July 5, 2015
There was a lot of activity on my Facebook page Thursday night, when the second place Minnesota Twins beat the first place Kansas City Royals 2-0 in Kansas City. The Royals had home field advantage, but they couldn’t get a single run on the scoreboard. They made up for it on Friday night, scoring three runs to the Twins two. The Twins won again on Saturday, but when you look at the overall statistics, the Royals do a lot better at home than away, and the Twins are right behind them in the standings. That home field advantage should have helped the Royals on Thursday – but it didn’t.
As Jesus traveled from Capernaum up into the hill country above the Sea of Galilee, he was heading home. He had just made a significant impact down at the lakeshore, healing a woman who snuck up behind him in a crowd, and bringing a dead girl to life. On the road, he was batting a thousand. Now it was time to head back home, time to taste some of mom’s home cooking. It was time to see how the Kingdom of God might be received in more familiar territory.
1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.
2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!
3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.
6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.
7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.
8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;
9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.
10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.
11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”
12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.
13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Mark gives us two stories in this reading, and it might seem at first that they are not related to each other. First we have the story of Jesus returning to Nazareth and meeting with some resistance. Jesus should have had a home field advantage, but he didn’t. Things start out well, but as soon as he starts teaching in the synagogue, people are amazed, and they seem to think this hometown boy has gotten a bit too big for his britches.
There is even a hint of scandal as the people of Nazareth question his authority. They ask, “Isn’t this Mary’s son?” instead of, “Isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s boy?” While we might see this as a true representation of the virgin birth, in that time and place it was just short of an insult to skip over naming the father as head of the household. It hints at the possibility that Jesus was an illegitimate child, bringing shame to his whole community.
Shame and honor formed the foundation of social interaction in Nazareth. It was a zero sum game: if someone gained honor in the community, that meant someone else had to lose. Keeping the balance between shame and honor was important.
And here was Jesus, claiming the honor of a prophet for himself! This would upset the whole hierarchy of social standing. It would mean that someone – probably the synagogue leaders – would have to lose honor. This young upstart needed to be put in his place, and reminded that they knew who he was before he got famous – just a common builder, nothing more.
Jesus has been busy amazing people in Capernaum, across the Sea of Galilee, and even in the middle of the lake itself, but now it’s his turn to be amazed. And what has Jesus shaking his head? It’s the lack of faith he sees among his hometown friends and family. In fact, this lack of faith brings us to one of the more problematic verses in this passage: Jesus, the Son of God, is rendered powerless. Mark writes, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” (v. 5)
Biblical scholars have wrestled with this sentence, and theologians have argued about it. Matthew’s version cleans things up a bit for us. Matthew says Jesus “did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Matt 13:58), making it sound more like Jesus chose not to work any wonders.
But the question may not be about whether Jesus chose to do miracles or was prevented from doing them. Maybe the question is, how does our lack of faith affect the way God works? Do we really keep God out of the miracle business, simply because we lack faith? Before we get too caught up in arguments about God’s omnipotence and grace that is not dependent on anything we do, let’s look at what does happen in Nazareth. Jesus does heal a few. There are at least some who seek him out in faith, just as Jairus did on behalf of his dying daughter, just as the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years did.
And I think this might be the key – Jesus responds when we fall at his feet and ask for his mercy. He can’t answer our prayers unless we pray them. He can only transform our lives to the extent that we allow him to. Jesus’ ability to do great things in Nazareth was only limited by the fact that nobody bothered to ask – except for a few, and they were healed.
David Lose writes, “What if … Mark is simply inviting us to contemplate the possibility that we actually have something to do, that we have an important role to play in the manifestation of the kingdom. To say it another way: this isn’t about salvation, it’s about the role each one of us is invited to play in sensing, experiencing, and making known God’s will and work in the world.”
How might we be encouraging God to work in our lives? How might we be preventing him from doing the work he wants to perform in us?
As we prepare to approach this Table, let’s take a moment to let God’s Spirit direct our thoughts to the ways we might be resisting God. As we do this, I invite you to let your hands rest in your lap in an open posture, releasing to God the things that keep you from experiencing his power –
some hurt or regret you can’t let go,
some grudge you hold onto,
some addiction that has come to define your identity,
some anger that continues to burn in you,
some problem that you just don’t quite want to trust God to solve.
Or maybe there is something you need to receive from God into your open hands –
some commitment God is calling you toward that you don’t want to acknowledge,
some ministry opportunity you are afraid to accept,
some challenge to grow that you think is too difficult for you.
This isn’t only about accepting God’s grace to save us and inviting Jesus into our hearts. It’s about our willingness to be true disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It’s about trusting God enough to ask him to change us, and mean it.
The disciples who followed Jesus to Nazareth didn’t abandon him when the town rejected his message. They were watching closely to see what he would do. As Jesus kept on with his ministry of preaching good news and healing the sick, casting out unclean spirits and giving hope to the poor, the disciples were learning what it means to be a true follower of Christ. And that brings us to the second part of the story.
Sometimes rejection and persecution is the springboard for further ministry. My favorite example of this comes from the book of Acts. In Acts 1:8, Jesus commissions his disciples as he prepares to ascend into heaven. He says, “ But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus ascends, Pentecost happens, and the church grows to the point they have to choose some deacons to oversee the needs of the community, so the apostles – notice they are no longer just disciples, they have been sent as apostles – devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. One of those deacons is Stephen, who preaches a great sermon when he is brought before the Sanhedrin, and when he points out that they are responsible for killing the Son of God, they get angry enough to stone him to death.
This brings us to Acts 8:1. “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Did you catch that? Jesus told them back in 1:8 that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Eight chapters later, persecution sends them from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria. It’s only a few more chapters before the ends of the earth come into the story. Sometimes, rejection is the springboard for ministry.
In today’s passage from Mark, Jesus gives some very specific directions to his disciples. He tells them what to take, and what not to take with them on their journey. It’s clear that Jesus wants his followers to go out in his name, completely depending on God to provide for their needs through the hospitality of others. Jesus knows that they will probably face rejection in at least some of the towns they visit.
They saw the way he left Nazareth and went into the nearby villages to keep preaching and healing. Now he tells them to shake the dust off their feet as they leave any place that does not receive them or their message. If you can’t win at home, maybe it’s time for an away game, but even there, chances are good you are going to be challenged and face rejection.
So they go – and their ministry is fruitful. No doubt they ran into some opposition from time to time. We know from the rest of the story that Jesus would face growing resistance from those who felt threatened by his message. But that didn’t stop him from seeing it through, from dying on the cross for you and for me, from rising on the third day to defeat death and sin once and for all.
Sometimes rejection is the springboard for ministry. Sometimes I wonder if we fear rejection so much that it prevents us from experiencing God’s power at work in our lives. When we shrink back from stepping out on faith, we shortchange ourselves, and Christ can do no deed of power in us. We become what John Wesley would call an “almost Christian,” living out the form of a godly life without experiencing its power.
Following Jesus means putting it all on the line. We may find that some don’t want to hear our message of hope. That doesn’t mean we should stop sharing it. Some may ridicule us or walk away. There are others who will respond to the good news that God loves them. When we put our full faith in Christ, living into the assurance that he will act, he can change our brokenness into fruitfulness. Amen.