Sunday, July 8, 2012

They Knew Him Too Well...

Deepest appreciation to the writing and scholarship of David Lose, who helped me put my brain around the reading.

I have to say a word about the excessive use of italics in the following reading. As I've mentioned, I write like I speak; the metering, phrasing and the paragraph breaks aren't always grammatically correct or particularly pretty.

For the past couple of weeks, I've been forgoing printing out the manuscript of my sermons, choosing instead to take advantage of technology and read them from the screen of my trusty BlackBerry. This saves paper and means that I don't have to drive to another county to write and print.

It also means that I don't have the luxury of penciling in breaks - lines I place between words in a sentence to get the emphasis right - or to underline words that need a particular stress. Thus the egregious generosity with italics. I beg your indulgence and forgiveness as you read the following.

To the point of the sermon: It turns out that knowing Jesus is all well and good. The difference lies in what we do about that knowing...

Mark 6:1-13
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 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! 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. Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 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." So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It’s easy, this side of the Resurrection, to shake our heads in disgust at those villagers of Nazareth. Imagine, having the living Word of God right there in front of you, speaking the very words of God, and blowing it off as nothing more than a home town kid trying to make himself more important than he really is.

Oh, sure, just like everyone else in that region of Judea, they’d heard the rumors, they’d listened to the wild tales of healings and exorcisms and miracles and signs. Every story seemed to be stranger than the last, and the travelers who told them seemed to get more and more excited every day. Could this Jesus be the Promised One?

The residents of Nazareth, almost to a person, rolled their eyes when they heard that. They knew Jesus too well to fall into that trap!

There were frightening stories, too – Jesus challenging the Pharisees, openly defying the most powerful people in the province. Mary had even taken James and the family and gone to try and bring him back to Nazareth before he went and got himself killed… but they’d come back empty-handed, and said nothing about the trip to anyone. That figured, they all thought. They knew the guy, after all. They knew him well.

So that Saturday, the synagogue was buzzing as Jesus took the seat of the teacher and began to speak… but it wasn’t an excited buzzing. After all, this guy was just a carpenter, or at least he had been until he laid his tools down and walked off. Who did he think he was, anyway, acting like a teacher? He wasn’t even legitimate! Everyone knew about how Joseph had left town for the census with a very pregnant fiancĂ©e, and returned from Bethlehem with a new baby. Why, some folks had even whispered that Joseph wasn’t the kid’s father to begin with!

That first synagogue, in Capernaum, the people had heard Jesus speak with authority and had responded with wonder and confusion: “What is this,” they asked, “A new teaching—and with authority!” Today, though, in this synagogue, though Jesus spoke with no less authority, the whispers were not filled with wonder; rather, their words dripped with derision. “Where did this guy come up with this stuff? The gall! Doesn’t he know who he is? Doesn’t he know that we know who he is? Does he really expect us to forget what he is?”

We’re told that Jesus “could do no deed of power there,” and that “he was amazed at their unbelief.” Imagine it! It is beyond comprehension, isn’t it, that the very Lord of Life found himself at a loss, that anything could offend him in such a way!

We who have read the Gospels know that Jesus healed people, like the crippled man at the healing pool, who didn’t know how to ask for what they needed. Jesus even healed people without intending to – like the hemorrhaging woman we met last week. And then there were the people who were beyond asking for what they needed, like the demon-possessed or the little dead girl. In every instance, though, there was some degree of faith, some openness to the transformative power of Jesus. But here, in Nazareth, in the synagogue he had known his whole life, among the people who knew him best and who should have loved him the most, they had instead slammed shut the doors of their hearts. They had nothing for him, and wanted nothing from him.

They knew him too well to believe him. They’d seen this guy, had shared meals with him, had hired him for carpentry jobs. They were his brothers and sisters, cousins and neighbors, and while everyone had always known Jesus was different, they didn’t view this difference as a good thing. Jesus had been a weird kid, and had not changed when he grew up. Rabbi? Healer? Messiah? Please, don’t be ridiculous. He was Mary’s kid, the odd one.

God couldn’t speak through him, he was just Jesus. No one special, not qualified to interpret the Scriptures, certainly not worthy to speak the Word of God! If anything, he was an OK carpenter. Best to ignore him, and maybe he’ll get the message and go back to his hammer and saw and leave all this crazy talk alone.

And I have to wonder, how often do I do the same thing? Close the doors of my heart to a word from God because the messenger is someone I know too well, or have dismissed as unworthy of my attention? What would it mean to my faith journey if I laid aside the need to check credentials, to dismiss someone who is outside my circle, or who is so familiar to me that I “know” God couldn’t use them?

Could I be more like the disciples who, even though they struggled with the things Jesus said, wrestled to understand who he was and what it all meant, were willing to do what he said – even though it meant traveling into the unknown, walking two by two out into the countryside, with not a dollar or a loaf of bread to their name, dependent upon the hospitality of utter strangers, preaching a message they didn’t quite grasp?

There was no guarantee of success; in fact, there was every possibility that they would fail spectacularly, starve on the road or end up stoned to death by an angry mob. Yet as Jesus sent them, they went, no questions asked. They went because they knew him so well.

Yes, let’s not forget that these disciples were just as intimately acquainted with Jesus as the people who’d grown up with him. They had spent long hours on the dusty roads with him, had eaten with him, shivered in the cold night as they slept in the desert between towns. There had to have been hundreds of conversations about nothing, jokes told around the fire and long, comfortable silences.

They knew him too well… to not believe him. And despite their shortcomings, despite their doubts and utter lack of comprehension in so many areas, when they commanded demons to leave people, they did! When they anointed people for healing, they got well! When they preached repentance, people listened!

The difference between the people of Nazareth and those road-worn Apostles was simply faith.

I have to tell you, this idea that the difference between the miraculous and the mundane being in us, and not in God, makes me very uncomfortable.

I’ve been brought up in my faith journey to believe that God doesn’t need us, that God isn't inhibited by our faith or lack thereof, that what I believe or think or do matters not at all when it comes to God accomplishing God's purposes.

Isn’t one of the central elements of our belief system the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith?” Isn’t it a cornerstone of Reformed Theology that it's all up to God? God is the one who justifies. It's by grace, not by our work. Our faith is really just an awareness of and trust in what God has done.

Without God’s grace, without the drawing of the Holy Spirit, are we not all like the citizens of Nazareth, Jesus’ neighbors and family members, who look at the hometown prophet and are left cold, offended and ultimately disinterested? Everything: our faith, our inclusion in the Kingdom, our being born again to eternal life is under the complete control and will of the Creator of the Universe, and not a thing we ourselves have any power over.

This is a fact. But what if what’s at stake here isn’t a matter of God’s ultimate purposes or our eternal destinies? After all, it’s not like Jesus couldn't do anything there, we read that he did perform some healings, though it wasn’t like other towns where they were breaking down his doors. What if, rather, the Word of God is simply inviting us to contemplate the possibility that we have actually have something to do, that we have an important role to play in the Kingdom. To say it another way: this isn't about doing works to attain salvation, or about willing ourselves to have enough faith to reach out to God, 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.

We who are the Church apparently have a choice to make: a new choice every day, when we face that front door to our hearts. Do we consult our list of doctrines, our criteria for inclusion and acceptance, and decide that we’ll only hear from God if it’s through someone who meets the standards, thank you very much? And if the terrifying happens, that God actually has a word or an action for us to carry out, a Kingdom work which will change the life of someone else? Isn’t it safer to lock the doors, nail a board or two across them, and go see what’s on TV?

Or will we boldly, recklessly fling open the doors of our hearts? Take them off the hinges, even, and set them up on sawhorses and make communion tables out of them? Will we walk out onto the dusty roads with comfortable shoes, a walking stick, and not a dollar or a loaf of bread to our name, and see what the wild, boundless, joyous and unpredictable Spirit of God has in store for us today?

May we always, habitually, joyfully throw those doors open wide. May we know Jesus too well to not believe him!

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