Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
How do you like being embarrassed? Not many people do, I suspect. It can hurt deeply to get criticized in front of a group. The old advice, “Give praise in public and criticism in private” is really just a secular conversion of the 8th Commandment and the biblical mandate to confront a person with his or her sins in private first.
When confrontations about personal differences happen in front of people we know—particularly friends and family—it can be doubly painful. We’d like to think that those with whom we are close will stick up for us. We hope that they’ll come to our defense in situations when we’re getting picked on.
But experience tells us that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, when we’re being embarrassed, they’d just as soon crawl into the woodwork, too. To silently slip away before the rest of the crowd realizes that they are associated with us. And it’s all because they don’t want to be embarrassed, either.
So, in today’s Gospel lesson, here is Jesus—fresh off His recent “tour de force” of the region around the Sea of Galilee. By any measure, His work was a big splash down at the lake. Plenty of preaching, plenty of miracles, plenty of healings. He’d even picked up an “entourage” of sorts. Yes, they might have been a rather eclectic and scruffy bunch, but they were mostly loyal and mostly dependable.
It seemed like everyone around the lake had heard of Jesus. He could hardly move around, there were so many who wanted to get a glimpse, hear a word, get a little piece of Him. An ordinary man would shout, “Enough!” and flee from the pressure and the attention. But this was no ordinary man.
Just in the past few days, Jesus had accomplished a lot: He’d overcome the devil, in driving out the demons from the possessed Gerasene man. He’d overcome the world, turning the scoffers to shame after they’d laughed at His saying Jairus’ daughter was not dead, but merely sleeping. And He’d overcome the sinful flesh, healing the woman who’d suffered from 12 years of bleeding. That’s quite a week, for sure. Maybe a trip back to Nazareth was in order—the native son made good, returning to bask in the admiration of His hometown.
From the Sea of Galilee, Jesus heads west to His boyhood home, the disciples in tow. And, not just because His earthly parents raised Him right but because of who He is, when the Sabbath comes, the Lord of the Sabbath heads to church. He doesn’t head for the Galilean equivalent of the golf course, or the swap meet, or the boat show—He heads to church.
And He doesn’t just put in an appearance so His mom and siblings wouldn’t be embarrassed, He participates in worship and Bible Study. He even speaks up and teaches the hometown folks a few things. St. Mark tells us, “Many who heard Him were amazed.”
Well, that’s a good start. But even there, it only says, “many” were amazed. Not everybody in Nazareth, apparently, was overwhelmed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “This” man because, after all, to them Jesus was just a local boy all grown up. Just a carpenter. Just one kid out of a family of several siblings. And this “man” because…well, just because; that’s all He could be, right?
“What is this wisdom that has been given Him, that He even does miracles?” they ask. In other words, “What makes Him so special? He’s just an ordinary guy.” They got their noses out of joint; they “took offense at Him.”
The eternally-begotten Son of God isn’t going to take this slap-in-the-face too hard, but it still had to sting. They weren’t exactly worshipping Asherah poles or the golden calf, but they’d still rejected Him. They’d still turned away from the Word of God. They’d still sinned.
If Jesus were capable of being embarrassed, this would have been the time, no doubt. And you know that it had to be awkward for the disciples, and for Jesus’ family, too. None of them would have wanted Him to be rejected, just when He comes home to convey the good news of the kingdom to those who knew Him well. The honor and respect He should have received was not to be.
Verse 5 tells us that Jesus could not do any miracles there, except to heal a few sick people. The point is not that Jesus was somehow limited in power or lacked the ability to perform miracles there.
Rather, it’s a sign that the Nazarenes’ lack of faith—which amazed even Jesus—impeded the work of the kingdom. Where there is no faith, the gifts of God remain unrecognized and unrealized.
“What is this wisdom?” the people of Nazareth asked. That is, what special knowledge had Jesus received that enabled Him to perform the miraculous healings and signs that they had heard about? They were certain that it was all some sort of magic trick. No way could this carpenter have it within Himself to heal people and perform the other signs. Someone must’ve given Him the secret to do these things. That’s the only possible explanation. And why Him, of all people? They took offense—because they were jealous, and selfish, and hard-hearted.
Instead of thanking God for the blessings of hearing His word and witnessing His power in their lives, they reject Him. They elevate their own wisdom, and judge Jesus unworthy of their respect.
Over the centuries, almost all the problems that have plagued the Church have arisen because someone or some group have claimed to have special knowledge or wisdom that isn’t available to everyone. Likewise, virtually all of the false religions which draw people away from the salvation offered in the Christ are based on some supposed special enlightenment provided to the select few, rather than available to all.
How different this is from Christianity, in which we are to trust that God offers salvation in Jesus Christ to all who hear His gospel and do not reject it. We hear St. Peter tell the crowd on Pentecost, “This promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off.” The atonement of Christ’s death is for all, and the Gospel is to be preached to all nations.
But it’s not uncommon for our human wisdom to question the wisdom of God, is it? After all, the Gospel makes no sense if we think about it. There are an awful lot of very worldly-intelligent and successful and respected people who scoff at the Gospel and at Christianity. Many of the rich and the famous and the so-called “beautiful people” make fun of us who trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and our hope for salvation and eternal life. They consider Christians to be fools because we follow an illogical religion—a faith that speaks of salvation by unilateral grace, not by performance of our own works. A faith in which God becomes human, rather than humans aspiring to be gods. A faith in which their God dies for them, not them dying for their god. Just what kind of intelligent person could be a Christian anyway? What kind of fool are you?
Karl Marx, one of the fathers of Communism, wrote that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” He was speaking of religion in general, but in 19th century Germany the primary religion to which he had exposure and influenced his thought was Christianity.
Marx and his philosophy have been shown by history to be failures. Yet much of our post-modern, seemingly sophisticated society want to retain his ideas toward faith—eliminating any dependence on the divine, and trusting in the thoughts and abilities of humanity. “Live for yourself,” the world’s wisdom tells us, time and time again. “Live for today. Do what makes you feel good. Don’t let anybody tell you what to do or what to believe. You are your own god.”
And, fallen and sinful as we are, we listen… time and time again. We skip church occasionally, missing out on God’s gifts because the god of our body was tired from chasing the god of the bottle so that the god of our lust would be a little less self-conscious. Or we don’t have the time or inclination to study God’s word, because we focus on the god of our job to fill the god of our bank account so we can pay for the gods of our car or house or vacation. And perhaps we even worship the god of our own bodies, obsessed with how we look, or what we weigh, or what we wear.
Maybe Marx was right… religion IS the opiate of the masses. He just didn’t realize that the religion we often follow doesn’t have anything to do with the divine being, but ourselves. And we follow those false, foolish, failing gods because we apply the wrong sort of wisdom to try to make ourselves successful.
St. Paul wrote to the Church at Rome:
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Romans 1:21-23, NIV)
That sounds an awful lot like us, when we focus ourselves on using our own wisdom to obtain our own desires. And Paul goes on to say:
“They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” (Romans 1:25, NIV)
Yes, that’s us, all right. And Paul continues with a strong warning and condemnation for those who would fall prey to this so-called “wisdom”.
Paul was a pretty smart guy—a real intellectual by anyone’s standards. He went to the best schools, had the best teachers, finished first in the class. He was considered a man who could write his own ticket. And, until he was confronted on that road by Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, he was pretty full of himself and his own wisdom.
It was after that change that God used Paul to tell the world that all our self-generated knowledge and wisdom doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. To tell us that God does things that appear foolish when viewed with worldly wisdom. But this foolishness is actually the wisdom of how His perfect will works, to preserve and save us—from ourselves and our sin, from the world, and the devil, and even from death itself.
The wisdom Jesus has—the wisdom the folks at Nazareth wondered about—are not just the divine attributes that enabled Him to magically heal the sick or do other miracles.
Rather, it’s a wisdom that we often don’t want to hear: that we and the world are God’s creations, not our own. That we are sinful and are doomed to eternal death without a Savior. That we cannot be our own saviors, but that we can only depend on His ability to keep the law; His willingness to sacrifice His life as the atonement for our sins; His resurrection that ensures eternal life.
But there’s a lot more to it than just that. Jesus doesn’t just have the wisdom of God; Jesus IS the wisdom of God. As Paul wrote to those in Corinth:
“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24, NIV)
A short time later Paul wrote:
“It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1:30, NIV)
Jesus remains for us the only wisdom that really matters, and the seeming foolishness of the Gospel remains the only way in which that wisdom is conveyed to us. Jesus is wisdom—pure wisdom, heavenly wisdom, wisdom beyond our human understanding—because Jesus is the visible expression we have from God about His perfect plan of salvation. Thus, it is Jesus that we preach; it is Jesus into whose death and resurrection we are baptized; it is Jesus who declares to you, “I forgive you all your sins,” and it is Jesus whose body and blood cleanses our souls, strengthens our faith, and provides the “medicine of immortality.”
Jesus has promised that when we cast aside our own wisdom and trust in Him, we can do all things and we receive all we need.
He has left it to us to speak the truth of the Gospel to a world that considers it foolish; Paul again writes, this time to the Ephesians:
“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known … according to His eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ephesians 3:10-11, NIV)
He has promised that He will go with us in that mission, to strengthen and support us. Jesus told His disciples in the Gospel according to St. Luke:
“I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” (Luke 21:15, NIV)
Finally, then, we need the continual bolstering of God’s wisdom for our lives, so that we may resist the lies, and the temptations, and, yes, the foolishness, of a perishing world which has come to believe it has all the wisdom and answers.
We depend instead on the wisdom that comes from God’s Word, the wisdom that comes down from above, the wisdom that is in Jesus Christ, and that IS Jesus Christ. And this I pray for you, the people of this congregation, as Paul did for the congregation at Ephesus:
“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and His incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:17-19a, NIV)
In Jesus Name (+), Amen.