July 4, 2021
I want to emphasize the last line from our first reading… “Whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” I want us to hear those words again not just because they speak so well to our next scripture reading… I wanted to repeat those words because they ring so true in this time. Our default thought is that a prophet among us… that prophet has to be a person… an individual who speaks the word of the Lord… but… but what if we perceived the prophet not as the person… but the word itself.
Let’s turn now to the gospel of Mark chapter 6 starting with verse 1… as Jesus comes home to Nazareth where the people can’t recognize the prophet among them… neither the person nor the word.
Listen as God continues to speak to you.
READ Mark 6:1-13
In Mark, the prophetic word is “repent”. Back at the beginning of this gospel, that is the message Jesus takes out after his baptism and his time of temptation in the wilderness… he comes to Galilee proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” For those who have studied Mark with me, they know I refer to this proclamation as the thesis statement of Mark’s gospel. If it’s been a while since you’ve written an academic paper let me quickly remind you that a thesis statement is usually at the end of the first paragraph and contains both the topic and the controlling idea. Looking at how Mark’s gospel is structured this statement comes at the end of the introductory section just before Jesus begins his ministry. This is the controlling idea of Mark’s gospel.
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. This has been the prophetic word Jesus has been taking into all of Galilee. This is the message he is trying to get across. Sometimes the people hear what he is saying. More often, it seems in the story to this point, they can’t hear the words as they get distracted by other things… things like the miracles Jesus is performing. Early in this gospel story, the healing Jesus is bringing is threatening to obscure the words. The message is getting lost. His appearances are becoming a wild circus of chaos with people’s focus scattered and attaching to all manner of things… except, it seems, to the word Jesus is bringing. Repent. That word is getting buried in the amazement and the wonder and the relief of being unburdened by whatever affliction had a hold of them for so long. On the one hand, its completely understandable. On the other hand, it does show how the prophet… as the person and the word… the prophet can be right there among us and we neither hear nor see.
When Jesus comes to Nazareth you can almost see the same obscuring of the prophetic word happening in real time through the series of questions that get asked. At first those in the synagogue hear and they are astounded… and then… “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 just that fast… astonishment turns to their taking offense at him. Just that fast it goes from what he is saying to who is this saying these things. Just that fast it goes from hearing the good new to refusing to hear anything more. I think this is something that should feel natural to us because it’s come to represent our current media culture. We’re not heavy into the ideas these days… we don’t really take the time to ponder and wonder about the words… now we’re focused primarily on the person and the thin concept of what we believe that person represents. There’s depth to a prophetic word. There’s thought and reflection required. This a truth that transcends time and culture because the word comes from God… it’s imbued with the divine. But we’re not interested in the prophetic deep thinking being among us… instead today we create and churn through influencers. Our focus is on the trivial and the moment. Influencers have to keep feeding our baser instincts to keep our attention… they stoke our shallow sense of outrage… they have to keep manipulating that emotional knee jerk reaction if they want to stay in the game. And for the ones who do it well, they get to become celebrities.
If you look back at the gospel of Mark that’s one of the threats Jesus is facing in his early ministry. He is being turned into a celebrity where the people want him to only keep playing the hits. The message of repentance is being lost because they are making him into the message. And as shocking as this might be to hear… Jesus isn’t the message. He is the teacher of our faith. He is the example of our faith. He is the personification of our faith, but he himself isn’t the message. Do you understand what I’m saying? The distinction I’m trying to make? That’s what throws the people of Nazareth who start to focus on him… on this guy in front of them… this guy that they know… that grew up among them… whose family still lives next door and are active in the community. In the past, when I’ve given sermons on this passage, I have used the image of the little boy picking his nose and wiping his boogers on the wall. I like that image because it is so far removed from the way kid Jesus has been portrayed. Right? Kid Jesus growing up in Nazareth would never do such a thing. Kid Jesus is the clean, well-behaved, quiet and slightly removed kid who is magically wise beyond his years. We create the image that fits our celebrity fantasy of Jesus. Jesus is never the little boy covered in dirt and sweat with the crusty nose who has the habit of wiping his boogers on the wall when no one is watching. It seems to me that was the kind of kid the people of Nazareth remembered… so how could that kid astound them with the prophetic word he was bringing? Why listen to him say repent?
I remember more than a few years ago now, being met by an irate member of a congregation who didn’t like my booger inspired comparisons. She really took offense at it. So much so that she missed the whole point… she was so offended. I couldn’t ever convince her of the irony of the situation.
Mark puts the story of Jesus failing to be heard in Nazareth together with the twelve being sent out two by two. The unknown disciples… unknown compared to the spreading fame of Jesus… the unknown disciples go out with nothing but the same message Jesus has been bringing… the prophetic word to repent. If the people hear that word and want to learn more… stay there with them and share the faith that prophetic word has brought to you. If the people hear that word and refuse to listen… go on to the next place and bring the same word there. Either way… they would know that a prophet would have been among them.
The twelve… Ezekiel… Parkway… we are all tasked with taking out the word of the Lord… communicating the good news to the world. That’s what we do in worship. That’s what we do with the Mission projects we take on. That’s what we do through our education programs. That’s so much of what we are to do with wherever we happen to be on our own journeys of faith… communicate the good news and how that good news informs us. Early on I had a minister tell me that what we were supposed to… how did he put it… we weren’t supposed to sell the steak… we were supposed to sell the sizzle. That’s what we were about selling the sizzle. An advertising approach to spreading the gospel. And honestly… I think it was some of the worst advice I was ever given. Because while we’re so busy trying to sell the sizzle… we forget that its steak we’ve been given. We don’t need to sell the steak. People already want the steak. The steak is already good in and of itself. The steak doesn’t need our help. There’s nothing we can add to the steak that would make it better than it is. It’s what we decide is the sizzling selling point that gets us in trouble. It’s the sizzle that distracts us. It’s the sizzle we come to think of as the main point. It’s our success at selling that becomes the center of what we think we’re about and makes us add on all the things and more that we’re told we don’t need… add on what we think is essential to make the sale… when all we’re supposed to do is offer up the steak and give it away… just as it was given to us.
Ezekiel had a lot of hard words from God to give to the people of his time. I’m sure they took offense at both him and the words. There wasn’t much room to spin and sizzle and make them into something the people wanted to buy. Yet, that wasn’t what he was there to do. He was there to bring the word of the Lord as God spoke that word to him. Interestingly enough behind those hard words was this idea from God… “I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” Know what that sounds a lot like? Repent, and believe in the good news. Whether you hear or refuse to hear… know that there has been a prophet among you. Amen.