Amazing Unbelief (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Mark 6:1-6


The headline of the Nazareth Daily Scroll that day might have read “Hometown Prophet Returns,” and in smaller letters, “Set to Appear in Synagogue, Locals Excited.” Of course it didn’t take long for the homecoming to sour. We see that especially in Luke’s record of a similar episode—the scene at the synagogue in Nazareth [Lk 4:16ff]—but it’s evident here in Mark as well. The response was so negative that it prompted Jesus to observe that “prophets are not without honor except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” [Mk 6:4] The Gospel of John doesn’t recount this story, yet it too affirms that Christ came to his own people, but they did not receive him. [Jn 1:11] Predicting the coming Messiah, the prophet Isaiah had declared that he would be rejected and despised, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. [Isa 53:3]

We perhaps are accustomed to hearing that Christ was frequently rebuffed, but don’t you find it surprising still? Here is a person who, by all accounts, went about doing good, yet he met resistance everywhere he went. Standing outside the city of Jerusalem, knowing that his passion was near, the Lord cried out, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often I would have gathered your children as a hen gathers her young, but you would not!’ [Mt 23:37] The Gospel writers pulled no punches when it came to describing our Lord’s real-time reviews. Even at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, when the Risen Christ was about to deliver what we know as the Great Commission, the writer tells us that the disciples worshiped him, but some doubted! [Mt 28:17] If I had been writing a Gospel about Jesus, I’m not sure I would have told that!

The point Scripture makes, though, is that while God has consistently reached out to human beings, who were after all created in God’s own image, there is a stubborn streak of unbelief in us. Knowing this full well, our Savior came to us and offered himself for us. How amazing is that?

There are all sorts of reasons why people rejected Christ during his ministry, and some of these are mentioned in today’s text. His townsfolk wanted to know, ‘Where did this fellow get all this wisdom? Wasn’t he raised right here among us? Isn’t he that carpenter’s son? Isn’t he Mary’s boy? Don’t we know his brothers and sisters? Why, we remember him running through the market with the other kids! He’s nobody special.’ There is a tinge of jealousy in these remarks, perhaps, and a little of the attitude that the would-be disciple Nathanael expressed when he asked, ‘Can any good thing come from Nazareth?’ [Jn 1:46] We have a saying that ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ Maybe these folks from Nazareth struggled with that a little.

The closest I’ve come to visiting the Holy Lands was a quick trip to Nazareth, PA, a few years ago! But last Sunday we had a gentleman in our service who was a native of Nazareth, the kindly grandfather of little George Byron Hishmeh who was baptized. I’m not sure he would appreciate what I’m about to say, because evidently the people of Nazareth were a pretty hard-hearted bunch. But in their defense, not more so than the rest of us! I understand that Nazareth today is the largest city in the Northern District of Israel with a population of some 76,000. But in the time of Christ we’re told there were about 400 people living there, so everyone knew everyone else. There is no doubt that the local rabbi remembered Jesus well as the most precocious of all his students, and other neighbors were probably close to his family as well. But for some reason, the town did not receive the returning Jesus with open arms. Here was this hometown boy who made good, but instead of being happy for him, Scripture says they “took offense at him” [v. 3]

Maybe they had heard reports of Jesus’ healing powers as he worked at Capernaum and other nearby towns. But they wanted to see it for themselves. ‘Show us a miracle, Jesus,’ they may have taunted. ‘What, you can do great things on the other side of the mountain but right here at home you can’t?’ This

This wasn’t the only time our Lord seemed surprised by the lack of faith he encountered among those he came to serve. You will remember, for instance, that when the disciple band was in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus was taking a nap in the back of the boat, a great storm suddenly arose. Men like Peter, James and John, sea-weathered fishermen who were as much at home on the water as on land, feared for their lives. They woke up Jesus, crying, ‘Don’t you care that we are perishing?’ [Mk 4:38] But Christ answered, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’ [[Mt 8:26] He then calmed the storm, but the question of the disciples’ small faith would arise again from time to time. When they were unable to cure a young man, they asked Jesus why, and he pointedly replied: ‘Because of your little faith.’ [Mt 17:20] To underscore how small their faith was, he told them that faith the size of a grain of mustardseed could move mountains. But that’s exactly the kind of hyperbole that many people in our own skeptical age can’t relate to.

Sometimes, though, Jesus was just as surprised when he met genuine faith. That happened the day he was approached by a Roman centurion who asked the Lord to heal his sick servant. [Mt 8:5ff] Here was a man who was not part of the grand religious tradition of Moses and Abraham, a soldier whose very presence was a reminder of the subjugation of Israel. He told Jesus that he was not worthy to have Christ under his roof, but that as a military man he understood the importance of giving and obeying orders. He knew genuine authority when he saw it. ‘Just say the word,’ said the centurion, ‘and my servant will be healed.’ To this our Lord responded, “I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel.’ And there was the Canaanite woman, also a Gentile, who asked that Jesus heal her daughter. The exchange between the two of them, once she made it past the disciples who tried to head her off, was unsettling, because the Lord said that bread for the children isn’t to be given to dogs. But she was undeterred: ‘Even the dogs get the crumbs from the table,’ she noted. Jesus then replied with wonder, “Great is your faith. Be it done for you as you desire.” [Mt 15:28] These two unlikely people recognized the divine authority of Christ when so many did not.

Recently I read a book by former President Jimmy Carter titled Faith. In it he wrote, “To me, ‘faith’ is not just a noun, but also a verb.” I like that. Politics aside, we can’t help noticing that Carter’s faith, especially in these later years, is evident in his actions, when he volunteers with Habitat for Humanity, heads up election monitoring for strife-torn countries, and teaches the Sunday Bible class at his church. His is an amazing kind of faith, dealing with cancer, advancing age, and the inevitable scorn of political opponents. But he lives what he believes.

Faith, says Scripture, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. [Heb 11:1] It’s not exactly a transparent definition, but one that’s hard to improve on. We wonder, though, if this is what faith is, what then is unbelief?

Today ‘s typical secular people are more apt to be surprised by belief than by unbelief. For them, faith smacks of superstition and fable. Sophisticated, modern people, they feel, can’t accept the teachings of the Bible as divine truth, nor are they comfortable with the notion of a loving God who seeks to relate to and redeem human beings. They look at us Christians as deluded and hopeless idealists.

If people are skeptical of our belief in the living God, we may ask in turn, where is the supporting evidence for their unbelief? There’s plenty of evidence that God exists, including the indisputable fact of the natural world, with the awareness of the staggeringly unknowable dimensions of the universe brought to light by deep-space probing telescopes. When a person of faith goes fishing, or takes a hike in the woods, or goes sailing, it’s not uncommon to think of the greatness of the Creator. Show us the evidence for unbelief and we’ll show you not only the fathomless mysteries of the created order, but also the sacred history of the people of God, called to service and holiness, the testimony of sacred Scripture composed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit over millennia of interactions between God and people, not to mention the two thousand years of church ministry which has sought to proclaim the gospel Christ embodied.

Look at all the injustice in the world, the skeptical person rejoins. What about the scourge of pandemics, the crushing poverty and hunger that claim innocent lives every day, the tyranny of regimes that care nothing for their people, terrorism and crime in every news report? What loving God would abide all this and more?

To this we people of Christian faith have but one reply. This loving God gave his only Son, so that this suffering world, through faith, can find salvation: peace in the midst of conflict, wholeness in the face of disease, the bread of life for a hungering world, justice now and hope for the life to come. To the question of where this loving God is in a world like this, we point to a lonely hill where the innocent one took the place of all those who are not. Our faith in Christ is confirmed by his amazing grace!

It is interesting that in our passage today we’re told that Jesus could do no deed of power in Nazareth because of the climate of unbelief. Except for this: he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them! Not too bad, wouldn’t you agree? So despite the skepticism and even antagonism of the community, the Lord still could do amazing things! Our lack of faith does not thwart the divine redemptive purpose. God’s work is done, with or despite us. In fact, as the apostle Paul put it, ‘the proof of God’s amazing love is this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’ [Rom 5:8]

Though it may have seemed to some that Christ’s brief visit to Nazareth was a failure, it is worth noting that immediately he continued his ministry in the surrounding villages, and even sent out his disciples in pairs, empowering them to heal the sick and proclaim the gospel. Christ would meet unbelief again and again, but it never defeated him. Yet he was always on the lookout for genuine faith, once wondering aloud: ‘When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ [Lk 18:8] It may be that most of us are a mixture of belief and doubt at any given time. One man who asked that Christ heal his son, when told that all things are possible to one who believes, cried, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’ [Mt 9:24] Surely that’s an appropriate prayer for any of us.

—George R. Estes, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, July 8, 2018

Comments (0)

Cancel or