Offensive Jesus

Sermon by Laura 2.9.20: Mark 6:1-29

Forgive me for attempting a football metaphor, since I know barely enough about the game to follow the Super Bowl once a year. I do know that each team has offensive and defensive players. The offense has a mission: advancing the ball across the opposing team’s territory to score a touchdown in the end zone. The defense stands in the way of the offense  to keep them from scoring and possibly take the ball away.

Teams need both skills to win big. Defense is important to prevent your opponent’s touchdowns. But—correct me later, football people, if I’m wrong—it seems that a great offense is even more important. If you have a great defense and no offense, the other team won’t score, but neither will you. That’s why the great quarterbacks are the stars of the show. They are the leaders and directors of the offensive game.

So maybe we can compare Jesus to a great quarterback? If so, Mark 6 demonstrates his offensive game. Jesus’ urgent mission is to press forward his message, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news.” He carries out his teaching and preaching, healings and exorcisms, his pronouncements of forgiveness and his confrontations with the religious authorities, all toward the goal of focusing God’s people on God’s in-breaking reign and apprenticing disciples to live in God’s will and ways.  Jesus is on the move, inexorably advancing toward the goalposts of redemption, reconciliation, and resurrection.

But even as Jesus is on the offense, he offends people.

In Mark 6, Jesus and his discipleship team arrive in Nazareth. Unlike the Chiefs returning to Kansas City, there is no victory parade to welcome him home! Quite the opposite. Tales of Jesus’ mighty acts have gotten back to his hometown, but they are not impressed—they are offended.

All they can see is the handyman putting on airs, a local yokel gotten too big for his britches. What else is there to know about Mary’s son and James’ brother? He can’t possibly be the Messiah. But though hardly anyone in Nazareth is receptive enough to catch the new life Jesus wants to pass them, the text says that he still does heal a few people. Even Nazareth’s unbelief can’t halt God’s mission.

Now, don’t let anyone tell you that the hometown crowds’ rejection doesn’t hurt. How many of us still carry a chip or two on our shoulders from our hometown crowd’s reaction when we tried to do something new and grow into our full potential! We still remember the disapproving expressions, putting us back in our place, telling us in no uncertain terms that any newness was strange and unacceptable.

How does Jesus react to this rejection? He’s astonished at the intensity, but he seems prepared for it. It doesn’t throw him off his game. In fact, it seems to energize him to engage a new tactic. He expands the mission to neighboring villages by sending out his chosen twelve disciples, empowering them to proclaim the good news and cast out unclean spirits.

The instructions he gives his offensive team are remarkable, the opposite of “defensive” in every way. Take nothing for the journey, he tells them, no bread and no money; wear sandals and two tunics and only carry a walking stick.

These instructions speak not only to the urgency of the mission but to the heart of it: availability and vulnerability. Following Jesus’ directions, the disciples are totally dependent on the hospitality of strangers. They show up to each village as people in need, not as those with something obvious to give.

Compare this mode to the posture we often assume in our own mission efforts! Ever resistant to place ourselves in another’s debt, we try to show up in the superior position, doling out what we think people need.

Instead, Jesus teaches us to meet others in the vulnerability and availability which are the substance of loving relationships. Without vulnerability and availability, human beings cannot possibly connect in love, and any efforts at mercy and healing which are not based in love will be short-lived at best. Love is the transformative power of God.

Author Brene Brown’s social research confirms the wisdom of Jesus’ instructions. Every leader on a mission faces fear, she writes.

“The real barrier to daring leadership is our armor—the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing and able to rumble with vulnerability…You can’t fully grow and contribute behind armor.”

from Dare to Lead

Brown further notes, “Daring is not saying ‘I’m willing to risk failure.’ Daring is saying, ‘I know I will eventually fail, and I’m still all in.’”[i]

Jesus prepares his disciples to dare vulnerability in the face of resistance and rejection. When his hometown rejected him, his disciples witnessed his refusal to armor up in defensiveness.  Nor did Jesus try to impose his views by force. Leaving Nazareth, perhaps Jesus did what he now instructs them to do: just shake off the dust of your feet from any town that refuses to welcome or hear you out. A small and nonviolent action, it bears witness to a devastating lack of hospitality while allowing the disciples to release rejection, rather than retaliate for it.[ii]

Following these instructions, the disciples are successful in their mission to the extent that King Herod hears about it. This gives Mark an opportunity to insert a sordid bit of history, about how Herod beheaded John as a result of a grandiose oath sworn to his (illegal) step-daughterin front of his courtiers.

What are we to make of this awful story? I hate to say it, but I think Herod’s story is where the text comes home to us in our world today. We are not kings and queens, per se, but we are largely people of privilege. Brene Brown, again, defines privilege as the ability to avoid uncomfortable conversations and situations. We can and often do choose to do just that.

So we have something in common with Herod, who is caught in the snare of indecision.  He likes his worldly pleasures, his parties and dancing girls. At the same time, he’s drawn to John the Baptist. He likes listening to John, though he finds John’s teaching perplexing. Maybe some part of Herod longs to be a righteous Jewish king, as John exhorts him.

But Herod’s new wife, Herodias, hates John, who has spoken against their marriage. She wants to silence him. When her dancing daughter requests John’s head on a platter, the moment of decision arrives for Herod. Will he stand up for John, though it means losing face before his guests? Or will he defend his ego in the eyes of these peers with the horrible death of an innocent man?

Herod makes the defensive choice, the ego choice, all too common for people in high places. We’ve so often seen leaders choose political expediency over righteousness– did we ever expect Herod to seriously consider another option?

Too often, our own disappointment with corrupt politicians leads us to armor ourselves against truly daring leadership. Why should we dare courageous choices, if those who claim authority over us refuse to do so? Instead, we occupy ourselves with shaming and blaming, rather than summoning our own courage to risk leading others with integrity.

The truth is, we face Herod’s choice every single day: will we choose the righteousness of God’s will and ways, entering into Jesus’ offensive vulnerability, or will we play the defensive game, armoring ourselves against failure, but also connection and transformation?

Jesus’ way offends us because it’s not an “if” but a “when”: his daring leadership will bring us face to face with failure, heartbreak, suffering, and death. Jesus will ask us to move beyond our comfort zone, to go without our usual defenses, and to meet the world without armor, with no padding aside from our trust in Christ’s peace which passes understanding.

Even so, the scriptures testify that Jesus offers the only life which is, truly, life: the kingdom of God life, in which we manifest divine grace and glory as we learn from Jesus the capacity to meet whatever resistance we encounter. In fact, Jesus shows us how to use resistance, to let it be transformed into a meeting place where we encounter God and ourselves face to face, receiving and expressing God’s love all the more profoundly.

“What stands in the way becomes the way,” second-century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said. Jesus lived this principle to the fullest, all the way through death on a Roman cross and beyond, into the resurrection life, God’s decisive triumph over humanity’s deathly choices.

The good news, teammates of Jesus, is that he’s not only a great quarterback: Jesus is the game itself!

Jesus Christ is God’s purpose, presence, and power, God’s Word made flesh. Jesus not only leads us but empowers us to accomplish our essential part in his mission through the Holy Spirit he gives us. Through Jesus, we partner with God!

Isn’t it amazing that God trusts us so much as to toss the ball into our hands that we may run it in for the ultimate score? Though we often fumble and drop the pass, in Jesus Christ, God keeps lobbing extravagant grace encouraging us to receive it and run long, to carry Christ’s mission as far as we can, no matter what resistance we face. 

This may be where the football metaphor breaks down, however.  Unlike spectacular touchdown passes, the actions of God’s people often don’t grab headlines. Mostly, we carry grace forward quietly, in daily kindness to people, animals, and the earth, in small gestures which gently and patiently heal those around us. We love by seeing a need and stopping to lend a hand; by taking the time to listen to a someone’s sad story; by giving the benefit of the doubt to those whose ideas differ from ours, by refusing to avoid uncomfortable conversations even as we greet our opponents with Christ’s peace.

How many times a day do you receive these graces? How many times a day do you carry them forward? Each tiny decision we make to follow where Jesus leads has unaccountable ripples, my friends. These small actions keep advancing the long game of God’s mercy, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, year by year, to the glory of Christ’s kingdom fully come.

Alleluia! Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Brene Brown, Dare to Lead, 12, 14,19.

[ii] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 214.

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