Mark helps us avoid the pitfall of a one-sided emphasis on miracles by putting them within the context of Jesus' preaching. In our Gospel today there are several of them-- Mark recognizes these miracles as instances of Christ's freeing power, but doesn't stop there. The purpose of the exchange between Jesus and the disciples (1:35-39) is to tell us that Jesus didn't stop there, either. Seeing the acclaim and recognition that Jesus had won in Capernaum, the disciples expected Jesus to stay in the town and continue what he'd begun. But when they got up in the morning, they found Jesus in a lonely place, praying (v. 35). "Everyone is searching for you," they said, indicating that they expected him to return (v. 37). But Jesus turned the tables. "Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also," He said, "for that is why I came out " (v. 38). Saying this, Jesus told the disciples his purpose: to spread the good news, preaching and teaching throughout Galilee. Seeing the miracles and the kind of recognition they provided, the disciples wanted to stay in Capernaum, riding Jesus' miracle-working power into a more glorious kind of life. But Jesus wouldn't hear of it. "I must go and I must preach," he said in so many words. "That is my purpose." And later, when the disciples were more ready for it, he told them his purpose was to die (see Mark 8:31). He insisted on preaching the word and going to the cross. Jesus' manifestation did not take place in a super earthly realm of glory, but in towns like Nazareth and Capernaum with common, ordinary, everyday people. And it tells us that Jesus' real epiphany was not in the miracles, glorious as they were, but in the word and finally in the cross itself. The miracles are like illustrations, pointing away from themselves to Christ and the cross.
In this week's Gospel, Mark not only demonstrates Jesus' authority, but rules out three misconceptions about it to show its true source. The first misconception Mark rules out was held by the first-century pentecostals. They believed that Jesus' authority rested exclusively in his miracles. Mark corrects their misconception by placing the miracles in the context of Jesus' preaching and teaching. Mark sees no separation between Jesus' preaching and his miracles, but he gives priority to Jesus' preaching and teaching by placing the miracles in that context. The second misconception of Jesus' authority Mark rules out is that it was like the scribes'. The scribes stood on the shoulders of the past, deriving their authority from what had been said in tradition. By contrast, Jesus' authority was immediate, fresh, and underived. The third misconception is that Jesus' authority isn't in the power of his personal appeal, either. Mark rules out this third misconception by indicating the people's astonishment and confusion. The demon's recognition and the exorcism demonstrate both Jesus' authority and its true source. Unlike a wonder worker, Jesus does not put his power on display to prove something about himself. Instead, he silences the demon Unlike the scribes or a personality cultist, Jesus does not derive his authority from other people, past or present. He possesses true authority -- the authority only God can give and exercise. The exorcism illustrates what the crowd has already noticed but not understood -- that as the preacher and teacher of the kingdom of God, Jesus is the bearer of the kingdom. In him, God's kingdom breaks in to destroy the power of every other authority, so "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:9-11). Mark's purpose in this text is to reveal Jesus' true authority in contrast to the misunderstanding of it. Though the people of Capernaum recognized Jesus as the kind of person who commanded respect, they still didn't recognize the true authority of Jesus. That is the point of the exorcism in vv. 23-26. Possessed by a power far greater than his own, the man with the unclean spirit recognized Jesus immediately. "He cried out… 'I know who you are, the Holy One of God'" (v.24). The demon recognized Jesus as the bearer of God's word. As the "Holy One of God," Jesus was the one in whom God exercised his power and dominion over the earth, speaking his word. Jesus spoke the word and drove the demon out. That is Jesus' true authority -- the authority of God himself, the authority of the one who makes all things new. Still the people of Capernaum didn't recognize it. Though they heard Jesus' word and the word of the demon, though they saw the demon cast out, they didn't know what to make of Jesus. They scratched their heads in wonder, assuming that it could only be some new kind of teaching (v.27). There is an epiphany in this story. As Jesus taught and drove out the demon with his word, he showed himself to the people, making his power manifest. But it is a secret epiphany -- the people didn't understand what they saw. The secret was kept until the cross and the resurrection and then revealed only to faith. That is how God manifests himself to us -- in hiddenness, by hiding his word in our words, by showing his power in weakness. Only faith can see such sights, and only faith can hear such a word. For the sight is given only to our ears. Authority is the key word in this text. As Mark uses the word authority in this text, authority means primarily power -- the power of God. Jesus' authority is in his word. As he speaks it, he not only tells us something but does something to us. Just as his word drove the demon out of the man with the unclean spirit, his word forgives us and gives us faith. It is his authoritative word, his powerful word, which creates life in the dead and liberates the possessed.
The way God reveals himself to us is primarily through his word, the word we hear with our ears. To our way of thinking, seeing is more important than hearing. We say things like, "don't believe your ears," "You've got to see it to believe it," "Words are cheap," and so on. We put a lot of stock in our eyes, but not much in our ears. With God, it is the other way around. In fact, Jesus condemned the whole generation he spoke to for their desire to see signs and wonders (Matt. 16:4). And later in the next chapter of John, he removed himself from a crowd who followed him because of what they saw (John 2:23-25). He turned them away from their eyes to open their ears (Luke 11:27-38). The best statement of the tension between seeing and hearing in John's Gospel is Jesus' statement to Thomas: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe (20:29). Jesus condemns those who need to see signs and wonders to believe. Jesus commends hearing, speaking of the power in the word. "Truly, truly, I say to you," he said, "he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (5:24). "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." he said (10-27). The same kind of tension between seeing and hearing is present in Paul's letters. "For we walk by faith, not by sight" (2Cor. 5:7). As Luther once said, before God it is as if we have only one organ -- our ears. He may occasionally give sights, as he did in Jesus, but when he makes himself manifest to us, showing us who he is and what we can expect from him, he always does so through the word. The word is the Spirit's instrument, too, or means. Jesus spoke the word to Philip who in turn spoke it to Nathanael. Nathanael then came to Jesus to hear some more. This Gospel reveals to us that there is a priority of hearing overseeing -- the priority of the word of God. Through the Gospel, as it is read and proclaimed, God reveals himself to us. He is present with us in his Word to call us as Nathanael was called; to gather us as the disciples were gathered; to sanctify us as he sanctifies and makes whole all of his people. As Paul says, "Now we see in a mirror dimly." But "then," on the last day, when Christ is all in all, we shall see "face to face" (1Cor. 13:12). Our ears and words play a much bigger part in everyday life than we often realize. It is primarily through hearing that we communicate with other people. The Bible puts so much priority on the word of God because it is through his speaking and our hearing that God expresses himself to us and makes himself known. "No one has ever seen God," but "the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known." We Lutherans believe that when the Gospel is read and proclaimed God himself is speaking to us. In the sacraments, it is the word alone with the water, bread, and wine that makes the sacrament the power of God's forgiveness.