Sermon: Who Does he Think he is?

A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 4th July 2021

Ezekiel 2:1-5; Mark 6:1-13

What are your expectations about Jesus? Jesus confounded those held by people in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth. In Jesus’s day it was quite ok for an ordinary man (yes, a man, not a woman, I’m afraid) to speak in the synagogue, if invited to do so by the synagogue leaders. Maybe word had reached Nazareth that Jesus had healed the daughter of Jairus, a synagogue leader elsewhere. If so, synagogue leaders in Nazareth might have been open to him speaking in their synagogue.

What Jesus proceeded to teach was not what they had expected to hear. They were ‘astounded’ by him (6:2), which is not the same as coming to faith. In fact they were full of questions, many of which betrayed assumptions that were not flattering for Jesus: 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 hands? Is not this the carpenter, the Son of Mary? (Note that Joseph is no longer on the scene.) Isn’t he but one of a bunch of (named) brothers and (unnamed) sisters that we all know?

Mark, the Gospel writer, tells us, ‘they took offence at him’. (6:3) That’s the translation, but literally he was a ‘skandalon’ – a stumbling block. They were scandalised by Jesus. And what tripped them up was the contrast between Jesus’s authoritative teaching and actions, and their low expectations about who was or might be. He was a carpenter, not a religious professional, like priests, scribes or URC ministers. They referred to him as his mother’s son, not his father’s, which may have been a bit of a dig in those more patriarchal times. His brothers and sisters were obviously regarded as nothing out of the ordinary, so why should Jesus be so different?

Not only were ‘many who heard him were astounded,’ (6:2), but also Jesus ‘was amazed [at them and] their unbelief.’ (6:6) Such was the level of their unbelief ‘that he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and cured them.’ (6:5) In other words, on this occasion the power of God that was working through Jesus was limited by human resistance, though not completely frustrated, for God’s purposes are not dependent upon our response. A sovereign God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven, and Jesus’s healing of those ‘few sick people’ is the Gospel’s reminder and reassurance concerning that reality.

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy with folk in the Nazareth synagogue. We all find it difficult when things don’t go according to expectations. We live our lives on the basis that there is a pattern and a continuity to the way the world works; what goes up, comes down; what goes around, comes around. It’s part of what keeps us sane. And, by and large, we expect people to remain the same. Of course people grow and change, particularly when they are younger. One comment I’ve heard on a number of occasions concerns the children associated with this church: ‘Trevor, you won’t believe how much they have grown since we last met together.’

Once someone’s an adult, though, established in their work, perhaps as a carpenter; a member of a family that not notable in any way, then we have our expectations. So I can understand the reluctance to see Jesus in a new light, even though he had already begun a ministry of healing and teaching, and attracted a group of followers, some of whom had accompanied him back to Nazareth. (6:1) This incident makes me wonder about how I, or we, see Jesus, and whether our expectations about him need a bit of a shake-up, much like those synagogue members in Nazareth.

After all, we’ve known Jesus for quite some time. We’ve read and heard the stories about him; listened to sermon after sermon about him; most of us from childhood onwards. And over the years we have built up expectations about Jesus. I was trying to identify the expectations that I have about Jesus. It’s very hard work. That’s the thing about expectations – you tend to equate them with reality. You think, this is how things really are, when actually it’s just the way I’ve experienced things in the past, leading me to expect them to be this way in the future.

Whilst trying to figure out the difference between my expectations about Jesus and the reality of Jesus, I was struck by the second half of today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. Rejected by his own people, much as other Israelite prophets, such as Ezekiel, found themselves speaking to a people who refused to listen (2:5, 7), Jesus turned his attentions elsewhere. First, he went off on a teaching tour of other villages (6:6). Then he called together his closest followers, sending them off on a healing and preaching mission (6:7); ordering them to travel light (6:8-9), accepting hospitality where they were accepted, but be ready to move on when rejected. (6:10-11)

In Mark’s Gospel, having been rejected at Nazareth, his home town, Jesus never again heals or teaches in a synagogue. This makes me realise something about my expectations concerning Jesus. I expect to meet Jesus in a designated place of worship because that has been my experience, as someone who has grown up within the life of the Church.  So that’s where I put most of my effort and time in attempting to meet with Jesus in the present and the future. Being reminded, though, that Jesus, following this event in Nazareth, spent most of his time elsewhere, questions my expectation about where to find him in the here and now.

I’m not saying we don’t meet Jesus in church. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been much point in turning up here today. We do meet Jesus in church, but he’s expecting to be with us elsewhere, some of the time; perhaps most of the time. This mission of the Twelve, under the direction of Jesus, reminds us that church started out as a band of missionaries, working away from home.

As a congregation we are having conversations about what church life will look like when things ‘return to normal’. Today’s Gospel reading suggests to me our conversation should be as much or as more about what happens when we meet with Jesus outside the building; not so much about how things will be within the place where we usually expect to meet with Jesus, important though that is too.

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