Rejection and Unbelief
When I go back to my hometown of Wilmington, Ohio, the familiar streets and buildings bring back memories from my childhood and teen years. When I drive down Mitchell Rd., past my childhood home, I remember my brother and I and a friend using the chemistry set my parents had gotten me for Christmas to make a stink bomb. We mixed it up, took it out back by the pond, and dropped it, and nothing happened. That evening we went to a school event and when we got home, the entire yard smelled like 46,000 rotten eggs had suddenly exploded, and the neighbors wondered what had happened over at our house. Turns out, stink bombs sometimes just take a while to work.
When I look at pictures of my grandparents house on Lake Lorelei, I remember the Halloween night our uncle (who was also our grandparents’ neighbor and son-in-law) taught us how to toilet paper someone’s yard. We toilet papered our grandparents yard, of course, and pulled a few other pranks, some of which weren’t discovered for weeks. Incidentally, our uncle also taught us how to be patient with a prank that had been set. And we used our grandparents’ toilet paper supply to do it!
As I drive those familiar streets, I remember applying the toilet-papering skill I learned from my uncle on various teachers houses. Or saran-wrapping someone’s car. Or saran-wrapping the end of their driveway, wrapping the clear plastic wrap back and forth across the driveway and around trees on either side. I remember the times we got away with it, and the times we got caught. When six teenage boys walk out of Aldi’s with as much cheap single-ply toilet paper as they can carry, people know what’s going on.
I remember the time we covered one teacher’s yard with so much toilet paper, you couldn’t see the grass, or the leaves on the trees. Or the time we saran-wrapped someone’s car while it was parked in their carport. Or the time most of the track team went to toilet paper a teacher’s yard and her daughter, who was a classmate of ours, got home just as we were getting started and chased us all over the neighborhood with her car, honking her horn and flashing her lights until she had identified all of us, and her mom called all of our parents. Mom and dad were both sitting up waiting on us as we walked in the back door at 1 am that Friday night, and we had to go back and clean it up. In the dark.
Many of our pranks were, like these, very annoying but otherwise harmless. We didn’t spray paint anything or do any permanent damage. But I also remember the time that 17 year old me got into an argument with my mom that was heated enough that I punched a hole in the wall in the hallway.
And then, when we walk into Wilmington’s Bob Evans or Frische’s (which is the Big Boy franchise in southwest Ohio and what everyone calls Big Boy down there), or the local Wal-Mart, I wonder if I’ll see anyone I know, and if I do, what they’ll remember me for. Most of my friends have moved away, and a lot of those teachers are gone now, and I almost never do, but when I do, I wonder, “What do they remember me for?” I wonder what those “I knew you when …” conversations would look like.
As we continue our journey through the Gospel of Mark, in a series of sermons called J.E.S.U.S. – His Life, His Mission, we find Jesus going through the same kind of experience. And as HE goes through his “We knew you when” episode in his hometown of Nazareth, we learn something about the nature of faith. Turn with me to Mark 6:1-1.
Jesus went from what had become his Galilean base of operations in Capernaum, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, to his hometown of Nazareth. Mark doesn’t dig into the miraculous birth of Jesus the way Matthew and Luke do. He begins his telling of Jesus’ life at the beginning of his public ministry. But we know from the other gospels that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, his father Joseph took his young family to Egypt for a couple of years to avoid the wrath of Herod, the Jewish puppet king who was allowed by Rome to rule the Jewish people, working of course closely with the Roman governor of the region, who kept an eye on things. Herod feared being deposed by a coming Messiah King and so, when he heard about some of the miraculous events surrounding the birth of Jesus, he went on a murderous rampage and had all of the male children who were two years old and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding region killed. And Joseph and Mary and Jesus spent a couple of years in exile in Egypt, until Herod died. And then they went back to Israel and settled in Nazareth. That’s why, even though he was born in Bethlehem and spent a couple of years down in Egypt, Jesus was known as “Jesus of Nazareth.” That’s where he was raised from the time he was two or so on.
Now, Nazareth wasn’t exactly the center of excitement or culture in Israel. News actually traveled pretty fast to and through Israel as a whole. Not as fast as it does today because of the internet, but for that day, news of events around the Roman empire got to and around Israel fairly quickly. That’s because Israel was located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, between the sea and Rome’s trading partners farther east. So merchants were always moving back and forth between the lands to the east of Israel and Rome and other major cities like Corinth and Ephesus. And they of course carried news with them. But Nazareth wasn’t on that news loop. It was a really secluded town.
For starters, it was hard to get to. It was located in a bowl-shaped depression high up in the mountains, 1,150 feet above the floor of the fertile Jezreel Valley. The Jezreel Valley itself was and is very popular. It is a large fertile plain that even today is a green fertile plain covered with fields of wheat, watermelon, melon, oranges, white beans, cowpeas, chickpeas, green beans, cotton, sunflowers and corn, as well as grazing tracts for enormous herds of sheep and cattle. The Jezreel valley itself was well-traveled and in the loop, so to speak. But Nazareth, located a difficult climbing journey up into the mountains, was ignored. There were no casual visitors or merchants “just passing through” in Nazareth.
On top of all of that, Rome had an army garrison stationed in Nazareth. And Jews tended to keep to themselves when the Roman army was around. The Romans were an occupying force, and Jews obviously resented that. Outside of business dealings they avoided contact with the Romans and their armies and tax collectors whenever they could. So Jews from outside of Nazareth tended to avoid Nazareth at all costs. All that to say, Nazareth was about as far from the societal and cultural and religious center as it was possible to get. That may even be why Joseph chose to raise his family there, after having to be told by an angel to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath, and then staying in Egypt until Herod died. Clearly he didn’t want too many eyes on his firstborn son while he grew up. Jews from Nazareth were viewed as backward, out of the loop, unsophisticated. That IS why, when Philip told Nathaniel about the powerful new rabbi and miracle-worker he had found, Jesus of Nazareth, Nathaniel replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46).
So after developing quite a following and making a name for himself, up to and including drawing the attention of the big wig Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem, Jesus heads to his hometown. And this hometown hero is given the chance to speak in his hometown synagogue. Nazareth was a small village. The population was typically around 200 people, and it didn’t change much. People born there stayed there for the most part, and new people weren’t usually moving in. There were better places to live. So these were the people who had known Jesus since he was about 2 years old. They’d watched him grow up, become a man. They’d attended his Bar Mitzvah. They’d given him their business when he became a carpenter and took over his father’s business and began to provide for his mother and his brothers and sisters. They’d laughed as they watched him and his friends run around and play hide and seek. Okay, maybe the grumpy, stodgy ones scowled or rolled their eyes or chased him off with a broom. The point is, they KNEW Jesus. Like they really knew him. Or they thought they did.
And to them, none of what they were seeing or hearing from him added up. Look at V. 3. In our culture, we celebrate those who overcome their background. Those who maybe grew up poor and downtrodden, but who overcame, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made something of themselves. But in many cultures around the world, and Palestine in Jesus’ day was certainly one of them, there was a very rigid class structure. You were what you were born to be, and you learned, knew, AND STAYED IN your place. Even in America we’ve used the word uppity in a very racist way to describe those (typically black) who overcame Jim Crow laws and the obstacles the white power structure put in their way and made something of themselves. Jesus, the carpenter raised in Nazareth and, from their perspective, born under very suspect circumstances to Mary and Joseph before their marriage became official, needed to know his place. Who was he to move out and move up, leaving them behind? Who was he to think he was so stinking smart and powerful, and where did he get all of this wisdom and power anyway? That was their attitude. They knew him way back when … and it didn’t add up.
Jesus certainly didn’t have the background and upbringing of a typical rabbi. He wasn’t from a well-connected, influential family, and he wasn’t highly educated by his culture’s standards. Like his disciples, he’d stopped his education to learn his father’s trade. And his disciples? Even if Jesus did have a rabbi and miracle-worker’s pedigree, which he didn’t, he certainly made weird choices when it came to his disciples too. Jesus came walking into town with his fishermen, tax collector, and politically radical disciples, nobodies like him. I mean, Jesus was just a common laborer, None of it added up.
Familiarity really does breed contempt. Even today, if want to bring in an “expert” to talk about something, we usually bring in someone from out of town, don’t we? And usually, the farther the better. We just usually aren’t that receptive to “experts” who made a name for themselves right here, are we? But sometimes, those of us who have grown up in the church or been around it for a long time really do kind of start to tune things out and take Jesus and his power and wisdom for granted, don’t we? Many of us have become so overfamiliar with Jesus and with the gospel that we’ve lost the wonder and excitement of who it is that we worship.
Author Annie Dillard writes, “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
The people of Nazareth were so familiar with who they THOUGHT Jesus was that they couldn’t see or embrace who and what he really WAS! Are we any different?? If we really knew who it is that we worship, to whom we pray, whose word we speak and preach, we’d be better lashing ourselves to our chairs and wearing crash helmets and life preservers than our “Sunday best.”
Now look! Look at Vv. 4-6. In the case of Nazareth, overfamiliarity lead to hardened hearts. But lots of things can lead to hardened hearts. It might be that we’re so overfamiliar with Jesus that we think we need something new and exciting, completely missing the beauty and the majesty and the grace that IS Jesus and his love for us. Kind of like those of us who drive right by the beauty of Grand Traverse Bay every day and never really see it and appreciate it like our tourists do. Others of us think we’re too educated and sophisticated to really accept all of this religious Jesus stuff. Or maybe all of his talk about service and humility and sacrifice conflicts with our aspirations for power and prestige and making a name for ourselves. All of this talk about taking up our crosses and following Jesus is fine on a certain level, but lets not get too serious about it. No need to be a fanatic, right? What is it that gets in your way, that leads you toward that hardened heart that doesn’t really want Jesus. We want the trappings of following Jesus, the salvation and the healings, but we don’t want the discipleship and daily friendship that lead to actually living LIKE JESUS.
And what happens? Jesus doesn’t do much there. “He could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.” We need to be really clear about something here, because sometimes we read this and we think, “Wow, their lack of faith really limited Jesus.” Well, it did, and it didn’t. Jesus didn’t need their faith in order to work. God’s power is not dependent on our faith or lack thereof in any way. Jesus calmed a storm in the face of his disciples’ panic and unbelief. He cast so many demons out of a man that they possessed an entire herd of 2,000 pigs and killed them, and no one in the area believed he could do that. Jesus rescued more than one truly hopeless case. Jesus didn’t NEED faith to work.
Sometimes we picture faith like that. Like God needs it. Like the popular Christmas movie “Elf,” which I love, by the way. In “Elf,” Santa’s sleigh had to be fitted with a jet engine because there wasn’t enough Christmas spirit for it to fly on its own anymore. Why? Because people no longer believed in Santa. They no longer had Christmas spirit. That’s our view of faith. And so we read this passage and think, “Wow, Jesus couldn’t work because of their lack of faith.” That isn’t what happened.
God doesn’t NEED our faith in order to work. God HONORS our faith BY WORKING. Only a few people came to Jesus to be healed, so he could only heal a few people. When Jesus showed up, the listened for a bit, and then they criticized him and rejected him and then they went home. They missed out on Jesus and what he wanted to do there because they wouldn’t come, and wouldn’t bring anyone. If Jesus needed faith at all in order to heal, no one would have been healed in Nazareth. A few were, because they brought people to Jesus. He healed the few who came.
You see, faith isn’t just about THINKING the right things about Jesus, just having the “Jesus spirit,” like Christmas spirit in the movie “Elf.” Faith is trust, right? And trust isn’t a thought or a feeling. Trust is an action. Faith requires us to DO something. Faith is trusting Jesus enough to come to him yourself with an open heart, and to bring those you love to him too, if they’ll come.
Where do you find yourself in this story? Are you like his other disciples? Remember, they’re there. They’re silent in this episode, but they’re there, soaking it all in, learning. Watching Jesus be rejected, which would be comfort to them when they were rejected because of Jesus. They’re there though, ready to see him work. Wondering, “What is Jesus going to do now?” Or is your heart hardened? Hardened by overfamiliarity and boredom? Or hardened by thinking we’re too educated or sophisticated to really accept and follow and trust Jesus anymore? Or hardened by wanted to be important and admired by the crowds instead of a servant to all, carrying our cross with Jesus? What is it that causes you and I to fall asleep in church? Are we missing out, or are we each one of the few who will be healed? It wasn’t that Jesus couldn’t heal. It was that no one came to be healed, because their hearts were hard. Let us pray.