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Limiting God



I well remember the first time I preached. It was in my home church, La Jolla Presbyterian in California. I was in eleventh grade and it was Youth Sunday. The young people of the church did everything in the service that day and it was all organized by the youth pastor. He picked one middle school student, one high school student, and one college student to deliver the sermon. Thus, the three of us had to coordinate our messages. We each had ten minutes and, as I recall, I was the only one to go overtime.

We had two services in my home church with about seven hundred people in each service. I remember that I was a little bit nervous and so my throat got rather dry about halfway through my message in the first service. Thankfully, there was a glass of water in the pulpit. I took a sip of water and said something funny about it. Everyone laughed. Therefore, I did the same thing in the second service. However, some of my friends from youth group were in both services, so they gave me no end of teasing for having used the same joke twice. Preaching to your hometown crowd can be difficult.

Jesus experienced the same thing, but in a far more intense fashion, with a lot more at stake. Let us read together about Jesus’ preaching mission in his hometown of Nazareth from Mark 6:1-5….

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “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 and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

I believe that this text raises a number of questions. The first one is: What is our response to Jesus?

We read that when Jesus taught in the synagogue in Nazareth many who heard him were astounded. I wonder: Are we astounded at Jesus?

The word for “astounded” here literally means: “to strike out of”. Thus, in this context the word means: to strike out of one’s wits, to be astounded, astonished, or amazed.

Unfortunately, many of us are so familiar with the words and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels that they cease to amaze us. Perhaps, as someone once suggested, every year we ought to forget everything we think we know about Jesus and try to look at the Gospels in a fresh way.

Linda Dupree writes…
As the only English teacher in a small rural school, I had the mixed pleasure of teaching my own three sons. They begged me not to call on them in class, use them as examples, or tell any family stories—to which I agreed. On the first day of class, they each invariably would choose a seat in the far corner and refused to make eye contact. I left them alone. But making it to the high school English class was a rite of passage for the rest of the students, who were eager to participate in Mrs. Dupree’s class. I watched as my children began to see me through the eyes of others. One day my oldest asked me in puzzlement, “Mama, do they know who you are?” I’m sure he was referring to the fact that I was “just” a mother. To which I responded, “Son, do you know who I am?”[1]

As the saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Sometimes, our over-familiarity with Jesus blinds our eyes to the amazing, astounding, astonishing fact of who he really is.

Another thing we see the people of Nazareth doing in response to Jesus in this passage is asking questions. Furthermore, they are good questions. Let’s look at each of them….

First, the people in the synagogue asked: “Where did this man get all this?” This question arose out of their astonishment. They knew Jesus. They had watched him grow up and live in their village for thirty years. They knew he had not attended any rabbinical school. They naturally wondered, “How could Jesus have attained such knowledge without an education?” This was a great question to ask. However, as we will see in a moment, the people of Nazareth did not take the time to seek out the right answer to their question.

The second question they asked was another good one. “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?” This question really gets at the nature of Jesus’ teaching. Mark does not tell us what text from the Hebrew Scriptures Jesus was expounding upon. However, the people of Nazareth realized that Jesus’ wisdom was beyond the norm. His wisdom was not like that of any other teacher they had ever heard. The members of the synagogue realized that such wisdom had to be given to Jesus, but where did it come from? The people of Nazareth would have done well to follow the wisdom back to its source, to trace the sunbeam back up to the sun, but they did not.

The third question asked by the people of Nazareth appears as an exclamation in the New Revised Standard Version: “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” However, in the New American Standard Version this statement appears as a question wrapped together with the preceding questions. Mark does not record here any miracles being done by Jesus at this time in the synagogue in Nazareth. Therefore, the people must have heard about Jesus’ miracles performed elsewhere. Perhaps they heard the report of Jesus healing the woman with the issue of blood, or raising the twelve-year-old girl from the dead—two stories we looked at last week. In any case, the people of Nazareth were astounded by these reports and wondered how Jesus could be performing such miracles.
The fourth question that the people ask is: “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?”

This too is a good question because it gets to the very heart of the matter—the identity of Jesus. The problem with the people of Nazareth is that they think they know the complete answer to this question.

There is more to Jesus than this. He is indeed the one who can fix things in wood, but he can fix more than a broken wall, a dilapidated roof, or a crooked gate. Jesus is the go-to man to fix our lives, to set the world and the universe to rights.

The people of Nazareth ask: “Is not this…the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

You may wonder why the text does not mention Joseph. This is probably because Joseph had already died. Furthermore, this may be the reason why Jesus did not embark on his mission of preaching and healing until he was thirty years old. He had to stay at home and help with the family business until one of his brothers was old enough to take it over.

The people of Nazareth thought that because they knew Jesus’ family and had seen him grow up in their midst, therefore they had him figured out. However, they did not. One’s family does not completely define any person, let alone Jesus.

Still, the people of Nazareth asked good questions. It makes me wonder: do we ask good questions in response to what we hear and see in the Gospels, or are we blasé about it all?

The ultimate question raised by the Gospels is: Who is Jesus?
The people in the synagogue at Nazareth were, at rock bottom, asking this same question. However, instead of opening their minds to the possibility that Jesus was sent by God, they closed their minds and became offended by Jesus. Basically their reaction to Jesus was to say: “Who does he think he is, coming in here and telling us how to live? After all we used to change his diapers!”

I wonder: Do we ever take offense at Jesus?

Sometimes others who do not share our faith are not really offended by Jesus so much as they are offended by obnoxious Christians. Stephen Nordbye writes…

While ministering on a college campus in Minnesota, I had the opportunity to share the gospel with Glenn, a student and musician who sang and played his guitar in local bars and restaurants to help cover his tuition costs. While having lunch with him one day, Glenn related an incident that occurred while he was playing at a local eatery.

During a break from his set, a table of people invited him to join them. He did so, and they immediately surrounded him and began talking about Jesus. He recalled, “I finally just got up and left. I was so offended; we didn’t agree on one thing!”

Recalling our previous lunch conversations about religion and Christianity, I said, “Glenn, there is not much we agree on either.”

I’ve never forgotten his simple yet profound reply. “Yeah, but you listen to me.”[2]

Maybe we all need to listen better to those who believe differently than we do. Then, perhaps, we can help others to see that Jesus is not just the great preacher, but also the great listener, who is ready and waiting to hear from us.

That leads to another great question raised by this passage: What is Jesus’ response to us?

We see here Jesus’ response to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth. He tells them very clearly who he is: a prophet. Yes, Jesus is more than a prophet. The rest of the Gospel makes this clear. However, he is at least a prophet, and Jesus shows his humility by assuming, in a way, this lowly title.

However, Jesus does not simply tell us who he is. He shows us who he is: by his deeds of power. Jesus performs deeds of power like the prophets of old. There are stories in the Hebrew Scriptures about Elijah and Elisha raising the dead. However, as amazing as these stories are, Jesus is the only prophet who rises from the dead himself. This sets Jesus apart as being something more than a prophet.

We see here that Jesus also tells it like it is. His response to us is to speak to us in all honesty. He says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” In other words, Jesus says in so many words: “I know you are rejecting me, and that rejection saddens me.”

Robert Simms writes…

Cary Grant once told how he was walking along a street and met a fellow whose eyes locked onto him with excitement. The man said, “Wait a minute, you’re ... you’re—I know who you are; don’t tell me—uh, Rock Hud—No, you’re ...” Grant thought he’d help him, so he finished the man’s sentence: “Cary Grant.” And the fellow said, “No, that’s not it! You’re ...” There was Cary Grant indentifying himself with his own name, but the fellow had someone else in mind.
John says of Jesus, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10 NIV). And even when Jesus identified who he was—the Son of God—the response was not a welcome recognition, but rather the Crucifixion.[3]

Now here is the really important thing: Our response to Jesus may determine how much of God’s power we know in our lives, in our churches, in our communities.

We read that Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” The people’s lack of faith actually limited Jesus’ power in their midst.

Now it is not as though Jesus’ power is limited in any ultimate sense. He still retains all power and authority no matter what we believe about him, or do not believe.

C. S. Lewis wrote in his book, The Problem of Pain, “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”
We cannot limit Jesus’ power in any ultimate sense in the universe as a whole. However, because God has given us free choice, we can limit Jesus’ power in us as individuals. Churches can limit Jesus’ power in their midst by collectively choosing to ignore the Holy Spirit. Communities can limit Jesus’ power in their neighborhoods by refusing to believe in him. Free will is truly an awesome and frightening gift.
This story from the Gospel of Mark shows us the importance of awareness, remaining aware and open to God’s presence among us. I believe the following story well illustrates the importance of awareness….
Joshua Bell emerged from the Metro and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript—a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money and began to play.

For the next 45 minutes, in the D.C. Metro on January 12, 2007, Bell played Mozart and Schubert as over 1,000 people streamed by, most hardly taking notice. If they had paid attention, they might have recognized the young man for the world-renowned violinist he is. They also might have noted the violin he played—a rare Stradivarius worth over $3 million. It was all part of a project arranged by The Washington Post—“an experiment in context, perception, and priorities—as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste. In a banal setting, at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

Just three days earlier, Joshua Bell sold out Boston Symphony Hall, with ordinary seats going for $100. In the subway, Bell garnered about $32 from the 27 people who stopped long enough to give a donation.[4]

If we had been walking through the Metro that day, would our awareness be keen enough, our imagination wide enough to recognize, receive, and appropriately respond to a world-renowned musician?

What about in relation to God? Is our awareness keen enough, our imagination wide enough, to recognize, receive and appropriately respond to his presence in the midst of our ordinary, everyday lives?



[1] Linda H. Dupree, Goldonna, Louisiana, http://preachingtoday.com
[2] Stephen Nordbye, Charlton, Massachusetts, http://preachingtoday.com
[3] Robert F. Simms, Boone, North Carolina. Leadership, Vol. 11, no. 4
[4] Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” The Washington Post (4-10-07); submitted by Stephen Nordbye, Charlton, Massachusetts

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