There is no truth of Scripture so wonderful that my sinful nature cannot distort it into a caricature of itself for my sinful nature’s own purposes!
Consider how that works with the theology of the cross and its key corollary that we do not expect every sermon or other sharing of the Word to have the result of Peter’s preaching at Pentecost with thousands approaching the font. We know that the Word makes its way in the world against opposition (see last week’s gospel from Nazareth!) and rejection, and that often there may seem to be little visible evidence that God’s powerful Spirit is at work. This Sunday’s first lesson (Amos 7), as Amos is told to “go back home,” reminds us of what we can often expect!
But then along comes my sinful nature with its ability to twist and distort that biblical truth into a covering for my inborn cynic. How easily I can begin to confuse being patient to see outward fruit from the preaching of the Word with a low expectation that the Spirit is accomplishing anything at all! I can begin to preach while expecting nothing much really to change. Our sinful nature begins to reason that our preaching, teaching, and evangelizing are an exercise in futility. We still do it because it is our job, but we can begin to find little joy in it as we wrestle with the feeling that there will be little return for our labor. And sometimes the more years we’ve been doing the “pastor thing” the more we believe that the evidence confirms our cynicism.
The result is preaching and teaching and evangelizing that takes on a perfunctory, mercenary quality that shouts (more than we know) “I’m just discharging a duty! I don’t really expect this to do much!”
And worst of all, at least for our own souls, is that such creeping cynicism impacts our faith. If I don’t have confidence that the Spirit is working through the Word to do much in the hearts of others, why would I continue to treat the Word as the lifeblood of my own existence? Might my own lukewarmness toward personal devotional time – whenever that shows up – be a ready barometer of this cynicism? Are we merely discharging a duty there too rather than feeding our souls on that by which we live?
Ah…then comes Sunday’s gospel (Mark 6:7-13)! Jesus has just been rudely dismissed by the people of his own home town. Yet, he does not walk out of town to sulk under a broom tree about the stubborn vagaries of the unbelieving human heart (real as they are!). What does he do? He continues his preaching tour of Galilee, circling unbelieving Nazareth with the call to repentance and faith that he trusted could echo its way back to his hometown! (He still had not given up even on Nazareth!) And then, the chief Anti-Cynic that our Savior is, he responds to the rejection in Nazareth by multiplying his mission team! He sends out the Twelve two by two to continue to proclaim the same message that got him thrown out of his home town! (And yes, Jesus even prepares them in his pastoral theology lesson on the proper steps to wipe the dust off their feet should a Nazareth-like stubborn reaction greet them in a particular village!)
But please don’t fail to notice the additional subtle and yet powerful way he teaches his disciples to trust that the Spirit will not fail to accomplish in others what we pray for in regard to ourselves in this Sunday’s Prayer of the Day: “Almighty God, we thank you for planting in us the seed of your Word. By your Holy Spirit help us to receive it with joy and to bring forth fruits in faith, hope and love.”
How did Jesus teach such confidence in the fruits of faith, hope, and love the Spirit would produce? “Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belt. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town.” Do you see it? Jesus sends them out without the basic necessities of food and shelter to keep them protected and nourished. Why? Because while many might indeed reject the message they would bring to village after village, there would be some whom the Spirit would win to repentance and faith. The Twelve were to learn to give thanks for even the smallest evidences of the Spirit’s power at work: bread shared, earthly needs filled, a home opened to them by those who would treat them like family!
In those small but important gestures, the Twelve could discern the Spirit’s work on hearts as those hearts would share all good things with those whose work it was to share the gospel with them. And through it all, as the Twelve would join Jesus in refusing to give up on the task of preaching, they were participating in God’s amazing patient sowing that will work faith in his elect just as he had planned from eternity (as the second lesson from Ephesians 1 reminds us).
So, my brothers, thank God for Jesus’ forgiveness for our bouts with unbelieving cynicism! Rejoice that you have been clothed with the record of the Anti-Cynic himself. And know that the best cure for cynicism is to just keep preaching that gospel. Do that first to your own hearts and then to the hearts of those in whatever towns, villages, or cities Jesus has sent you to carry out his eternal saving plan.
And while the theology of the cross teaches us to live by faith and not by sight that the Spirit is at work through what is planted, don’t fail to recognize the evidence that Jesus does graciously give us that our preaching is not in vain. Look for evidence in the same place Jesus taught the Twelve to see it. See it in the reality that there are still those whose hearts are moved by his gospel to make sure daily bread is on your table. Recognize with thanksgiving that there are those who care for your earthly needs because God has used you to care for their souls. Give thanks when God’s people welcome you into their homes and lives as if you were their family (which you are, in Christ!). Yes, give thanks for that even when that up-close view of their lives reveals why they need a patient Savior. For the very fact that there are those who allow us close enough to walk through life with them is evidence that they value what it is that Jesus has sent us to share with them!
Where else, my brothers, is the Spirit giving you just such glimpses of where he is blessing the Word you are sharing? No, do not jettison your hold on the theology of the cross that tells you that outward appearances may often seem to indicate that the Word has returned empty. But your Lord Jesus who loves their souls – and yours – also knows how to provide glimpses of the Spirit’s powerful working to encourage us and help us crucify the cynic within.
That’s why the cure for cynicism is to just keep on preaching the gospel…to ourselves and others! And then, without demanding Pentecostal fireworks, keep an eye out for evidence that the Spirit has indeed been at work. You won’t grow hungry waiting!