This is one of my first sermons, as my senior year sermon practicum to the entire school. It speaks a prophetic challenge.
Is. 29:9-14. 18 & 19 Wesley Theological Seminary, Wash, D. C.
Mark 6:1-6 March 31, 1984
"Here in Nazareth"
In Nazareth, the people knew Jesus very well. As a child he grew up among them, and the other mothers knew him as Mary's son. His family was well known; it was hard not to be in such a small town as Nazareth. Jesus learned the trade of his father, and he too became known as a builder of houses and things. He was known to the people, but he was not extraordinary; on the contrary he was quite common and unremarkable. He blended with the rhythms of everyday life, and he was content not to stand out. If you looked at him, you would not have been able to distinguish him from the rest of the people of Nazareth. And he stayed there for a long while; resting in the simple, quiet harmonies of life.
On one uneventful day, he quietly slipped away. And soon the people of the town began to hear strange and marvelous tales about Jesus. They heard that he was healing the sick, casting out demons, and preaching repentance. At first, they were amazed and could not believe that it was the Jesus they knew. But word came back to them that it was indeed their Jesus of Nazareth. And they wondered what could have happened to make him change.
Now these people in Nazareth had an advantage that you and I have never had. They knew Jesus in the flesh. They walked with him and talked with him and called him by name. They ate with him, bought from him and sold to him. They worshipped with him and sang songs of praise with him in the synagogue. But in spite of their familiarity with Jesus, they really did not know him; for he remained in their eyes what they had learned about him. They did not know him for himself. So when God began to do miracles in him, their familiarity with Jesus became a form of blindness. He was subconscious knowledge — always there — below the surface. Everybody knew Jesus! He was a carpenter; Mary's son. (And no prophet!)
As it was in their day, is it possible that our familiarity with Jesus has created a blind spot in us? As we are blind to the nose on our face because of its closeness to our eyes, is it possible that we are blind to Jesus as well? Is the image we have in our minds really Jesus, or just a reflection of ourselves? For we think we know Jesus. We know him better than the people of Capernaum and better than those uneducated folk of Backwater, Tenn. Did he not grow up on our streets? Is he not one of us? We are his neighbors. We live in the same town. We have studied all about him in our classes and have read all about him in our texts. We know what we need to know about him. What more is there to tell? What power does he have?
Knowledge can be blindness if it will not let you see, and like a blind spot, we are so familiar with Jesus that we think we have seen him without ever bothering to stop and take a really good look. He walks our streets and shares with us water from the same well. But he fades from our view, and just as it was for the people in Nazareth, our physical proximity to Jesus is an illusion which hides our spiritual distance. We are much farther from him than we want to admit.
So his return to us as a prophet is most unwelcome. He is a new and unknown presence, and he promises to shake up old ideas and to disrupt the regularity of our life here in Nazareth. He brings with him an intrusion of the divine into the comfortable and predictable familiarity of our way of life, and we are not happy about it. We hear that he does strange things in Judea and Capernaum, but this does not fit the image we have of him. People come to tell us of the miracles he has done for them in the Virginian valleys of Judea, and they testify of healings they have received in the Galilean hills of Maryland, and others come to us to say that there are prophecy and unknown tongues even in the busy Jerusalem district of Washington. These things are happening all around us, but it is quiet here in Nazareth. We, who know this Jesus; above all, we should know what he is able to do! Why is he able to do these things in Judea and in the rest of Galilee but not here? Why is the power of God being manifest in the southern cities of Virginia and the northern hills of Maryland, but not here in Nazareth? This is his home town, but among us he does nothing. Is it possible that it is not his unwillingness but our blindness and unbelief that prevents him from doing mighty works among us? Have we used our knowledge of Jesus to distance us from the presence of God?
These uneducated folk, whom we look down upon, testify of miracles all the time. But here we study God all day, and nothing happens. Why are those who know Jesus so much less so much more open to what he can do? Perhaps it is because they do not know him well enough to have their expectations limited by what they have learned…
In Nazareth, they prevented the intrusion of new ideas by holding fast to safe and comfortable memories. Jesus wanted to do miracles there, but they would have none of it. Here, we have a mountain of learning that we must reconsider. Are we going to surrender to the weak and feeble truths of intellectual religion because we have learned that they are sophisticated, couth, and apropos; or are we going to be confronted in our midst by the power of the living God, however frightening that might be? Are you willing to give up control of your lives to Jesus, or will you retreat to the safe and familiar streets of Nazareth?
Openness to God is risky, but true faith is worth the risk, because it is a heart drawn near to God, and not mere service of the lips. Jesus has returned to our midst, bringing with him the frightful power of God. He wants to do miracles here and to make this seminary and organ of the Holy Spirit — to bring to naught the wisdom of the wise and to destroy the discernment of the discerning. God wants to pour out on us spiritual power so that our witness will be as threatening and uncomfortable as Jesus' was, with healings, prophetic utterances, dramatic conversions, and unknown tongues. God only requires that we be open and do not close our minds as they did to Jesus in Nazareth.
In the end, I hope we do not have to ask, "Who was this Jesus who walked through our midst, and quietly departed the streets of Nazareth?" In Nazareth, they did not know Jesus because they were not prepared to admit their ignorance. Are we prepared to admit ours?
Jefferis Kent Peterson