Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
As we try to see Jesus through the eyes of those who knew him first-hand, we turn today to his hometown crowd in Nazareth, and this episode in Mark’s gospel where Jesus begins to teach in the synagogue there. “Many who heard him were astounded,” asking “where did this man get all this?” Isn’t he Mary’s son? James and Simon’s brother? Aren’t these his sisters? The text says they “took offense” at him (Mark 6:3), and Jesus was “amazed at their unbelief” (Mark 6:6).
The residents of Nazareth aren’t always portrayed sympathetically. Why didn’t they recognize Jesus as the Messiah, some wonder, when he was right there among them?
I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me until this week to look up the total population of Nazareth in Jesus’ day. It seems from the archaeological record to have been in the range of a few hundred people, maybe 500 tops. In other words, Nazareth was a small town.
And I don’t mean small the way we think of our community here in Magnolia as small, where you’re as likely as not to run into someone you know in the grocery store. I’ve learned Magnolia’s population is upwards of 15,000.
In a town of a few hundred people, you don’t just see a few familiar faces while out running errands. You’re likely to know everyone. Which got me wondering: might it change my impression of the hometown crowd’s reaction to Jesus to reconsider their story with that factor in mind?
I think about the small town where I grew up, for instance, in rural upstate NY. Not Magnolia small. Nazareth-in-Jesus’-day small. No traffic lights, just the two - or maybe it’s three - stop signs, a single building that functioned as gas station, corner store, and restaurant. We knew we’d hit the big time when a little bank with one teller window appeared next to the equally small post office when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I was away at seminary years later that a deli moved in on the other side of the bank. And at some point the general store (the old fashioned kind that used to display farmer’s overalls next to tin buckets full of nails) was remodeled to become a small library. The downtown corridor of Westerlo, NY was then, and remains today, about 5 buildings long from end to end. To be fair, there’s another business in town just up the hill, a factory that employs a hundred or so people. We lived right across the street from the factory (our family business) and we knew better than to try crossing that street during what the locals call “rush minute.” That’s when the whistle blows at 4:30 every afternoon and all 100 employees peel out of the parking lot at once.
Westerlo, NY is Nazareth small. Small enough that I’d be considered rude if I didn’t wave to everyone that drives by each time I’m back there. I may or may not recognize them after this many years away, but they generally know who I am. Simply because - whether or not they also happen to work at the family business - odds are good they’re my aunt’s neighbor friend, or they went to elementary school with my uncle or my dad.
With that kind of small town picture in mind, let’s return to Jesus’ return to Nazareth.
I expect the visit started off well as the hometown crowd welcomed him back. We’re a number of healing miracles into the gospel of Mark by this point in chapter 6, and Jesus is gaining quite a reputation as a teacher too. Local boy makes good. That kind of thing goes over really well, winning you headlines and column inches in the factory newsletter and the local paper. Think Harry Bailey as war hero in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It wasn’t just his family, as you may remember; the whole town of Bedford Falls was proud of him, and considered him their son. So as Jesus walked through town with his family on their way to the local synagogue, I can imagine neighbors stopping him to say hello with a handshake, a hug, a friendly pat on the back as they all head in to service together. His old school chums maybe lining up to be interviewed by reporters (“I was his best friend, back in the day…”) And can’t you just see his rabbi, his teachers, and his aunties beaming at him as he stood up to read the Scriptures?
But there’s the rub. He didn’t just read the Scriptures. He started to interpret them. In fact, over in Luke’s gospel we’re told he read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue and had the nerve to say: “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
Think about it. The Nazareth synagogue crowd may have included the equivalents of his kindergarten Sunday school teacher and the pastor who’d confirmed him as a teenager. The church ladies who’d changed his diapers in the nursery and knew how many cookies he used to hoard at coffee hour as kid. The guys who’d been on the building & grounds committee with his carpenter dad, and the friends who played with him on the church softball team.
You don’t go around bragging in small towns. You don’t put yourself up on a pedestal. And you certainly don’t step into the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church and say: “Remember all those lessons you taught me in Vacation Bible School when I was a kid? Remember those memory verses I had to learn in your class to earn a scholarship to church camp? It was all about me!”
… Granted, in Jesus’ case, it happened to be true…
Still, it wasn’t exactly a page out of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” to say so in that setting. I’m no longer surprised at all that there were skeptics in Nazareth. Telling them how to interpret Scripture passages they’d taught him? Claiming he– this kid they’d known since he first toddled around and skinned his knees next door – claiming he was the answer to all their prayers? At any rate, it appears the way Jesus looked through their eyes went downhill fast. From “Hey, look, he’s home! Let’s go say hi!” to “What a cocky little, full-of-himself … I would have thought Mary and Joe raised him better than that.” Jesus says “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” (Mark 6:4) And I’ve got to say, I understand a little better now why Nazareth would have been a tough crowd.
But Jesus through the eyes of those from other towns who knew about him primarily through his healing miracles – that was another view entirely. As I mentioned, he’s gathered a whole fan club by this point in the story. Mark 1:45 tells us “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.” Our text from chapter 3 says “a great multitude” followed him from Galilee, and “they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem,” and other places too. (Mark 3:7-8) In fact he asks his disciples to ready a boat for him, knowing he’s at risk of being crushed by these crowds! That’s celebrity for you. It was only last week we read about Jesus calling his very first two disciples, and then another two, away from their fishing boats. And now he’s enlisting those guys as bodyguards because so many people are trying to get near him. To hear him speak. To touch him. To beg for a cure. A few chapters later will find him feeding over 5,000 people (Mark 6:30-44); two chapters after that we find a similar story where he feeds a crowd of 4,000 (Mark 8:1-10). Jesus’ teaching may not be welcome back home in Nazareth, but he’s certainly welcome in other places.
By the way, there’s a fascinating little note at the end of today’s reading from Mark 3 where the text says: “Whenever unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’” (Mark 3:11) We’ll talk a little more about unclean spirits next time. For now, let’s at least notice they’re catching onto something others haven’t. Something Mark told us right at the outset in chapter 1 verse 1, when he introduced “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Something the voice from heaven had said at Jesus’ baptism a little later in chapter 1 (“You are my Son, the Beloved”) and that other spirits will shout out now and then along the way as well. But no one else in the story will figure it out until after Jesus’ death. Peter manages to identify him as the Messiah, at least, in Mark 8, but it’s only after Jesus takes his final breath on the cross that a Roman centurion, the first and only human in Mark’s gospel to say so, declares of him: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39) Meanwhile, when the unclean spirits do identify Jesus here in chapter 3 as the Son of God, he tells them to keep quiet about it.
In fact, we’re told Jesus ordered most everyone not to talk about him, not to spread the word about his healing miracles. It seems they couldn’t help themselves. He was just that impressive. Curing diseased bodies and healing broken spirits and changing lives everywhere he went. Of course you’d want to tell everyone you knew what he’d done for you. And then they’d want a piece of him too.
At any rate, this study in contrasts we see with the hometown crowd vs. the fan club, skeptics vs. believers – it’s a dynamic that will continue throughout the rest of the gospel. We’ll find people flocking to Jesus… and people repelled by him. People hanging on his every word, following him everywhere he goes… and people disappointed by him, even disgusted by those he allows near him… People who maybe staked out a spot the night before to get a front row seat to hear him … and people careful to distance themselves from him, fearful of his fame and influence.
I wonder, sometimes, in which camp I’d find myself if I were there. Maybe you do too.
It’s worth considering, since in a sense we’re faced with the same challenge as that Nazareth congregation, and those huge crowds that followed him from town to town.
Will we allow one set of preconceptions or another to blind us to Jesus’ true identity and purpose? Or will we recognize him – not only as a hometown hero with wisdom to share, not only as a celebrity healer – but also (as those unclean spirits immediately recognized) as the Son of God?