In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rodrigo Duterte is the 73-year-old president of the Philippines. In a speech late last month, he lamented that, in Christian theology, Adam and Eve’s sin “resulted in all the faithful falling from divine grace.” He complained that even “innocent infants” can have the sin removed “only through baptism in a church for a fee.” “Who is this stupid God? … You were not involved but now you’re stained with an original sin … What kind of a religion is that? That’s what I can’t accept, [a] very stupid proposition.” In a speech last week to open a science and technology event in the southern Filipino city of Davao, he said that if there’s “one single witness” who can prove, perhaps with a picture or a selfie, that a human was “able to talk to and see God,” he will immediately resign. He is the leader of a nation that is over ninety percent Christian, about eighty percent Roman Catholic. Even some of his political allies have criticized him for these remarks.
Like many an unbeliever, Rodrigo Duterte has a little bit right about Christian teaching, and a whole lot wrong. Then again, there are believers like that, too. How should we respond to such mocking and criticism of the Christian Faith? We may be naturally inclined to “fight back” verbally, to call such a mocker “an evil man,” as one opposition senator did, or a “madman,” as one bishop did. Are we also inclined to pray for the mocker? Are we inclined to pray that God’s Law would break through the stony heart, leading to repentance, and that the Holy Spirit would create faith in that heart through the proclamation of the Gospel? We are not naturally inclined to pray, or to do anything that God wills and desires. Mr. Duterte does have that part right: we all are by nature sinful and unclean, naturally inclined against the things of God. By the grace of God in Christ Jesus, we are supernaturally enabled and inclined, through the working of the Holy Spirit, to pray, to hear and believe God’s Word, to confess and speak the Faith of Christ. Thanks be to God for His grace and mercy toward us in His Son, Jesus Christ! For apart from that, we too would be unbelievers.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus goes into His hometown, His disciples following Him, and on the Sabbath He began teaching in the synagogue. We know that Jesus faced opposition, especially from the scribes and the Pharisees. We’ve heard about it many times before. Yet this is Nazareth, the community in which Jesus grew up, the synagogue in which He worshipped and heard the Scriptures read every Sabbath. They had heard the accounts of Jesus’ teaching and miracles in other places, “hometown boy makes good” and all that. They were astonished by His wisdom and the mighty works done by His hands. But wait a minute—we know this guy, we’ve known him since he was knee-high to a grasshopper, and he sure didn’t show us anything special then. “Isn’t this the carpenter?” The Greek word is tektōn, meaning “builder” (the arkhitektōn would be the “chief builder,” from which we get architect). As a builder, a craftsman, a construction worker, Jesus would have been regarded as belonging to one of the lower classes of society, a position with very little honor. Not only is Jesus undeserving of honor in their eyes—and He’s really overstepping His bounds behaving like this—they call Him “the son of Mary,” His mother! By not calling Jesus the son of Joseph, His supposed father, they’re suggesting that Jesus was conceived through sexual immorality. Remember the warning Jesus gave to the scribes who said that He was possessed by Beelzebul, and that He cast out demons by the prince of demons: “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mk 3:29). Jesus’ conception is the womb of the Virgin Mary was by the power of God the Holy Spirit—an act which the people of Nazareth suggested was an act of adultery!
Mark also recorded in that same chapter that Jesus’ mother and brothers thought He was out of His mind. See, we know this guy’s brothers and sisters, the people of Nazareth say, and they don’t believe in him! So why should we? He probably thinks he’s better than we are! Yet this is more than a case of “familiarity breeds contempt.” Jesus comes to His hometown preaching the Good News, just as He has everywhere from the beginning: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). From the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus had been casting out unclean spirits, healing the sick and injured, cleansing lepers, calling disciples, and even raising the dead! Last Sunday we heard how a woman was healed of her flow of blood when she just touched Jesus’ garment—healed after twelve years (a virtual lifetime!) of sickness, separation, and shame! And He raised a twelve-year-old girl from the dead. The long-awaited Messiah is present, in the flesh, to save—“And they took offense at Him” (Mk 6:3c). Jesus is not at all tactful, but rather seriously insulting, in His response: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (v. 4). Yes, “familiarity breeds contempt”; but, when it breeds unbelief, that is the problem, and it has eternal consequences.
“And He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He marveled at their unbelief” (vv. 5–6). These verses have caused considerable consternation among the faithful, and there has been a lot of bad interpretation and application of them. Some folks get the idea that Jesus loses power if we don’t believe in Him, that He is able to work miracles only if we have enough faith. “If you have enough faith, Jesus will give you whatever you want.” “You weren’t healed because you didn’t have enough faith.” That is a horrible, hellish teaching. How much faith is “enough faith”? It is an ambiguous, even troubling, portrait that Mark draws here of our Lord. Does Jesus force His healing on some, or do they believe? Is He really powerless? Weak? Thwarted? Rejected? A failure?
Remember who came with Jesus, and were eyewitnesses to this rejection in Nazareth: His disciples. [The Twelve were there when most of His disciplse left “and walked with Him no more” (Jn 6), when He asked them, “Do you also wish to leave?” and Peter answered on their behalf, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” To the world, what a loser Jesus was!] And after this episode in Nazareth, what did He do with them? He summoned the Twelve “to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits” (v. 7). Put yourself in their sandals. You just saw your Master, your Teacher, get rejected, and not able to do miracles, and now He sends you out to preach the same message and with authority to do certain miracles. Really?! Sure, you’ve seen Him do other mighty works, no problem, and the crowds just eat up His teaching. Still, this whole sad episode is not exactly the best confidence booster right before you go out on a mission for Him, is it? He also cautions you, “And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony to them” (v. 11)—a witness that says, “You have rejected our preaching, you are without the kingdom, the gracious reign and rule of God, and we will not be associated with that. Repent before it’s too late. Repent now!”
The Lord has always warned His messengers that they would face rejection, mockery, insults, persecution, suffering, and threats. How many times, even before the Exodus, did the children of Israel complain against Moses and against the Lord? See how the Lord warns Ezekiel of the rejection he would face from those who had rejected the Lord Himself! “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against Me. … The descendants also are impudent and stubborn” (Ezek 2:3–4). The Apostle Paul was no stranger to imprisonment, shipwreck, mob attacks, or being put on trial. He also says “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated” (2 Cor 12:7). (I experienced a “thorn” in my flesh yesterday. As I was going up the basement steps, my toe caught on the nose of a step, and my left arm jammed up into my shoulder. Linda said she would pray for me, and then I pointed out Paul’s thorn in the flesh in today’s Epistle reading.) Whatever Paul’s thorn was, it caused him to suffer—and no doubt this one “thorn” reminded him of the crown of thorns which our Lord Jesus bore in His suffering and death for our sakes—along with the whip, the nails, and the cross. Powerless? Weak? Thwarted? Rejected? A failure? A loser? To all the world, that’s sure what Jesus looked to be as He hung on the cross. His powerlessness, weakness, and rejection in Nazareth were signs pointing to His purpose and destiny at the Cross for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation of the world. His means of grace—His written and preached Word, and His Holy Absolution, spoken by mere men; His Holy Baptism, just water and some words; His Holy Supper, just some bread and wine and some words. But those words are not just “some words”; they are His Word, the Word of the Lord, giving and doing what it says: Forgiveness of sins! New birth and adoption into the family of God! His holy, Triune name put on you! His body and blood, in your mouth! Eternal life! Salvation! Redemption from sin, death, and the power of the devil! Jesus present, here, for you! And where He is, there His Father is, and so is His Holy Spirit. Dear Christian, dear witness for the Lord, you know that you will encounter unbelief and rejection, and at times you will feel weak and powerless, feel like a failure, a loser. So did Jesus! He remained the faithful Savior, all the way to the cross, for you. By His power and grace, His Word and Spirit, you remain a faithful witness for Him.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.