Spiritually and intellectually I am a life-long citizen of Nazareth, but I desperately want out.
Nazareth is, of course, the place Jesus grew up. They all knew him and his family. During his ministry Jesus made a stop in his hometown and began preaching in the synagogue. The response of the people is fascinating and instructive:
“Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. (NIV Matthew 13:54—57)
They took offense! Can you believe it? We are then told by Matthew, “And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (v. 59).
Like those in Nazareth, I have grown up with Jesus. I was a terrible kid to have in Sunday School because I knew how every Bible story ended. Church three times a week, week-long “revival” meetings, Vacation Bible School, and church camps meant that Jesus and I had spent a lot of time together. I remember when Jesus was just starting out on the flannel graph board in my Sunday school classes. Like those in Nazareth, I am familiar with Jesus.
And like those in Nazareth I would be utterly shocked if Jesus jumped off the flannel graph or out of hymns and actually started doing stuff. You know—healing the sick, casting out evil spirits, raising the dead. I wouldn’t know what to do. It would be upsetting. It would offend me. Familiarity really does breed contempt.
I suspect I am not alone. I think most of the Western church lives in Nazareth—a place Jesus can do few miracles because of our unbelief. In fact, much of the Church has developed a whole theology to explain the miracle-devoid experience of living in Nazareth. Some explain that compassionate healing of the sick is no longer needed because we have the Bible now. Others argue for the cessation of all the gifts of the Spirit—all the signs and wonders—thinking the only purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to validate the teachings of the apostles. Of course, much of this remodeling of Nazareth is simply a way to accommodate the rational skepticism that has been embraced by the West since the Enlightenment. Much has been done to make the modern Christian at home in Nazareth.
My Nazareth, to be honest, has not been built by those who actively teach that all the gifts of the Spirit and works of power have disappeared. Although I grew up in a denomination that believes in divine healing, I don’t remember ever seeing anyone healed. We sometimes anointed people and prayed for their healing, “God if is your will to heal Bob, please heal him. But Thy will, not ours be done.” I don’t think any of us expected anyone to actually be healed. I didn’t. Occasionally, if I prayed for someone I cared deeply about, my prayers became earnestly pathetic and begging, “Please, please, O God, heal my father of prostate cancer!” Over and over, but always with no real faith. After all, I live in Nazareth.
My secret dream, the ache in my heart from age sixteen, was simply to do what Jesus had commanded the disciples to do: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” I thought, “Wow, if this is what the disciples of Jesus get to do, sign me up.” I went off to college as a Jesus freak wanting to learn the Bible and take the gospel to the streets—you know, be like Jesus and do the stuff Jesus did. My years in academia only reinforced the walls of Nazareth. I soon realized that no matter how many degrees in biblical studies or theology you get, almost no school will teach you to do what Jesus did. They will, however, teach you many theological reasons you can’t. I saw that I could finish every course to be a pastor and never be taught how to cast out a demon or heal the sick. So half-way through college, I became an English major. At least imaginative literature gave me a brief escape from Nazareth. My heart longed for adventure.
Over the years I have collected from academia and the church a lot of clever work-arounds to explain our failure to heal the sick and deliver the demonized. Psychology provides many wonderful diagnoses for what Jesus, mistakenly, thought were evil spirits. Some of these work-arounds even make it seem like not being healed is more spiritual. God is sovereign so perhaps we should accept sickness as a gift given to us so we can learn, grow, and deepen in our walk with Him. Or perhaps we have matured in our faith so far that we do not need signs and wonders to help us believe. I like this work-around because it makes not believing God for miracles really spiritual. My unbelief is really faith! All of this is the bitter and empty food served up in Nazareth.
It is interesting that those in Nazareth actually saw Jesus had miraculous powers, but still didn’t place their faith in him for miracles. I wonder if they perhaps had seen a few false teachers and false messiahs come through town. I do know that my personal Nazareth has been created in part by those who fake the miraculous and my recognition that Satan can perform false signs and wonders. Many who ardently profess to believe in a Jesus who does miracles are content to watch the deaf, blind, and paralyzed come and go from the church services unchanged. Many, but not all, of these churches failed to show me a way out town and turned out to be a suburb of Nazareth.
And of course, I have made my own contributions to Nazareth. Those in Nazareth had spent 30 years with a Jesus who didn’t do any miracles, so it was hard for them to have faith when he started. I get this. The Nazarenes (both those here and in Israel) have all my sympathy. I too grew up with a Jesus who didn’t do miracles. I have used my disappointments like bricks to build the walls of Nazareth.
Of all this I repent. I repent of helping create an atmosphere of unbelief that limits what Jesus can do in and through his Church. I repent for creating a theology and exegesis that justifies the skepticism and barrenness of the Western Church. I ask forgiveness of the oppressed and afflicted who have remained in chains and suffering because I was comfortable with the few miracles my unbelief allowed Jesus to do in Nazareth. Forgive me.