July 5, 2015 – All Too Familiar
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Imagine that a visiting preacher was coming to Norwood; you’ve seen posters all over town for months. And everybody’s been talking about him, because everybody knows somebody who went to see him when he was in Syracuse last year, and there are amazing stories going around about him. Somebody’s cousin had had a deformity of the spine since he was born and he was completely healed, and a woman somebody’s neighbor heard about was cured of breast cancer. So you can’t wait to see this man when he comes – you have some really important things you are longing to get prayer for. And finally the day comes, and you’re sitting in the packed auditorium, your heart racing with hope and anticipation. And the man walks out on the stage. And you can’t believe it – it’s Mr. Jones, your old algebra teacher from eighth grade – 1952, Norwood-Norfolk High School. And it looks like he’s wearing the same suit he used to wear to class every day. You are so disappointed that you just get up and leave. In fact, most of the people in the auditorium get up and start filing out one by one, just a few people in wheelchairs up front stay to listen. You can see him laying hands on one of them and beginning to pray as you walk out the door.
That’s what happened in Nazareth – certainly Jesus’ reputation had preceded him and people had come out hoping and expecting to see wonders and to receive healing – until they recognize him as the Jesus they know, who grew up and worked among them. Jesus is described as “the carpenter” and “Mary’s son” – the likely explanation is that Joseph has died, and Jesus had taken over (for a time, before his public ministry) the business of the carpenter shop. It’s not that there is anything derogatory in calling Jesus “the carpenter” -that would have been a general term for a skilled workman in the community, someone who built houses and repaired farm equipment, stuff like that. The problem is not his humble station, nothing disgraceful; it was his familiarity. You’ve heard the expression – “Familiarity breeds contempt”. Mark says they “took offense at him” and the word for offense is “skandalizo” – they were scandalized by Jesus’ ordinariness.
The scandal of the Incarnation, people’s inability to accept Jesus as God, is not always anything hugely sinful or rebellious – it is simply being offended by his very ordinariness, his familiarity.
A lot of people have taken offense at God’s wacky idea of the Incarnation – it isn’t religion done the way we human beings would have done it at all. Even though Isaiah described Jesus nobody really expected to find a Messiah that had no beauty that we should desire him, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Nobody really expected that. And Nathaniel was put off by his hometown when Philip told him about Jesus he was pretty dubious, remarking, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” And lots of people were offended by the ordinariness of Jesus’ followers, who were just common, unimpressive men who didn’t even keep the law very rigorously. People criticized, “Why do your followers not fast like John’s followers, or wash their hands before they eat like the Pharisees? Or even keep the Sabbath like any self-respecting Jew?
The world is very often offended by God revealing himself through human things – they really prefer things like Joseph Smith’s golden tablets; the world is all about visions and heavenly voices. But what they get is Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth, and they get the apostles, a handful of uneducated fishermen and a former tax collector. And they get us, the commonest, most familiar of all: ordinary vessels of clay containing a treasure of untold worth.
We might be tempted to be offended by ordinariness too – by the Church, by each other, his body made up of plain old people, all too familiar in our weakness and sinfulness. We get very weary of our weaknesses and faults and limitations, and perhaps even more weary of each other – of the Church with its same old people with their same old faults. The Body of Christ doesn’t always look very much like we expect the victorious Risen Lord to look – but look around you, Jesus Christ, the son of God, manifests himself to you in these people you grew up with, these people you live with, these people whose ordinariness you know all too well.
It might sometimes be tempting to give up on this whole Incarnation thing – Emanuel, God with us, but in this old package of the familiar. Do you ever feel like you might just as well stay home and read the paper on Sunday morning and get the lawn mowed? It’s the reason, I think, that so many people hop from church to church, trying to avoid that scandal of familiarity, preferring to find God in people you haven’t yet known long enough to see all their commonness, you might say all their warts and weaknesses. There is a certain appeal to that – except that it misses the heart of God’s master plan – brilliant and glorious and altogether unexpected – for the Son to heal and rebuild this messed-up creation from the inside by becoming a plain old part of it, and not a special, impressive part either, but a man, Isaiah said, with no beauty that we should desire him, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, from whom men turn away their eyes. And the mysterious truth is that when this motley assortment of human beings, who are all acquainted with grief, just like our Lord, when we gather together the Almighty God is really and truly present among us. God’s great plan of salvation was to become ordinary so that he might redeem this creation that he loves so much from within its very ordinariness. The scandal of the Incarnation is that this unimpressive gathering of people is the seed of the kingdom of Heaven.
In Nazareth the citizens of Jesus’ hometown were so offended by his familiarity that they closed themselves off from all they had hoped to receive from him. They were hoping for wonders and they were hoping for healing; but they were hoping for someone who looked holy and kind of super-human (I think someone like John the Baptist would have been much more the kind of prophet they were expecting to see) But when they saw that the great prophet everyone had been talking about was just that carpenter that used to live in their village and repair their tools and build their furniture they took offense at him and Mark says he wasn’t able to do any deeds of power there except to lay hands on a few sick people and heal them. They missed out. They were in the presence of God but they weren’t able to recognize him.
Our God had a carpenter shop in a little village in Israel. He is the God of flesh and blood, the God of ordinary things, and sometimes people were offended by that. The neighbors who had watched him grow up and who lived and worked with him as a young man couldn’t accept him as a prophet and healer. The Jewish leaders expecting a glorious all-powerful Messiah to sweep in and smash the Roman armies couldn’t accept him as the one God had sent to save them. But multitudes of ordinary people were drawn to the one who walked their dusty streets, who hung out with fishermen and tax collectors and prostitutes, and who talked about the ordinary things they knew – wheat and sheep and bread dough. That’s the God we worship, a God who doesn’t despise the common stuff of our lives. He became the son of Mary so that we could become sons and daughters of God, and that means the ordinary things are holy to him – the meals we share, the flowers we grow in our gardens, the pictures we hang on our walls and the things we enjoy working on: our homes and our village and our friends and the animals we love. He is pleased to be praised by parades and balloons. He is present in the people sitting here in the pews with you, as familiar and ordinary as we all are. And he has promised us that he will always be present in the ordinary, commonplace elements of bread and wine that we share together – divine love made real and tangible to us in these familiar things we can hold and taste and chew on – the greatest and most glorious mystery in this most familiar of meals.