Dr. Chris White Dec 8th 2013
The story of Jesus is not an urban Jerusalem story. Jerusalem is where he will die, but not where he will be born or live. The story of Jesus is a small town, rural story. There are many ways God could have worked these details, but the details of his conception and childhood came through a hometown, Nazareth, that was a small town. And a small town makes for a unique path for anyone God calls to be a truth-teller, much less a Messiah. Small town people that we are, we know a little bit about Nazareth.
Read Mark 6:1-6: Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that’s been given him, that he even does miracles? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” and they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.
Jesus enters Nazareth from Capernaum with his disciples, telling us that this is a ministry trip to his hometown. And on the Sabbath he rises to teach, as a rabbi might. The results are mixed. In Luke 4 a fuller version of the event comes to us, and there Jesus makes a bolder statement about his place in God’s plans with a quote from Isaiah 61: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. We don’t know all that he taught in the synagogue, but we do know that those hearing him will display amazement for what he says. Miracles were not the norm when he lived among them. In fact, his reputation is such that they can only confess confusion; the old pieces do not fit this new story of Jesus. Finally we’ll see a cynical rejection . The move is from “How is he able to say this?” to “How dare he say this?” The movement is from amazement to offense, from man of miracles to common Mary’s common son.
And then these details of verses 5-6: No miracles there except the healing of sick people, amazed at their lack of faith. When Jesus returns to a home-town, he brings a version of himself that is far more valuable than the one they remember—the boy, the builder. But they cannot, will not see him.
If we know anything about the truth of a Bible passage, we know this one inside and out, because we know the power and pitfalls of familiarity.
We know, on the one hand, the graceful power of familiarity when following God in a hometown. The townspeople that knew Jesus and his family might have had the easiest leap of faith to accept Jesus as Messiah. That he displays this kind of wisdom and even miracles could be a sign to those familiar with Jesus that something is happening. They remember a boy that was like any other boy, but this is not the man before them. He was never a magician, never a rabbi, and now he amazes with wisdom and miracle. Either he was throwing a cloak over everyone’s eyes as a boy or something true was happening in Jesus. They were in the perfect position to recognize the work of God in Jesus because they knew Jesus. Oddly enough, only when they start to list all the ways they know Jesus do they begin to doubt him. The opposite should have been true. Surely someone in the synagogue had looked Jesus in the eye in his lifetime in Nazareth and would now know the eyes of a man telling the truth. As we’ll see with his mother and a brother so prominent later in the church, those who knew him were in a unique place to know him. If they could accept the familiarity of Jesus.
Familiarity and predictability get a bad rap. We usually translate these “boring.” But we might also translate these “consistent,” “secure,” and “formational.” Don’t underestimate what God can do in your life with familiar people and places. Don’t begin to think that it has to be a sharp turn if it is from God or exotic if it is a calling. Don’t lose sight of God’s dependence on the familiar: Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise…You shall write them on the doorposts of your house. (Deut. 6:4-9) The teaching of children was not handed off to strangers but to familiar adults in the life of a child. The power rested in the familiar people, the consistent people. When these people spoke, the words carried weight.
This is why Paul can say what he says to Timothy (2 Tim. 1:1-7). This is also why you can say to a familiar friend what no one else can say with effect. In fact, no one can say what you can say to some people.
We also know, however, the pitfalls of familiarity when following God in a hometown. A commentator wrote this about the story: “God is concealed in the commonplace.” That is, God is not always so obvious in a place where everything is obvious. The people around Jesus defined the obvious and swore by the obvious. Sure, wisdom and a whiff of miracle come to the synagogue with Jesus, but “Mary’s son” trumps miracles. Jesus is in the “Mary’s son” box, and they swore by their boxes. There is obvious snobbery here, for they speak of Jesus as a carpenter, not a rabbi. And as the Luke 4 account reveals, they are not about to take criticism from one they know so well. That they know so much about him is the problem. Or that they think they know so much about him is the problem. They have that seen-it-all, heard-it-all, know-it-all scorn when they listen to Jesus. They would tell us that Jesus is too familiar to be anything but Mary’s son.
We face the same challenge when it comes to Jesus and God’s work through him in our lives. We can know Him so well, or at least talk about knowing him so well, that we stop knowing Him at all. We’ve heard so much said about God, and we’ve talked so much about God, and it is all so familiar, that we carry the scorn of the familiar—nothing new to learn, nowhere new to go. One writer once noted, “The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting; it has not been tried.” Instead of worshiping a God who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to the power at work within us (Eph. 3:20), we reduce him to what is familiar and predictable. We reduce Him to what we think about Him. And that is all we get. No wonder we’re disappointed with faith in God.
Faith in Christ does not lead to a balanced life. We do not get to pick one familiar story or version of Jesus and hold it like a family album. A wholly biblical view of God’s will requires that we deal with Judgment Jesus (where sin is not tolerated) as well as Prodigal Son Jesus (where forgiveness is radical). We must deal with Narrow Way Jesus (where a lonely road is required) and eating-with-Levi Jesus (where sinners are at the table). It has to include quietly serving the least among us, publicly confessing Christ, and regularly forgiving those who offend us. It means to be on your heels.
It means, I think, a willingness to move into unfamiliar territory. We start with a confession and offer it as a prayer: “I am not so familiar with God that I know all there is to know.” That prayer will take you places.