What Did You Expect?
They planned a homecoming, the four boys and their sisters. Their brother had made good. He was the talk of the town, of the region, of the entire country. In every home and synagogue and right into the temple, people knew who Jesus was. And he was coming home!
They were expecting the homegrown rabbi that left home. The building must have been packed to capacity that day, full of anticipation, running over with pride, curiosity, and excitement. They were expecting a wonderful day. Wouldn’t you?
Aren’t you, as you plan the 20th anniversary of this congregation? What are you expecting? A refreshment, a renewal, a revival of some sort? An encouragement, an occasion for hope, an opportunity for something good to happen?
This gospel story is about the past and what people were expecting in the present. We have only the briefest of summaries, only a few details, only a snapshot of that day in the synagogue in Nazareth.
They were amazed. That is the way the gospel writer summarized it. They were amazed. How did that boy we remember turn into this! “Where did he get all this wisdom?” they asked. They knew it didn’t come from them, or from their elders, or from their little, ordinary synagogue. “He didn’t hear that here!”
“Where did Jesus get this power to perform these miracles?” That was their second question. And a good question it is. You have to have power, some kind of power, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to raise the dead.
They looked around that sabbath day in Nazareth. Yes, all the local people were there, everybody who remembered Jesus and knew his mother Mary and his brothers and sisters. They were all there. But so were hundreds of other people, from every village within walking distance and some from as far away as Caesarea and Jericho and even Jerusalem. They were the fans of the now-famous rabbi, may of them heal and freed and set right, many of them with testimonies of their own. “I was blind but now I see.”
Have you ever known a person who started out with you: in church, in school, perhaps in college? And made good? I mean, real good? Who started out ordinary and became extraordinary? I had a high school friend, Kathy Nail, who parlayed her looks and talent into a staring role in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” who caught the eye of the director, and now for more than three decades has been Mrs. Stephen Spielberg. That is the top of several piles!
How did that happen? What did she have? What help did she have? That’s what they said about Jesus.
“He’s just a carpenter! He’s just a kid. He’s Mary’s kid. He grew up here. He built my dinner table. He repaired my lamp stand. He designed our barn.” How does that explain this?
They scoffed, the text says. They were deeply offended. They refused to believe. Jesus couldn’t do many miracles while he was there: because of their attitude.
Think what could have happened! Think what could have happened that day, if they had not been so boxed in by the past, so limited by their memories, so controlled by what they were familiar with. North of Capernaum he fed five thousand people. At the Sea of Galilee, he walked on the water. At Jericho, he led Zacchaeus to real religion and hundreds of people got refunds. At Bethany, he called Lazarus out of the tomb and said, “Loose him and let go.”
What could have happened at Nazareth? Is there any limit to the people-changing, earth-shaking, history-changing things that could have happened. If they had not been so focused on their memories rather then their imaginations, on what had happened rather than what could happen, on what they remembered rather than what they longed for.
Homecomings are great. I love them. In fact, I am going in August to preach at the 125th anniversary of Third Baptist Church in Owensboro, Kentucky. I was there for the centennial 25 years ago. I am looking forward to returning. But if the day is filled only with memory and nostalgia and longing for what used to be, my presence and preaching will be wasted.
It was a wasted sabbath day in Nazareth. The text says, “He could do no miracles.” What a sad summary of that sabbath day.
Thank God, that story in the gospel is followed by another story. It is a story about the future, not the past. It is a story with new people, new places, new strategies, even a new message, a new gospel. And all of us who are entranced by the past, who have good memories of what church used to be, who wonder if the future is as promising as the past we remember, we need to move from the synagogue in Nazareth to the villages of Galilee.
Jesus called the Twelve together. He said, “We are not going Back to Nazareth. We are not going back into the past; we are headed into the future. We have a great work ahead of us, kingdom work, gospel work, God work.”
He gave them a new authority. Not one based on old institutions, old ordinations, old instructions, old networks, old methods. A new authority based on new directions, new interpretations, new friendships, new imperatives, new conditions, new possibilities. It was an authority to preach good news, to cast out evil spirits (and I don’t have to know exactly what that was to believe that it was a signal for a new day and a new way).
Jesus gave them new territory. “Go where God leads you”, he said. “Go here and go there. “Do not confine your travels to home and friends and family. Go to the stranger, the immigrant, the forgotten village and the fringe community. Pay no attention to familiar boundaries. Break down some barriers and build bridges to places you have never been. In fact, go into all the world, to every tribe, every nation, every city. Let your baptized imagination take you and carry you and lift you over every ravine and around every wall.”
It took years for this expansive vision of gospel work to settle into their souls and overcome their prejudges and their preferences. You recall the vision a few years later when one of this very Twelve was in Joppa on the coast when a Gentile seeker came to see him. God spoke to him, Simon Peter, in a vision of animals and a voice of anticipation. “Its all clean. The whole world is clean. Everybody you meet is clean. That is the good news. That is the gospel. God is the savior of all and Jesus died for us all.”
Jesus gave them new strategies. Leave behind, he said, the old reliable tools of the religious trade. No food, no bag, no money, no clothes, he said.
How do you travel without money, without our bag of things, and without an insulated container full of snacks and drinks and sandwiches and such? I’ve just returned from two long trips, a total of 14 days on the road over a period of three weeks. I know what to take and what it takes to travel well.
Jesus said, “Let’s do it different. Let’s leave behind some of these things. Let’s rethink the way we travel. In that instance, he said, take only your staff, your walking stick. I’m not sure why the walking stick was included, and the traveler’s bag was excluded. But this much I know: the future was to be different than the past, the destination was different, the strategy was different, the equipment was different; and it demanded that their attitude be different, their spirit be different, their faith, their courage, their confidence—it all had to be different.
Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready?
What is in your vision: a familiar homeplace or an unfamiliar horizon? Are you looking to the past or to the future? Are you ready to leave somethings behind and head toward what lies ahead?
Years after this remarkable reframing of what it meant to be engaged in the mission of God, Paul the Apostle wrote this, “This one thing I do, I forget those things what are behind and I reach for those things which are before me. I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
I want to quote Paul when he wrote about Jesus, but I want to apply it to Paul himself. “Let this mind be in you … which was in Paul.” This “mind” is that eagerness to relinquish what used to work, what is familiar, what is comfortable. This “mind” is a disposition to trust God, to believe that God has a good work for you to do: not the old work, but the new work.
“Behold, I do a new thing!” Those are the words of God recorded by Jeremiah.
Can I be a prophet today? I don’t want to be thrown into a cistern, like Jeremiah. I don’t want to be know as the weeping prophet, like Jeremiah. I don’t want my words to fall on deaf ears, like the words of Jeremiah did in his day, 2600 years ago. But I want to take up Jeremiah’s clarion call to live with courage, with conviction that God is doing a new thing.
This new thing is not just for Providence Baptist Church in Hendersonville, NC. God is doing a new thing across this land. There is a stirring and a shaking. There is a movement wide and deep: leaving Nazareth and all the people who are fixated on the way things used to be: leaving Nazareth and heading out toward the horizon where God is at work. Old structures, old denominations, old creeds, even old people like me—are being left behind. New visions, new networks, new ways of expressing what we mean when we say, Christian!
Brian McLaren entitled his last book, The Great Spiritual Migration. Like Abraham, people are leaving familiar places in search of a new Promise Land.
Sociologists tell us that for the first time in more than one hundred years the majority of Americans are not affiliated with a house of worship. One third of those raised Roman Catholic have left the Church and half of those have left the faith. It is a new reality in America as we celebrate the birthday of America. As we raise the flag and pledge our allegiance, we know that the mission of God, the work of Christ, the moving of the spirit of God is fraught with challenges.
It is not just this congregation that is facing a new future. It is the entire Christian community. The sex abuse scandal still plagues the Roman Catholic Church. Mainline Protestant churches are folding faster than we can count. This week, a church consultant from Minnesota told me on the phone:
“The congregation I am helping, in New England, voted to dissolve. Most of their members are homebound and all eight of their remaining, voting members agreed to shut down the church and sell their building to the YMCA across the street. For millions.”
The phrase I hear over and over again, in my circle of white protestant and evangelical ministers is this: “If that is what it means to be a Christian, count me out.” They are referring to the marriage between Christianity and the Republican Party. In 1970, half of all professing Christians were Democrats; today that number has been cut in half. 75% of Christians claim affiliation with the Republicans; and today that means Trumpism. This is proving problematic for Christians of all kinds.
Three weeks ago I went to Nashville to cover the Southern Baptist Convention. It was a struggle between the Yes Trump voters and the Never Trump voters.
Then came the pandemic. It is one challenge upon another. This is the new world facing us on this Fourth of July. Diana Butler Bass published her book this spring seeking to answer this question: “How can I still be a Christian?” With the church in disarray, still drawing boundaries about who can take communion, still resisting the world wide movement for racial justice, still more consumed about its own survival than it is about the kingdom of God and the care of humanity: what are we to do? How can we have hope? Where is Jesus the Risen Lord? Which way is the Spirit moving?
This is the challenge for all of us. It is tempting to want to go home as we remember home, to retreat into the familiar, the comfortable, the easy way we know so well. But remember when the family and friends of Jesus attempted that: they expected a big revival. What they found was a Jesus they did not know and like. Jesus, the text says, could do no mighty works. They were looking backwards instead of forward.
No. Jesus sends us out, into the strange new world, among the people we do not know and do not understand. There, God is at work. There, Jesus is powerful. There, the Holy Spirit of the living God is saving, calling, redeeming, challenging, renewing, building the church of God, the community of faith, the cohort of disciples evangelizing anew this wonderful country we call the United States of America.
Do you remember what Martha said to Mary after Lazarus died and Jesus arrived too late? “Mary, our rabbi Jesus is here and is calling for you!” I announce the same today: Jesus is here, full of healing, casting, raising, redeeming power, and he is calling for you. For me, for all of you, saying, “Come follow me. Deny yourself. Take up the cross, that cross of salvation, of redemption, of forgiveness, of new life, and follow me.”
Are you ready? Am I ready?