Hometown Hero? Jesus in Nazareth (Mark 6:1-4)

You often hear bands comment on how much they look forward to hometown gigs – after all, it’s where they grew up. Everyone’s supportive and excited to see their town’s favourite sons return home and play a few numbers.

Sadly for Jesus, this wasn’t the case in Nazareth.

He’s been travelling around Galillee, establishing his ministry, performing miracles and teaching. He returns home for a while, whereupon he starts to teach in the synagogue. The locals are freaked out by this, hardly able to believe what they’re seeing:

“Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon?”

In other words, Jesus should have been making tables, not presuming to take on the role of a religious leader. Sure, he had authority; sure, he did miracles. But he’s Mary’s son. we know his brothers, they’re nothing special – look at them!

It’s a strange tension: on one hand, the crowds acknowledge his wisdom and authority. On the other… Well, he’s just the local carpenter. It’s a bit like the “Who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays” controversy, because how could an unknown from a humble background like Will produce some of the greatest plays ever written.

It’s easy for our words to build cages for others, and for ourselves. Snobbery, prejudice, lack of ambition, lack of confidence, fear… They all conspire to confine us. This even affects Jesus somehow – look at verse 5, which reports that “he could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.”

This is no triumphant hometown gig. This is a bodyblow to Jesus, who’s stunned by the lack of faith on display by his own neighbours – by his own family. “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home”, he says, and he’s right, because sometime’s it’s those who are closest to us that can hurt us the most.

And maybe there’s an even nastier slur. Someone pointed out to me that this same story is reported in Matthew’s gospel, although there’s a key difference in a key line:

“Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?”

What key word does Matthew use that Mark omits?

“Son”.

Now this could be innocent. It could just indicate that Mark’s pointing out that Joseph has passed away and that the responsibility for the family business had passed to Jesus at some point. There could, however, be something darker going on – were there questions about Jesus’s parentage? Neighbourhood gossip?

(Of course, it’s possible that Mark didn’t want to say Jesus was a carpenter’s son because he was the Son of God. Fair enough, but the context of the story doesn’t imply that Jesus is held in much respect by the townsfolk – at the very least they seem to think he’s getting above his station.)

Whatever the reason, Jesus’s reception in Nazareth is another example of him going through the same trials we all do – gossip, dismissal, insults, lack of respect. And yet look at the story that immediately follows this in Mark – Jesus sends out the twelve disciples to teach and perform miracles. And these are people from a similar background to himself – tradesmen, mostly, with the odd political radical and collaborating tax collector thrown in. They’re a motley bunch, but Jesus believes in them, in what God can do through them. Despite the words and cutting looks that can be thrown our way, it seems that Jesus trusts his followers – he believes in them more than they believe in themselves, despite their inadequacies and lack of faith.

That’s because he can take a smidgen of faith – a mustard seed – and do something spectacular with it. He just needs us to take the first step, take that leap of faith, walk towards the unknown and every other religious cliche you can think of. Through ordinary, confused, messed up people, God can do great things. Both throughout the world and right there on your doorstep.

 

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Is the Bible a Blog? #BigRead12

No specific passage today, just some musings.

A couple of days ago I talked about the twelve year old Jesus in the Temple, the story of Samuel, and the importance of spotting obscure references in the Bible. In that sense it was about how a geeky characteristic can help us in studying scripture.

Well, today’s entry is along similar lines – not geeky as such, but arising from geek culture’s love affair with technology.

For centuries, we’ve read the Bible as a book. The stuff about the creation of the universe is at the start, the stuff about the end of the world is at the end, and everything’s in (broadly) chronological order. And so, when people pick up the Bible and decide to read it, they start at the beginning and often get discouraged when the family soap opera of Genesis gives way to Leviticus and its laws about mildew.

Now, there’s something to be said about the A-to-Z model – you get an idea of the sheer scope of the Bible, how God’s salvation plan progresses from a handful of people to a nation to a worldwide church. The story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

But there’s another way to read the Bible alongside this, one that has always been around but which is getting increasingly hardwired into us by technology, specifically the internet. So let’s take a moment to look at the Bible not as a book but as a blog.

It’s important to remember that while the Bible is a unified story, it’s not a unified book. It’s a collection of writings from a range of different authors, written across hundreds of years. Paul is a very different writer to the various Psalmists.

So in order to manoeuvre our way through this text – sorry, these texts – we can use some of the skills we use to navigate the blogosphere and the internet in general.

So Jesus was talking about an injured man ignored by religious leaders – hmm, why did they ignore him?

*Click*

But wait, the story starts with a quote, what does that say in its original context?

*Click*

Anyway, then a Samaritan comes along – wait, hasn’t Jesus talked about Samaritans before?

*Click*

So that means loving others, right? What else does he have to say about that?

*Click Click Click*

You get the point. There’s something to be said for this networked model of looking at the Bible – it gives us a way to work through the mass of allusions, quotes and references that illuminate the story (and which aren’t always obvious when reading it through as a straight story).

Of course, anyone who’s ever got lost browsing through endless Wikipedia articles for hours can see the drawback of this model – not seeing the wood for the trees. That’s why I’d also recommend reading it as a narrative – the big story is what’s ultimately important, with the reference-surfing serving to add further meat to the bones. And all this needs to be supporting by prayer and an openness to God, because there’s a danger in Bible study simply becoming an intellectual exercise. Not that I have a problem with intellectual exercises but they’re not always the best path to spiritual formation.

And maybe, just maybe, there’s a project here for someone – an online Bible based around the blog model, with hyperlinks, images and everything else that makes the internet a great information repository. Online Bibles exist, sure – I’ve got one on my phone – but they’re still based around an ebook format. Maybe there’s room for someone to take it to the next level…

 

Shelter from the Storm (Mark 4:35-41; Psalm 107:23-32; Jonah 1)

I’ve written before about some parts of the Bible are illuminated by references to other parts of the Bible that aren’t immediately obvious. In honour of the second week of the Big Read, here’s another one.

Mark 4: Jesus and the disciples are travelling across the Sea of Galilee when a violent storm blows up. The disciples are terrified which, considering a bunch of them were fishermen, is cause for concern. Jesus, meanwhile, is asleep.

Unsurprisingly, this does not fill them with confidence. “Wake up! Don ‘t you care that we’re all about to drown?!” they shout, but as he stirs, something far more disturbing is about to happen. Because with a couple of words, Jesus tells the storm to stop.

And it does.

And the disciples are terrified.

Part of it is down to the fact that, well, human beings just don’t command storms. In the thinking of the time, the sea was associated with a sort of primordial chaos, something for The gods (or, of course, God) to tame – which is presumably why, in Genesis 1, the Spirit of God hovers “over the waters”. The effortless nature of God’s commands here just serve to emphasise his sheer power.

So we’ve got Jesus commanding a storm. Now, when the Bible talks about storms, it’s normally as a metaphor for God’s power. Wind, rain and thunder is used to demonstrate the overwhelming strength that God can bring to bear. However, there are a couple of moments in which God is said to calm storms rather than unleash them.

The first is Psalm 107. This talks of Jewish merchants out on the seas, caught up in storms and crying out to God for help, whereupon God “stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.”

Sound familiar?

So when the disciples, terrified, ask “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”, the answer is implicit – God.

That realisation should lead to one main reaction, and we also see this in the story of Jonah. Jonah, running away from God, is on a ship that gets caught up in a violent storm. Realising that his disobedience is responsible for this, Jonah offers to be thrown overboard and, after some reluctance, the crew agree to this. Jonah is saved by a whale and the storm is stilled.

Here’s what’s interesting – the sailors, who have no real knowledge of Jonah’s God, see the storm calmed and are immediately awed by the power on display, so much so that they start worshipping God on the spot. You’ve got to wonder if some of that attitude is getting through to the disciples, especially as this story leads in to a bunch of episodes that show that Jesus has power over a range of forces, not just the natural world.

In short, this story is all about showing how Jesus has access to immense power. And yes, that’s awe-inspiring, but it should also be comforting. “Why are you so afraid?” he asks his terrified disciples, “Do you still have no faith?” Didn’t they realise that, not only was he in possession of power enough to calm a storm, but that he’d also use that power to help and save them?

For not only is God powerful enough to command wind and waves, he also loves his people enough to get rained upon with us.

 

(This post was inspired by the week’s reading for the Big Read 2012 – ‘Echoes’. More on this can be found at their website.)

 

 

David’s Mighty Men (2 Samuel 23; 2 Samuel 11)

Now, I don’t know your taste in action heroes. You may like Bruce Willis’s everyman in Die Hard. You may be awed by the sheer physical presence of Schwartzenegger. You may like the kung fu comedy of Jackie Chan; you may appreciate the near cartoonish antics of Jason Statham. There are many styles of badassery, but few can be said to be biblical. This entry is about the most epic, the most heroic, the most testosterone-fuelled passge in the Bible. It’s a passage that doesn’t get preached on much, and I’m not sure I’m bringing any real insight to it, but it’s getting an entry anyway, because it’s awesome.

2 Samuel 23 is a list of King David’s biggest baddest warriors. Such as:

  • Josheb-Basshebeth, who killed 800 men in one battle. With a spear.
  • Eleazar, who taunted Philistines into battle, and even when the rest of his men had retreated, he kept on fighting until his hand froze to his sword. And he won.
  • Shammah, who fought off a Philistine invasion on his own. Bizarrely, this was in a field of lentils.
  • Abishai, who killed 300 bad guys. Again with a spear.
  • And finally my favourite, Benaiah. David’s bodyguard, he took out two of the best Moabite soldiers. He went up against a huge Egyptian (another giant?) armed only with a club, then wrestled the Egyptian’s spear from him and killed him with it. And he killed a lion. In a pit. In the snow. Benaiah is awesome.

These are epic tales, the sort of stories people tell around the campfire and sing songs about. There are 37 names listed in all (there’s a similar list in 1 Chronicles 11) and, from the way the passage is written, they’re all heroes.

But something jumped out at me.

This is a list of David’s fiercest and best warriors? Fine.

Look at the last name on the list – Uriah the Hittite, right?

Okay, now read 2 Samuel 11:1-27.

Being last on the list draws attention not just to Uriah, but also to David’s greatest sin. Long story short – David had an affair with Uriah’s wife, who became pregnant as a result. David hopes Uriah will sleep with her and think he’s the father, but no, Uriah is too loyal to leave his post during wartime. The only way to cover up the affair is for David to have Uriah deployed to the thickest fighting of the next battle, and inevitably he is killed. It’s a cynical, cowardly act of murder; needless to say, God isn’t happy and David pays for it.

And so maybe, at the end of this list of heroic badassery, this is something we need to remember – our heroes have feet of clay. David was both a man after God’s own heart and a murdering adulterer. The message? The real hero of the Bible isn’t David, isn’t Moses, isn’t Benaiah the lion-killer. It’s God, the only one who doesn’t fail, doesn’t fall, doesn’t have feet of clay.

Today is traditionally a day on which we remember Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness; the time when, tempted by infinite power, infinite resources and the insidious whispers of an easy life, he took the difficult, agonising path to the cross – a hero’s journey.

He’s the one who rides to our rescue.

He’s the one who sacrifices himself.

He’s the hero.

Kids in the Temple, or how getting your geek on can help illuminate the Bible (Luke 2:41-52; 1 Samuel 3) – #BigRead12

You don’t hear this often but the Bible is a very geeky book.

I don’t mean that it makes jokes about Battlestar Galactica, or that it pontificates about privacy issues inherent in Google or Facebook. But a geek can spot an obscure reference at a hundred places, and that’s a great skill to have when you’re reading a book full of obscure references.

Part of that is due to what the Bible actually is – it’s not a single book but a collection of writings from a bunch of different authors, originating across different times, places and contexts. And, to extend the geek metaphor, those writers tend to be ‘fans’ of one another, throwing in quotes and references to each other in order to make a point.

Here’s an example of this I came across recently. We know next to nothing about Jesus’s childhood – he’s born in Bethlehem, then we hear nothing until he’s 30 and getting baptised by John the Baptist. Except for one story.

Luke 2:41-52: Jesus is 12, and he and the family have been to Jerusalem for the Passover festivities. Now, because people used to travel in convoy, everyone looking at each other, Mary and Joseph have been travelling home for a day when they realise Jesus isn’t with them.

(I know that fills modern parents with utter horror , but all I can say is that it was a different time.)

After three days they find him, sitting in the Temple having in-depth philosophical conversations with a bunch of religious teachers. Mary and Joseph were probably about to ground him for eternity (which would have been a theological nightmare), but the point of the story is to illustrates Jesus’s passion for God and his genius for teaching; after all, he’s only 12, not quite a man in Jewish thought, and yet he’s going toe-to-toe with priests. This is a big deal.

But what’s interesting here is how the story ends in verse 52: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” Because that’s a near exact quote that describes someone else: in 1 Samuel 2:26, the boy who would grow up to become the prophet Samuel is said to have “Continued to grow in stature and in favour with the LORD and with people.”

Now, you might say this is a coincidence, but I don’t think it is, simply because of what goes on to happen in 1 Samuel 3. Because here we have Samuel who, in Jewish tradition was said to be 12 years old at the time, getting called by God in the Temple, which leads to him undergoing a learning experience with a priest. Hmm.

So what does this mean?

I don’t know.

I mean, I’m convinced the link is intentional, but I’m not entirely sure what it illuminates. Maybe it’s the idea that God will raise up servants even at a young age. Maybe it’s the idea of a young man standing between two eras – Samuel was the bridge between the Judges and the Prophets, Jesus stood on the cusp of a new phase of God’s salvation plan. Maybe linking Jesus with the first of the Prophets establishes Christ’s own credentials.

I’m not sure.

Seriously, I’m not sure – if you have any ideas, please leave a comment. But that’s not the point, because the fun is in the discovery. Look for those obscure quotes and references and hints, track them down, try to figure out why the writer decided to use it. Because those learning curves will be valuable; they’re always valuable.

In short, get your Bible geek on!