In our Gospel reading for today (Mark 6:1-13), Jesus goes to his hometown and teaches in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The text doesn’t say exactly what he taught, but one can imagine that it’s similar to what he had taught previously: that the Scriptures are fulfilled in him and that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, because he is here and ushering in the very redeeming reign of God into this fallen world.
You’d think this would be a great thing. Christ is here! God Himself has condescended to come to His fallen creation to save it, to call people to repentance and to bring mercy.
Yet, the people in Jesus’ hometown don’t receive him. Those who knew him most did not listen to his Word. So, they rejected him and “he could do no mighty work there,” because they rejected the Word of God who does these mighty works.
So, Jesus took the twelve disciples and “began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” The disciples were sent to proclaim the Word of God to others who might listen. If they received the Word of God, they would stay there; if they rejected it, the disciples would move on. And so they went and did many mighty works.
A similar thing occurs in the time of Ezekiel from our Old Testament reading today (Ezekiel 2:1-5). The Lord commissions Ezekiel to speak His Word to His people who have gone astray, people who are “impudent and stubborn.” Whether they hear or not, Ezekiel must speak the Word of God – just like the Lord Jesus Christ commissions his disciples.
The Lord also tells Ezekiel, “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with my words to them. For you are not sent to a people of foreign speech and a hard language, but to the house of Israel— not to many peoples of foreign speech and a hard language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, if I sent you to such, they would listen to you” (Ezekiel 3:4-6).
That’s quite a stinging indictment against the people of Israel. They know the Lord, they ought to hear His Word. They ought to listen to Ezekiel; it’s not as if they don’t speak the same language or share the same Scriptures. And yet, the Lord says that if He sent Ezekiel to foreign people, people outside Israel, then surely they would listen to Ezekiel. That’s quite a terrible thing, then, that God’s own people have stopped listening to Him.
It’s the same thing in Jesus’ time; the people of Nazareth know the promises in the Scriptures of the coming Christ. And indeed, they know the Christ Himself; he lived in their very midst. And, yet they don’t listen; they discount him, because he’s too familiar to them; they know him too well. They have eyes but don’t see and ears but don’t hear.
As fallen people, we tend to take for granted things we know too well; oftentimes it’s our family and friends. And, the people of Ezekiel’s time took the Lord for granted; the people of Jesus’ time did it; and many of us in our own time do it as well.
What do I mean? What I mean is that at times we become so immeshed in our culture as the Church that sometimes we forget why we’re the Church. The Lord is here in our midst, just as he promised to be; he’s giving us his grace and salvation and his very body and blood in the Sacrament. And yet he’s too familiar, we take him for granted, we reject His Word in favor of other things that tickle our ears to capture our attention.
This temptation is always there for us. The people of the Church need reminding of who they are, who she – the Church – is. The mission of the Church needs to be kindled and cared for; the Church needs to keep proclaiming the Word of God and being with those who don’t agree with her so that they may hear what she has to say, in a loving and merciful and faithful way. The Church needs to exercise her commission so that she doesn’t forget who she is as the body of Christ.
I was thinking about all this when I reflected on the texts today and the fact that Ezekiel and Jesus didn’t go to people who were completely unfamiliar with the Lord; they went to people of Israel, people of the Church, and the people didn’t listen, because the Lord was too familiar to them. They had other things to attend to, and the Lord – frankly – was getting in the way of seemingly more important business. They had their culture and their practices, and the Lord was just confusing things for them, making them a little too uncomfortable with His Word.
I think about this also when reading various articles or news stories about internal politics within the Church. The fact that sometimes internal Church politics and synodical politics takes up so much time in our conversation and efforts is perhaps a testament that Jesus has become too familiar: we know Jesus, we understand him: now we can move onto other more important things.
“So, Jesus, you sit down; we don’t need to hear you speak, we’ve heard and seen it all before. We want to go back to discussing how to win the next election, or gawk at whatever celebrity is currently in the news, or argue about the Supreme Court, or run our committees; we don’t have time for you and your uncomfortable Word, and you have nothing new to teach us.”
Yet, Jesus is here with us. It would be rude to ignore the presence of a normal person, how much more to ignore the presence of the Lord. And he does, in a sense, have something “new” to teach us: not in the sense that there are new doctrines or ideas for him to tell us, but rather “new” in the sense that he has already revealed to us through the Scriptures things that we have not yet fully taken to heart. Also, in the sense the he is actually here with us, in the Gospel and in the Lord’s Supper and that the Holy Spirit is working among us to do “mighty works,” if only we’d believe that he is here and that he can.
If we do, then we can also do the mighty work of proclaiming God’s Word of Law and Gospel to sinners and trusting that the Holy Spirit will work through this proclamation and through our conversations with each other and with those outside the Church. I have seen with my own eyes the power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts and minds. It doesn’t take money, force of arms, political power, man-made laws; it just takes the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God that we – as God’s Church – have been given to speak to others. We are already armed with a great power capable of mighty works – if only we’d use it.
What a sacred trust we have been granted to be stewards of God’s Word. And what a difficult thing to do if we have neglected the Word and spent our time focussing on other things instead. How are we to speak the Word of God to others if we don’t know it ourselves?
We as the Church, then, are in somewhat of an odd position. We are called to know the Word of God, to be familiar with him, and yet not take him for granted. We are called to know Jesus and his brothers and sisters (that is, the Church) and yet still hear what he has to say to us and not take each other for granted. We are called to keep hearing the Word of God, keep receiving it as the power that does mighty works, even when we feel we’ve heard it all before, that there’s nothing new to say.
And this, then, is the great mighty work that God has done before us that we sometimes look right past without seeing it: the fact that God came in the flesh to redeem us from captivity to sin and eternal death to make us His people, a redeemed people, His nation, the Church.
The fact also that the Church is still here at all, despite persecutions and heresy. The fact that the Church is still here and didn’t die out after that first generation of the apostles. The fact that the Word of God that they proclaimed converted a new generation of believers and that their proclamation of the Word of God spawned the next generation of believers and that this has been going on down to our time and that we ourselves are the heirs of this mighty work that God has been performing through His Word, and that we too are given this Word to proclaim so that the Church will still be here after we are not.
The Word doesn’t appear powerful, it doesn’t appear wonderful, it isn’t decked out with gold and silver. And the Church often looks weak and small, and yet the Lord says even to us, as He said it to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Amen.
(Image: Jesus Teaches in the Synagogues – Jésus enseigne dans les synagogues. By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2008, 00.159.81_PS2.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10957358 )