Unbelievable

July 8, 2018/Seventh Sunday After Pentecost/Richard E. Holmer

First Lesson: Ezekiel 2:1-5/Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10/Gospel: Mark 6:1-13

Unbelievable

When Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth and taught at the synagogue, his initially warm reception abruptly turned to a cold rejection.  Jesus remarked:  “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  Mark describes how Jesus “was amazed at their unbelief.”

These days, unbelief is not so amazing or unexpected.  We live in a world that, more and more, is characterized by unbelief.  In polls taken back in the 1950’s only 1% of the American population identified their religious affiliation as “None”.   Today the “nones” number close to 20% – 1 in 5 have no religious connection.  As recently as 1994, 96% of those polled claimed belief in God.  By 2014 that number dropped to 86%.

Our culture today resembles what Jesus encountered in Nazareth: many are not all that interested in, or impressed by Jesus.  Many assume they already know all there is to know about Jesus – they are not looking to discover more.  Jesus has become familiar – yet not truly known.  Familiarity can breed contempt.

I wonder if Jesus showed up today:  would there be anything about us that would amaze him?  (and by us, I mean you and me)  Would Jesus be amazed by our steadfast devotion to him?  Or by our chronic inconsistency?  Would Jesus be impressed by how much we have given to his church?  Or by how much we keep for ourselves?  Would Jesus be amazed by our many accomplishments in service to others?  Or by the many things left undone, human needs still unmet?  Would Jesus be amazed by our deep faith?  Or by the way faith often seems disconnected from much of our daily lives?

In this weeks REFLECTIONS I noted how we can function as practical atheists.  That is, we believe in God (in theory), but in practice we tend to rely on our own wits and resources.  You and I can operate as though God was not present and active in this world – that reality is determined by our plans and efforts and achievements.  Of course we would never say that we don’t believe in God – we’d all be in the 86% who say they do.  Yet our lives are often governed by influences and considerations totally apart from God.

A question I sometimes ask of our confirmation students is this:  If it was illegal to be a Christian – would there be enough evidence to get you convicted?  In other words, how deep is our faith in Jesus?  To what extent do we live by faith?  It’s one thing to believe that there is a God.  Living by faith and trust in God involves much more.

We are happy to praise Jesus, to embrace Jesus, to welcome Jesus – as long as Jesus doesn’t say or do anything to upset or offend us.  Which is pretty much how it went when Jesus came to Nazareth.  At first the community responds positively to the hometown boy who made good:  “They are astounded” at Jesus, asking  “what is this wisdom that has been given to him?”  They exclaim:  “What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”  But then the mood quickly shifts, and they begin to turn against Jesus.

“But in the next breath they were cutting him down:  “He’s just a carpenter – Mary’s boy.  We’ve known him since he was a kid.  We know his brothers, James, Justus, Jude, and Simon, and his sisters.  Who does he think he is?”

Mark doesn’t share what Jesus said as he taught in the synagogue at Nazareth.  Luke provides more details in his gospel:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in you hearing.” (Luke 4)

Jesus announces that he is the promised Messiah.  In Luke, Jesus is run out of town by an angry mob.  In Mark, he is simply given a stone cold rejection.  In any event, Jesus was not met with faith, but unbelief.

What does our behavior reveal about how we live out our faith in Jesus?  You all made it here for worship on a beautiful summer day – you are keeping the Sabbath.  Yet how many will stick around to participate in our VBS learning opportunities?  Who wants to learn and grow?  Still, you are in church.

There are many others who did not make it to worship at all today.  They are doing other things.  Maybe next Sunday…  There are even more in our community who would not even think of coming – on this or on any Sunday – even though there was a time in their lives when they went to church and claimed the name Christian.  They have not worshiped for years.

And beyond that, there are those who have no clue about Jesus. They don’t know enough to have anything close to an informed opinion about Jesus.  They don’t know Jesus from Moses or Mohammed or Buddha.

The truth, both in the first century and today, is that Jesus gets rejected, overlooked, ignored.  Not everyone falls head over heels for Jesus.  Not everyone embraces his gospel message.  Today’s gospel is often referred to as  “The Rejection at Nazareth”

How does Jesus handle rejection?  Certainly for anyone, it’s painful to be rejected:  for love to be unrequited, for an offer of mercy and justice to be turned down.  It had to be especially painful to be spurned by neighbors who knew Jesus and his family.  So what does Jesus do?  Does he look for some way to get even, to make them regret their cold reception, their unbelief?  NO.  Does Jesus decide to throw in the towel?  Does he say, “I guess this world is just not ready for me?” NO.

Jesus does just the opposite.  He doubles down on the mission.  In the face of rejection, he doesn’t waste any time on self-pity or recriminations.  Instead, Jesus sends out his disciples to expand the mission.  He sends them out, two by two, to share the good news , to cast out demons, to heal the sick.

The response to UNBELIEF is to keep sharing the good news – in words and deeds:  to live the gospel.  Now, we can’t make anybody believe in Jesus.  Yet we can share a message that’s worth believing.  We can share how trusting and following Jesus provides:  a foundation for our daily lives, a direction and a purpose for living, something great to hope for, to live for.  It’s been said that the only gospel some people will ever read is your life and mine.  That’s a serious responsibility.  You and I need to be intentional about doing all we can to actually LIVE THE GOSPEL.

It’s letting the light of Christ shine through the cracks in our imperfect lives.  It’s speaking unapologetically about our faith in God – about the hope that sustains our spirits, in spite of genuine grief and pain.  It’s loving people generously, compassionately, unselfishly – the way Jesus loves us.  It’s speaking words of encouragement and appreciation – instead of words of judgment and scorn.  It’s forgiving those who hurt or offend us, and asking forgiveness when we do the hurting.

Just as Jesus sent his disciples into a world that knew nothing of Jesus or the good news – you and I are sent into our daily rounds with a call to be the salt of the earth, light in the darkness, yeast that raises the dough. It doesn’t help to argue with unbelief.  What helps is faithfully demonstrating that the love of Jesus is real – and that through believing in him, all people can come to experience the life that really is life

Thanks be to God.

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