“When the Good News Doesn’t Seem So Good”

Mark 6: 1-13

Mark 6: 1-13
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did  his 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 they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Today we encounter Jesus on his home turf. He has returned to Nazareth with his disciples in tow. He teaches in the synagogue, sharing the good news that he has been spreading far and wide. How do  the people react? They can’t believe it. They basically say, “Who does this guy think he is? Is this Mary’s little boy all grown up thinking he’s smarter than we are now?” They’re astounded that this kid from down the block has gotten too big for his britches and wants to teach them a thing or two. The text goes so far as to say that they are offended.

What is so offensive about his message? The text in Mark does not specifically say what he was teaching, but from gospel parallels we can imagine what he may have been talking to them about. He was most likely telling them about God’s power and glory. Perhaps he was imploring them to change their ways and do more to serve others, create peace and honor God. Maybe he shared with them how he had just come from casting out a legion of demons and raising a little girl from the dead. Or he could have told them that he was there to heal those who were sick, which is what he goes on to do after he is rejected by the people in the synagogue.

In a parallel reading from the gospel according to Luke 4:15-25, it says

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 ‘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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Does this sound offensive to you? If you are poor, captive, oppressed or blind this is a particularly positive message.

This sounds like good news to me. In fact, in Christianity the message and story of Jesus is called the good news. The term is derived from the Greek euangélion, which is also translated as “gospel” or “glad tidings”. In Old English, it was translated as gōdspel (gōd “good” + spel “news”). The Old English term gospel meaning good news is still used today. The written accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus are known as “Gospels”. A key theme of the Christian good news is new life through Jesus.

In my mind, I enjoy picturing Jesus going around spreading good news about a better way of life. I think he had an incredible message to share with people about love, healing, grace and transformation. So let’s ask ourselves what about this good news made it sound like it was not such good news to the people in Nazareth and quite possibly to us here today? The first challenge was the people’s perception of who was sharing the message. The second obstacle was the message itself.

The townsfolk refused to recognize God at work in a hometown boy, and recite his family history as proof that his teaching is a sign of over-reaching and possibly even arrogance. Rather than embracing Jesus as their spiritual leader, the assembly at the synagogue misses out on what God is doing through Jesus in their midst. Theologian Matthew Skinner says that “they barricade themselves from the fullness of blessings that God might have poured out in Nazareth.” Many writers would remind us of the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” They think they know Jesus, and in their minds the person they know is not capable of such impressive acts or deep wisdom.

When we hear about Jesus he has already been famous for roughly 2,000 years. When the people who heard him in person listened to him, he was just the guy from next door who had gone for a trip and come back with some wacky ideas. There are two important lessons for us here. Can we count ourselves among the crowd that hears Jesus’ message and writes it off? Do you take Jesus seriously? Or do you take offense at some of what he had to say, believing that it must not apply to you? It is easier to get defensive than to take an honest look at ourselves and see where we might need to make some changes to live more fully. Jesus often told people about things that they could do differently to make their lives and the lives of others better.

Perhaps your perception of Jesus and his messages depends on your mood or what has happened that day. No matter how we hear it, Jesus has good news to share. Love God and accept God’s love for us. Love our neighbors. Be agents of healing instead of agents of hate. Promote freedom. Forgive others and forgive yourself. Share. Sometimes we have heard these profound words of wisdom so often that we stop really taking it in. The good news of Jesus’ message is something we should remind ourselves of and strive to follow every day. As Christians we are called to take Jesus seriously, so seriously that we may be rejected by others because of our beliefs and actions. The Bible tells us that if we really care about Jesus then we will want to live following Jesus’ ways and sharing the good news of God’s love with others, and we will open ourselves to them sharing God’s love with us.

As I thought about these challenging issues, another dilemma surfaced. Jesus not only wants us to accept him. He wants us to accept others. That seems obvious, but let’s take this a step further. Are there people you don’t take seriously because of how they look, where they’re from, what they do for a living? Are there people you discredit because you think they are not old enough or wise enough to really know what they’re talking about? For instance, do you respond to what you hear from the pulpit differently when it comes from a young minister like me versus when you hear a sermon from an older distinguished gentleman who has been a minister for decades? I appreciate that you care for me and respect me, but I’m sure you have a different perception of me just because of my age and gender. Do you treat the older employees at your office differently than the new ones? The crowd in Nazareth had a certain perception of Jesus, and that perception led them to dismiss him. I know there are people I dismiss and you dismiss because of our perceptions of them. Here is the extraordinary part about God. God does not dismiss a single one of us. We are each and every one of us, God’s beloved children, and God can be present through all of us. Not only was God at work in the world through Jesus, but God may also be present in the world through anyone we meet. When we close ourselves off to others because of particular qualities about them or judgments on our part, we may miss how God is trying to communicate with us. Or we may simply miss the power of connecting with another human being. Can we recognize the way that we look at and judge others and try to let that go? I know that if we can it will help us to grow personally and in our faith.

In her sermon on the text from Mark that we are exploring today, Barbara Brown Taylor uses a wonderful metaphor to describe Jesus in his hometown, where the people refused to respond to him. Jesus was still Jesus, she says, but the people – then and now – have to be open to him and his transformative power. She compares it to the experience of trying to light a match to a pile of wet sticks: “So call this an ‘un-miracle’ story, in which Jesus held the match until it burned out in his hand, while his family and friends sat shaking their heads a safe distance away.” Jesus had to turn his back on his own hometown that day, and went on “to go shine his light somewhere else.” Taylor then compares us to those folks in the synagogue, and to Jesus’ own family. Are we like wet wood when God is trying to kindle the fire of our faith? We are the church and claim Jesus as our own, but how faithful, how open, are we to his transformative power in our lives? Taylor’s sermon challenges us to consider our discomfort with being challenged, especially by the unexpected, unlikely people sent by God to do just that. Taylor believes that God is still speaking: “God is all around us, speaking to us through the most unlikely people.” Who’s to say that Jesus can’t and won’t work through the most seemingly ordinary or unexpected people?

Think of the person you dislike the most. Think of the person you trust the least. Who is the person in your life who you consider the least faithful? Who is the last person you would go to for spiritual guidance? Have you ever imagined that you could learn something through that person? Could that person actually help to strengthen your faith? Is God’s good news only good news to you when it is coming through the “right” person? These are some tough questions I’m asking and I hope they stick in your mind and you find yourself pondering them later.

I invite all of us to take from this encounter with Jesus in Mark that we need to have open minds and open hearts to Jesus and his message and the people in our lives who are sharing it with us. Each and every day see if you can have fresh ears to listen for divine wisdom in your life from unexpected people and places. God still wants to teach you about the good news? Are you open to learning? I know you can be. I hope you will.

Amen.