God has limits.
Our God is limitless, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful… but we have a unique capacity to limit our limitless God.
How does that statement hit you?
I think before we get into this too much further, it would be helpful to define what a “limit” is. The Oxford Dictionary defines a limit as: a point or level beyond which something does not or may not extend or pass; a restriction on the size or amount of something permissible or possible.
Keep that definition in mind as we continue…
So far in Mark we have seen Jesus talk about the kingdom being here, now; teach about the kingdom–what it is and how it grows; and show those around him his authority as he enacts the values of the kingdom in the lives of those around him. The passage we looked at on Sunday shows us that we have the ability to put limits on what God can do based on our willingness or unwillingness to participate in the values of kingdom living. Living in the flow of the kingdom includes a posture of belief, trust, and ultimately hope in the one we believe in.
This is not the posture Jesus encountered in this week’s passage. Mark chapter 6 begins by telling us that Jesus left there (where he had just raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead), and went to his hometown.
Pastor John talked about coming home, and about what “home” means. He said that there is an expectation that home is where we get to be ourselves–a safe place, a place of grace. It’s a place where we can be honest about our successes (and failures) openly, a place where our wins can be celebrated in a different way. It’s a place where we can expect to be known and seen, and there’s a measure of vulnerability allowed without condemnation.
I’m going to pause here… Because I know that description of “home” might be painful to read for some. It was painful for me to hear, and painful to write out. Home isn’t always a safe, welcoming place, and sometimes it can feel like the last place we can be our real selves. Sometimes, home is where we feel the least seen and the most overlooked. I have felt this deep pain, as I’m sure many of you have. And you know what? Jesus did, too.
When Jesus went home following a series of mind-blowing miracles, he went with a new reputation, and with quite the following. Perhaps he thought that his community would accept him now, in a way they hadn’t before.
He wasn’t given a warm welcome.
He walked into a place that had been permeated by a posture of unbelief–it only takes one or two negative, unbelieving hearts to change the atmosphere of a place–and he was met with doubts, presumptions, and criticism. Let’s look at the story:
Jesus left that part of the country and returned with his disciples to Nazareth, his hometown. The next Sabbath he began teaching in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. They asked, “Where did he get all this wisdom and the power to perform such miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.” They were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family.” And because of their unbelief, he couldn’t do any miracles among them except to place his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:1-6, NLT, emphasis mine)
Jesus went home and began to teach. And the text tells us that the people were “amazed”. The same word was used to describe the reaction of people when they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons in his right mind again, as well as to describe their reaction to Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead. People were “amazed” or, in some of our translations, “astonished”. I decided to look up these occurrences of the word “amazed”, to see if they were all the same word in the original language. Here is what I found…
In the story of the man called “Legion” (Mark 5:20), amazed is translated from the Greek “thaumazo”. It means “to wonder at, to marvel” and its root means “to look closely at, to behold.”
In the story of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:42), the original word is “existemi”. This word means “to amaze, astonish, throw into wonderment“, and can also mean “to be out of one’s mind.”
In this week’s story (Mark 6:2), “amazed” is translated from the word “ekplesso”. It means “to strike out, drive out, expel by a blow; to strike with panic, shock”. In the first two stories, “amaze” means similar things. Not so with this story. The people’s amazement at Jesus here is the kind that is passive. They were struck by the things Jesus taught, in a way that caused shock and panic among them, in a way that felt like a blow. A blow to what? We’re not told. But it could have been to their own egos, to their understanding, to their idea of Jesus… Whatever “blow” they were struck by, we’re told that they scoffed and were deeply offended. The word translated “offense” comes from the Greek word “skandalizo”. It looks a lot our English “scandalized”, doesn’t it? (Our English word is, in fact, derived from this original Greek term.) It means “to cause a person to distrust or desert; to put a stumbling block in the way, to cause one to unjustly judge another.”
Their unbelief caused them to scandalize Jesus in their own minds. They were leaning on their own understanding, and what they thought they knew placed limits on what Jesus could have done in their midst… This is why the exhortation of Proverbs 3:5-6 is so important to listen to. I love the way the Message paraphrase puts it:
Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all.
Jesus’s community assumed that they knew everything about him. They knew whose kid he was, they had meals with his siblings. They knew his trade and they knew his place in society.
But they didn’t leave room in their hearts to get to know him. The real Jesus. They had a story in their heads and it took up all the space where kingdom values could have been heard and understood. They chose to doubt, rather than believe. And so, Jesus couldn’t do any miracles among them because of their unbelief.
This in no way means that he didn’t have the power to do the same miracles there that he had done elsewhere. In fact, the text tells us that he did perform some healing miracles while he was there. He could do them, and he did do them. It’s right there in the passage. But it wouldn’t have mattered how grand the miracles were or how many he performed–their hearts were set up against him. Their posture of unbelief discounted every truth about him in their minds, and the culture in that town was hostile to the kingdom.
Jesus brought the kingdom into that town, the same way he carried it everywhere he went. But it wasn’t received. And without a place for kingdom seeds to grow, any work he did among them would have been futile. He could not force the kingdom to grow and expand in a place where it was not welcomed. There was no posture of belief, no willingness to join Jesus in his kingdom work, no trust–there was only contempt and doubt and unbelief. And so, because we have a good God who chooses to move through us–imperfect and, sometimes unwilling, vessels–Jesus faced limits in his hometown.
This story stands in stark contrast to the story of the woman that Jesus named “Daughter” and commended for her faith just days before, and to the story of Jairus coming to Jesus in faith on behalf of his dying daughter. In these stories, we saw great faith, and we saw Jesus respond to it with miracles of healing.
Am I saying that if we have enough faith, we’ll get our miracle every time? No. I’m not. And I don’t believe that’s what Pastor John was saying either. We know that sometimes faith is strong, and thousands believe together for a miracle that doesn’t come. We see examples of this when we hear about miscarriages, cancer, chronic illness and pain, depression, despair so deep it leads to suicide–despite fervent prayers and belief that God could change those stories–but for some reason he doesn’t. I would never say that any of these losses, any of this pain is a result of a lack of faith. I’ve watched faithful followers of Jesus battle bravely and hang onto every last shred of hope for their miracle–some of them are still with us, healed; some are no longer here.
I know there’s not a formula to faith and miracles. But choosing to live in the ways of the kingdom–holding onto hope, choosing to trust, believing that God always CAN–even if he doesn’t always show up the way we’re hoping he will, keeps our hearts and minds open to the movement of God in and around us. If we live this way, we live in a way that allows us to see and experience all that he is able to do–if we’re willing to bring his kingdom to bear alongside him…
There is one more occurrence of “amazed” I want to touch on… Mark 6:6 tells us that Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. Which “amazed” do you think he was?
It’s “thaumazo”, the same one used in the story of the man who was possessed. It’s the one that means “to wonder at, to marvel; to look closely, behold.” It would have made sense for Jesus’s amazement to be like that of his community–like he’d been struck by a blow. But it touches my heart in a deep place that this wasn’t Jesus’s response. He looked closely, beheld these people who were his family, his community–these ones who scoffed at and rejected him–and he chose not to take the same posture. He didn’t scandalize them in his mind. He beheld them with his kingdom eyes. I think maybe in that moment he saw beyond, into the days that were yet to come, days when many from his community–including his brother James–would not only change their posture to one of belief, but would become leaders of the early church.
Kingdom vision never wears lenses of hopelessness or disbelief. In the kingdom, there is no lost cause, no situation that can’t be changed. And here, even on a day when his heart must have ached from the pain of rejection, we see our Jesus choose an unexpected way, a kingdom way, of seeing those around him. What if we chose a posture that always believes, always hopes, always perseveres, always trusts, always loves? How would that kind of posture change the way we see the world–and the way the world sees us?
A dozen or so years ago, Bible study author and teacher Beth Moore offered her first on-line study. I lived in Brazil at the time and was excited to be able to participate in the study from my home there. The title of the study was “Believing God”. It rocked my world. I have gone on to do/lead that study five more times. The thing making that study so profound for me was a seemingly small shift in a common phrase, which made all the difference in the world. Rather than “I believe in God”, the phrase became I believe God. The study was built on these tenets:
God is who he says he is.
God can do what he says he can do.
I am who God says I am.
I can do all things through Christ.
I’m believing God. (Beth Moore)
Our belief doesn’t manipulate God into doing what we want him to do, but it does provide an open channel for God’s activity to flow–or as Laura wrote–for God to bring the kingdom here.
Last night a storm passed through our city. The power went out at my house for 2 1/2 hours. The power source was still available, many houses in town still had power, but something had happened in my part of town that caused the flow of that power to be interrupted. Unbelief is like that. It doesn’t diminish the power of God in any way. However, it can block the flow of that power.
I can’t pretend to understand this mystery, but God in his great love has allowed us to be partners with him in bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. As in any relationship, if one of the partners chooses to disengage, the effectiveness of the partnership suffers.
Our belief that God is who he says he is and can do what he says he can do is vitally important in kingdom work. In the Old Testament book of Numbers, as God was getting ready to lead his people into the land he was giving them, Moses and Aaron sent twelve men on a scouting mission to bring back a report. They came back with amazing produce and a confirmation that yes, this was a good land; however, ten of the twelve said but we can’t. There are too many obstacles, too many people who are stronger than we are, it’s impossible. The result of their unbelief–their negative report:
That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”4 And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Numbers 14:1
Joshua and Caleb, who believed God could do what he said he could do, said:
If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the Lord. (Numbers 14:8)
God was giving them a gift. Instead, one bad report led an entire community into despair and worst-case scenario thinking. The consequence of their unbelief was that they did not get to see the land God was giving to them. They wandered for forty years until all of them but Joshua and Caleb had died, and the two who believed–who also suffered the consequences of the unbelief of their comrades–were able to move into the promised land.
When speaking of those who Moses led out of Egypt, Hebrews 3:19 tells us, they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
I think it’s important to point out that while the Israelites were in the wilderness, God was still with them. He led them, he fed them, he provided water, he miraculously made their clothes and shoes last the entire time (Deuteronomy 29:5), he taught them, he did miracles on their behalf; he continued to love them, to speak to them through Moses, to care for them. He was still the God who is love.
It’s also important to note what Laura wrote above: Am I saying that if we have enough faith, we’ll get our miracle every time? No. I’m not.
Our belief doesn’t manipulate God into doing what we want him to do. God is God. His ways are higher than ours, his thoughts are higher than ours; unfortunately, suffering, sickness, violence, and death are part of life on this planet–and none of us escapes those things. Neither did Jesus.
However, our unbelief can keep us from fully experiencing all that God has for us, and can keep us from living in such a way that God’s supernatural activity in and around us is impeded.
Going back to the verses that Laura quoted above: Proverbs 3:5 in the NLT version reads like this:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.
The word “trust” can be a noun or a verb. In its noun form it means: assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; one in which confidence is placed. In its verb form, it means: “to rely on–to believe, to place confidence in, to commit or place in one’s care or keeping… (merriam-webster.com)
The people in Jesus’ hometown thought they knew him. They made assumptions. They created a culture of unbelief that permeated the whole town. They depended on their own understanding, their own knowledge, and from that place stood in a defensive posture and shut off the valve that could have changed their lives. They were not willing to place themselves in the care or keeping of Jesus. They were not willing to experience something new.
I’ll say it again–I don’t pretend to understand this mystery, but I believe it’s true. Our belief–the active verb kind of belief that allows God to move and work and meet us where we are, opens up the activity of heaven right here, right now. Our openness to God allows him to work through us without limits.
In the hard seasons, do I trust the character of God? When I don’t get my miracle do I trust the character of God? When everything feels dark and confusing do I trust the character of God? Do I believe God?
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were thrown into a blazing hot fire said to King Nebuchadnezzar: If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)
They had no doubt that God is who he says he is, and they trusted him no matter the outcome. They refused to bow to any false god–the god of disappointment, the god of my own way, the god of discontent, the god of “I’ve served you faithfully and you let this happen to me?” or any other thing that we may find ourselves serving when we lean on our own understanding.
Of Beth Moore’s principles, the one where I’ve limited God the most is “I am who God says I am”. He has invited me into things that I feel incapable of–that I am incapable of apart from him. Sometimes I close the door and don’t move into those spaces because I’m afraid–I’m relying on my own understanding. Sometimes I take a deep breath and go for it–and Every. Single. Time. come away amazed at who God is.
There have been many times when God has asked me to stay in places that are hard– physical places, relational places, emotional places. I don’t like those places, yet when I believe God, I can have the faith to believe that he will redeem the pain and work it all toward his good purpose both in and through me.
There have been times that I’ve lost people I love to disease, to car accidents, or to friendships that changed over time. If I believe God, I can have the faith that even in these hard things, he is working. I can choose to trust, to commit myself to his care and keeping–even in seasons of grief, believing that he is God and he is love even as I beat my fists against his chest.
There have been times that I have seen God perform miracles, heal, save, transform, redeem, restore, come through when all hope seemed lost, and at those times it’s easy to see him, to believe him, to glorify him. I believe that’s one of the reasons he asks us to keep our minds focused on lovely and excellent things, and to remember what he’s done for us. It helps us keep believing, even when we don’t understand what he’s doing.
When I’m in hard seasons, I oftentimes reflect on the disciples at the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. What was going through their minds? When it looked like all hope was lost, God the Son was carrying out a victorious mission. He died, passed through death, now holds the keys of death and hades, and rose again from the dead utterly defeating death. Colossians 2:15 words it like this: And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. What looked like total darkness and chaos, became our freedom–the verses right before 2:15 state: He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And then he made a public spectacle of the powers and authorities, disarming them forever!
What looked like the end was the new beginning…
Trust in the Lord with all your heart–don’t lean on your own knowledge or understanding. Believe God…
God is who he says he is. He can do what he says he can do. We are who he says we are. We can do all things through him. Let’s not limit what He can do by our unbelief; instead, let’s choose to believe our limitless God and watch him be amazing in our midst.