Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on July 5 2009.
Ezekiel 2:1-5; Mark 6:1-13
He was starting to be a big fish, Jesus was, a big fish in a small pond. You see, at this point in his ministry he has pretty much limited himself to the environs of Galilee, that region surrounding his hometown of Nazareth. There was that little boat trip over to the area called the Decapolis where the Gentiles lived. But that’s as far as Jesus has gone. His reputation is growing and he’s becoming something of a local celebrity. Let me see if I can put it into a perspective you can appreciate… He’s the Ned Perme and Craig O’Neill of Galilee. But he’s still a Galilean right down to the bone, and that will never change.
When we moved to Baltimore in 1982, Janet and I had by that time lived in four different states. I attended seminary in Kentucky, we lived a couple of years just on the Virginia side of the Tennessee border, then we moved to middle Tennessee for the next six years. There was no reason for my Southern dialect to change… until we moved to Maryland.
The folks in our church there tried to convince me that Baltimore is in the South. After all, it is a few degrees below the Mason-Dixon Line, they would say. But I told them that anything north of Alabama, as far as I was concerned, was suspect. And did they make fun of the way I talked. The young adults especially had a good time with that.
You see, it wasn’t July by the way I said it. It was Ju-ly. I didn’t say pulpit, I said pull-pit. And pharaoh came out Phay-raoh.
One of my favorite stories has to do with our daughter Emily. She was nine when we moved north, and since she had lived the last six years in Nashville, Tennessee where the natives don’t just speak Southern but country Southern, her manner of speech was set. Until she started school. Peer pressure is an amazing thing. It didn’t take any time before she sounded like a native Baltimorean.
A year after we moved there, we came back home to Arkansas on vacation. Cruising through the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, I decided to pop a Gatlin Brothers tape in the machine and listen to some music (Baltimore hadn’t taken all of the Nashville out of me, at least not yet). After a few songs, the music was interrupted by the sound of a little girl reading a letter from a friend, and we couldn’t figure out who the little girl was. Emily didn’t know, neither did Tim or Janet. Finally, on the tape you could hear someone open the door behind the little girl, and the girl said, “Tim-oh-thy, get outta my rooooom.”
It was Emily after all.
A year had passed, and Emily’s way of speaking had changed so much she didn’t recognize herself on tape. And neither did the rest of us.
But Jesus hasn’t moved from Nazareth to Baltimore or anywhere else for that matter. He talks just like he always had, and anybody outside of Galilee would have picked up on that in a heartbeat. You just can’t deny where you come from. My brother Steve has lived in the Maryland/ Virginia area for more than thirty years, and he hasn’t even tried to change from his northeast Arkansas manner of speech. Still sounds like he’s straight outta Paragould. At least, that’s what he thinks.
But his attitude, his way of looking at life and faith has broadened and changed because he’s seen a bigger world. When we moved to Trumann in 1993, Tim was a real novelty at Trumann High School, as you might imagine. He had lived in different parts of the country and had seen and experienced other places. Most of his new friends in northeast Arkansas only knew that little part of the world. So to them, Tim was quite worldly.
That made Tim even more popular, but it didn’t work for Jesus, at least not in his hometown. It only made him suspect. “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hand!”
“He’s from these parts. He looks like us, talks like us, and went to school right here in Nazareth. But he doesn’t act like us. Why, we don’t teach these things to our children. He has a wisdom not seen in anyone in our town. Where did he get all this?”
They were, Mark tells us, “astounded.”
I’ve never tried to impress you with my knowledge of the Greek language. I may just know enough to be dangerous. But the word “astounded” is exeplessonto. It pretty much conveys it, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s hard to say it without an exclamation point at the end… exeplessonto! More important than the word itself is that it can be interpreted in a positive or a negative way. In other words, when his hometown folk express amazement at Jesus’ ability, they can be just as upset about it as they are impressed by it. What follows implies that their exeplessonto may not have been a good thing, because they turn on him.
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And then Mark adds his editorial comment, “And they took offense at him.” Actually, the word “offense” is not what is conveyed. Not exactly. The word could best be translated as “stumbled.” It is the same word, again in the Greek, that means scandal. Jesus’ own people, the ones with whom he grew up, the storekeepers and leather craftsmen, the farmers and animal tenders, the people who worked in the local market, the very folks who knew him best – his village – are scandalized by his presence.
Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in. Now, consider your own origins. There are some of you who have been associated with, or have been members of, this church all your life. Others of you have come from other parts. But imagine returning to the place from whence you have come, a place where you should be able to receive acceptance, trust, and loyalty. Instead, you are rejected because, in the eyes of your hometown folks, you’ve changed. And change cannot be tolerated.
That is how Jesus was received in his hometown. It is expressly because he is one of them, that he is a Galilean from Nazareth, that he’s got no business acting like he’s a somebody who knows things they don’t know and can do things they can’t do. Who does he think he is, putting on airs, coming across like some theological authority?
Do you recall the encounter between Philip and Nathanael? Philip is trying to convince his friend that he has found the Messiah. He almost has him convinced until he makes a mistake. “He is Jesus,” Philip says to his friend, “son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
First of all, the name Jesus (no doubt pronounced Hay-zeus) was as common to them as Bill or Bob or John is to us. But that’s okay. The Hebrews would expect the Coming One to be one of them. Philip’s mistake, however, was to tell Nathanael Jesus’ place of origin. This Jesus was from Nazareth. It was hearing this little bit of information that caused Nathanael to snort, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
That was the prevailing attitude of anyone who was not from Nazareth. No doubt, aware of how they were perceived outside the confines of their village, it could very well be possible that the Nazarenes have begun to believe in their own poor reputation. Nobody – not even Jesus, the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon – has the right to rise above the low level of their own mundane incompetence and expectations. Who does he think he is?
You’ve heard the expression, “familiarity breeds contempt”? The reason it has become an adage is that it is so often true. And if not contempt, sometimes familiarity breeds a lack of faith or imagination. Forgive me if I step on a few toes this morning. If I do, take a look at my shoes and you will see they are scuffed as well…
You come just about every week to worship, you sit in the same pew and in the same spot. One of our members who will go unnamed, when we were reconfiguring the outside pews two or three years ago, told me he wasn’t sure he could adapt to the change. The pew cushion had been molded to fit his behind, he told me. Or, since we’re in Arkansas, should it be “bee-hind”?
The furniture in this place is as familiar to you as the furnishings in your own home. You greet and meet with the same people you saw last week, you sing only the hymns you know well. You listen to the same preacher and know by the cadence of his voice when he’s about to end the sermon. And, you expect the same result this week that you expected last week and will no doubt expect next week… which is basically nothing. When worship is over, you go wherever the next meal takes you, whether it’s Wendy’s or your own home, or, as we are doing today, First Sunday Lunch. One Sunday rolls into another and then another, and as far as you’re concerned, they are all the same. You believe, at least subconsciously, in what the writer of Ecclesiastes said: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Your expectations are low because of your familiarity with this place. But not just your familiarity with this place… with your life, with your level of faith, with just about everything. And if someone comes in, or something happens, that is out of the ordinary, you raise your eyebrow or you grumble to your neighbor that this isn’t the way it’s always been and why is the church staff shaking things up. What right do we have to rise above our level – our mundane and usual and typical level – of behavior? We are who we are, it is what it is, and that’s the way we expect it to be. That’s the way we want it to be because that’s the way it ought to be.
Jesus had amazing success in those areas of Galilee outside of Nazareth. The entire city of Capernaum clamored for his power. The crowds were so thick that one crippled man had his friends drop him down at Jesus’ feet by ripping out a hole in the roof. Jesus told them stories of the kingdom of heaven, he healed a man of his withered hand. He was so popular they couldn’t even stop to eat a meal without being bothered by the crowds. He calmed a storm and fed thousands of hungry people in the wilderness. He raised a little girl from the dead, and even the touch of his garment brought healing to a chronically ill woman.
But when he went back to his hometown, he could do nothing because of their attitude toward him. But it wasn’t just their attitude toward him. It was their attitude about themselves. They were so used to things as they had always been, they expected nothing to change it. And when Jesus came in with a breath of fresh air and offered them a new way of life, they stifled him and drove him out of town.
The way Matthew tells the story Jesus would not do anything in Nazareth. Mark is more direct. He says Jesus could not do any deeds of power. You see, when it comes to faith and renewal, when the Spirit of God is prepared to breathe new life into old ways of thinking and doing and living, there has to be acceptance. When it comes to believing in and following Jesus – the Nazarene, I remind you – it takes a village. Jesus can do nothing in us if we do not believe he will do it, if we do not expect it, if we do not hunger for it.
I find it interesting that in three more places in the Gospel of Mark there are references to Jesus of Nazareth.1 Maybe I’m reading more into it than I should, but it seems to imply that Jesus never forgot from whence he had come. He never rejected his roots. Like my brother Steve, he didn’t attempt to mask his Galilean accent, he never turned his back on those who knew him best. He identified himself as a man from Nazareth.
But… he could do no deed of power there.
Can Jesus do any deeds of power here in this place, in you and in me? It took his hometown folk to prove that it takes a village to reject him. Perhaps it is time for us to reveal that it takes a village to respond to him and to his presence, and then give Jesus the opportunity to do a new thing in our hearts.
Lord, when you come to us – even and perhaps especially in that which is unfamiliar to us – we pray you will find us accepting of you. Do a new thing in us, and may we have the faith to follow you wherever the journey takes us. Amen.