Faithless Familiarity

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on September 15, 2019.

And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief (Matt. 13:53–58).

I had lunch recently with a fellow minister who serves in an old church with many rich traditions. While as a new congregation we struggle with the difficulties of formation and establishment, his congregation benefits from a multi-generational heritage. However, there can be disadvantages to being an old, established church. For example, he believes that precedent can lead to a familiarity void of meaning. He said that they, like us, recite “The Apostles’ Creed,” and they sing the “Gloria Patri” and “Doxology,” as do we. His concern is not with the historical use of creeds and doxologies but with what he perceives to be a rote and empty recitation.

While I thought of our enjoyment of the same creeds and doxologies, I also thought about the necessity of remembering the doctrinal relevance of our repetition, lest we fall prey to a faithless familiarity. Some would argue that such a liability lies with our format, as if to say: liturgy breeds lethargy. By introducing new, more entertaining aspects of worship, by increasing the “wow factor” or even the “shock factor,” worship may remain “fresh.” Of course, modern Evangelicalism is revealing the failure of this argument, where each week must out do the previous lest you be boring, revealing a hollow gimmickery.

What is it about familiarity that seemingly opens the door to faithless worship? One possibility is that we take the more familiar for granted: The beautiful simplicity of the historic creeds, the historical union of the past with the present in the “Gloria Patri,” the God-glorifying exaltation of “The Doxology.” When we stop and consider their substance and significance, we appreciate them more. But we also have a tendency to take such rich liturgical gems for granted.

Another possibility is that the cares of the world crowd out the substantively important. We have certainly seen how social media has trivialized meaningful communication. Perhaps this carries over to our worship. Or it could be simply a desire for change for change’s sake. There may be no substantive reason other than our boredom.

But what if the problem lies not with our familiarity but with faithlessness? As a prayer in The Valley of Vision confesses,

            When faith sleeps, my heart becomes

            an unclean thing,

            the fount of every loathsome desire,

            the cage of unclean lusts

            all fluttering to escape,

            the noxious tree of deadly fruit,

            the open wayside of earthly tares (289).

It is not familiarity that leads us to empty recitation but our lack of faith: hearts unprepared for worship, calloused by the world-alluring lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, and the pride of life.

At the peak of popularity in His earthly ministry, Jesus returned to His hometown Nazareth. Rather than a hometown celebration of Jesus’ ministry, they were astonished but not hearing, offended but not believing, and faithless but not receiving. Their unbelief rendered them the least blessed of Jesus’ ministry, a hometown of faithless familiarity.

Astonished but not Hearing

Returning to His hometown, Jesus teaches in the local synagogue. Because teaching played such a prominent role in their culture, Jesus was likely invited to read and teach due to the reports of His wise teaching and miraculous works. The response to His teaching was not rejoicing but astonishment. The Greek word translated “astonished” has neither a positive nor negative connotation, but the context quickly reveals a kind of unexpected arrangement, as if to say: Who is this?

According to the Gospel of Luke it was a particular reading from Scripture and Jesus’ commentary that contributed to their astonishment. Luke reveals that Jesus read from the Prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” As if the reading of this messianic passage by the young prophet wasn’t bold enough, then Jesus adds, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21). Imagine hearing that from the boy who grew up down the street! Astonished is an understatement. But it’s not just that they are astonished; they aren’t hearing what He is saying.

The messianic prophecy Jesus read from Isaiah matches the testimony that had reached Nazareth. At His baptism, the Spirit of the Lord descended upon Jesus like a dove. The essence of His preaching was good news to the poor in spirit. Accompanying and confirming His preaching and teaching, Jesus miraculously healed the blind, and in liberating the demonically oppressed Jesus revealed also the liberty of the gospel. In the fullness of time the Messiah (the Christ) had come revealing the favor of God upon His people.

Jesus, in a sense, did not have to state the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, as He was stating the obvious. But He did, and they still did not hear Him. They simply were not willing to accept the evidence of His identity because of their familiarity with Him, and as a result they missed the blessing, and worse they missed Him. But it is not just that they did not have ears to hear, they were actually offended by Him.

Offended but not Believing

The astonishment of the Nazarenes does not translate into faithful worship of the Lord Jesus Christ but offense. Listen carefully to their questions: “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?” While myths abound about miracles worked by Jesus as a boy, the reality is that there was nothing remarkable to remember about His childhood in Nazareth. He was not remembered for miracles or wisdom, or anything else for that matter. In fact, they had only a vague recognition of Him: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?”

Let us recall that Joseph and Mary were transplants arriving in Nazareth when Jesus was just a boy. Joseph is recognized by his trade as a craftsman and Mary by name only. If the accounts of Jesus’ miraculous birth are known, they are not referenced. Jesus is the hometown boy remembered for nothing more than His family. The Nazarenes certainly know Jesus’ family. Mary, who bore Jesus as a virgin, did not remain one, having other children, such as her sons, James, Joseph, Simon, Judas and daughters too. The whole family is known but for nothing remarkable, especially the man named Jesus, leading the Nazarenes to wonder: “Where then did this man get all these things?”

Note that there is no denial of “these things,” acknowledging the wisdom and works of Jesus. Their denial is not based on the evidence of Jesus’ ministry but on the basis of their familiarity with Him, as if to agree with Nathaniel who asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). The Nazarenes are offended by His presumed authority when there is nothing to their recollection that sets Him apart, including His hometown. Yet, Jesus testified to His true identity when He sought to encourage His cousin (and confirm Isaiah’s prophecy) saying, “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:5-6). While John the Baptist was to be encouraged by such a witness, the Nazarenes were indeed offended by Jesus. Such a response leads Jesus to sadly say, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household,” which is a proverbial expression simply meaning “familiarity breeds contempt” (Bruce).

Jesus’ description of the Nazarenes is a keen revelation of the human heart. While we may think that we would respond differently, our fickle regard for the gospel of Jesus Christ exposes the state of our heart. How many of us have heard the gospel so many times that we take it for granted? Has the glorious wonder of the Good News become commonplace to you? Has the truth of Jesus’ perfect obedient life, atoning crucifixion, victorious resurrection, and glorious ascension become so familiar to you that its frequent repetition from this pulpit has begun to bore you? When you are reminded to preach the gospel to yourself daily, does it seem to you to be a vain repetition? Has the reading of the Word of God become a burdensome obligation rather than a sanctifying virtue? Has the preaching of the Word of God become another low-grade form of entertainment for your gorged consumption? Has baptism become a church ritual to be observed rather than an engaging reminder of God’s Covenant of Grace? Has the Lord’s Supper become an empty ordinance rather than a nourishing meal of grace? Has prayer become something you sit through in Sunday worship rather than daily fellowship with the Father?

You see, we are far more like the Nazarenes than we want to admit. Because, the problem is not with Jesus of Nazareth but our faithless hearts!

Faithless but not Receiving

The sad consequence of Nazareth’s faithless familiarity is that Jesus “did not do many mighty works there.” This does not imply that somehow the Lord Jesus was constrained by their unbelief. No, the work of Christ is not conditioned upon human response. The Lord of Glory is not empowered by the faithful or the faithless. Rather, the faithless will not receive the blessing of Jesus’ works, having eyes but not seeing and ears but not hearing. In their midst stands the Son of God but they regard Him as only the son of a common craftsman.

Jesus said, “For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. …You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:36-40). The Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6) had come to Nazareth but they did not receive Him. Was Jesus any less the Son of God when He returned to His hometown? Was He any less the Christ, the Redeemer of His people? No, the problem was not their familiarity with Jesus but with their lack of faith.

J.C. Ryle remarks, “There are three great enemies against which God’s children should daily pray: pride, worldliness, and unbelief. Of these three none is greater than unbelief.” Perhaps it is time for you and I to cry out with the demon-possessed boy’s father: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Let not our familiarity lead us to the hometown of faithlessness. Rather let us rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ, treasuring His gospel, and embracing His means of grace with faith and devotion.

Hearing the Word of God, let us believe and receive that the Lord Jesus Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15–20). Amen.

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