About How Jesus Died for the Sins of the World and Rose Again." This is what they are all driving at. The Gospel of Mark is especially vivid in this regard.
We don’t know exactly what the cross looked like. But we know that at least is was made of two pieces, one vertical and the other horizontal. In its day the cross was a symbol of cursing. The executions were public so that people could go out and watch the criminals get their just deserts. They not only watched… they heaped upon them insults and every curse you can possibly imagine. It was no different for Jesus. As you read through the entire Gospel it seems as though Mark has in mind one particular person: The centurion who had the unpleasant duty of crucifying Jesus. After witnessing the horrendous ordeal and the way Jesus endured it – even preaching and yes, forgiving from the cross itself – the centurion makes the great confession that Mark would like everyone to make: "Truly this man was the Son of God" (Mark 15.39). In that moment Jesus transformed the cross forever. Man could only rant and rage against the problems of sin. Jesus, the Son of God, cured it.
You know what happened next. We say it every Sunday in the creeds: He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures… That’s one of the important reason why we make use of the creeds – to keep the focus on this central miracle of the Bible. This is the miracle that ensures our salvation.
That brings me to the altar. In the Bible believers built altars in order to offer to God their sacrifices. These sacrifices of grain, oil, and flesh were commanded by God, and He was very pleased by them when they were offered in true faith and thanksgiving. But all of them were a shadow of the one sacrifice that I just spoke about. The sacrifice of Christ was the last of all sacrifices, the one perfect sacrifice most pleasing to God and the one that paid the price for all the sins of the world.
Today our altar is empty except for the elements of the Lord’s Supper. That’s one of the most important things about it. It is empty because the sacrifice is complete. The Lord’s Supper, like baptism brings the benefits of the sacrifice of Jesus into our bodies and souls. Notice that most altars are also body length. This is a reminder to us of the empty tomb and the stone slab that the once held the cold body of Jesus. Now when we see this altar, we should rejoice as the first disciples did when they were told by the angel: "He is risen!"
Here at this altar we pray to a risen and living Lord. Here we eat the meal of His body and blood in remembrance of the cross, the empty tomb, and looking forward to His bodily return on the last day. All of it is an amazing encounter with God.
Today you came to worship in church much like those people of Capernaum. They were amazed when they listened to His teaching and when they saw the power of His word. Today when you go to the ancient ruins of Capernaum you will be told that this is really Jesus’ hometown – not Nazareth. There is some truth to this. Jesus also preached at the synogogue in Nazareth. But the people who encountered Him there rejected Him. In Capernaum they received Him in faith, and they spread the news about Him. We have the very same opportunity today – an amazing encounter with God in worship. What will it do to you?
Pastor Michael P. Walther
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, January 29, 2006
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 1300 Belt Line Road, Collinsville, Illinois, 62234
618-344-3151 / fax 618-344-3378
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod
Michael P. Walther, Copyright, 2006
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