Imagine with me for a moment, if you will. It’s Christmas Day, and you’re thirteen years old. For the last six months all you have talked about is how much you want a new bicycle for Christmas this year. You have told everyone: your parents, Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt Jane and Uncle Bob, your brothers and sisters. Everyone knows you want a bike for Christmas. They even know what kind: ten-speed racing bike, with hand brakes and all the bells and whistles. It feels like you’ve wanted this thing your whole life. And on Christmas Day, you’re the first one downstairs. You reach the Christmas tree, and waiting in the living room is the biggest gift you’ve ever seen, a bicycle-shaped package wrapped in beautiful paper and sealed with a large bow. A tag reads, “Merry Christmas! Love, Grandma and Grandpa.” You can barely contain your excitement, pacing around as everyone else finally wakes up and you can tear off the wrapping paper of this beautiful new bike. You open it up, run to your grandparents to say thank you, thank you, thank you. And then, the bicycle just sits in the living room. A week goes by. There’s no snow. Your mom says, “Aren’t you going to ride your new bike, honey?” And you’re confused. Ride the bike? Why would you ride the bike? You asked for it, Grandma and Grandpa gave it to you, you received it, you thanked them. What else is there to do? You’ve just received the nicest present you could ever ask for. If you rode it, you might seem ungrateful, like you deserve this thing, like you think you’re someone special, like it’s not really a gift. Why would your mom want you to ride a bike instead of receive it gratefully as the gift it is?
All of us have been here, right? I’m guessing I could go to each of your homes and still find that beautiful bike in pristine condition, as good as the day you got it, never once used, right? Or maybe for you it’s not a bike at all. Maybe it’s an action figure that’s still in the packaging so it won’t lose its value, or a doll in a glass display case so that it won’t break. Maybe it’s a book that was too beautiful to open, a dining set that was too fancy for everyday use, or a car you couldn’t possibly let get dirty.
Or maybe it isn’t a thing at all. Maybe it’s something intangible, like some wise advice from a mentor that you never followed or all those piano lessons you took without ever playing for someone else. And would it be too much for me to suggest that for some of us here today the gift we’ve celebrated, said thank you for, and never bothered putting to any use is the very gift of God’s grace?
That seems to be the problem holding back the parochial inhabitants of first-century Nazareth in this morning’s gospel reading. Jesus has returned, and he’s become a stumbling block to his hometown citizens. Isn’t he just the carpenter, Mary’s son? Who does he think he is, acting like he’s someone special, claiming authority from God to heal and cast out demons? He’s just Jesus, that’s all; nothing more, nothing less.
Jesus has been going from town to town, amazing people with his healings, with his calming of the storm, with his raising of Jairus’s daughter. Everyone has been amazed by Jesus. Now it’s Jesus’ turn to be amazed by the unbelief, literally by the faithlessness, of his hometown residents. In fact, he’s so amazed that Mark tell us “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Mark doesn’t say Jesus refused to do deeds of power; he says Jesus couldn’t do them. Why not?
The people of Nazareth have been offered a great gift. Jesus Christ, the embodiment of God’s grace, stands in their midst. But like all good gifts, God’s grace requires a response. They need to trust that God is acting in and through this Jesus. They need to believe that he can do the things others have said he has done. Otherwise, God’s grace will have little to no effect on them. It’s not that God’s grace is weak; it’s that God’s grace is, as one of my teachers says, responsible. No, it’s not some mature teenager you can trust with the car keys. Grace works by inviting, by insisting upon, a response from us. The gift is only any good if we put it to use.
Grace does not happen to us. It invites us to dance, to stretch our arms and legs, to take the risk of looking foolish and awkward, to go where grace leads us. The disciples are sent out by God’s grace, two by two, with no bread, no bag, no money, no extra tunic. A silly way to travel in any day; a dangerous way to journey in the ancient world. Yet even these disciples, who have seen and not yet understood, who have witnessed and not yet been able to comprehend who Jesus is and what he’s up to, even they are willing to respond to the grace they have been given. They go out, “proclaim repentance,” and, just as Jesus has done, they “cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
Too many Christians have heard that grace is God’s free gift to us and acted like the 13-year-old kid who never rides the Christmas bike. We are grateful, we are thankful, and we are happy to say so through word and song in worship of God in Jesus Christ. But we don’t think there’s very much we can or should be doing. Or worse still, we are like the residents of Nazareth, with a great opportunity to respond standing right in front of us and no willingness to be faithful to the grace we have received.
You might have read about the needs our food pantry has this week, for example, and forgotten to pick anything up on your weekly grocery trip. Or you might have heard about last Saturday’s Habitat for Humanity day and decided you didn’t want to give up a Saturday. Maybe you’ve noticed that we’ve had some families bringing small children to worship, but you’ve avoided the baptismal vows we all take and have not offered to serve in the nursery or teach Sunday School. Maybe you’ve seen the youth group taking the lead in worship services and you haven’t said thank you to them. Perhaps you heard Kelly’s announcement about our search for leaders for next year and said, “Oh, they don’t mean me.” And let’s not skip over the Bible studies and small groups and Sunday School classes that you’ve seen week after week but haven’t gotten to yet.
The beauty of God’s grace is that it opens us up to an infinite world of possible responses. But you must respond. It’s no good saying you’ve been blessed by God’s grace but don’t bother to put it to use. We are not puppets in God’s redemption of the cosmos; by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, poured out on us by the Holy Spirit, we are participants in God’s mighty acts of salvation. Grace is useless unless we use it. Not even Jesus can change that.