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Monday, July 16, 2012

Astonished by Jesus


            Our family, especially Henry, has fallen in love with the game of Monopoly.  Our version is not the traditional one, with Boardwalk and Park Place.  Ours is NFL Monopoly.  You buy NFL teams, and if you get a monopoly, you put not houses, but locker rooms on it. 

            So, we’re playing the other day, and where Henry is sitting, across from the window, his line of vision is right into the backyard.  Casually, he says, “I see a deer.”  We didn’t pay attention.  He was nonchalant, but then he said it again, smiling.  I looked up.  O wow, a deer is in the yard. 

            I know just about everybody sees them around here.  It reminds me of a time I went hiking in the national park a 90 minute drive west of Washington DC when I lived in that area.  I hiked all day and saw no wildlife.  Upon returning to DC, I drove downtown, and within the District, I saw three dear.

            After Henry’s second announcement we all looked up, and I said quickly, “Igor.”  My oldest son sprang into action, running to the backyard.  He made this shrill high pitched noise, scaring the deer out of our yard.  Cruel? 

Two days earlier, we made a family event of watching the deer munch fallen apples from our apple tree.  The apples are typically worm-ridden and too tart for our tastes, so we’re happy to share with our hooved friends.  As we quietly watched the graceful creature enjoy the apple, my wife Candy said out of the corner of her mouth, with a bit of an edge, “This is fine.  But if that deer gets near my tomatoes.” 

When Henry spotted the deer while Igor landed Free Parking (again!), that pesky varmint was enjoying a garden salad.  (Notice how they go from graceful beauty to pesky varmint just by changing their choice of fruits?)  By running the deer off, Igor was doing exactly what his mom told him to do.  And it only happened because Henry saw and spoke on what he saw.  He was a faithful witness and his testimony made a difference.

We probably all agree that the salvation of the world is of higher importance than the salvation of the tomatoes.  There is greater urgency in seeing Jesus and giving faithful testimony related to Jesus and the Kingdom of God and the salvation God gives – salvation from sin and death for all people.  That salvation is missed if people never turn their attention to Jesus, never open their ears and hearts to His message, never submit their lives to Him and acknowledge Him as Lord, and never receive the forgiveness he accomplished and extends to us. 

As Paul writes in Romans 10, “How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him” (v.14)?  It matters tremendously that we see Jesus.  It is urgent that we speak of what we have seen and what we know. 

Walking through Mark’s Gospel, we follow Jesus from the Gentile region of the Garasenes across the Sea to Capernaum.  There he brings back to life the recently deceased daughter of a synagogue leader (5:39-42).  While walking in a crowded procession to perform this work of wonder, he heals a woman who had suffered from a blood flow problem that rendered her unclean.  For 12 years she had been expelled from synagogue and temple, and she was unwelcome in civil society through no fault of her own.  A touch from Jesus and she was well.

Word was spreads.  In Capernaum they all know Jesus had to be from God.  In that gentile region of the Garasenes, it is clear.  He defeated 1000 demons and restored the life of a tormented man.  On the way to the Garasenes, he stilled a raging storm at sea.  Everywhere Jesus went the calm and peace and joy and reign of God went.  Everything he touched was made well, transformed, and given new life.

Then, Jesus returns to his hometown.  The Bible is completely silent on the majority of Jesus’ life, from age 3-30.  There’s a blurb in Luke about the adolescent Jesus in the temple, but other than that, he was a nondescript tradesman in an out-of-the-way town.  At the start of Mark 6, he returned to that town. 

“On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue and many who heard him were astounded” (6:2).

Have you been astonished?  When I am, I talk about it.  I tell about it when I am mildly interested. A deer in the backyard – oh, that’s cool.  What if it were a tiger?  After making sure all the kids were inside I’d be talking – giving my witness to the police department, animal control, and then maybe CNN. 

Calming storms? The disciples were amazed and were talking about it.  Victory over 1000’s of demons?  People in the Garasenes and all over the Decapolis were buzzing.  Raising the dead?  Yeah, Jesus was on the mind and his name came from the lips of rich men and common folk alike in Capernaum.  But Nazareth?  Without even seeing miracles, just hearing him teaching, they were astounded.  They had never heard teaching with such authority, wisdom, and passion.  But they didn’t react as favorably as others did. 

Where did he get these ideas about the Kingdom of God?  What does it mean saying that it is time for the feast because the bridegroom is here and God’s kingdom had begun and there is forgiveness of sins?  He’s a carpenter!  My cousin is every bit the carpenter this Jesus ever was, and my cousin doesn’t talk about the kingdom of God.  He sticks to the workshop. 

O, they quickly jumped from astonishment to irritation to open scorn. 

They reduce Jesus by going to great length to say he is not anyone special.  They name his brothers, common folks all.  They refuse to deign to even name his sisters.  They disrespect his family by ignoring Joseph. 

Isn’t he Mary’s boy?

The derision and complete absence of faith is so palpable Mark writes, “He could do no deed of power there. … He was amazed by their unbelief” (v.5a, 6).  Astounded by his words, they responded by rejecting him.  And he was then astounded at how spiritually dead his old neighbors were. 

Don’t be troubled that Mark says he couldn’t work miracles among his own kin.  Barbara Brown Taylor explains that it was not a case where Jesus was rendered impotent.  Rather, he was lighting a spiritual fire in all that did, a signal that the Kingdom light was dawning.  But these particular synagogue goers weren’t open to God’s movement among them.  She writes, “If you have ever pressed a match to a pile of wet sticks, then you know what it was like.  It does not matter how strong your flame is.  What you need is something that will catch.”[i]

Are we fresh kindling ready to burst into flame?  Or are we wet sticks, soaked in bitterness?  Are we saturated in such sophistication – the wonders of 21st century technology and the answers of today’s science - that we have no room for miracles we cannot explain or control?  I love technology and am learning more about science, but I don’t love it when these things dilute faith or marginalize it.

Are we drenched with doubt, stress, burdens of the world that overwhelm us so we have no energy to receive and respond to the News that is both Good and New? 

Are we so familiar that we know Jesus too well, have heard the same old story too many times, so that we now lack ears to hear?  I love that stories from scripture like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan are known to the point that most anybody in society could reference them.  But has our thoughts on the Gospel rendered it so familiar and old hat that it is no longer seen as radical and life-changing?

Jesus is here every week.  This gathering of people who claim to be his followers, ‘little Christs,’ Christians – this gathering is the body of Christ, singing praise, proclaiming truth, and sharing agape love.  Jesus speaks here and wherever his body gathers.  This Bible is the living Word of God.  When it is read, Jesus speaks and shows what the Kingdom of God is.  Do we hear?  Can we see?  Will we tell? 

Jesus moves on from Nazareth.  Amazed by the lack of faith and stinging from the rejection from people who knew him best (or thought they did) he would hit the road and shine his light elsewhere.  He found more receptive places to share the truth of the Kingdom.   He won’t hang around groups that aren’t willing to see him, listen to him, and submit to Him as Lord and follow Him as Master. 

The Good News of the Kingdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ is for those who have “ears to hear.”  That New Testament phrase indicates people who listen openly and receptively.  We can listen with scrutiny as well.  I have probably close to a thousand pages from medical doctors, lawyers, archaeologists, theologians, and historians as they debate whether or not the resurrection truly happened.  By trust and by faith, I accept that Jesus was dead and rose to life.  As a critical thinker, it does no damage to my faith to examine the facts thoroughly.  Being scrutinizing and thinking critically do not damage our ability to have ears to hear. 

“Ears to hear, eyes to see” begins with our attitude.  We must approach the Word and approach God humbly and expectantly.  Our confidence in what God has done – the death and resurrection of Jesus; and our confidence in what God has given us – the Word and the Holy Spirit – this leads us to believe that whatever new things God does will be consistent with what God had done and will in fact be a continuation of it.  Thus, Mormonism or Islam which both claim to venerate Jesus would not be considered a new thing God has done because in these faiths, there is direct contradiction to what the New Testament says about Jesus.  They are not faithful witnesses.

To respond as a faithful witness to life, teaching, and Gospel of Jesus, we have to hear it, experience it, and share it.  God’s new work is the salvation of those who come to Him when they are introduced to him through our witness and testimony.

Mark immediately shares an example of this.  Jesus neighbors had rejected the carpenter they thought they knew, he walked away, and then he tested his disciples.  Had the 12 who had been through so much with him been listening, or were they also a pile of wet sticks unwilling to be ignited?

He sent them out in teams of two with no provisions – no food, no luggage, no money.  Don’t even bring an extra cloak.  Trust God for everything – warmth, nourishment, the words to say when you are confronted by demons from Hell – everything.  So often in Mark, the disciples’ mistakes are highlighted.  But, here, in 6:12, it says they went out and proclaimed that people needed to repent of sin, and people listened.  They cast demons out of the possessed.  They healed incurable sicknesses.  The very thing unbelief prevented in Nazareth, even when attempted by Jesus, the disciples accomplished as they covered many miles passing through the villages of Northern Israel. 

Two attitudes – “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt;” or, openness, “ears to hear.”  The Lord is going to introduce the world to His Kingdom ruled by Jesus, and he’ll use those who are awake to His newness to be the heralds.  Those who meet Jesus and are astonished and react to their amazement by repenting and coming to faith in Him are the heralds who will testify to all that God is doing.  God has no use for the “been there, done that” crowd. 

Next in Mark is the death of John the Baptist, the ultimate example of one who heard the call of God and responded with faith and action.  He preached the repentance Gospel even before Jesus, preaching in anticipation of Jesus, and eventually, was arrested.  Herod executed John, heard of all that Jesus and the disciples were doing, and was terrified that the Baptizer had come back to life. 

Our witness does not guarantee a good response.  Just because we hear Jesus, does not mean others will when we tell.  We tell in a way that shows Jesus’ love.  We try to tell so it will be heard.  The first time Henry spoke of the deer, he was ignored by Igor and me as Igor tried in every way he could think of to get me to sell him a monopoly.  Henry spoke up again and we reacted.  If we had not, the deer would have enjoyed some tomatoes and I would have had some explaining to do.

The people Jesus grew up with in Nazareth were amazed and astonished by him but their familiarity bred contempt and they dismissed him.  His disciples were equally amazed and they did what he said, and they were able to do what he did.  Later, when their delusions of grandeur and then their fears clouded their vision, they failed to have ears to hear.  After the resurrection, their hearing improved.

Herod, self-absorbed and hedonistic, was amazed as God spoke through John the Baptist, but in his lust for power, he couldn’t break down and submit to God.  He ultimately played the role of evil in the story.  John the Baptist had hears to hear and faith to respond.  It cost him his life as suffered the way his master suffered.  But John’s name now is exalted as one of the great men of faith in the history of the world.  He was even praised by Jesus himself. 

So here we are.  The body of Christ has gathered.  By his abundant grace, the word of God is in our hands.  His Holy Spirit hovers over our worship.  We can be astonished by Jesus.  What then?  What do we hear?  And what do we do with it?

AMEN



[i] Taylor, Bread of Angels, Cowly Publications (Cambridge, MA, 1997), p.105.

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