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 this 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 honour, 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.
I’ve spent a good portion of the last few days in hospital with our friend, Morna. She is a dear friend and a mother-figure to me, and she is dying, and of course there is nothing I can do about that.
So I sit by her side and I do the Christian thing. I say prayers, I tell her that we love her, and I do a lot of hand-holding. And inevitably, as the hours tick by, you do ask yourself, ‘am I accomplishing anything by being here?’
It’s different when the one you love is sitting up in bed and telling the odd joke, and they’re sharing their hopes and fears, and telling you all those old stories that you’ve heard a million times before. But when you’ve reached that stage where there is no longer any real communication happening and where you’re not sure whether they are really sharing in your prayers, and when you’re not sure whether they really even know you’re there any more, you do ask yourself, “is there any point to what I’m doing here?”
So much of life can be like that, can’t it? You pour so much of yourself into trying to raise your kids to be beautiful, god-fearing people, and then they become teenagers and you ask yourself, “What’s the point?” (no, not really)
A lot of Christian ministry is like that though, isn’t it?
We do our best to be faithful to God and we put our time into ministry and we do those Sunday School classes and we say our prayers and we preach that sermon and we share as much of our time and money as we can and we make meals for those people and we let them stay in our home because it’s what Jesus would have done, and we spend more than twenty years trying to build up that church to the point where it can move forward under its own steam, and every now and then you do have to stop and ask yourself, “are we actually making any progress here? Is what I am doing actually making any difference?”
And it’s not because I look back on my classmates at seminary and see how they’ve all gone on to become bishops or pastors of mega-churches or highly-sought-after speakers, travelling the world to speak at international conventions! It’s not that that bothers me (really, it’s not). It’s just the ambiguity of it all!
Am I really making a difference here? Are we making any progress? Is this sermon actually going to do anybody any good or is it just more hot air? That remains to be seen, doesn’t it, and most likely it will be something I never see!
I think that’s one of the reasons I like boxing so much. You train, you fight, you get a result! You might not always agree with the result, but you get a result!
But the greater battles in life aren’t like that! You often don’t see any results for a long, long time, and often those results are ambiguous. Ministry can be very frustrating!
I read of a survey of 301 clergy where apparently 80% confessed to experiencing regular feelings of futility! Indeed, I heard of one guy who gave up ministry and became an undertaker for exactly this reason.
When asked why he changed jobs, he said: “I spent three years trying to straighten out John, and John’s still an alcoholic. I spent six months trying to straighten out Susan’s marriage, and she filed for divorce. I spent two and a half years trying to straighten out Bob’s drug problem, and he’s still an addict. At the funeral home when I straighten them out, they stay straight!”
And the painful contrast for us, of course, is always Jesus Himself!
Jesus didn’t have these problems, did He? When He straightened them out, they stayed straight too! He spoke, He healed, He drove out demons, and wherever He moved and spoke and breathed, miracles would just happen! You can’t imagine Jesus experiencing feelings of futility, can you? Can you?
Well … if today’s Gospel reading is anything to go by, Jesus also got frustrated!
Whether or not Jesus actually struggled with feelings of futility or had to deal with the types of anxiety and depression that so many of us, His followers, struggle with, I do not know, but what we have today is a Gospel story where a particular ministry venture undertaken by Jesus and the Apostles seems to fall flat on its face, and where the story ends the rather extraordinary statement, that Jesus “marvelled at their unbelief!” (Mark 6:6)
Dr. Broughton Knox, my old friend and teacher, used to say that most Christians he knew were ‘docetic’ – they believed in the divinity of Christ, but did not really believe that Jesus was fully human. The picture we get of Jesus in Mark 6 is of a very human Jesus.
For one thing, the Jesus we see in Mark chapter 6 is clearly someone who is exhausted, and perhaps that’s why He’s going home (vs.1) – to get a rest!
In order to get a full picture of what and who Jesus was trying to get a rest from we really need to wade back a few chapters in the Gospel of Mark, but in truth, Jesus had been trying to escape the crowds since they ‘tracked him down’ way back in chapter 1 (1:35)!
From this point on Jesus never gets a break. By chapter 4 He is preaching from a boat to avoid being crushed by the crowd, and he asks the disciples to sail away after they have finished, even though the weather was probably not good. It says there that they took him in the boat ‘just as he was’, suggesting that perhaps he had collapsed, and what happened subsequently suggests that. If you remember the story, the boat started getting belted about so much that it was ready to sink, yet Jesus remained asleep until someone physically roused Him!
Either He was faking it, or Jesus was really, really tired!
Either way, He didn’t get any peace in the boat, and he didn’t get any peace on shore either, as He found another endless line of people waiting there to see Him
And Jesus’ pain at this point was not just physical either. He was grieving the death of John, his cousin. The full story of John’s gruesome end is given in the passage immediately following this one but it is clear the assassination of John had already taken place and it had clearly impacted Jesus. Perhaps that’s why He went home – to be with family?
Mark 6:1: “Jesus … came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.”
And I’m guessing that it was probably not His idea to preach at the synagogue service on the Sabbath. I’m guessing that He was speaking by the invitation of the local Rabbi (who had perhaps been put under pressure by Jesus’ mum).
However it came to pass, and whoever it was that invited Him, Jesus evidently accepted the invitation and decided to embark on some sort of ministry there in His hometown, yet It didn’t’ work! And so instead of the scene ending with the familiar – “the crowds marvelled and asked, ‘Who is they guy?’”, it is Jesus who ends up marvelling, this time at the ‘unbelief’ of his former neighbours.
We don’t know exactly what happened. Was it perhaps that people started jeering at Him in the synagogue or did Jesus actually pray for some poor soul to be healed and yet he didn’t get any better!
Personally speaking, that’s not a scenario I can comfortably envisage at all and, as I say, we really do not know the details. Even so, we do know two things:
- That Jesus Himself felt very uncomfortable about what happened.
- That the problem was the ‘lack of faith’ of the locals, for whom Jesus was just far too familiar!
They said, … “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?” (Mark 6:3)
From the point of view of those townsfolk, Jesus was just far too ordinary! They knew him as ‘the carpenter’. Most likely some of them were still using tables and chairs that Jesus had made for them. The fact that he had trained as a carpenter also meant that he had not trained as a rabbi. Who did this guy think he was? He was too familiar, and so they “took offense at him.”
I can understand it. I lived in my father’s shadow for much of my life. Everyone always said to me, ‘isn’t he a wonderful preacher?’ I’d been listening to his sermons since I was 5 years old. They didn’t seem so special to me!
Likewise, when my brother Rob became a rock idol (for a time). Girls were swooning over him saying, ‘isn’t he cute’. He didn’t seem cute at all to me!
Jesus “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.” (Mark 6:5-6)
It didn’t work! The mission at Nazareth was a failure! Jesus Himself failed to get results! Should we find that deeply disturbing or strangely comforting?
I remember when Mother Theresa was asked how she gauged her success, she said something along the lines of, “Oh, I thought the goal was to be faithful, not successful!” And this is the central message of this text today to me.
Sometimes we do our best to do the right thing before God, and the whole thing works brilliantly! At other times we fall flat on our faces. For the most part, the results are ambiguous! That’s ok. Jesus’ own experience was surprisingly similar!
For the goal is not to achieve success. The goal is faithfulness. And this is where ‘fighting the good fight’ is probably more like sailing than it is like boxing. For the goal isn’t to win but to stay on course!
And sometimes that’s easy and warm and gratifying and sometimes, like the sailors of old, you have to lash yourself to the wheel in order to make sure you stay on course while you wait for the storm to pass. Either way, the point is that we don’t have to achieve all that we set out to achieve; we don’t need to pull off great miracles, and we don’t need to have a trail of healed and happy people dancing along behind us, testifying to the effectiveness of our work! We just need to stay faithful in doing what we have been called to do.
And that’s what I remind myself as the hours tick away in hospital and those doubts arise as to whether there’s any point to what I’m doing. I remind myself that the question, “am I achieving anything here?” is simply the wrong question. The only important question is, “is my body in the right place? Am I where I need to be?”
As I say, it’s not quite like boxing. As a boxer, if you can’t win, you stop fighting. As a Christian, you keep fighting, and you leave the result in the hands of God! Because it’s not our job to win! Our job is just to fight!
That may sound rather depressing, and living for Christ can be painful and frustrating – even Jesus got frustrated at times – but we keep in mind that in the end victory does come. It comes in God’s own way and at God’s own time but, in the end, the Kingdom!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on July 8, 2012. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.