Intrusive Word

by David Baer, January 31, 2016

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Text: Mark 6:1-29

“Mom! Mom! Mom!” The little voices don’t let up. The harried mother’s conversation with her friend keeps getting interrupted by the need for juice, a snack, a judicial ruling on some grievous outrage inflicted by a sibling. “Mom! Mom! Mom!” Finally, she turns to her friend and says, “I’m thinking about changing my name.”

Across town, an office worker looks up from his desk to see his fiancée smiling at him from the cubicle entrance. “I made us a reservation,” she says. “Let’s go get lunch.” He starts to protest, starts to tell her about all the colleagues who are depending on him to get his work done. “They told me you need to get out of here for a while,” she says, “and I won’t take no for an answer!”

Interruptions can be wearying, or they can be liberating, but they’re never easy. An interruption asks us to drop everything and attend to something or someone who lays claim to our time and our energy. An interruption asks us to walk away from our investment in what we had been doing, to cut our losses for the sake of a new opportunity. The more you value this first investment, the more important it is to you, the less likely you are to want to let it go, and the more likely you are to resist the interruption.

Jesus’ preaching at the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown, is an interruption. Remember what Jesus’ message is—he says that God’s kingdom is near, that God’s will is about to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and that everyone needs to change their thinking and their doing. And for Jesus, it’s not just talk. He frees people from unclean spirits and heals their diseases, so that everyone can see the message coming true for themselves.

You’d think that, when Jesus comes home, the people who know him best should be the proudest of him. Here’s one of their own doing astounding things, with a compelling and hopeful message. But instead, they’re indignant. “Where did this man get all this?” they ask. “Is not this the carpenter…?” This is a knock on Jesus based on his occupation, his based on his social class. As a carpenter, Jesus was a skilled laborer, not a slave or a fieldworker, but when he came forward to teach in the synagogue, he would have been looked down on by the wealthy men of Nazareth, who had the leisure time to study and discuss the Torah instead of working for a living. Who is this upstart, they thought, to presume to teach us about God? “Is this not the son of Mary?” they ask. This is more serious. It’s a slur on Jesus’ parentage. Ordinarily you would refer to a man as the son of his father. If they’re calling him the “son of Mary,” they’re implying that they’re not quite sure who his father is. Ironically, as the readers of this story we know that Jesus is in fact the Son of God. But the meaning intended by the sneering Nazarenes is far nastier. “Don’t we know all his brothers and sisters?” they ask. They believe they already know Jesus. Because they know his family, they know everything about him, and so there’s nothing they can learn from him.

Jesus’ homecoming is an interruption. It interrupts their old relationships with Jesus and his family. It asks them to set aside their notions of position and privilege, to humble themselves in order to hear God speaking through a carpenter they saw grow up among them. But they’re too invested in who they think Jesus is and who they think they are to set it aside, and so they take offense. They don’t listen to Jesus. They resist his interruption. And so they miss out on the amazing things he’s been doing elsewhere. Jesus healing powers are muted. He can’t do very much for them. But they got what they wanted—they’re free of this interruption, and life in Nazareth can go back to the way it always was.

John the Baptist was an interruption for King Herod. The king was used to being able to do whatever he wanted. When he divorced his first wife and took his brother’s wife as his own while his brother was still alive, all his courtiers bowed and scraped and offered their congratulations. Only John the Baptist stood up for God’s law forbidding confusion and chaos in family relationships. “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife,” John said. Irritated at this interruption of the exercise of his power and prerogatives, Herod had John imprisoned. But there was something in Herod that also thrilled at the interruption, something in him that hoped there might be a power wiser and more just than his, a power that could save him from himself. Herod keeps John in prison, but he brings him out from time to time to hear him preach. But Herod makes a rash promise to his daughter, which his wife turns against John. Now the stakes are higher. Attending to John’s holy interruption means Herod will have to break his promise and appear ridiculous to his birthday guests. It’s too high a price for Herod, so he orders John’s execution. The interruption has been silenced, he thinks… Until Jesus appears on the scene! In a sign that Herod’s conscience is still fighting for his soul, Herod imagines that Jesus must be the ghost of John the Baptist come back to trouble him.

The message about the kingdom, whether it comes from Jesus or John, is an interruption. It’s an interruption for the rich and powerful who hear it correctly as a threat to their status, even as some of them hope, deep down inside, that the good news they fear is true. So what does Jesus do, rejected by the leading citizens of his hometown? What does he do, now that he’s seen what happens to people like John who interrupt the schemes of the high and mighty? He takes the message on the road. Jesus sends his disciples out to preach about God’s kingdom and the holy interruption it’s bringing. If they are rejected, Jesus says, they should shake the dust off their feet, bringing the holy interruption to an end. It’s a symbolic gesture that says, in effect, “We’ll leave now, and it will be as though we were never here.” While the uneasy citizens of the town might hear that as a blessing, it’s meant as a judgment. If they reject the interruption, the people have embraced what is—with all its hurts and brokenness—over what, through God’s power and grace, ought to be.

But the disciples do receive a hearing and a welcome on the road. It’s the poor, the sick, the demon-possessed that gratefully welcome an interruption to the hurt and hopelessness of their day-to-day lives. Yes to repentance, yes to healing, yes to an interruption that turns their same-as-it-ever-was into never-the-same-again. Because it turns out there are some people that are eager, hoping, praying for just that kind of interruption.

The word “interruption,” literally means “a break between.” An interruption breaks a conversation, a story, a life into two so that something new can be introduced. And the good news of Jesus Christ, if we understand it as it really is, is always an interruption. To be forgiven our sins means that the guilt and the hurt of our past doesn’t get to define our future. To forgive, to be reconciled to someone who wronged us brings an interruption to hostility and alienation. To know the depth your own brokenness and your need for grace interrupts any ideas you might have about being superior to others, and it breaks you open to the possibility of loving strangers and enemies as God loves—freely and unconditionally.

When I was a college student I lived in our campus ministry’s house with four other people. One of my housemates was very different from me. He came from a different kind of family, a different kind of neighborhood. He was a contrarian who bucked the household consensus—at times, it seemed to me, just for the fun of it. Sometimes he had difficulty controlling his temper and his language. So unconsciously I made a decision that I was not going to be unkind to him, but to hold him at arm’s length. After a month or so, he invited me to have lunch with him, and he confronted me. It was hard to hear, and I was mortified. But I absolutely needed to hear what he said. There can be no authentically Christian community where members are simply polite, never getting to the hard work of loving each other. I know this was a holy interruption, one that broke me open to a new friendship, and that helped me to grow as a person and a Christian. (And years later I heard my housemate talk about how his time with us broke him open and changed him as well.)

God is constantly interrupting the story we want to tell about ourselves. You can hear the interruption as impertinence, like the people of Nazareth: “Who are you to tell me what to do?” You can hear it as a threat, like King Herod. You can hear it as the opening of the prison cell door, like the sick and hurting people of Galilee. You can hear it with embarrassment and guilt, as I did. Somewhere in your life, God wants to break things in two to make room for God’s intrusive, disruptive, liberating and lifegiving kingdom. What I’m asking you to do is to be on the lookout for that discomfort, that sense that Someone is interrupting. Take that discomfort and pray about it. Talk about it with people who care about you. Try to discern whether this is a holy interruption that you need to hear and accept.

There is a psalm attributed to King David, another ruler God cared about enough to interrupt when he did wrong. In that psalm, we’re told that God is more pleased when we allow ourselves to be broken open and put back together again than by all the pious worship we might offer God: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (51:17). If God intrudes with a word that challenges us, it’s born of God’s joy, God’s delight in us, God’s deep and abiding love and a desire for us to have not just an ordinary, same-as-it-ever-was life, but abundant life, now and forever. Thanks be to God for intrusions, for the interruption of the cross, the empty tomb, the resurrection. Thanks be to God! Amen.