We’ve been studying the Gospel according to Mark since the beginning of the year. Over the past several weeks, we’ve noticed that Mark is a brilliant storyteller. That the stories he’s telling about Jesus aren’t just randomly thrown together.
Telling parables. Calming the sea.
Vanquishing a legion of spirits.
Healing a sick woman. Raising a dead girl.
As interesting and insightful and powerful as individual stories about Jesus might be, Mark isn’t interested in crafting the Jesus-version of Aesop’s fables. Instead, he’s weaving a longer tale out of these smaller stories—and he’s forcing us (as readers) to ask a question:
Just who on earth is this Jesus?
He’s been doing this by putting questions on the lips of the crowd. Questions like:
“What is this? A new teaching—and with authority!
He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him!” (1.27)
“Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2.7)
“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (2.16)
“Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him” (4.41)
If we’re asking about who Jesus is, we’re on the same page as the crowds. And yet, Mark gave us an inside scoop with his opening sentence:
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God (1.1)
From right out of the gate, Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. He’s the long-awaited Messiah—anointed one, the christ, the king—bringing Israel’s story (our Old Testament) to a climax.
God started creating Israel way back in Genesis 12 for the purpose of blessing the entire world. So somehow God is going to bless the entire world through this Jesus (Gen 12:2-3, 18:18, 22:18).
Then right after his opening sentence, Mark quotes a prophet from the Old Testament named Isaiah:
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isa 40:3)
This is a turning on a movie that opens with a fairly familiar quote. As a movie-watcher, you instinctively know that this somehow sets the tone for everything you’re going to see on screen. And great films are the ones that you return to again and again, recognizing more and more the depth and meaning of the story in light of that quote.
Mark is a master storyteller. He’s quite the artist.
He probably would have been a master filmmaker.
These words from Isaiah set the tone for everything coming in his gospel. Because in the second half of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55 especially), the God of Israel (Yahweh) is pictured as redeeming and rescuing his people—the Israelites—from their captivity.
Yahweh had already done this before.
It was a defining moment in the nation of Israel.
It was a defining moment in all the Old Testament.
Heck, it was even a defining moment in cinematic history.
Moses (played by Charlton Heston) extends his hand, and God moves heaven and earth to creates a road for them through the heart of the sea. And so the people of God are rescued from slavery and oppression and the powers of evil.
Well, the prophet Isaiah says that is going to happen again.
If you read the rest of Isaiah 40—Mark assumes you know it, because master storytellers trust their audiences—you realize that God is going to move heaven and earth to rescue his people again.
But there’s no sea to split this time.
This time, valleys and gorges are going to be raised.
Crags and mountains passes are going to be leveled.
This time the road cuts through the heart of the earth—spanning vast deserts, bridging canyons, leveling mountains.
A road of rescue.
A New Exodus.
And Isaiah sees that this road leads the people of God into a land where goodness and peace and mercy and worship and equality and justice and life everlasting reign.
A land where God is king.
Where he rules and reigns.
Where things are as he wants.
The promise of this New Exodus is echoing on the lips of John the Baptist as Mark opens his film—and then what do we find Jesus doing?
Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (1.14b-15)
He begins announcing this kingdom.
He starts proclaiming that the rule and reign of God is arriving.
Get ready—the rescue of this God is coming near.
That’s why Mark is so focused on action.
That’s why impure spirits and demons are being booted.
That’s why sickness withers and dies around Jesus.
Particularly in Mark’s gospel, we don’t find nearly as much teaching or talking or as many parables as we find in Matthew or Luke or John. Start reading through Mark. You’ll find Jesus’ activity primarily described as “healing” and “driving out demons.” (cf. 1.34, 1.39). And he’s training others to it too. When he appoints the twelve disciples, Mark says it’s “to preach… and to drive out demons” (3.14-15).
That’s because Mark isn’t just crafting a masterful movie.
He’s crafting a masterful action movie.
These aren’t just random selected stories. Their action sequences of Jesus taking those around him—and taking us too—down the road of the New Exodus. We’re watching heaven and earth begin to move so things are as they’re supposed to be:
Lepers are cleansed, the disabled are restored, the sick are cured,
little dead girls are raised to life, sins are forgiven,
the kingdom of darkness is being plundered and every kind of evil force is vanquished.
No wonder Jesus is telling those around him—and telling us too—to repent.
Repent. Hmm. That’s a churchy-sounding word that doesn’t mean much to most of us. A lot of times it sounds like we need to have some kind of moment of personal contrition—of feeling really bad about things we’ve thought or said or done—and that we need to really resolve to live better moral lives.
But when Jesus says “repent” (“metanoeite” in Greek) he means something way bigger than just some private religious experience. Here’s the way another translation puts it:
“Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (1.15, Common English Bible)
“Change all of your hearts. Plural.
Change all of your lives. Plural.
All of you. Change everything.
“Everything about the way you’re thinking.
Everything that you’re putting your hope in.
Everything that you’re putting your trust in.
Every bit of your worldview—change it all.
“And trust what I’m saying—that God’s rule and reign is arriving.
You don’t have any sway over it, any control over it,
any power to stop it or any power to start it.
But it’s arriving. It’s drawing near.
“So trust that God is acting. Trust that God is good.
Trust that God will do right. Trust that God is doing right.”
That’s some of what Jesus has been up to as we come to our passage today in Mark 6.
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.
“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?”
And they took offense at him.
Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”
He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.
These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
JESUS, THE UNIMPRESSIVE
So over the course of thirteen verses, we find Jesus coming home, announcing his message of God’s kingdom—and being rejected. And even though Jesus seems genuinely hurt by this, his mission is evidently too important to sit around in self-pity. So he leaves Nazareth and goes village to village with his message—and then he sends the disciples off to do the same. His mission—his message—is so important that he sends off them out in six two-man groups.
It’s really important that the nation repents.
Not just individuals, but all of Israel.
Because Jesus can see that their worldview is about to take them off a cliff.
You see, the people of these villages (and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem) have watched for centuries as empire after empire has threatened and dominated them.
It’s Rome right now.
But before that the Greeks empires of the Ptolemys and the Selucids.
And before that the Persians.
And before that the Babylonians.
And before that the Assyrians.
And way before that the Egyptians.
Not only that, Israel has been thinking about the New Exodus promised by Isaiah for centuries. They’ve been thinking long and hard about God’s road of rescue. That one that levels mountains and raises valleys.
And they’ve got a pretty good idea what it’s going to look like.
It’s going to look like the seven hills of Rome being flattened.
It’s going to look like them ruling over the Gentiles.
It’s going to look like the Roman Empire giving way to the Israelite Empire.
That’s the way that Yahweh’s rule and reign is going to come.
And you can imagine, this worldview made the entire region a powder keg of rebellion, insurrection and holy war.
They think power acts are the way to the kingdom.
And Jesus knows it’s a time bomb.
He can see that this is going to destroy them.
In fact, a few chapters later in Mark 13 (verse 2), Jesus is going to predict that before even a generation passes away, Jerusalem is going wind up conquered and the temple—the holy temple of the only living God—is going to be destroyed. Not one stone left unturned.
Jesus could see that they were living in the last days.
An age was ending.
So time is of the essence. He’s sending out his disciples with a call for personal, societal, economic and political repentance. If they don’t listen (verse 11), shake off the dust and keep going—this can’t wait. Everyone needs to change their entire worldview.
“Come follow me,” says Jesus, “I know a better way. I am the way. Follow me. Trust me.”
How many of us have ever thought something like, “If only we could go back to Bible times and see Jesus. Man, they had such an advantage over us. Think of how amazing it would be to experience him and see him and hear him.” We think that sometimes, right?
And yet the people who grew up around Jesus,
the people who knew him well,
who had experienced him, seen him, heard him,
they rejected him.
They rejected his message.
These are people with every advantage,
people with every privilege,
people closer to Jesus than anyone on earth,
and (verse 3) they reject him.
In the greek, the verb is “skandalizo.”
They are scandalized by him.
They take offense at him.
They fall away because of him.
Skandalizo is actually the same word used in Mark 4 when Jesus tells the parable of the sower. That seed that falls on rocky soil eventually “falls away.”
Evidently Nazareth isn’t good soil.
“Did you hear? Little Jesus has got a group together and he’s traveling around doing the most amazing things. And Judith heard from Rachel who heard from the mother of the Zebedee boys that our little Jesus might be the Messiah.”
“No—Jesus? The builder? The woodworker? The son of Mary, that… floozy? No, Elizabeth—Judith and Rachel and the Zebedee woman are quite mistaken. But that Kokhba family, they’re something to watch.”
Little Jesus, the woodworker, was not what they were looking for.
They wanted an undeniable, powerful sign that God was working to conquer their enemies. Plenty of stories circulated about healings and exorcisms and parlor trick miracles—they wanted something sea-splitting, earthshaking and Rome-crushing.
They’re so dead-set on
what they expect deliverance to look like,
what they expect salvation to look like,
what they expect this new liberation from evil to look like
that they can’t recognize God’s rescue.
They can’t recognize the Rescuer standing before them.
And yet Jesus refuses to fit into their expectations. Stories may indeed be circulating about parlor-trick miracles, but Jesus refuses to perform a show in Nazareth. He only heals a handful of people.
Turn to chapter 8. I think this helpful for understanding Jesus. At this point, Jesus has fed two gigantic groups of people. Chapter 6—a huge group of Jewish people. Chapter 8—a huge group of Gentiles. And then right on the heals of this:
The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side. The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” (8.11-15)
Yeast!? What on earth is Jesus talking about now?
And what does baking have to do with anything?
Well… everyone is looking for God’s deliverance.
For his road of rescue.
For a New Exodus.
In the first Exodus—God had delivered his people so suddenly from Egypt that they weren’t supposed to put yeast in their bread (Ex 12:11, 14-15). There was no time for bread to rise. That’s how quickly God would be acting. And this deliverance was remembered every year—and still is remembered every year—in the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Feast of UnYeasted Bread. It’s also called Passover.
And you don’t put yeast in Passover Bread.
You just don’t do it. There’s no room for it—no time for it.
So Jesus is talking about yeast, he’s warning that lots of people—the religiously devout Pharisees, the current king of the Jews (Herod), the village of Nazareth—they all want God to display his power in a particular way.
The Pharisees want an apocalyptic display of heavenly power.
Herod wants an undeniable establishment of earthly power.
Nazareth could maybe go for a little bit of both.
But Jesus calls it all yeast.
All our impulses for showy signs of power God’s rescue are nothing but yeast.
They’re just tainting the bread.
The disciples are just as confused as we are:
They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.” Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” (8.16-17)
Are their hearts hardened? Right after the first miraculous feeding, in chapter six, Mark actually told us:
Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (6.51-52)
These are the guys that Jesus is sending out to announce the good news of God’s rule and reign. When he’s being rejected by those closest to him, Jesus is sending them out to continue what he’s been doing—namely, vanquishing evil, healing the sick and announcing the kingdom.
But evidently even they are in danger of misunderstanding Jesus.
Jesus is talking about faulty ways of understanding the heart and methods of God
and they think he’s upset about them not brown-bagging it.
They’re trying to trust Jesus, but they also don’t understand.
Their hearts are hard.
They’re trying to believe, but they just don’t get it.
JESUS, THE POWERLESS
And this leads us to a terrible moment—not only in the text but in our day-to-day lives.
The beginning of verse 5:
He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. (NIV)
Mark says something remarkable.
Mark says something terrifying.
He says that Jesus was unable to—he could not—do any miracles in Nazareth.
There’s a way in Greek to say that Jesus “would not” do any miracles. In fact, that’s the wording Matthew chooses to use (13:58). But Mark says Jesus could not.
Throughout the story of Mark so far, plenty of people have been dumbfounded by Jesus Every where he goes, people are baffled, astonished, amazed by Jesus. But this is the first and only time in Mark that we’ve got Jesus baffled, astonished and amazed. He’s shocked by their unbelief.
The hands of Jesus have been curing disease, raising the dead and silencing storms—are they suddenly stopped by our skepticism? Does our faithlessness hinder God’s intentions?
Does our weak faith make God weak?
What makes this even worse is the fact that his disciples go out immediately after this and succeed in doing miracles in other villages.
This is terrible. This is terrifying. This is dreadful.
Perhaps if we just had enough faith, we would be healed.
Less than two weeks ago, my wife Joy was admitted to the hospital with excruciating pain in her head. I was watching her vomit from pain. With more and less degrees of intensity, she’s had this one long migraine for almost a year.
I promise you, I’ve been praying for healing.
I promise you, I’ve been asking in faith.
Am I not asking hard enough?
Am I the problem? Am I getting the way of God’s rescue?
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our problems.
There are unspoken, innumerable places of heartache and suffering in this world.
There are unspoken, innumerable places of heartache and suffering in this room.
Would these be solved if we just had enough faith?
Some television preachers certainly make it sound like that:
Problems and poverty plague you because of unbelief.
And sometimes these thoughts are just too much! Why all the ambiguity?
Why all the guesswork!? Why all the games!?
Why doesn’t Jesus just do something spectacular—so that Nazareth will believe?
Why doesn’t Jesus do something spectacular now—so that we will believe?
Wouldn’t all of this would be so much easier if we could just experience and see and hear?
And yet in Mark’s gospel—and in all of Scripture—there’s no formula of faith for experiencing God’s rescue.
Jesus certainly does do miracles for those with belief. After all, he just explicitly told a hemorrhaging woman, “Your faith has healed you” (5.28, 34).
But Jesus also works powerfully in for those without belief. There’s no talk of faith at all when he heals Peter’s mother-in-law (1.31) of fever or restores the man with the withered hand (3.3-5).
In fact Jesus doesn’t seem at all flustered when faith is an absolute impossibility. He just raised a girl from the dead (5.41-42). Corpses can’t believe anything, yet in all the gospels Jesus doesn’t come across a corpse he doesn’t raise to life.
It gets even weirder—in chapter two, some friends get together and trust Jesus enough to lower their friend down to him. Jesus physically heals their friend—and forgives his sins!—based on their faith (2.5).
Perhaps the father of a demon-possessed boy in Mark 9 says it best. He wants Jesus to heal his son and he cries: “I believe; help my unbelief” (9.23-24).
That’s the most honest, I think.
We’re all a mixture of trust and doubt.
There’s no formula of faith (or anything else) to make Jesus do anything.
Jesus does what he wants. And he wants to heal.
He’s the long-awaited Messiah, establishing God’s rule and reign.
He’s rescuing people all over the place.
Those who trust, those who believe—they can recognize it.
But Jesus understands something we often don’t.
He knows that miracles can confuse as much as they clarify.
That’s why throughout the gospel of Mark, Jesus is almost always muffling his miracles. He’s almost always trying to keep people silent about his signs:
He orders evil spirits not to reveal his identity (1.24-25, 3.12).
A leper gets healed and Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone” (1.43).
He raises a girl from dead—from the dead!—but swears the family to silence (5.43).
Jesus has come to bring the deepest kind blessing imaginable to humanity.
He’s here to vanquish evil decisively.
To heal the world on an indescribable level.
Jesus is indeed here leading the New Exodus.
And he doesn’t want people distracted by a magic show.
So when Mark says that Jesus couldn’t do miracles in Nazareth,
he doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t have the power to it;
he means Jesus didn’t have the will to it.
He just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t bring himself to it.
Not because they didn’t believe him.
Because it wouldn’t benefit them.
It wouldn’t help.
It would distract them.
Evidently seeing doesn’t make you believe.
Believing makes you see.
BREAD WITHOUT HONOR
We read this story about Jesus rejected in Nazareth, and we wonder about them.
Why couldn’t they see God’s rescue unfolding right before their eyes?
Why couldn’t recognize the presence of the rescuer?
Why do they reject him?
Why do they fall away from him?
Why are they so scandalized by him?
But that’s the point.
Jesus is rejected by those who ought to know better.
By those who ought to recognize him.
In fact, that’s the gospel.
Jesus is always rejected.
Not just by Nazareth but by everyone.
After all, Nazareth isn’t the only place to “skandalizo”—they aren’t the only ones to fall away from Jesus. As Jesus continues marching down the road of rescue, he tells his disciples that all of them will “skandalizo” (14.27).
They’re all are going to be faithless.
Peter says, “NO! I’ll never skandalizo! I’ll never fall away.”
Yet when the hour came, all of them slept while Jesus agonized in Gethsemane.
Three times he woke them, three times the slept.
Peter denied Jesus—cursing his name—as Jesus was condemned to die.
Three times he was asked, three times he disowned Jesus
If we got honest, we’re all scandalized by the king we get in Jesus.
We’re all scandalized by his kingdom.
We want the reign of God to look different than it does.
Why isn’t Jesus the kind of king who immediately purges all suffering, struggle, ambiguity and death from his kingdom? Why leave any room for doubt?
We’re all Pharisees—just wanting to see rewards and punishments dealt out right now based on everyone’s performance. We’re all Herod—just wanting to see Jesus’ kingdom of love just dominating the world through sheer force.
If we were honest, we all have to admit that there’s yeast in our Passover Bread.
None of us like the rescuing road that leads to the cross.
None of us like the only bread Jesus gives us—his body broken.
The point of Jesus being rejected in Nazareth is that Jesus is rejected in Denver.
Jesus is disowned by Hope Crossing. Jesus is cursed by Brett Davis.
Jesus is always a prophet without honor.
None of us are the good soil. We all fall away.
And that’s the gospel—Jesus doesn’t fall away.
In the words of one of the earliest Christians from the book of Romans:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5.6-8)
The entire gospel of Mark leads us here—Jesus rejected not by Nazareth but by all.
Everyone falls away from Jesus as he hangs torn open and naked on a tree. And as he dies, the gigantic curtain in the Temple is torn open (15.38) so that the holy of holies stands naked too. The rescue is complete and there’s nothing separating us from God.
Maybe this is why we was muffling his miracles.
Why he refused to perform for Nazareth.
Maybe this is why he still muffles his miracles.
Why he refuses to perform for us.
Maybe all his miracles—then and now—are just signs of something bigger.
Maybe we tend to praise his power way more than his passion.
Jesus knew that the road of the miraculous road of the New Exodus
that would bless the world, that would vanquish evil once and for all,
that would bring justification and life to all people (Rom 5.18),
really did run through the heart of the earth,
and it would bury him in a tomb.
And yet the story doesn’t end there. Because today, he’s alive forevermore—ruling and reigning over the universe—and he’s calling us to repent.
He’s calling us to change our entire way of living.
To change our entire worldview. To understand about the bread.
To recognize that the bread of life is his body broken (14.22).
So today if you’re feeling like you’ve fallen away,
like you’re unworthy, like you’ve disowned God, like you’ve rejected Jesus,
you’re in a great place.
Because you have. We all have.
You, me, Nazareth, Judas, Peter, the disciples—everyone.
And the good news is that Jesus still calls the fallen to follow him.
In fact, only the fallen can follow him.
Only the scandalized can be sent.
Only those who admit the depth of their denial can be a disciple.
Some of us are desperately looking for sign from Jesus,
and we don’t feel like he’s doing anything.
Today you need to hear that
faith isn’t the requirement for receiving God’s rescue;
faith is the requirement for recognizing God’s rescue.
It’s almost impossible for us to believe, but God is always rescuing.
Sometimes in the ways we want; often in ways we wish he wouldn’t.
That’s who he is though—he’s the Rescuer.
Today we can only cry out, “I believe, help my unbelief!”
Because God is always healing, but you’ll only see what you’re looking for.
Sometimes healing the wounds want, often healing the ones we can’t see.
Some of us are perfectionists, and we’re driving ourselves crazy about faith.
If only I believed enough,
if only I didn’t doubt so much,
if only I could have faith that never wavered.
Today, Jesus isn’t looking for you to trust your own faith.
He’s not interested in you having waterproof theories or theologies or beliefs.
He wants you to stop looking at yourself—especially if you’re obsessing over your faith.
As you come to the table, he’s asking you to simply trust him. Trust that his faithfulness—that his body broken—overwhelms and voids your faithlessness.
He’s asking you to trust that he’s rescuing—that your broken body is safe in him.
And he’s asking you to trust that he’s sending you—fallen and scandalized—to do what he does. To love and heal others.
Come and trust this bread without honor—this bread of life.
Come to his body broken, his blood poured out.
Come and trust Jesus.