Unbelief Tragedy … Belief Triumph
Good morning, friends. Let me greet everybody who is part of our church family watching at home online, our church partners around the world, and anybody who’s joining today. If you don’t know me, my name is Ryan, and I’m excited to open God’s Word with you this morning.
I do want to give a quick personal plug. I would love for many of you to choose to come to the Good Friday, Sunrise Easter services that we’re having next week. If you recall, a year ago none of us were together on Easter. Everybody was at home watching a computer. So, this year we have done the best we can to get everybody together in the wisest way possible to love everyone. And that’s outdoors for all three of those services. So, jump on, register for backup services, make plans to attend. The Good Friday service will be a traditional Good Friday service focused more on the death of Jesus. Sunrise service is going to be a sunrise hymn sing, and then our regular Easter service where we’ll celebrate and have a lot of people baptized. So, I hope you guys can all be there for all of it.
January 28, 1986, I was in 7th grade. What should have been a day of celebration, a day that was a miracle, turned into a nightmare. This was the day that the space shuttle Challenger launched and then broke apart and exploded over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. Now, that explosion occurred because of a very simple reason. There were rubber O-rings that were supposed to hold in fuel that didn’t function properly, primarily because of unseasonably cold weather in Florida. The morning before that launch, Bob Ebeling and four of his fellow engineers who were contracted by NASA warned NASA of the issue. They asked for a delay. Now, NASA knew these engineers. They worked for NASA. They had the wisdom to do their job. Their work proved them reliable witnesses. The morning of the launch, it’s reported that Ebeling was driving with his daughter to another of the engineer’s homes, and he was banging his fist on the dashboard saying, “The Challenger is going to explode. Everyone’s going to die.” So, Ebeling had this message. He had the wisdom needed. He had demonstrated through his work that he should be believed, but he was ignored. And the result was tragedy.
Welcome to the beginning of Mark chapter 6. A very similar thing occurs. Responding to Jesus in unbelief leads to tragedy. In our section today, Mark shares two stories about responding to Jesus. The first of which is, responding to Jesus in unbelief leads to tragedy. The second story with a lot better news is, responding to Jesus in belief leads to miracles. This section, what we talk about all day today, is all about us responding to Jesus.
Let’s look at story #1. Jesus returns home. Sixty-five miles north of Jerusalem is Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth. In modern terms, we would say Jesus was born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth. Today, it’s populated by about 155,000 people, but it was very different in Jesus’ day. In “the Gospel According to Mark,” Edwards writes this:
“Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament … No church was built in Nazareth until the time of Constantine. Archeological excavations … have uncovered a series of grottoes that date to the time of Jesus. The resultant picture is of an obscure hamlet of earthen dwellings chopped into 60 acres of rocky hillside, with a total population of 500 — at the most.”
For those of us who have been in church, heard stories of Jesus, when you picture Jesus growing up, where do you see him? Do you see him in the city or out in the sticks? Some of you might be familiar with the metropolis of Slater-Marietta. On the outskirts of Travelers Rest is Slater-Marietta, which as of 2019 boasted a mass population of 1,873. So, Slater-Marietta is 3x the size of Jesus’ hometown.
We learn more about Nazareth in the Gospel of John. There’s this moment where Jesus asks this guy named Philip to follow him. Philip goes to another guy named Nathaniel and says, “Listen, I’ve met Messiah. You’ve got to come and meet him. His name is Jesus, and he’s from Nazareth.” Nathaniel responds to Philip and says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” In some ways, that’s for us. We look at Slater-Marietta, and no one expects a rocket scientist who’s going to change the world to come out of Slater-Marietta. In Nazareth, no one expects a culture-changing Messiah to come out of Nazareth.
At this point in the story, when we hear that Jesus is returning home, I for one, after everything that Jesus has done — healing people, teaching, astonishing people — I want him to have the hero’s welcome. The small town parade with the John Deere tractor going underneath the one yellow blinking light in town, that’s what should happen in the story. No such celebration happens, though, for Jesus. He comes back, and we find him, as we often do in the Book of Mark, teaching in the synagogue. And it’s right there in the place of teaching where we discover his hometown’s response of unbelief. But why? I mean, have they missed out on what Jesus has been up to, his teaching and his miracles? Nope, Mark lets us know they’re aware. Some are amazed, even awed, at what he’s doing. But they’re not awed in a good way. When Jesus teaches, many are astonished, but this astonishment is characterized more by prejudice than praise. This astonishment makes them drive Jesus out rather than inviting him in.
The astonished townspeople ask themselves a series of questions that reveal their view of Jesus and tell us why they don’t believe Jesus. For them, they didn’t think Jesus was powerful. Jesus was not powerful, he was not professional, and he was not special. Those three things their questions reveal. Jesus was not powerful, professional, or special.
The listeners’ questions begin with this: “What is this wisdom” [So, they recognize there’s wisdom.] “What is this wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by him?” So, they recognize what Jesus is doing, his wisdom and works. Kind of like NASA recognized Ebeling as an employee. But just like NASA, Nazareth doesn’t listen. They ignore. Nazareth can’t believe that Jesus himself, coming out of Jesus, that he has the wisdom he’s giving away. There has to be another source. The works that he’s doing, he can’t be the one who’s doing those. Who gave it to him? Where is it coming from? Looking at Jesus when he teaches, it’s as if they can only see the kid that grew up down the road. They don’t see an authoritative, wise, miracle-working Messiah.
Secondly for them, Jesus is not professional. And we see this because people ask: “Is not this the carpenter?” This guy that’s up here teaching and doing miracles, isn’t this the carpenter? Now, we often think of carpenter and I think a lot of art about Jesus shows him in a workshop working on some big log with his dad. Jesus is probably more of a tradesman than just a carpenter. He could work in stone and wood. Where he grew up, a lot of stonework would be done. So, he could frame a house and lay tile, in modern terms.
The crowd here, I don’t think they’re mocking his profession. They’re questioning why a carpenter is up there teaching. It’s not your role. You don’t have the training for this. They could more easily believe Jesus’ teaching if he had gone through what every Jewish rabbi went through, which was apprenticeship, becoming a rabbi. But Jesus hadn’t done that. He could swing a hammer with the best of them, but he’s not one who can open up the scroll and teach the Law. Jesus, in their brains, could fix a wobbly table on his own, but with his own power he couldn’t raise the dead. He’s not a professional, so why should we listen?
Finally, the unbelief of the crowd is because Jesus is not special. Their final question focuses on family. Isn’t Jesus “the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here?” Let me ask another question of you when you picture Jesus. The first one was, when you picture Jesus, where do you see him growing up? The other one is, when you think of Jesus do you see him in a big family? Jesus was the oldest of at least seven. Everyone here who is a teenager or a kid, remember, Jesus knows exactly what you go through in life. He knows all of the amazing, awesome parts of family, and Jesus probably knows about arguments and family, too. He grew up in one. He was part of a big family. But his listeners, when they remember that he was part of a family right there, that makes him too normal. Jesus was just one of the Joseph and Mary Smith crew. We know him. We know his family. He’s not that special. He can’t be the guy doing this.
So, after asking all of these questions revealing their unbelief, the crowd then choose their response to Jesus. “They took offense at Jesus.” You could put it this way, they were scandalized by Jesus. Jesus was, in a sense to them, rising above his station. Or, as my granddad used to say, they were looking at him thinking, “Jesus, you’re a little too big for your britches here. What do you think you’re doing?” Even though they recognize that what Jesus is doing is right. Wisdom, miracles, that’s right. But the fact that he was doing it was wrong. Right actions, wrong person in their estimation.
Jesus wasn’t powerful, he wasn’t a professional, he’s not special. So, the crowd judged him wrong for doing what he was doing. They didn’t believe he was the source of wisdom and works. And in the face of proof, they chose unbelief. So, Jesus then responds to his neighbors with a proverb. Jesus says to them this (a short teaching):
“A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”
Someone who speaks the truth is respected everywhere but at home. So, this may not connect with everybody. Some of you might have heard something like this. Parents of teenagers, you run into this moment where your kid will receive something from another adult and act as if it’s brand new information when you’ve said that 100 times to them over the course of their life. I hear that. They will come and act like it’s new and wonderful. And you’re sitting in your brain going, “I’ve told you that over and over and over.” A prophet is not without honor except at home. It’s a little illustration of what Jesus is saying to these. Jesus’ teaching with authority caused amazement and transformation everywhere but at home.
After the proverb, Mark then records a couple of results of unbelief. First, minimized miracles. Mark tells us — and listen to this phrase — Mark tells us that Jesus
“could do no mighty work there.” [What?] Jesus “could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few [remember that word], on a few sick people and healed them.”
In a companion story in Matthew’s gospel, it’s written this way:
“and [Jesus] did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.”
People’s unbelief minimized Jesus’ mighty works. Jesus minimized his mighty works because of people’s unbelief.
This passage reveals the mysterious and powerful relationship between our faith and God’s power. In some strange way they go together. Think of a couple of examples. Last week, Matt preached through the story of a woman being healed. She thought, “If I just touch his garment, I’m going to be fine.” Jesus looks at the woman and says, “Your faith has made you well.” But in the same story, we know that it was Jesus’ power that healed her. Think of earlier in Mark. There’s this moment where they’re in the temple and Jesus looks at this guy and says, “stretch out your hand” so that he could heal his hand. And the guy stretched out his hand, and it was healed. Which makes you wonder, what happens if the guy doesn’t stretch out his hand?
There’s this other story where Jesus’ disciples are in a boat. They look out, Jesus is walking on water. And Peter’s like, “I’d like to try that,” and asks Jesus. And Jesus says, “Come on.” So, he gets out of the boat, starts walking on some water, keeping his eyes fixed on Jesus — faith full. And then all of a sudden, the waves start creeping Peter out a little bit. He wigs out, takes his eyes off Jesus, his faith falters, and he begins to sink. So, while his faith is focused on Jesus, his faith and God’s power are a supernatural life vest that let him just float on water and walk around. When that faith moves, he sinks.
Now, how that occurs and when that occurs … If you want to try to pinpoint the moment between our faith and God’s power, I can’t tell you where that is. I can’t define that. And actually, I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is this, where unbelief rules, miracles disappear. Where unbelief rules, miracles disappear. With the lack of belief in Nazareth, only a few people were healed. Jesus himself could only heal a few people. Which in and of itself is beautiful because even in a culture of unbelief, Jesus is going to find people. Jesus is going to search people out and find them.
Second result, Jesus marvels at their unbelief. Jesus “marveled because of their unbelief.” Jesus was, a couple of other words, Jesus was stunned. Jesus was wide-eyed. He was shocked by their unbelief. That is not how you want a phrase said about yourself. I don’t want Jesus shocked at my unbelief.
Final result, Jesus moved on. Jesus leaves Nazareth. Mark tells us that Jesus “went about the villages teaching.” He moved on and found other places to teach. Nazareth was now just another stop in the ministry tour.
So, let’s take a moment and notice what Jesus didn’t do in response to unbelief. Jesus didn’t call down fire and destroy Nazareth. Jesus didn’t have a zillion angels just come through and tear the place down to rubble. Jesus gave them a very brief proverb. It was a direct teaching, but it wasn’t a long, angry rant. Instead, he didn’t do miracles and he left.
So (and this is just a personal thing), as I read that story, I think that ending is more sobering to me than a dramatic judgment ending. Jesus shows himself to people, teaches authoritatively, does miraculous works in front of people, and they don’t believe. And in response he doesn’t do miracles, and he leaves. When we don’t believe, we miss out on Jesus’ power, and we miss out on Jesus’ presence because he does no work, and he leaves.
What would have happened if NASA had listened to their engineers? That moment of that launch was watched by 17% of our country because it was going to be the first teacher in outer space. Pre-social media, it’s reported that 85% of America knew of the incident within one hour. What if it had been successful? One more time, we would have been able to watch a gigantic piece of metal throw itself into outer space and come back.
What would have happened in Nazareth if they believed? His hometown would have followed him. Miracles, demons cast out. Neither group listened. And at the end, it just feels so sad. No one listened. No one trusted. Tragic.
Story #2, it goes the other direction. Responding to Jesus with belief leads to miracles. After the hometown debacle, Mark tells us another story of another small group that comes to Jesus, and he calls them the Twelve. Twelve followers of Jesus listen and respond with belief and trust. And this story has two parts. The first is mostly about Jesus. The second is mostly about the Twelve. And Jesus is really busy in this section. Jesus does all of this. Jesus calls, sends, gives, charges, and instructs. Lots of verbs going on here. Jesus calls this specific ministry team the Twelve and divides them into six sub teams of two. His goal is, just as he has been preaching and teaching and traveling, he’s going to multiply his efforts through these ministry teams. Jesus then gives them authority to cast out demons. Don’t miss this moment. Jesus allows his messengers to borrow his authority, travel with the authority, and exercise that authority over unclean spirits.
Jesus then charges his followers. As you go and do this mission, you have to do it in a certain way. It’s almost COVID-like travel restrictions. There are luggage limitations and travel restrictions. So, Jesus looks at his followers and says, “Alright, when it comes to luggage, you need to travel really light. Here’s all you get as you go out to travel and minister. You get a staff, a pair of sandals, one tunic, and a belt. That’s all you get. Here’s what you don’t get. You don’t need bread, a backpack … (audio missing here)
Before the exodus, God tells his people, “I want you to celebrate a meal called Passover.” That meal is celebrating the moment when the angel of death, God’s judgment (audio missing here) … So, to celebrate and commemorate that moment, God said, “I want you to celebrate a meal called Passover. And when you eat that meal, here is what you need to do. This is what you have to wear when you have that meal. You need to wear sandals, a tunic, belt, with a staff in your hand.” Does that sound familiar? The exact same things that Jesus said for his disciples. In that moment of Passover, the idea is: Be ready to go, you are about to exodus. You are about to be freed from slavery and leave Egypt. Jesus is now looking at his disciples saying, new exodus time. Be ready to leave. Be ready to go. Be ready to go to the promised land, a new departure.
Second observation, what is going on with this weird travel luggage limitation stuff? Jesus is providing for the Twelve what I’m going to call a “trust check.” In this moment of calling and sending, Jesus is placing his messengers in a position of complete trust, including housing, purchase power, and food. You’re going to go out, and I’m going to provide as you go.
Jesus then talks about as they travel that they have some specific responses to hospitality or the lack of it. So, as they travel, if they are received, if they’re (audio missing here) … in that area. Jesus is basically saying, “Don’t hotel hop. Just stay where you’re invited in until the job is done.” But if the people don’t listen, don’t receive the message, don’t invite you in, don’t take care of you, then Jesus says to enact this little bit of street theater. This public display to make everybody aware of what’s going on, it’s kind of like a sign. If they don’t have hospitality, they’re supposed to shake the dust off their feet as a sign. So, here’s what’s going on there. We need a little Jewish history. Commentators tell us that Jews about this time period, when they were coming back into Israel from another country, before they would cross the border, would shake out their garments and their sandals. They would shake out the dust of the other land before coming into Israel. They would get rid of, in their view, unclean land before they come into the holy land.
So, Jesus is saying now, if people don’t listen to you treat it like a border crossing. In a way, Jesus is saying, “Let them know who they really are.” In rejecting this message, they are outside of Israel. They are the pagan. They are the unholy. They are the unclean. Shake the dust off your feet, make them aware of the moment.
When I was in high school (90s, late 80s, early 90s), the debate about burning the flag was a really big deal, when I was in high school. By comparison, to help us understand what Jesus is doing, burning the American flag is a small cultural offense compared to Jesus telling his followers to shake the dust off their sandals. That demonstration to a Jew would have been so obvious and so culturally stunning. It would have blown their minds. And it reveals to us the seriousness of Jesus’ message. When he sends people out with a message, he is not playing around.
That’s the first part of the story about Jesus. The second part focuses on the Twelve. And you can summarize the Twelve in this moment at least with one word, belief. They believe, they trust. Jesus gives them instructions, they trust Jesus, they obey, and they go. They live just like Jesus lived. They did what Jesus said to do, and they went out without all of the normal travel planning, without all of the normal support, and God provided. They reasoned, as Jesus sent them, “He’s going to help us make this happen.”
And what was the result? Mark tells us this. When they went out, many demons were cast out. Many were healed. Do you remember I told you to remember that word, “few,” regarding Jesus? He could do no mighty work there, and only a few were healed. Now, the disciples going out in Jesus’ place, many are healed, many demons are cast out. Through trust, through belief, the disciples have better miraculous results than Jesus, which I find stunning. That is one of the oddest moments I’ve run into in Mark so far. Through faith, the end of what the disciples do is better than what Jesus did. God’s power gets poured out because of belief. Miracles happen. Unbelief, responding to Jesus in unbelief leads to tragedy. Responding to Jesus with belief leads to miracles.
So, what do we do with that? I want us to ask ourselves three questions together that I hope you’ll wrestle with, with your friends, family, life group. Am I familiar with Jesus? Jesus’ hometown knew him. They knew who Jesus was. They listened to him. They were even impacted to a degree. They were astonished, but they didn’t believe Jesus. Which is scary, because it just shows us you can know and not believe. You can know and not trust.
And I think in that way, that’s where Greenville and Nazareth aren’t really that far apart. I mean, our town historically, maybe not as much as it once was to some, we are still a highly churched, Jesus-aware, theologically-aware town. And I think this story warns us; you can know Jesus and not trust him.
This week, my son picked me up from work one day and asked me how my sermon was going. We were talking about this point, and I told him, I said, “Max, one of my worries about being a pastor and a dad in a culture of faith is raising a generation of children and teenagers who are very aware of Jesus and know Jesus and know a lot of things about Jesus but don’t trust Jesus.” And they’re two very different things. Placing the full weight of my life on who Jesus says he is, that he is Lord and Savior of my life, changes the way I live. So, are we familiar with Jesus or do we trust him?
Second question to ask from these stories: where is Jesus asking us to travel light? Where is he asking you to travel light? There are people in this room who know me very, very well, and there are some of you who you heard my name when I introduced myself. Let me just tell you one thing about me. In almost every way I am risk averse. I am not a risk-taker. If I do something that even looks risky, there is a high probability that I have thought it through, planned for it, and know that I can actually do it. I love planning. I love a plan. I love carrying out a plan. I like to know what I’m going to eat before I eat it. I love reservations. Let’s know where we’re going, when we’re going, all of that. So, for me, a ministry plan from Jesus that includes only sandals, a tunic, a belt, and a staff, not real appealing. Not really my style. And I joke you not, if I was talking with Jesus in that moment, I would go, “I’m not sure that’s a wise way to carry this out. I think we can do better. Give me some time on Google, I’m going to find us an Airbnb. We know where we’re going to stay out there. We’ll have food. We’ll figure out if they take Venmo. We’ll be fine. We’ve got this.”
But now this passage… And Jesus told his disciples to travel in different ways in other sections. But there are times where Jesus calls his people to travel really light. And man, this passage has forced me to ask that question about me and my life, my family, my mission. Where in my life am I placing myself in positions where only God in Jesus through the Spirit can bring about good ends? Because, if I’m honest, and maybe some of you can join me here, even sometimes providing … both my wife and I work. As we provide for our home and care for our family, it’s really easy to kind of give God the nod on that. I know God lets me have a job. I know God, through the kindness of God’s people, provides for my family. I can nod to it. But in the end, I don’t think very much about just being dependent on him because I have so much. Where am I truly depending upon God’s grace and provision? At times, Jesus puts his followers into positions of minimal self-support, maximum God-trust. And when we land there, miracles happen. Sometimes, according to Mark, when we do that, the results are even better than what Jesus can do.
Third question: where do I want God’s power and my faith to produce miracles? Now, here’s a guess. I’m guessing for some of you, when I have said the word “miracles” a couple of times so far, you get a little uncomfortable. A little, “What’s he mean by that?” When we say miracles, we’re kind of cool if we can rationalize miracles down. That person got better because they were in the hospital, and God provided the wisdom and science of doctors. But if we start talking miracle miracle, we can kind of weird out a little bit. But what if when God’s power and my faith combine, miracles really do happen, for real? What if we let our imaginations run wild as God’s people instead of rationalizing them? Because it is very evident in the Scriptures that God responds to his people’s faith. He does things. And I, just like the point before this, I want to grow here too. I want my senses tuned to see God work. For God to do things that maybe I can’t quite explain. I’d like to see greater things happen.
Jesus said he’s sending us the Holy Spirit. Why? So that greater things can happen. You really have need of the Holy Spirit because more is going to happen once I disappear. That is stunning. Jesus looks at his people and says, “The best thing for me to do is actually to go and wait at the right hand of the Father until he takes care of everything. And you have the Spirit because more will happen.” Why? Because we get to borrow his authority as his messengers and exercise it. Jesus said, “If your faith is the size of a mustard seed, you can move a mountain.” I guess what I’m saying from my heart in response to this is, I don’t want my belief to be fenced in by what I think is rational (audio missing here) … Experience God’s power as described in the book of Mark. So, brothers and sisters, how we respond to Jesus, it really, really matters. Responding in unbelief leads to tragedy on many levels. Responding to Jesus in belief leads to miracles. Believe in Jesus. Trust him.
Let’s pray. Father, I pray for anyone here, anyone who is watching online, that if they’ve not experienced the first miracle, the miracle of believing that Jesus is who he says he is, that you would work in their heart. That if they are here, they would talk to someone, talk to me afterwards. If they are online, that they would contact our church and let us speak to them. That miracle is the greatest miracle to see. God, after that, I pray that you would make us a people who trust you, that you’re good, we can trust your Word, your direction. I pray this in your name, amen.