Sunday, May 13, 2012

When Jesus Couldn't Do Miracles

Welcome Home, Jesus

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 52:13 – 53:6

Gospel Reading: Mark 6:1-6

“Going home” is a phrase with many warm and happy associations. We think of good food, smiling faces, an atmosphere is celebration, a comfortable sense of well-being. Many look forward to going to their parents’ home for holidays. As military units are completing their service in Iraq and coming back home, they are met with bands playing, flags flying, and families anxious to embrace them. Christians even use “going home” as a way of speaking about going to heaven.

But not all homecomings are good. If a fugitive returns home, he is likely to be arrested and jailed. If a soldier comes home to a wife with whom he had a broken relationship before he left, they are likely to take up where they left off with the conflicts. If your family is highly dysfunctional, the family dynamics are not going to improve because you all go home for the holidays.

We read today in Mark’s Gospel, about Jesus going home to Nazareth. He did not go home to people who were happy to see Him. In fact, his homecoming was marked by hostility and rejection.

I. Visitation

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Lately He had lived in Capernaum and made it His base of operations for His ministry in Galilee. But He had grown up in Nazareth, the hometown of Mary and Joseph. He was always identified with Nazareth, being known as “the Nazarene” and as “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Jesus made the 25-mile southwest from Capernaum to Nazareth. Nazareth was a very small town of about 500 people. In my first pastorate we lived in a town of 500 people. In addition to the people it consisted of a blinking caution signal, a post office, and a store. It was not an impressive place, and neither was Nazareth. In John’s Gospel, when Nathanael, who became one of Jesus’ first followers, heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, he had trouble believing that Jesus could be the One of whom Moses and the Prophets wrote. He asked, “Can any anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) Nathanael was from Galilee. His hometown was Cana. He knew the region, and in his mind it was a town to be looked down on. It was inconceivable to him that the Messiah could come from a town like Nazareth. But this was the village in which Jesus had spent his boyhood and His early manhood. He did not emerge from obscurity in Nazareth onto the public scene until He was 30.

When Jesus made His visit to Nazareth, the disciples He had appointed as apostles followed Him. He had chosen them that they might be with Him to learn from Him before He sent them out to represent Him. This meant that they would follow Him wherever He went. Recently they had seen many triumphs in Jesus’ ministry. He had calmed a raging storm; He had freed a man possessed by a legion of demons; He had healed a woman who had suffered with an illness for 12 years; He had even raised a little girl from the dead. They had seen the transformation of the demon-possessed man from a uncontrollable wild man to one in his right mind who wanted now to follow and serve Jesus. They had seen the faith of the woman and of the little girl’s father. These were times of effective ministry and positive response.

But it would not be that way in Nazareth. There would be very few miracles and little, if any, faith. They needed to see this aspect of Jesus’ ministry, too. The future would bring more and more hostility and rejection of Jesus until at last He was put to death. They must not think that Jesus is going to win over the people by His teaching and miracles. No, the fate of the Son of Man was to suffer the malice of man. This would always puzzle His disciples, for they could not understand a Messiah who would die. But now they must get a glimpse of what lies ahead. We also must not let ourselves think that, if we just present Jesus as winsomely as possible, He will always be received and loved. No, when the Jesus of the Gospels is presented, and not the picture from human imaginations of what they would like for Him to be like, some will reject and despise Him.

Then, they are about to be sent out on a mission themselves, and they need to know what it can be like in ministry. I have a son in seminary. From time to time I wonder if He knows what he is getting into. Does he understand that the ministry means hardships and trials? Does He know that Jonathan Edwards was run off from his church and that Calvin was run out of Geneva? Ministry is full of joys and fulfillment; no one who wants to avoid suffering should pursue it. But the application is not just for ministers and prospective ministers. It is for you. Don’t think that everyone will be favorably impressed with your Christian faith and lifestyle. Don’t think they will always welcome your testimony of faith. Don’t ever think you can be a follower of Christ and avoid the cross. Jesus told His disciples and He tells us that the world will treat us as it treated Him. Following Christ always means there is a cost that must be counted.

II. Consternation

Jesus had a reputation as a popular preacher, so, when He came home to Nazareth, He was invited to read and explain the Scriptures on that Sabbath. Many people were there, and they were astonished at His teaching. This was not the kind of thing they were used to hearing. There was a clarity, authority, and power in His words and manner that distinguished Him from every other man they had heard speak in their synagogue. Sometimes, even for us, it can be like that with good preaching. We hear a sermon, and we think to ourselves, “What he is saying is exactly what the Bible says. It is simple and clear. There is a power and authority. It seems as if God were speaking to me.” If that can be true when an earthen vessel speaks, how much more was it true when the Son of God spoke. The people were impressed to the point of astonishment when Jesus spoke.

But that raised questions for them. They asked, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by His hands?” Sometimes we have similar questions when we encounter talent that we did not expect. We hear a person sing, who has had no voice training, and we wonder, “How did she learn to sing like that?” Or, we see someone hit a baseball, who has never had any batting instruction, and we ask, “How does he hit the ball like that?” This is what the townsfolk of Nazareth were experiencing when they heard Jesus open up the Scriptures. They could not understand how He could speak as He did. Where did He get the things He was saying? How had He received the wisdom that He demonstrated in His speaking? How was it possible for Him to do the miracles they had heard reports of?

We find why they were asking the questions as their questions continue? “Is this not the carpenter?” Jesus had lived in Nazareth for nearly 30 years. They knew Him. Joseph had been a carpenter, and Jesus, the oldest son in the family, had followed along in the trade and taken over the family business when Joseph died. Now the Jews did not look down on manual labor, as did the Greeks and Romans, and as we tend to do. They valued it. So they are not trying to insult Jesus as being “just a carpenter.” Rather they are saying, “He is carpenter. He never studied under a rabbi. How then can He teach these things and display such wisdom. Where does He get it?”

“Is he not the son of Mary?” When they asked this, they may have been saying nothing more than, “We know his mother and the house where He grew up. There is nothing distinguishing about His mother or upbringing.” But there may be a harsh insult in this question. It was uncommon in Jewish society to identify a person by his mother. The normal way was to call a man the son of his father. In other places in Scripture Jesus is identified as the “son of Joseph.” It may be they were getting in a dig about his birth. There were probably in some minds questions about when Mary had conceived, before or after her marriage. They went on to ask, “Is he not the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” Again the point was the ordinariness of His life in Nazareth. They knew His brothers and sisters who still lived in Nazareth. There was nothing remarkable about the other children in the family. So how could one, who came from such ordinary circumstances and who Himself seemed so ordinary, speak the way they had heard Him speak in the synagogue?

What were the possibilities? One was that was got His teaching from God, that He displayed divine wisdom, spoke with divine authority, and did miracles with divine power. They could have entertained the thought that He was sent from God and that God was acting through Him. But they could not take such a possibility seriously. Everything about Him was just too ordinary for them to see God at work in Him.

What were the other possibilities? They may have, with the Pharisees, thought that He spoke and acted as He did by the power of the devil, because He was demon possessed. Or, they may have, with His family, thought that He was mentally deranged. Or, they may have had no explanation at all, but, nevertheless, they “knew” He was not from God.

At any rate they took offense, or, they stumbled over Him. They could not and would not believe in Him. It was just too much. Their eyes were blind and their hearts were hard. They simply could not get over the fact that they knew Him as a carpenter and that they knew His ordinary family and upbringing. To their view it was impossible that He had come from God.

We must not be surprised when people stumble over Jesus. They are not likely to stumble over the mild Jesus who is everybody’s best friend and their helper to a happier life. But, when they meet the Jesus of the Gospels, they find One who is strong – who claims to be the Son of God, and that He speaks and acts for God, and that no one can know God unless he knows the Son and acknowledges Him as the Son of God – and they may be offended. Unbelief can be in the presence of the Son of God, and refuse to acknowledge Him.  And, we may find that at times we too are offended by Jesus, for, though, unlike the people of Nazareth, we do have faith, our faith is far from perfect. We must be on guard against unbelief and hardness of heart ourselves.

III. Condemnation

The unbelief of the people of Nazareth brought them under condemnation – from Jesus. They were the losers despite their privileges.

Jesus began with an explanation. He quoted a proverb: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and his own household.” I have had the opportunity to preach several times in my home church. It was always a strange experience. When I stood in the pulpit, I am sure there were people looking at me and remembering me as sickly baby, as shy child, as an awkward teenager. Now the people were always gracious to me after my sermons, but I expect it was hard for them to listen to me as a preacher just because they had known me and watched me for so long. We also have a saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Sometimes in churches, ministers can find that when they go away to preach, they are well-received, while when they go home, the response is “ho-hum.” 

You get the idea – we tend not to appreciate those we know too well. The problem in Nazareth was that the people knew Jesus too well for too long. Not that there was anything about His way of life that would have discredited Him to them, but that they could not see through the sheer ordinariness of His appearance and life, to accept His teaching as from God. Even sadder than the rejection of the townspeople is that, according to Jesus, He was not honored among His own relatives or even in His own household. At this point apparently His own brothers and sisters could not accept His teaching or receive Him as a Man who had come from God. Those of us, who have been in the church for a long time, perhaps from birth, need to watch ourselves lest we come to have contempt for the things with which we are so familiar. We can find ourselves bored in worship, tuned out during sermons, indifferent to the Lord’s Supper, not because God no longer offers us grace in these things, but because we have come to take these wonderful privileges for granted.

Jesus “could do no mighty works there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.” This statement sounds strange to us. It seems that the logic is that the people of Nazareth were offended by Jesus, and so He could not do miracles there. Does this mean that the people of Nazareth by their reaction limited what Jesus could do? First, we need to note that, in terms of the ability or power to work miracles, Jesus was not constrained. Could He do the miracles in the sense of having the power to work them? Yes. In fact, Mark notes an exception to the statement that He could do no mighty works there. He did heal some, so He surely could do miracles, if He willed to do them.

But that is the issue. Jesus could not do miracles there, because it was not His will to honor unbelief. To do miracles where the people rejected Him would have been inconsistent with His mission. Jesus did miracles to demonstrate to people that in Him the kingdom of God had come and that the curse on creation was going to be reversed. But the Nazarenes were hard in their unbelief. For Jesus to have done miracles in the presence of such unbelief would have done nothing but hardened their hearts further and increase their guilt on the day of judgment.

It is a fact that there are things God and Christ do not do, unless there is faith present to receive. Sometimes those of us who believe that God is sovereign of salvation are accused of believing that, if God has chosen a person for salvation, that person will be saved “no matter what.” But that is not true. Except for covenant infants who die in infancy and others who are incapable of responding to the outward call of the word, no one is saved who does not have faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. We do not believe for a moment that anyone who does not believe in the Lord Jesus will be saved. Where there is no faith there is no salvation. Does that mean God cannot save them, as though His power could be resisted? No. Where God saves, God will give the gift of faith by which salvation is received.

It is the same in the Christian life. We are not only saved by faith; we live by faith. We no doubt miss much that could be ours because of our unbelief. For instance, the Apostle James wrote concerning the gift of wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord: he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1: 5-8). One reason we do not have from the Lord the spiritual blessings we need is because we do not ask. And we do not ask either because we do not want those things, or because we do not believe that God is a gracious Father who delights in giving gifts to His children.

Jesus left Nazareth marveling at their unbelief. They had so many privileges. The Son of God incarnate grew up in their midst. He visited their synagogue and simply, clearly, powerfully opened to them the truth of God’s Word. Nevertheless, they did not believe in Him. They could not receive the Word of God from Him, and they could not consider that God was at work in and through Him, because their hearts were hardened and their necks were made stiff by unbelief. What a sad thing. There is no record in the Gospels that Jesus ever visited Nazareth again. Perhaps that is because He didn’t. That is the worst condemnation of all in this world – to have Jesus turn away and leave you alone in unbelief.

If you are not a Christian, do not harden your heart against the Lord. Turn to Him and you will find that the gifts of faith and salvation will be yours. And Christian, let us heed the warning of the book of Hebrews not to harden our hearts against the Lord. Believe in Him, turn to Him daily and throughout the day, listen to His Word, respond to the urgings of His Spirit to walk in His ways, and do His will. Let us not be unbelieving but believing.


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