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Sunday, 29 January 2012

What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?

We don't always remember this in our day and age, but Jesus was a Jew. This seems obvious when I say it, but we don't often think through the implications of it. And one of the implications is that every Sabbath day, he went to worship at the local synagogue, wherever he found himself. Normally at home in Nazareth, but when he was on the road, he went local.

And here, in Mark's Gospel, Jesus is at the very beginning of his ministry. Mark tells us that he has been baptised, and then gone into the desert to think through the implications of this, to work out what it means to be “God's beloved Son, in whom he is well pleased.” He was tempted, and learnt what was and was not the right thing to do with his divine power.

And then John, his cousin, was put in prison and Jesus knew the time had come to start his own ministry in good earnest. He came out of the desert, and picked up Andrew and Peter and one or two others – we know from John's gospel that Andrew and Peter had been followers of John before this – and then, on the Sabbath, he finds himself in Capernaum, about 20 miles as the crow flies from his home town of Nazareth. So they all go to the synagogue there.

Now, one of the things about synagogue worship was that – is that, I should say, as I understand it is much the same today – is that you don't have to have a trained preacher up there, but almost any adult – adult males, in many synagogues, but some welcome women, too – can get up on his hind legs and expound the Scriptures. And visitors were very often asked to read the Scripture passage for the day as a way of honouring them, and it was quite “done” to comment on it. You might remember Jesus goes home to Nazareth at one stage and is asked to read the Scriptures there, with rather disastrous results. But not on this occasion.

What happens here, though is equally unexpected. Someone with an evil spirit is there, and the evil spirit recognises Jesus, and causes its host to cry out, interrupting whatever Jesus was saying or reading, to cry out: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

It's a good question, isn't it? What does Jesus want with us? Why does he come, interrupting our nice, peaceful church services? Why does he come, interrupting our nice, peaceful lives? What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?

Of course, the answer is going to be different for each and every one of us. And yet there are some universal truths.

Firstly, I think, he answers “I want you to let me love you.”

To let him love us. That sounds as though it ought to be a no-brainer, but in fact, it can be very difficult to allow ourselves to be loved. And we tend not to look at it that way round, anyway. We think it's our business to love God – I am not quite sure what we think God's business is, but we don't always expect him to love us. And yet, how can we love unless he loved us first?

There's a story you may have heard before, told by the theologian and writer Gerard Hughes, in which he describes an image of God that many of us may have grown up with; a God who demanded our love and attention, and threatened us with eternal damnation if he didn't get it. And we ended up telling God how much we loved him, while secretly hating him and all he stood for, but terrified of not appearing to love him, because of the eternal damnation. We weren't told, or if we were told, we didn't hear, the first bit, which is that God loves us! God loves us so much that he knows quite well we can't possibly love him first. “We love, because He first loved us,” we are told. His love comes first. We need to let him love us. That's the first answer to the question, “What do you want of us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
“I want you to let me love you.”

And the second answer is “I want you to let me heal you.”

Healing. It's a bit of a vexed question, isn't it? We know that healings happened in the Scriptures, and we know that they can and do happen today, but we rarely seem to see any. We do see miraculous physical healings now and again, and we thank God for them as, indeed, we thank God when people are healed through modern medicine. But our bodies are going to wear out or rust out one day, whatever we do. We aren't designed to live forever on this earth, in these bodies, and they will eventually come to the end of their usefulness to us. But Scripture teaches that we will be raised from death in a new body, so it makes sense to me that the parts of us that make us “us”, if you like, are the parts that need healed. Our emotions, our personality, our memories. Things that have screwed us up in our pasts, that we find hard to get beyond. I believe Jesus always heals us when we ask, but we usually get the healing we really need, not necessarily the one we thought we wanted!

Also, while our language differentiates between healing and forgiveness, Jesus doesn't seem to so much. Remember the paralysed bloke whose friends let him down through the roof? Jesus' first words to him were “Your sins are forgiven!” which was what healed him. We need to be forgiven our sins, we need to be healed of being a sinner, if you like. We need to be changed into someone who can love God, and who can step away from sin – and we'll never do that without Jesus, let me tell you. We need to be healed so that we can become the person God created us to be. “I want you to let me heal you.”

“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
“I want you to let me love you.
I want you to let me heal you.
And I want you to let me fill you with the Holy Spirit!”

To be filled with God's Holy Spirit. According to the Bible, this isn't an optional extra, it's an absolutely central part of being a Christian. Remember the believers at Antioch, who were asked whether they'd received the Holy Spirit when they were baptised, and they were like, “You what? What's the Holy Spirit?” and Paul had to re-explain the Gospel to them. It turned out they'd only got as far as John's baptism of repentance, not the baptism into a new life with Christ. So far as Paul is concerned, receiving the Holy Spirit is an absolutely central part of being a Christian.

Makes sense, really, when you think about it. Because if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we are filled with God Himself, and can be loved and healed and made whole, and God Himself can direct our lives, never forcing, never compelling, but always asking and reminding us, and enabling us. We need to be filled with God's Holy Spirit if we are to grow and change into the people God designed us to be.

“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

Of course, at that time the question was inappropriate, as was the follow-on of: “I know who you are, the holy one of God!” because Jesus was only just at the start of his ministry. He wasn't ready to become universally known, and anyway, he could sense that that which asked the questions had no interest in wishing him well. So he did the only possible thing, which was to command the evil spirit to come out of its host, which it did, and when the host recovered, all was well. But, of course, stories like this spread around, and Mark tells us that Jesus' fame in the area began to grow.

“What do you want of us, Jesus of Nazareth?” The question still resonates down the years, and I think the answers are still the same as ever: “I want you to let me love you. I want you to let me heal you. I want you to let me fill you with the Holy Spirit.” What is your answer? What is mine?

Will you let Jesus love you? Will you let Jesus heal you? Will you let Jesus fill you with his Holy Spirit? Amen.

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