Scripture Reading: Num 13:25-14:4, Ps 78:9-22, Heb 3:12-4:2 & Mark 6:1-6
INTRODUCTIONIn the Gospels, Jesus is said to be amazed only twice; at the great faith of a Roman centurion who believed he could heal his sick servant at a distance and at the unbelief in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth (Matt 8:10, Mark 6:6).
Given this reversal of natural expectations we shouldn’t be surprised that mass conversions are taking place amongst religious groups long opposed to the gospel e.g. Muslims, Hindus, but almost nowhere in the established churches of the Western world.
Whilst doubt is a state of mind where a person with a divided heart (Ps 86:11) wants to believe but struggles to trust God (cf. Mark 9:24), unbelief is stubborn resistance to believing. Unbelief is a conviction that God won’t keep his word.
The magnitude of the unbelief that confronted Jesus in Nazareth is extraordinary. This was the town where he grew up, played as a child, walked the streets, attended weddings, worshipped with the community and built some of their houses and furniture. If “familiarity breeds contempt” how have we become immunised against the profound reality of Jesus in our midst (cf. Rev 3:14 ff.)?
THERE ARE VARIOUS SURE SIGNS OF WHEN A PROFESSING CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY IS AFFLICTED BY UNBELIEF.
1. A lack of expectation that the Lord will speak to us through scripture and in prayer; this is reflected in the huge decline in these devotions across the Australian Church.
2. A lack of expectation that the Lord can convert anyone, even people close to us; this is reflected in the malaise of evangelism in the Anglican Church.
3. Low anticipation that the Lord will dramatically change our own lives when we come to church; hence the irregular attendance patterns across all brands of Christianity.
Unbelief is a powerful problem amongst us that urgently needs to be addressed. Inexplicable
JESUS THE FOCUS
Our story in Mark 6 follows on a list of healings performed by Jesus so by the time he arrives in Nazareth everyone knew his teaching was extraordinary and his miracles astounding; “many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?” (Mark 6:2). Then follows a turn of events that illustrate the baffling evil of the human heart. The conversation rapidly descends from what the Nazarene’s don’t understand to what they clearly comprehend; “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.” (Mark 6:3).
Jesus is just too ordinary; we know this guy’s occupation, his mum, his brothers and sisters are with us; the tone turns dismissive, contemptuous and hostile.
Jesus’ status as an itinerant preacher and miracle worker doesn’t fit in with the man they are familiar with, so they exclude him from their village fellowship and worship. (In Luke’s version of this story they even try to kill him (Luke 4:28-30).)
These harsh judges of Jesus were decent religious people who lived good lives, worked hard and took care of their families. But when it came to Jesus they were “know alls” closed to heavenly revelation about the identity of their fellow Nazarene. Familiarity had bred a dreadful contempt for the Saviour of the world.
These Nazarene’s were country folk who couldn’t imagine someone with the status of a prophet could be raised up by God from amongst them and manifest himself in such ordinary circumstances. Perhaps they knew the opinion of the famous teachers of the day quoted in John, “Search the Scriptures and see for yourself—no prophet ever comes from Galilee!”” (7:52). They were scandalised by Jesus’ apparently everyday appearance and origins. This is the offense that will come to its completion at the cross (1 Cor 1:23).
In the progressive rejection of Jesus in Nazareth we are witnessing, to quote Hebrews, a “hardening of the heart by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:13). The harshness of their verdict upon the blameless Son of God was the consummation of a long history of rebellious Israel refusing to believe in the word of the Lord (Num 13:25-14:4; Ps 78:9-22; Ps 95:8; Heb 3:8, 12, 15, 19; Heb 4:7).
Like their fellow Jews under Roman rule they were desperately seeking a Messianic deliverer, but when he was sent in the form of their own lowly flesh and blood they couldn’t conceive Jesus was this Saviour (John 1:11).
In the synagogue of Nazareth, and finally on the cross, the Jews could not believe that this ordinary looking man was “the Lord of glory” (Mark 15:32; 1 Cor 2:8). Their hearts were closed against the Word of God (Acts 28:27). Now Jesus has something to say, and what he says should strike fear into the hearts of all easy going believers.
““A prophet is not without honour, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”” (6:4). Hometown, relatives, family – all those naturally close to Jesus dishonour him. In refusing to accept Jesus’ status as a prophet God’s covenant community in Nazareth showed itself ashamed of her Lord (cf. Mark 12:4).
Therefore upon this proud, prejudiced, disrespectful congregation fell this Old Testament warning, “those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be despised” (1 Sam 2:30 cf. Mal 1:6). Because they dishonoured Jesus “he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.” (Mark 6:5)
Surely these orthodox Jewish worshippers who knew Jesus in the flesh had a heart of unbelief deeper than that of Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus; if the mighty works of God progressively hardened his heart (Ex 7:13, 14 etc.); any dazzling display of the supernatural by Jesus in Nazareth would have aggravated the crowd’s stubbornness and intensified their guilt.
If the scarcity of the God’s mighty acts of power in Nazareth 2000 years ago was an act divine judgement it must be the same amongst the churches of Perth today. But there are exceptions. I can think of three groups who are seeing the mighty hand of God in Australia today; outback Indigenous communities, Iranian refugees and drug addicts.
Like the revival that broke out through Jesus’ conversation with an immoral woman amongst the despised Samaritans (John 4), none of these folk take up a lofty place and look down on the lowly country carpenter from a tiny town crucified in weakness on a cruel cross (cf. John 1:46).
The simple trust of these broken communities means they are honoured by the Father with wonderful works of power (cf. 2 Cor 10:5). Coming to the end of our story in Nazareth we are confronted with a provocative testimony to Jesus’ personal state of mind.
“And he marvelled because of their unbelief.” (Mark 6:6). Jesus was astonished, shocked, and stunned that his own people would reject his witness. If only they had the humble faith to see Jesus as the almighty Lord-in-flesh they could have been saved. But their image of God didn’t fit with the true image of God who stood before them (Col 1:15).
Nothing has changed.
Most Australians are apathetic about God, which means they think that God, if he exists, is apathetic about them. Where people exhibit a spiritual hardness it’s because deep down they believe that God’s heart towards them is hard (Matt 25:24-25). Can we conceive that Jesus is astonished at our unbelief? Or are our hearts so hardened to the tender reality of the humanity of the Son of God as to deny this could be?
Can we hear Jesus saying to us, as he did to his disciples who because of their unbelief could not heal a sick boy, ““O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?””.
The story goes on to record the plea of the boy’s father whose faith had been shattered by the powerless of the disciples, ““I believe””, he cried out to Jesus; “help my unbelief!”” (Mark 9:19, 24).
Why are we not hearing such a desperate cry across the churches in our city today?
Are we are too Anglican to call out to Jesus like this, too proper, too self-controlled, too deaf to the one who cried out so loudly for us on the cross (Mark 15:34). Too unbelieving to think our cries will make any real difference!
Who are the people most likely to deny their unbelief….the most unbelieving.
In praying about this incredibly stubborn spiritual problem, from which we all suffer, I have come up with an “index of unbelief”.
If unbelief expresses itself in the dishonouring of Jesus then signs of unbelief are present in every action where we appear ashamed of the Lord.
Our unbelief manifests itself whenever we hold back from helping people hear about, meet and grow to be like Jesus.
These outward signs are pretty obvious, but our Bible readings for today point to an even more profound level of unbelief, one residing in the deepest interior of the human heart, the place where both belief and unbelief originate (Rom 10:9; Heb 3:12).
The most profound sign of unbelief, one which I encounter again and again in ministry to people from across the Body of Christ, is an inability to enter the rest of God (Heb 3:12-4:2).
God’s rest not some passive state whereby we wait for a mysterious outpouring of the Spirit.
It is the opposite of a spiritual activism which seeks to make things happen (something from which I suffered terribly as a young preacher). The true rest of God in Christ is entered by faith and is an unforced expectation/assurance that God is going to act in the presence and power of his kingdom to reveal the honour of his Son amongst us (cf. Heb 11:1).
If those in Jesus’ home town who knew him in the flesh couldn’t see God in him, and if his first disciples could not believe that God would have his Son crucified in order to raise from the dead, what hope is there for us in our unbelief (Luke 24:25-26)?
Unbelief is a power, a power so deep and invasive that only God’s mercy in Christ can overcome it.
It’s not hard for us to believe that God works miracles in other times and places and through other people; but we have little to no expectation he can do these things here and now through us.
We can believe that “someone else somewhere else” can evangelise, pray for the sick and see them recover, cast out demons in Jesus’ name, intercede with great authority, sacrificially give of finance, time etc. (James 5:16; cf. “Mark 16:17-18”) but we can’t see ourselves doing these things.
The way forward out of such a spiritually stuck condition does NOT involve a focus on our own locality and wretched state of unbelief (Rom 7:24). Such self-initiated self-examination is never helpful.
The healing that our hardened hearts need can only come from heaven, we must ask our Father to send us his Spirit to stir us up to plead for the honouring of the name of Jesus (Luke 11:13; John 16:14).
As there are signs of unbelief and divine judgement, so there are signs of the favour of God upon a people.
Any congregation which makes it their first priority, however great the cost, to uplift and honour the name of Jesus will see mighty acts of power so that many lost and broken men and women come to marvel at the revelation of Almighty God made flesh (Heb 2:9).
MESSAGE DELIVERED: 15th. April, 2018 @ St Marks
Author: Dr. John Yates
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