The sermon for week July 08, 2012
II Corinthians 12:2-10
Not In This Neighborhood!
Mark’s gospel, believed to be the earliest of the four, is fast-paced and compelling. Whatever his role may have been among the first disciples of Jesus, Mark witnesses the events in Jesus’ life and writes about them as reporters do when they are close to the action. Mark provides us with a picture of Jesus that unfolds rapidly and without editorial comment. His gospel opens like a newspaper with a headline that cries: “Prepare the way of the Lord!”
Jesus rises from the Jordan River, and before the waters of baptism have a chance to dry the Spirit drives him into the wilderness. When Jesus returns he calls his first disciples, casts out demons, heals Peter’s mother, cleanses a leper and begins his Galilean preaching tour. And that’s just the first chapter of Mark’s gospel! No wonder the word Mark uses most frequently is immediately!
There's an urgency in Mark’s gospel. Like a fast ball over the plate, it demands a response. Jesus is a man on a dangerous mission and those who choose to follow him must be prepared to respond quickly and travel light.
Questions about Jesus’ identity traveled just as fast, increasing in intensity as rumors of his miracles accrued until, at last, a road- weary Jesus returned home to Nazareth where he is known. That’s where we pick up the story this morning. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and those who heard him were astounded. They were willing to acknowledge the deeds of power being done by his hands, but they wondered openly, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?”
Others had expressed similar skepticism. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It is a question that surfaced early in Jesus’ ministry, casting doubt on Jesus and aspersions on the town from which he came. The low popular opinion of Nazareth appears to have been shared by the Nazarene villagers themselves. They are unable to get past the image of the child who grew up among them. “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him?” they asked. Surely not here, not in this neighborhood!
The people of Nazareth know the family. They tell us, “Jesus is the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon; and his sisters are here with us. That is who Jesus is!” The villagers’ position is so defensive with respect to the identity of Jesus that it leads one free translator to paraphrase their response as a question: “Who does he think he is?” But that is not the question that compels Mark’s gospel. The question, which continues to this day, is not, “Who does Jesus think he is?” but rather, “Who do we think he is?
Mark’s speeding gospel hits the wall in Nazareth. Mark comments sadly on the villagers’ resistance, “He could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Such is the power of disbelief.
There was more at stake that day in Nazareth than Jesus’ reputation as a prophet and healer. The villagers of Nazareth were unable to remove the swaddling clothes from their image of Jesus; but their failure to recognize Jesus was more than a victory for the status quo. The people of Nazareth had forfeited nothing less than their power to become the children of God.
Typically, Mark refrains from editorial comment on this incident of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth. For that we have to turn to another disciple, John, who writing much later, tells us, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1: 11,12 RSV)
But the "Good News" must be delivered and this time it’s up to those who do believe in his name. Jesus’ disciples were unremarkable and indistinguishable from any of the others who crowded around the Galilean prophet in those days. The disciples left their fishing nets to follow Jesus, but throughout Mark’s gospel, the disciples are portrayed as bumblers who are more interested in their own status and power. They are enamored of the crowds that gathered around Jesus(1:37), argue about who is greatest among them (9:33f), compete with each other for favor with Jesus, and interfere with Jesus by rebuking the people who bring little children to him for a blessing.
They trust their belief in Jesus only slightly more than their doubts about his identity. It’s the kind of ambivalence that, when indulged, leads to the kind of stand-off we witnessed in Nazareth, where nothing happens! This is the baseball equivalent of a no hitter. Only the pitcher is having any fun! Mark’s gospel compels us to swing at his pitch by tossing aside our doubts and getting into a game that is played on faith. If Mark’s “Good News" paper had a sports page, what happens next is the equivalent of spring training.
Jesus and his disciples set out from Nazareth on a mission trip to share the good news. The twelve were required to set aside their differences, travel in pairs and learn what it is to rely only on the Spirit. They were to learn that following Jesus means becoming like Jesus. It is a transformation only the Spirit can affect.
Jesus sent the disciples out empty-handed to knock on doors throughout the villages around Galilee. They had no special skills, no uniforms with colorful logos to identify their team and no one was keeping score.
The disciples had nothing to offer those to whom they were sent except the story of what they had seen and heard in their road trips with Jesus. But it was enough! And more than they could have imagined. Mark tells us they “cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
Mark does not disclose the effect this ministry had on the disciples themselves. Jesus had been teaching the disciples throughout their journey together; but some things are better caught than taught. Watching the game is not the same as playing the game. Ask those who recently returned from the mission trip. You’ll learn that mission trips accomplish more than temporary improvements in the lives of those we serve. Mission trips change us. One of the most predictable changes it affects is how we feel about home when we return. Poet TS Eliot says it best:
“We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring will be
to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.”
When Jesus returned to Nazareth he experienced the sadness of “knowing the place for the first time.” But the villagers in his home town no longer recognized him. To the people of Nazareth Jesus was the carpenter who grew up among them. They did not recognize Jesus as a prophet. And yet home is where all prophesy is born. It is born in the recognition that the people you know and love are denying themselves full participation in the Kingdom of God as the result of their ignorance or fear.
Nazareth might have become the village where a favorite Son began the ministry that would change the world; but Mark tells us “they took offense at him.” As far as we know when Jesus left Nazareth, he never returned to the village he once called home.
We may be tempted to pass judgment on the stubborn villagers, or shake our collective heads over their anticipated loss. But what about us? What about the people who worship God in the neighborhood of Sylvania, Ohio? Like the people of Nazareth most of us believe in God. We, too, have grown up with Jesus, many of us right here in this church! Jesus is a familiar figure in our neighborhood. We first knew him as the child born in Bethlehem who became the star of the Christmas pageant, later we recognized him as the Lamb of God, and the Word made flesh; but do we know him as the Lion of Judah, the prophet of God?
Social critics claim that over time Jesus has become a captive of our culture. They say the Lion of Judah has become no more dangerous to our safely and comfort than a domesticated house cat. No wonder the “good news” Mark so rigorously proclaimed has faded into the “old news” we so easily ignore.
In this season of Pentecost Christians around the world are challenged to think about how the Holy Spirit, which has been poured out upon all flesh, may be empowering us in our own neighborhoods. The same power which gives birth to the Church calls us as to proclaim Christ’s healing message to the world.
It is the Holy Spirit that energizes us to become apostles and prophets in the church and in our communities today, to take risks and put forward new initiatives that will benefit us all. This is the power that enables us to be as gentle as doves but as clever as serpents in our dealings with the world. It is the power that calls men and women to radical service for good causes, challenges people to make long-term commitments, and proclaim the Good News of God’s love everywhere and at all times.
Each time we pray, “Thy kingdom come” we need to remind ourselves that the power to answer that prayer has been entrusted to us! The purpose of Mark’s gospel is not to persuade; but to initiate us into the life of Jesus so that we can make his life our own.
Our own church leaders have been willing to walk by faith into the unknown landscape of this transition and provide leadership when we did not know who we were or where we were going.
Like the prophets of old these team leaders are charged with the task of discerning what God may require of us in order for us to remain faithful witnesses in the future. Theirs is the voice that has earned the right to be heard by their knowledge of the truth about us and their willingness to listen for what God is calling us to be. None of us possesses these skills on our own. These are the skills that operate only in community because they belong to the community.
Prophets cannot predict the future for us but they can help us imagine what we might become if we were to respond with faith and commitment to the call God has upon our lives as a community of faith. These are the leaders who see things as they are and help us to imagine how things could be. The prophetic church is a church that proclaims, “God is still speaking,” when the pace of change threatens to overwhelm our capacity to hear God’s voice.
We never outgrow our need for the prophetic presence in our communities of faith because God is constantly renewing the neighborhood of the church. Prophets speak the truth that heals. When a member stood up at a recent congregational forum and asked, “What are you afraid of?” hers is the prophetic voice confronting our fear by urging us to be honest with ourselves. The prophet encourages us to face our fear by giving it a name.
Most of us would agree our neighborhood is changing. The church looks different than it did a year ago. With each baptism and each new member we welcome into this community of faith the face of the church is changing. New officers assumed the mantle of leadership this summer, and the staff has introduced innovative programs which promise to reach increasing numbers of people. God is renewing the church and we are being transformed, we know not how!
Like the disciples who went out two by two at Jesus’ command, we cannot know the results of our efforts. As prophets of a future only God can see we are learning to forfeit the need to control the outcome of the process in which we participate. We cannot see the future, but like the prophets who went before us, we can prepare the Way.
Prophets come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they are strangers. Sometimes they are members of our own family or friends. Each time we are reminded that we are children of God, each time we are challenged not merely to change; but to grow into the image of Christ, we honor the prophet in our own lives and those with whom we share the journey. And the kingdom comes, as we pray each Sunday that it will, right here, in this neighborhood.
Thanks be to God! Amen