Jesus Is the Fulfillment of Religion

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A couple of years ago, a young Christian, Jefferson Bethke, made a video that went viral on YouTube, entitled “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.” It sounds good, doesn’t it? Jefferson professes to love Jesus, and it is a good thing to love Jesus. Not only that, but as you watch the video you can tell he really does love Jesus, and he is zealous for his faith. He wants to share his love for Jesus, and he’s been very successful: his video has been viewed over 28 million times.
I have to say, there is much in the video that is good. Unlike many of today’s popular preachers who teach what one critic has called “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” Bethke does share the real Gospel. He proclaims salvation by grace through faith apart from works and he confesses Christ crucified for sinners. His criticism of the church is also not far off the mark… if only he had been more careful with his terminology. If only he had used the words “false religion” or “legalism” rather than “religion” I would have to agree with him even more.  
But that’s this video’s fatal flaw. Mr. Bethke sets up a false dichotomy between religion and Jesus, asking provocative questions like: “What if I told you that Jesus came to abolish religion?” and making unsubstantiated claims such as: “Which is why Jesus hates religion.” Ironically, in his attempt to dismiss religion, Bethke just sets up his own way of worship, his own personal version of religion.
When you really think about it, saying “I hate religion but love Jesus” is a lot like saying “I hate vegetables but love broccoli.” Christianity is a religion. It is one religion in a world full of religions. But not all religions are equal. Neither are all “saviors.” Jesus is the true and proper focus of the service and worship of God. Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life. Jesus is not antithetical to religion. Jesus is true religion. Jesus is the fulfillment of religion.
We see this in our text for today, Mark 1:21-28—Jesus is fulfilling religion. It’s the Sabbath in Capernaum, and He’s in the synagogue, the “congregating place” for God’s people. That’s what the word “synagogue” means—“a place to gather.” This is nothing new. Take a look at the gospels. Every Sabbath that is mentioned (except for the one between Good Friday and Easter), we see Jesus gathering with God’s people. If He’s in Jerusalem, He goes to the temple—for prayers and sacrifices and hearing God’s Word. Every other Sabbath we find Jesus in the synagogue with the congregation of believers of that particular town.
All of this was in obedience to God’s command to His people, Israel: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. You shall sanctify the holy day.” The Sabbath was a holy day, a day set apart for the Lord. That meant no work. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” Sabbath, Shabbat, means “rest.” Slaves work seven days a week without rest; God’s free people worked six and rested on the seventh.
Rest didn’t mean sleeping in. Nor did it mean getting out the golf clubs for a quick morning round. Rest meant worship—gladly hearing and learning the Word of God. For the Israelites, rest began on Friday evening with a nice meal with undiluted wine, then sleep, then a day full of the Word in the synagogue.
Now, of course, the Sabbath law has been fulfilled in Christ and doesn’t apply to us the same way it did to the Israelites. The Christian congregation is not a synagogue and Sunday is not a Sabbath. What was law in the Old Testament (punishable by death), is now a matter of Christian freedom. But doesn’t it say something about the depth of our depravity when God has to make a law about rest, when God has to command us to set aside some time to hear His life-giving Word? Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. He is our Sabbath. And if we’re “rest”-less, then perhaps it’s because we don’t seek our rest where “two or three are gathered,” in the place where Jesus promises to be with us in His grace.
About thirty years of age—a fitting age for a prophet (Ezekiel 1:1), priest (Numbers 4:3), and king (2 Samuel 5:4) to begin his work—Jesus, newly baptized and ordained, comes to the synagogue and begins to teach. He teaches as one who has authority: “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” Jesus’ teaching comes with the full authority of the Lord. He speaks as the Lord Himself, because that’s who He is—the Lord. He is the Prophet of whom Moses speaks in Deuteronomy. To hear Jesus is to hear it straight from the mouth of God Himself.
Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus is teaching on this particular day, but just a few verses earlier, he does tell us what Jesus was preaching as He began His ministry in Galilee. We heard it last week: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” Jesus preaches about sin, forgiveness, and the kingdom that has come with His coming. In other words, pretty much the same stuff you hear as you gather with God’s people each Sunday.
You can be sure that wherever the Gospel of Christ is being taught, the devil and his demons will be hard at work. You can preach social justice and morality until you’re blue in the face and the devil couldn’t care less. But preach Christ, His message of repentance and forgiveness, and all sorts of hell break loose. And so, an unnamed man with an unclean spirit jumps up in the middle of Jesus’ sermon and shouts: “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 how the demons know who Jesus is, and they even speak the truth about Jesus. He is the Holy One of God come to destroy the works of the devil. But this truth is a crooked truth, meant to distract, to get Jesus off track with some unwanted advance publicity. Jesus is trying to bring His hearers along slowly, reshaping their messianic expectations. But the devil wants to imprint his own image of “messiah” in the people’s minds. Get them to think of Jesus in terms of power and politics so they forget about this cross and death and resurrection stuff.
Satan has no problem with you believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, as long as it diverts your attention from all this stuff about cross and body and blood, death and resurrection. The devil loves “religions,” cross-less, bloodless gospels that are really no Gospel at all. For that reason, I seriously doubt Satan is too concerned about most of the Christianity you see on TV. The kind that talks about God giving you a better life if you only believe; the kind that avoids talk of sin and judgment but emphasizes the power of positive thinking; the kind that focuses on electing the right kind of people so we can set up our own kingdom here on earth.  That kind of religion doesn’t bother the devil in the least.
And I’m sure the devil takes great glee in seeing theaters and arenas full of people gathering to hear words that scratch their itching ears. For even though much of what those preachers say is true, it is not the Truth that sets you free. They are false prophets, hirelings, wolves in sheep’s clothing—and even though their practical advice may offer a better life now, it will not bring you eternal life.
What the devil hates is the Word that creates faith. Saving faith that trusts Jesus for forgiveness… faith that looks to Jesus crucified and sees life… faith that suffers all things for Jesus’ sake… faith that knows that Christ has conquered and in Him we conquer, too. In Mark, Jesus’ being the Christ, (what it really means), is a secret, hidden until the end, when He hangs dead in on the cross and a Gentile soldier blurts out, “Truly, this was the son of God.” And then no one silences him. Why? Because hanging there on the cross, Jesus is most the Son of God, most the Holy One of God, most the fulfillment of religion.
This is why He comes. Why He is baptized. Why He preaches. Why He casts out demons. This is how the kingdom of God comes to us—by His death and rising. And until that happens, until the world sees Him dead on a cross, they will not know or understand what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God. And neither will we. We will always try to reshape Jesus into something else.
With a word, Jesus silences the disruptive demon and restores order to the synagogue service. “Be silent. Come out of him,” Jesus commands. And the demon obeys. He has no choice. He must obey the Word.  Now that’s authority! This is not simply persuasive preaching. Nope. This is a Word that cuts through the darkness, casts out demons, changes water into wine, calms the wind and the seas, cleanses the leper, and lifts the paralyzed man from his bed.
This is a Word that declares with the authority of God that Baptism is your personal rebirth in Christ… that the bread of the Supper is His Body given for you, the wine of His Supper in His blood shed for you. This is a Word by which your sins are forgiven. This is a Word by which you are declared saints in Christ. This is a Word that will raise you up from the dead on the Last Day.
 But there’s something else that is said that we dare not pass by too quickly. In addition to being amazed by Jesus’ authority, those gathered in the synagogue that day notice something else—Jesus’ teaching is new. Not “new” as in shiny and just-out-of the box (the Gospel promise goes all the way back to the fall in the Garden), but “new” as in “We haven’t ever heard this before!”
What’s so new and completely different? Consider how the scribes would normally teach the Law. “Obey God’s commands well enough, and God will be pleased; and if God is pleased by your obedience, then He will reward you.”
Now, common sense will tell you that a man with an evil spirit isn’t going to be doing God-pleasing things. He’s under bondage to the devil, and all that he does is evil. Nothing that this man does is earning God’s favor. Even his presence in the synagogue seems to be solely for the purposes of disrupting Jesus’ work of salvation. The evil spirit has just declared that he wants nothing to do with Jesus, the Holy One of God. But Jesus helps him anyway. The man hasn’t done any good works to earn God’s favor and reward, but Jesus helps him anyway.
This is why the teaching is so new, so completely different. It goes against the natural religion of our Old Adam, who seeks to justify himself. The man is not delivered because of his good works. He’s delivered solely by the power and mercy of Jesus. He is delivered because Jesus fulfills the Law on his behalf by His perfect obedience. He is delivered because Jesus pays the penalty the Law demands for this man’s sin with His atoning death. For those conditioned to believe that their obedience earns God’s favor, this is an amazing new teaching.  
But if the people of Capernaum ever put two and two together, they will be astonished even more. The same Jesus who says “Be silent. Come out of him” to the evil spirit is the same One who says, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” If His Word has such amazing authority to chase away demons, then His command to repent certainly gives the ability to repent. His call to believe the Gospel gives the faith to believe the Gospel. Jesus is delivering people solely by His work and mercy, not by their own efforts or worthiness. It is true in Capernaum for a possessed man that day. It will be true for all the world when Jesus hangs on the cross and saves them by His suffering and death for their sins.
This is amazing! This is completely different! This is true religion. Every other religion on earth is a religion of law—you earn God’s favor by the works that you do. We proclaim a new, completely different message to this world: You are saved from your sin by the work of Jesus Christ. He has fulfilled the Law on your behalf. He has redeemed you from sin by His death on the cross. He is risen again and freely offers you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in His means of grace.
In Baptism, the same Jesus who casts out an unclean spirit in Capernaum cleanses you with water and His Word. He sends the devil packing. No, you won’t have the demonic shrieks and convulsion of the Gospel (although from time to time we do have a good crier), but it happens nonetheless. The devil is wily enough to sneak away these days and make you think that nothing special has happened.
But Baptism “works the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” By Christ’s authority, even little babies are forgiven. They have eternal life. So do you! Because we declare this same new teaching with authority to you. In the name of Jesus you are forgiven.
 Jesus Christ lived the perfect life that you do not and cannot live. He died on the cross to take away the sin of the world—and that includes you! He rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven to the Father’s right hand. And yet He is still with you always, coming to you with His very own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.
In that Word and Sacrament, the Lord sends the devil scurrying away. He gives you His promise that He will use all things to your good, and that He will deliver you from this sinful world to life everlasting.  Through the voice of His called and ordained servant, He declares all who believe His Word and promises: You are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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