This sermon was delivered by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on July 5, 2009.
Jesus could not work any miracles there, except to heal a few sick people by placing his hands on them. He was surprised that the people did not have any faith. Mark 6:5-6 (Contemporary English Version)
One of the most troubling questions confronting people of faith involves religious impotence. Given all the houses of worship in the world—and in Little Rock—why doesn’t religion do more good? Why is there so much violence if so many people follow the Prince of Peace? Why is there so much hunger if so many people follow the Bread of Life? Why are so many people living in confusion, despair, and anxiety when so many people profess to be followers of the Good Shepherd? Why does religion seem so puny when there is such great need for it to be powerful?
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke record that Jesus visited Nazareth, his hometown, after his public ministry had begun to attract attention. He had performed powerful miracles in other places, including healing people of chronic illnesses, exorcising demons from deranged people, and even restoring life to a dead girl. Aside from the healing ministry, Jesus had attracted attention because of his teachings.
But when he went home, Jesus didn’t produce such results. Mark states the situation forcefully in these words: 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 (Mark 6:5-6). Preachers often refer to the “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?” question raised by one of the disciples. We should also mention the fact that of all the good Jesus did in the world, he could only do a little good in his hometown. No great sermon or parable was spoken in Nazareth. No momentous healing or other work of spiritual deliverance happened there.
Mark’s gospel provides a troubling explanation for why the power of God in Jesus was less effective in Nazareth—unbelief. The people of Nazareth were not un-religious or somehow “more worldly” than people elsewhere. Nazareth had a synagogue. Jesus visited it and, as he did in other towns, taught while there. But the religious people of Nazareth were unwilling to believe—meaning trust—the power of God working through Jesus. They knew about his great reputation for wise teaching. They knew about the miraculous healings.
But the religious people of Nazareth wouldn’t trust that knowledge with the Jesus they knew. Religious people in Nazareth—including Jesus’ mother, brothers, and sisters—knew Jesus longer than anyone else, but trusted Jesus less than everyone else. And they failed to trust Jesus because they somehow could not get beyond the Jesus they had known as a boy. They could not get past their memories of the carpenter’s son, Mary’s oldest boy, the fellow whose brothers and sisters were still living in the neighborhood. That lack of trust—which the Scripture terms “unbelief”—acted to limit the power of God in Nazareth.
Trust is a moral choice! Like courage, the decision to trust someone or something is made in the face of other options. Religious people in Nazareth were not prevented from trusting that God’s power was working through Jesus. They were not intellectually incapable of trusting God to work. However, they were morally unwilling to trust God to do that kind of work through Jesus. They knew Jesus so well that they were unwilling to trust God do work in his life in ways they had not experienced. In taking that moral stance, the people of Nazareth hindered the power of God from working in their lives. The synagogue at Nazareth never became the site of great sermons and healing. Jesus preached at Nazareth, but Jesus was not powerful there because the religious people of Nazareth chose to distrust God’s power in his life.
There are many other places like Nazareth where religious people know a great deal about God, but do not trust God. We have a glaring health care crisis in the United States with millions of people who need healing and treatment but have no money to pay for medical care. We know a lot about God, but the debate surrounding reforming our healthcare system shows that even religious people in government and in the healthcare industry would rather lean on their own understanding and self-centered scheming than trust God’s way of love.
Jesus healed the influential and the impoverished for the same fee—nothing. Somehow, our society has convinced itself that it can afford a military system with worldwide reach. Yet, few religious people have publicly said or acted as if we trust God enough to believe that the nation can afford a health care system that covers everyone in our society. The healing power of God witnessed in Jesus has not dwindled. It is simply hindered by the lack of trust by religious people, including religious people who profess to follow Jesus. Welcome to Nazareth.
The world is in a constant state of anxiety because of tensions between descendants of Isaac and descendants of Ishmael in the area formerly known as Palestine. The nation of Israel claims that it knows God through Abraham. Neighboring states claim to know God through Abraham and Mohammed. All the nations claim that they respect the teachings of Jesus. But they do not trust the “love thy neighbor as thyself” wisdom of Jesus. They do not respect the warnings of Jesus about covetousness. The reconciling love of God demonstrated in Jesus has not dwindled. It is simply hindered by religious people, including some followers of Jesus, who will not trust God’s love and blessings to cover Palestinians and Jews with equal strength. Welcome to Nazareth.
Hunger, disease, and loneliness threaten the lives, wellbeing, and inner peace of people in every family, community, and neighborhood where religion is preached and practiced. Christian people like to sing and teach about the love of God that is greater than all our sin. Our singing and teaching might cause us to feed, clothe, and love more people if we really trusted that love enough to embrace people with HIV and AIDS like we embrace people with lung cancer, diabetes, and eating disorders. We know so much about God’s love, yet we discriminate in the way we worship with sick people. Congregations never shrink from admitting people who eat too much, spend too much, or lie too much into our memberships, or ordaining them for ministry the way we do concerning people with HIV and AIDS. Do you wonder why more people with HIV and AIDS are not in our choirs, Sunday Schools, pulpits, and other ministry efforts? Remember Nazareth.
Religious powerlessness does not happen because God loses power, but because people who profess to know God do not trust God. People who sing about God’s love do not trust God enough to practice it in their own relationships. People who preach about God’s grace toward strangers do not trust God enough to challenge discrimination and hatefulness against immigrants. Nazareth reminds us that we already know enough about God to trust God. We don’t need more studies about God. We need more students who trust God’s goodness, grace, mercy, peace, truth, justice, hope, joy, and love enough to live it!
So the questions we face as followers of Jesus are simple. Is God’s power being hindered because we are stuck on what we once knew about God? Are we like the people of Nazareth, stuck in the past concerning who God is, what God’s love involves, and how God would have us operate? What else can or should God do before we will trust Him? However, the answers to those questions are not simple. Even Jesus was amazed by the failure of his family and hometown synagogue to trust God’s power at work in his life. When the people of God refuse to trust God in the face of overwhelming evidence of God’s power and purpose, that refusal is mind-boggling, even to God.
I hope that when the record of our living is read, told, or remembered, it will not be said of us as is written of Nazareth. I hope that we will not be remembered as people who were stuck on childhood memories about God’s love, childhood understanding about God’s purposes, and childhood applications of God’s truth. God has great power for love, healing, truth, justice, joy, and hope. We have more than enough evidence of that power in Jesus. Let the power loose! Let it loose by our trust. Let it loose by our actions that affirm trust in God’s love, power, truth, justice, hope, goodness, and joy. Let us trust God and let the power loose!
God’s will, power, glory, love, truth, peace, and joy will be revealed on Earth as the people of God trust the power of God in our living. Let it not be said of us that we resembled Nazareth!
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.