Ho Hum Gospel, Familiar Messiah

Reference: Mark 6:1-5, Luke 4:16-30

“Familiarity breeds contempt,” goes the saying. Jesus had been welcomed in many locales where, convinced by his teachings and miracles, many confessed him to be the promised Messiah. In his hometown of Nazareth, a different reaction happened. “Where did this man get these things?” “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon?”(Mark 6:2-3). Somebody has noted that the definition of an expert is a person from more than 50 miles away. We do not expect our superheroes to be ordinary folks who we know, and have known as they grew up. We do not see a local carpenter as being someone who can save the world. Our superheroes, whether from the entertainment industry, the political world or spiritual realms arrive among us with flash, pizzaz, glamour, entourage and excitement. The ordinary and commonplace does not interest us. Many among us continually chase “the latest thing,” the new trends, the politician who promises secular salvation, the rock star on a stage in front of thousands whose charisma enthralls us, the guru or TV evangelist who proposes an exciting new way of life. When Jesus read from the prophet Isiaiah in the local synagogue about the promise of the Messiah, the people of Nazareth were astonished when this local boy announced to them that he himself was the fulfillment of the promise.

Perhaps we can relate with them. Christianity in our midst has long since ceased to be new and exciting. When it is announced that Jesus is the Messiah, as it routinely is in our churches, it surprises no one. The formation of our very culture and society has been shaped by this faith. It is now “the way it has always been done.” It is ordinary that our towns have churches, and people usually can identify what brand of Christian they are, even if they haven’t been in attendance much. Theologians today make news by announcing sophisticated perspectives on the Messiah, mostly related to denying that he is incarnate, resurrected or born of a virgin. It was news when a minister of the United Church of Canada announced she is an atheist. It is not news that in thousands of other parishes across the nations, people stated their belief together using the Nicene Creed. That is ordinary. It is not mentioned in the news that hundreds of millions of people around the world last Sunday received communion in church, believing that the real presence of the Messiah has come to them. It isn’t news because it is ordinary, the way it has always been done.

The worst possible failing of anyone trying to get and hold our attention is to be boring. And the very repetition and commonplace announcement of the Gospel has made it unnoticed, the way a billboard by the side of the highway goes unnoticed after a long time with the same message. “God loves you, has created you for a purpose, defines your life and will raise you from the dead,” we hear. Yes, but tell me something new and exciting. Enthralling storytellers don’t gain audiences by telling tales of a local boy who grew up in an average neighborhood and family and became a carpenter like his father. We want to hear of the spectacular, the dramatic, the unusual, the fanciful. Can he jump tall buildings, outrun speeding bullets? Maybe then we’ll listen.

Jesus can, of course, do that and more. And ultimately, what he has done meets all the criteria for spectacular and unusual. The locals in Nazareth didn’t know that at the time. But we do, and yet the excitement is gone. If you want excitement with your Christianity, you have to go to Africa, where in most places, it is still new and fresh. Resurrection? Save it for my funeral. Incarnation? It gets in the way of celebrating a profitable and inoffensive Christmas. Meaning in my life through God’s love? You can’t run a country or beat the competition by practicing that.

The result over the centuries is mission drift. The saying goes that God made man in his image and man has been returning the favor ever since by trying to make God in man’s image. Just like the citizens of Nazareth, we have our own idea of what the Messiah will look like for us. He will defintely not be local. He will not bless everybody, he will bless America. Following our Puritan heritage, he will reward the rich with further favor and prosperity and show his contempt for the poor, “the Lord helps those who help themselves.” He invites the people who are like me to flock to church and ignores the rest. He redefines the rules to make them easier for me to keep, and skips the hard ones like “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus’ view of the Commandments, as expressed in Matthew 5:1-12, 17-28, among other places, is replaced by the righteousness of not drinking or dancing, of showing up for the annual Pro-Life march, of voting Republican, being a good respectable citizen and going to church with good people who judge others. This kind of discipleship, which emptied the churches of western Europe and is now emptying them in America, together with an unfocused theology of soteriology, has replaced the excitement of encountering the living God in all his love and his plan for your eternal redemption and that of all creation.

Jesus was unable to achieve much in Nazareth when opposed by a hostile community. When Jesus did miracles, he generally commented that the person or persons’ faith was a crucial component. Without faith, how can the miracles happen? Nothing much happened in Nazareth against a tide of unbelief. The toxic mixture of unbelief, self-righteousness, apathy and misplaced faith in salvation by keeping some self-appointed rules which constitutes much of current American religious practice, or lack of it, isn’t much of a soil for the seeds of faith to grow in.

In preaching at Mass, which is to say, as the real presence of Jesus is about to be with us, I have often commented to people, “If it ever hits you what is happening and who is about to be here, you will be totally in awe.” That those people in Nazareth stood in the presence of their Messiah and God and were skeptical and indifferent is certainly no different from our modern scene. Does anyone hear the Christmas message, Immanuel, “God with us?”

How boring can it be to have the Creator of the universe, and perhaps more relevant, the giver of eternal life and lover of mankind, right here with us? Will America wake up to the God who is with us? Not a god who blesses from afar, not a god who blesses only us (like Israel’s understanding of God in the Old Testament), not a god who only hangs out with good people, not the famous god of stage, screen and political power and glory, not the god of wealth and prosperity, but the God of the ordinary, of people like you and me, of our little corner of the earth, of grocery stores and gas stations, parks and malls, relatives and friends, schools and offices, animals and gardens, of all that surrounds us. He infuses our life, his presence in humble and ordinary bread and wine, humble and ordinary people, like his mother and brothers and sisters, in the worth of ordinary work, of carpentry, the shaping of the gifts of creation into the structure of our stewardship.

The excitement of this reality is clearly undervalued. Nevertheless, when you get it, it will blow your mind.