Sermon: Success and Failure

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
4th of July, 2021

2 Samuel 5:1-5 9-10
Mark 6:1-13

The elders of Israel beg David to become their king. Jesus, the descendent of David, is rejected by his hometown. In Lent, Advent, Christmas, and Easter the readings from the two different Testaments, the Hebrew and the Greek, the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’, share themes. In Ordinary Time they do not, and that is very obvious this year as we read through the Gospel according to Mark and the story of King David in the books of Samuel. I keep describing the story of King David as a soap opera, and David’s life undoubtedly has lows as well as highs, but most of his story is one of victory and strength. Today’s gospel reading, on the other hand, tells of rejection and weakness.

In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures David, Israel’s great king. is at the highpoint of his life. The southern tribes of Judah had already anointed David as king (2 Sam 2:1-11). Today we hear that the elders of Israel also want to make a covenant with David and anoint him as their king. From being a fugitive David becomes monarch over a united Judah and Israel. Today’s reading also tells of David taking the stronghold of Zion in Jerusalem and making it into the city of David. The God of David in these readings is the Lord of hosts, the God of armies and of victory. Almost a millennium has passed since the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and, finally, God has triumphed and God’s people are united under God’s chosen king and shepherd. Then from this story of military and political victory the lectionary takes us to Mark’s story of Jesus.

King David, Luttrell Psalter, British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

Last week, Mark told us of Jesus’ healing of two women, the woman with a haemorrhage and the daughter of Jairus. In those stories Jesus is the successful healer, the miracle worker. This week the story is different, because Jesus goes home. And as Jesus himself says: ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house’. Today’s story presents Jesus in all his humanness, and it is Jesus’ humanity that is the problem for the people of his home town. Because of their difficulty with it, today’s story is in fact an un-miracle story.

To the people of Nazareth, Jesus is not the teacher, healer, and worker of miracles. He is the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon and his sisters. They cannot believe that this man that they know, this ordinary labourer, could be empowered and authorised by God. This is the scandal of the incarnation. God, the mighty, the victor, the one who enabled David to become greater and greater, has become someone ordinary, someone known, a carpenter, son and brother. For those who expect to see God only in great victories, as the Lord of hosts, this ordinary man, Jesus, simply cannot be the bearer of the presence of God. And so they reject Jesus, and he can do no deed of power there – although he did cure a few sick people.

David may have started his life as a simple shepherd boy, but the story of his kingship is that God’s agents reveal themselves in mighty deeds, in novelty. God is not meant to come to us in the familiar and domestic. And yet that is exactly what has happened to the people of Nazareth. God has come to them as one of them, known and common and ordinary. The people of Nazareth cannot understand this, and reject Jesus. We need to ask how often we do the same; how often we miss the signs of God’s work because we expect God’s miracles to be flashy and awe-inspiring, and God’s messengers to be charismatic and successful.

Jesus’ mission does not end just because his own town has rejected him. Jesus extends his ministry by sharing it with the Twelve; he now commissions them to repeat in their lives and mission exactly what he himself does. He instructs them to go out two by two, taking nothing for their journey except a staff, wearing sandals and staying in the first house that welcomes them until they leave a place. These instructions ensure that the lifestyle of the Twelve is a statement in itself. The missionaries are to put their lives where their words are. They go out in pairs, because according to Jewish law two people are needed to provide reliable evidence, and because the mission is communal, not that of charismatic individuals. Their staff and sandals are symbols of the pilgrimage lifestyle that they are taking up. They are not to move from house to house seeking better lodgings. And they are to travel light to show trust in the authority that sent them and to ward off suggestions of self-serving. In the way they minister, as well as in the content of their ministry, the Twelve are following the Christ that Mark presents as always on a journey.

The mission of the Twelve foreshadows the mission of the church. Like the Twelve, the church is always a community on the way, entrusted with the message of the gospel and the healing ministry of the sacraments. We are called to live as Jesus lived and as the disciples lived. The charge to the church to travel light and accept whatever accommodation is offered still applies. This means that like Jesus and the Twelve, the church, too, can expect rejection. One of the instructions that Jesus gives the Twelve is: ‘If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ This is interesting because it does not appear that the Twelve are rejected. When they return they gather around Jesus to tell him what they’ve done, but so many people are coming and going around them that they cannot even take time to eat. This does not sound like the return of failed evangelists. But between their sending and their return Mark gives us the story of the murder of John the Baptist, which we will hear next week. Despite an apparently successful mission tour, Mark is still reminding his readers that what Jesus’ followers can usually expect is rejection.

‘David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him,’ the book of Samuel tells us. Jesus ‘could do no deed of power’ in his home town, because they did not believe in him. The situation of Christianity in Australia certainly seems to be reflecting the gospel story rather than the story of David. Our ministry remains that of the Twelve, to share the good news of God with the world, but the church in Australia is now sharing it with fewer people than in the past, at least inside our church buildings. This of course means that churches need to think carefully about how we worship; where we worship; when we worship; how we welcome people; how we care for the world – in case there are things that we could do to make it easier for people to encounter God among us. But today’s gospel story should also encourage us. We may think that we can only be sure that God is with us if we are growing greater and greater, like David. But the gospel according to Mark tells us that God is with us even if people take offence at us and we can do no deeds of power. Jesus warned his disciples that some people would refuse to welcome them and refuse to hear them. Why do we imagine that we should get a greater welcome and a better hearing than Jesus and the apostles did?

We are called to try to share God’s message despite our very ordinariness. That means that we, like the Twelve, will face rejection. We might want the victory that God gave David. But if we are following Jesus, the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, we can be sure that even if we do not become greater and greater the God of the familiar and ordinary is with us. God is always with us and so we have absolutely nothing to fear. Thanks be to God.

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1 Response to Sermon: Success and Failure

  1. jdschok says:

    What a great sermon . So beautifully laid out that it bring new meaning to all that Jesus taught his followers and how we should not be disheartened even in rejection.

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