Texts: Ezekiel 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
Maybe the details were different, but I bet you’ve had that dream, too. Lots of people have a dream about a final exam for which they are completely unprepared; sometimes they didn’t know they were registered for the class, sometimes they can’t even find the room where the test is. This isn’t the first time I’ve had that dream—but it is the first time it involved church!
I don’t claim to know what the dream means, if it means anything, but I do know that, speaking for myself, I think it has something to do with the fact that even after all my seminary training and study and now several years in parish ministry, I sometimes still feel like I have no idea what I’m doing; and I think the dream is about the fear that one day you all are going to figure that out.
I share this with you because I think I’m not alone in feeling that way. I think many of us feel in one way or another like we don’t measure up, like we are faking it sometimes. I think all of us sometimes feel like we should be better than we are at our profession, at raising our kids, at personal relationships, at retirement, at life in general. I think that deep inside, many (if not most) of us are afraid that the people around us might realize that.
That is what makes this story of Jesus in his hometown simultaneously comforting and disturbing. It’s disturbing because it hits too close to home: when Jesus fails to do what he is called to do in Nazareth, the story twinges that same fear within us; and yet, it’s also oddly comforting to hear this story because it reminds us that we are not the only ones who worry about that. Whatever else it may be about, Mark’s story today is a story about Jesus’ humanity. Even God’s Son, it seems, is capable of failure: “He could do no deeds of power there.” We often say that Jesus is the one perfect human, and yet we see today that even he is not perfect, because to be human is to be weak—and he is fully human, just as he is fully God.
And yet, it is actually Jesus’ weakness that reveals God to us. God could have chosen to be revealed to us in a superhero demigod who could slay the hydra, or in a warrior Messiah who would conquer Rome, but instead God chose to come to us as a wandering rabbi who couldn’t even teach his own neighbors; a peasant carpenter who was born in a manger and died on a cross. In his weakness, it became brutally evident that it was not Jesus’ own power to perform miracles that saved him, but God’s power to give life—power that is made perfect in weakness.
This is why Paul—who had all kinds of stuff he could boast about—doesn’t point to his own accomplishments, his own ecstatic visions, his own success as an apostle, but to all the places where he fails; because in his own weakness—like Jesus’—God’s power is evident. Unlike his competitors who brag about their own piety and the mystical experiences they’ve had and the popularity they enjoy, Paul points out that, yes, he has things to brag about, too; but it is all the ways he is failing, all the forces that are actively working against him, that make God’s hand most visible. In spite of all those things, God’s work is still being done through him.
God’s work is done at Nazareth in a surprising way. Jesus’ response to his failure, oddly enough, is to send out twelve more failures to continue his work. The disciples at this point in Mark’s gospel have repeatedly proven that they don’t get it. These twelve poor dolts have at times impeded and even opposed Jesus’ mission; and yet now he sends them out to continue it. They don’t even really understand who he is yet. Even more surprising is that they actually succeed.
The whole point of this story is that the disciples aren’t successful because they are qualified, but simply because they are called. Jesus sends them out woefully unprepared—not only for preaching, but also for traveling. The packing list he gives them means that they will necessarily have to rely on the kindness of strangers simply in order to survive. This is itself a lesson about the gospel: Jesus’ message has nothing to do with the sufficiency of the preacher, but it has everything to do with the sufficiency of the One being preached.
Jesus failed at Nazareth because his weakness—his humanity—kept his family and neighbors from being able to see who he was. They, like all of us, expected to see God in power and authority, but in the end all they could see was the boy who grew up among them, playing in their streets, picking his nose. They couldn’t look up to one on whom they looked down, even with affection. They couldn’t see God in somebody so ordinary, so imperfect, so like themselves.
If we can bring ourselves to see the power of God in the fully-human Jesus, then maybe we can also come to see the power of God in our own fully-human selves. Although God has given each of us different skills and talents and gifts and resources to use in the service of God’s kingdom in the world, the kingdom isn’t dependent upon the gifts we’ve been given or how we use them. The good news is that even when we are woefully unprepared like the twelve disciples, even if we show up in our pajamas without having studied for the test, the power to bring about God’s kingdom is not ours; it’s God’s. When we go as we are sent, God’s work is done.
I’m not just talking about preaching or evangelism, though. This isn’t just good news for the Church, this is good news for the world. How often in your lives do you feel unprepared or powerless? How much do you read the newspaper in despair? It may seem like we floating in a barrel down the river toward the waterfall, too small and too weak to change the direction we are headed, but God has called us to work for the healing of the world. Those twelve putzes went out, for all intents and purposes, in their pajamas, and they were able to cast out demons and cure the sick; and why? Because they had been called.
We have been called: called to cast out the demons of injustice and violence, called to cure the diseases of racism and poverty and loneliness. In our baptism, each of us is called to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper, to proclaim the good news of Christ in word and deed, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for peace and justice in all the earth. That is a tall order, a job for which we are woefully unprepared—but that is what we have been called to do. We may be going out into the world in little more than our pajamas, scared to death that we will be too weak, too insignificant to make a difference, but the grace of God is sufficient for us. If twelve inept Galileans can preach the kingdom of God, so can we.