January 21, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Gospel of Mark
Third Sunday after Epiphany
The Mission Intensifies
In the Message Bible, Eugene Peterson translates Mark 6:4 as follows: Jesus told them, “A prophet has little honor in his hometown, among his relatives, on the streets he played in as a child.” Rejection comes in all forms. Michael was a young man that felt the call of God on his life. He came from a really close family. He finished college and then went off to seminary.
After finishing seminary, he came back before going to his first church. He visited with all of his relatives for about a week. He stopped by the church and talked to his hometown Pastor. The Pastor asked him if he would like to preach the next Sunday. He felt honored and accepted the Pastor’s invitation.
Sunday morning came and after hours, yes, even days, of preparation he stepped up behind the pulpit, looked out at the congregation of friends and relatives and started to expound the knowledge that he had learned. Well, his young niece, Kathleen, about six-years old, stepped out into the aisle and put her hands on her hips, her left foot out in front of the other, cocked her head to one side, then said in a very loud and clear voice for her age, “Uncle Michael, you don’t know what you are talking about!”
Rejection is hard to handle from anybody, but from a six-year-old, it is really taxing. Rejection. This is what Jesus experienced in his own hometown. When Jesus came to Nazareth, he put himself to a very severe test. He was coming to his home town; and there are no severer critics than those who have known us since childhood.
It was never meant to be a private visit simply to see his old home and his own people. He came attended by his disciples. That is to say Jesus came as a Rabbi, not as a favorite son coming home. The Rabbis moved about the country accompanied by their little circle of disciples, and it was as a teacher, with his disciples, that Jesus came.
But in his home town, it was like the little girl Kathleen in our story, “Jesus, you don’t know what you are talking about!” But if we examine this account in his hometown a little closer, maybe this was part of Jesus’ plan all along as a demonstration to his disciples about what they might encounter when Jesus would send them out to proclaim the Word. More about that in a moment, but first, would you pray with me?
Mark tells us that Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth. Now, I am sure that the local people heard the reports of the miracles he performed. And I am also sure it was a power that the witnesses could not define, describe or understand. When Sabbath came, Jesus preaches in the synagogue among many of his hometown relatives and friends, people who probably watched him grow up. But his own people are not very receptive of him.
Jesus begins to teach and look what the people say. “Where did this man get these things? What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son.” Even though the people admitted that Jesus had been given special wisdom, they still could not accept Jesus as a teacher, after all, he was a carpenter.
In Jesus’ time, men did what they were trained to do, usually following in their father’s profession, and nothing more. Any attempts to “climb the social ladder” were looked down upon. And Jesus’ acquaintances in Nazareth thought that by teaching in the synagogue, Jesus was trying to be something that he was not. The people of Nazareth saw Jesus as nothing more than a carpenter, and so they expected nothing great from him.
And because Jesus’ hometown people in Nazareth expected nothing great from him, Mark tells us that Jesus “could not do any miracles there, except to lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” When Jesus spoke in the synagogue, the people were not moved in a positive way. Some call it being hard-hearted, some call it disbelief; the point remains it was by their own personal freewill choice that they separated themselves from the awesome presence of God’s word. Familiarity had bred a mistaken contempt. Sometimes we are too near people to see their greatness.
We know that Jesus had the power to do miracles. We have the Gospel writings telling us the stories of Jesus’ many miracles, and Jesus knew he could do miracles, too. So, when Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, he just moves on to the next town and begins teaching, and he sends the disciples out in pairs to do the same thing. Not only are we to have faith in Jesus Christ and his power to do miracles, we too as Jesus’ disciples are to have faith in our own abilities to share in Jesus’ authority and teach the message of God’s love.
In 1973, the New York Mets found themselves in last place at the end of the month of August. Baseball fans were writing off the team. Once again, a reputation preceded them. They were a group of young talented players and a few veterans that always just seemed to fall short.
Then Tug McGraw, a skilled relief pitcher, rallied his teammates and their fans behind the slogan, “You Gotta Believe.” And that Mets team did believe, winning 21 of their last 29 games and going from worst to first.
The Mets won the pennant in 1973 because the team had faith and the fans had faith; all heard the rallying call and responded. When the season seemed like a complete loss, they were able to redeem it. Great things happened simply because they believed it was possible.
When we begin to believe in the power of Jesus Christ, our individual worth as people of God, and in the worth of others too, might it just be that miracles can happen? Miracles from a shoddy 1973 baseball team; miracles from Mary’s boy, the carpenter, who has just returned home to Nazareth; and maybe even miracles from us.
But the terrible truth was that Jesus could do no mighty works in Nazareth. The atmosphere was wrong, and there are some things that cannot be done unless the atmosphere is right. For example, it is still true that people cannot be healed if they refuse to be healed. It is still true that there can be no preaching in the wrong atmosphere. In an atmosphere of expectancy, the poorest effort can catch fire. In an atmosphere of critical coldness or bland indifference, the most Spirit-packed utterance can fall lifeless.
It is still true that there can be no peace-making in the wrong atmosphere. In his commentary on Mark, William Barclay writes, “If those gathered together have come together to hate, they will hate. If they have come together to refuse to understand, they will misunderstand. If they have come together to see no other point of view but their own, they will see no other.” (Sounds familiar in our political climate today, doesn’t it?) Barclay continues, “But if they have come together, loving Christ and seeking to love each other, even those who are most widely separated can come together in him.” Folks, there is laid on us the tremendous responsibility that we can either help or hinder the work of Jesus Christ. We can open the door wide to him, or we can slam it in his face. What is it that you choose to do?
Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth had figuratively slammed the door in his face. So, what did he do? He left and went around teaching from village to village. Remember, Jesus had brought his disciples with him and we know his disciples were amazed with their teacher. Could it be possible that Jesus had intended this negative experience to be a teaching tool to prepare the disciples for their mission work? It could be, since his instructions to the disciples on their mission trip was to not tarry long in a place that didn’t want you.
Well, in the second part of today’s scripture, Jesus now calls the twelve disciples to him and sends them out two by two into the surrounding area to practice ministry as Jesus did. Our scripture says that he gave them “authority over evil spirits.” So, what was their ministry? They didn’t have a sermon message, so to speak. But they were entrusted to preach the teachings about God that Jesus had shared with them as well as deliver the same message of John the Baptist and of Jesus, repent of your sins. They were sent out as witnesses to serve the Word, and they were responsible only for their allegiance to the Word. This was surely a painful message for many people to accept. The message of truth and of repentance is not easily accepted for a proud people.
However, our scripture is very specific about how the disciples are to dress for this mission. First, they are only to take a staff. The staff would help them cross hills and some mountains as well as ward off wild animals. They are to wear only one tunic and their sandals. The extra tunic they would normally wear would have usually been used as a cloak by day and as a blanket by night. Therefore, the disciples are to depend on the hospitality of the people in the town in which they spoke and healed for their bedding for the night.
Finally, they are not to take their ordinary traveler’s bag. This was made of a goat’s skin. It had a strap at each side and was slung over the shoulder. In it the pilgrim would carry bread and raisins, and olives, and cheese enough to last for a day or two. Jesus wants his disciples to depend wholly on what God will provide. Jesus wants the disciples whom he called and sent to be self-sufficient and independent so that the power of God may direct and sustain them.
Also, please remember that hospitality, in the time of Jesus, was a community responsibility and a sacred duty. When a stranger entered a village, it was not his duty to search for hospitality; it was the duty of the village to offer it. Jesus told his disciples that if hospitality is refused, and if doors and ears are shut, they must shake off the dust of that place from their feet when they leave. Jesus said, “If they refuse to listen to you, the only thing you can do is to treat them as a strict Jew would treat a Gentile house. There can be no fellowship between them and you.”
By all accounts, the disciples’ mission is successful. Our scripture says, “They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” Look what they accomplished. First, the disciples brought to the people Jesus’ message. Notice they did not create the message, they brought a message. It was what Jesus taught them about God’s truth.
Second, the disciples brought to the people the King’s message; and the King’s message was “Repent!” Jesus wanted to change the hearts and actions of the people who would hear God’s truth. But so many people do not repent, because it means a change in their life, a complete reversal.
And lastly, the disciples brought to the people the King’s mercy. They brought help and healing. They brought liberation to poor, demon-possessed men and women. From the beginning, Christianity has aimed to bring health to body and to soul; it has always aimed not only at soul salvation, but at whole salvation. It brought not only a hand to lift from moral wreckage, but a hand to lift from physical pain and suffering. A new power was found in the healing oils of God.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the twelve disciples brought to people the message and the mercy of the King. So I have to ask you this, “Is that not the Church’s task today and every day?
Taking Christ’s message into the world and doing Christ’s work in our community isn’t always easy; sometimes it’s hard just to think about it, but this is part of following Jesus’ commission. We serve Jesus by doing something tough and spreading the good news in even the hard-to-reach parts of the world and our society. We step beyond these walls and out into the real world with Christ’s message. This may sound like an impossible task, but I think we humans are more capable than we realize, particularly when we go in the name and with the authority of Jesus Christ. As Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, “We can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.”
We just “gotta believe.” We have to have faith in the power of the risen Christ and our own abilities as disciples sent by that same Christ. I think that when we really get down to it, we will find that we are capable of facing even the toughest of situations as we seek to fulfill Jesus’ commission and carry out his work in this world. Indeed, we are only human, but we are sent with the power and authority of Jesus to be about ministry in this time and place. When we believe this, and live like we believe it, then truly great things are possible.