Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.
These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
-from Mark 6
I’ve struggled, Friends, to describe for you just how fast the Gospel of Mark goes. I’ve got a Bible at home with fairly large print, and in it Mark’s Gospel takes up all of thirty-three pages. I often have people tell me that they don’t read the Bible because they don’t have time, and I’ll grant that for some of the larger and more complicated books, but not so much for Mark.
There’s probably more words in Mark’s Gospel than in one copy of the News-Journal, but maybe not more than you’d find in two.
It’s a short read, is what I’m saying. I think that gets lost, a bit, when we’re going through it week by week because it seems like it’s taking a long time to get through. That’s the speed of the series, though- not the speed of the book.
Let’s recap. Mark starts off with John the Baptist, then shows John baptizing Jesus. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, then begins to call disciples among the local fishermen. He starts healing people right and left, and more controversially, he claims to be able to forgive people of their sins.
He calls a tax collector named Levi to be a disciple, even though tax collectors were hated. He lets his disciples flout the dietary conventions.
He tells parables – strange stories – about the Kingdom of God as seeds scattered into the soil and rocks, tiny seeds with a life within that was unseen and yet deeply real.
Jesus commands the sea to be still, and it obeys him.
Jesus commands a dead girl to rise up, and life returns to her body.
And then, after all those adventures, Jesus returns to his hometown as a guest preacher- as a local boy made good, or at least intriguing.
Mark blows through this, lickety-split, but Luke gives us a little more detail. He writes that Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
They were amazed to find that this child they had known all along had grown into something deeper and wiser. It’s the problem of familiarity. Your brain can only analyze so many pieces of information at a time, so when you think you can assume the answer rather than figuring it out, you do.
We get familiar with driving to a particular place, and then get completely thrown off when something on the route changes. We get familiar with the brown twigs of winter, and then are shocked to see that the leaves are already unfurling. We get familiar with our living rooms, and then find after rearranging the furniture that we’ve never really noticed that chair before.
We have that same problem with people, too. We look at them so long that we forget what they look like, because we’re looking instead at the picture of them that we carry in our minds. We get so familiar with people that it shocks us when those closest to us do something unexpected- something which someone further from the situation and carrying fewer assumptions might not have found surprising at all.
Jesus’ childhood neighbors and friends were stunned, when they began to see Jesus for who he really was. The man preaching to them in the synagogue seemed completely foreign, completely unlike the Jesus that they expected. Isn’t this Joseph’s son?
Isn’t that us, too? We’ve got a picture of Jesus that we carry around with us- maybe it’s the one with the flowing brown hair that looks like a shampoo commercial, or maybe it’s the picture of Jesus knocking on a door, or maybe it’s Jesus on a hillside preaching the Beatitudes.
Those aren’t bad pictures, per se. But just like Jesus’ neighbors, we can get so accustomed to looking for the Jesus that we expect, that the Jesus who actually shows up will take us off guard.
We even do this to ourselves, you know. Look at the story from Jeremiah that Jordan read. The Word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, and notice that Jeremiah doesn’t question this identity. He doesn’t wonder if he’s hearing things, or check to see if one of the other priests was looking for him. He knows this is God’s voice.
And yet, he doubts. God paints Jeremiah a picture of a prophet, appointed to preach to the nations, but that doesn’t match the picture of himself that Jeremiah carries around to explain why he can’t possibly be called like this.
In Jeremiah’s case, his picture of himself said that he was too young to have anything to say. Maybe that what your mental image of yourself says about you. We often tell young folks to listen to the elders, and there’s wisdom in that because age can lead to wisdom. That doesn’t mean that you have nothing to say, though!
When you’re called upon – and you will be! – you’ve got to speak your part.
If youth hadn’t been Jeremiah’s objection, though, then it would have been something else. Maybe he would have been too old to have anything left to say, or too busy to take the time to be a prophet. Maybe he would have said that he was too practical for such things, or too flighty to be trusted with an important message.
We get so accustomed to our environment that we’re startled when something changes. We’re familiar with each other to the point that we fail to see one another growing and developing. And we get so used to who we’ve been that we don’t always notice who we’re becoming.
Jeremiah certainly didn’t.
So. Jesus’ first recorded sermon? It didn’t go well, you might say. He preached a sermon about how God’s grace and healing are for everyone, using Old Testament examples. He said:
I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.
And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
That’s not how a Messiah is supposed to talk! Jesus is getting it all wrong! A Messiah is supposed to lay out a plan for saving Israel, not talk about miracles for foreign widows and healings for Syrian generals!
Incensed, Jesus’ hometown crowd put an end to Jesus’ sermon. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
I’ve preached some clunkers, probably too fast at that, but to the best of my knowledge no one here has ever tried to kill me over it. Generally, I think that’s a good thing. Given Jesus’ example, though, I don’t know if that means that I’m winning or losing.
Look at the progression in the story, though! First, the people in Jesus’ hometown can’t accept that this local boy is all grown up. Then, they can’t accept that the definition of good news is changing too – widening – including all sorts of foreigners.
Their response to surprise is not wonder, but rejection. It’s a dangerous habit.
Do you think Jesus’ followers were surprised, then, when on the heels of a sharp rejection Jesus began paring them up and sending them out two by two, to preach?
You might have expected Jesus to regroup, to pull together a focus group and discuss his performance. You might have expected him to identify some kind of problem. And he does, in a sense: the people took offense at him… and he was amazed at their lack of faith.
But he doesn’t take this lack of faith as evidence that he’s on the wrong track. Quite the opposite, in fact! Jesus takes what looks like total failure as evidence that it’s time to start expanding his ministry.
It’s not that Jesus got it wrong, in his sermon about the blessings for the foreigners. It’s that getting it right doesn’t look like what you thought it did.
In this context, Jesus’ rejection by his hometown functions sort of like a training video. He shows them what faithfulness looks like – say your piece, and be prepared to take your lumps – and then sends them out as disciples.
I don’t know what surprises me more, here: the way in which Jesus refuses to connect rejection and defeat, as I think is so human to do, or the fact that the disciples who watched Jesus nearly get thrown off a cliff after preaching grab their staffs and sandals and head out to give it a shot.
The disciples he’s sending out watched the mob try to kill him, but still they went. Do you think their parents and friends would have been surprised by such a seemingly reckless choice? Do you think they were a little surprised at each other, and at themselves?
I won’t go so far as to say that familiarity breeds contempt, because it can also breed deep affection. I’ll say, rather, that familiarity breeds inertia. Sandie made this point to me repeatedly, as our secretary- she’d remind me that when you change something, whether you change it for good or for ill, productivity increases because people are paying better attention.
I never used that as an excuse to turn her desk backward, and I regret that now.
It’s true, though. If I redesign the bulletin, you’ll read more of it- even if I change none of the content. If the music shifts on the television show, you start paying more attention. We’re wired to notice changes.
That’s not saying that all change is good, of course. It’s not a moral argument for changing things up. Some changes are bad, and we pay closer attention when they occur because we need to fix them.
But familiarity is a comfortable chair, relaxing music in the background, a mug of tea, a new book or a game on the tv, maybe a cat in your lap if you like that sort of thing. Surprise is the sudden jarring chord, the suspenseful moment that draws you to the edge of your seat. Surprise is what makes it interesting.
Familiarity lets us stop. Surprise is what makes us go.
When was the last time that you were pleasantly surprised by someone? Maybe someone else; maybe yourself. When was the last time that the shining image of God in a human being caught you off guard?
I have a two part challenge for you, this morning. First, rest assured that at some point during the next week, the voice of God will call you. When it does, when you feel that mix of love and apprehension, try this: don’t work up an excuse.
Don’t say, like Jeremiah did, that you’re too young. Don’t say that you’re too old, either, or that you’re too in between and you’ll put it off until retirement. Don’t say that you’re not trained for the job, or that you’re overqualified.
Don’t offer up any excuse at all. Live, instead, with the possibility that the God who surprised Jeremiah is here to surprise you. When you have reason to think that God has a job for you, however big or however small, grab your staff and your sandals and go.
That’s part one. Here’s part two: be willing to be surprised, this week, by someone set in your path. God uses unlikely vessels, after all- which is a blessing, since to someone you’re probably pretty unlikely yourself.
You believe in new life? Then try looking at people anew. Don’t say oh, that’s just Joseph’s boy, like the people of Jesus’ town did- look what they missed out on!
Look at the people you know not as problems to be solved, not as roadblocks to be avoided, but as people bearing God to you. Accept the gift of who they are. Look for Christ within them, and you may be surprised at what you find.
That’s how we build strong families. That’s how we build strong friendships. That’s how we build communities that look like Jesus.
That’s my prayer for us, this week: may we be surprised by ourselves, surprised by one another, and surprised what God is willing to do with us.