Sunday, February 19, 2006

7 Epiphany
Isaiah 43:18-25
Psalm 41
2 Corinthians 1:18-22
Mark 2:1-12

But that ye may know that the Son of man hath authority on earth to forgive sins (he saith to the sick of the palsy), I say unto thee, Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thy house.

When my dad was sick last fall, I spent a great deal of time traveling back and forth to Houston to visit him and take care of his needs. It was such a long drive that no matter how I planned my day I had to rely on others to get my kids to or from school. I usually made sure they got off in the morning and then began my trip. This meant that there was no way I could give my dad as much as he needed and still be home in time to deal with the kids. If they needed to be driven somewhere, I had to rely on my friends and neighbors. I hated to ask. On an occasion or two I went out of my way to avoid calling on someone, cutting my day short or making dangerous decisions to ensure that I would be home in time.

It is not that my friends were not willing; as a matter of fact they were happy to be able to help. I never had the impression from them that my requests were beyond what they could bear. No, my problem was myself.

In the passage from Isaiah we hear God speaking to His people, "Yet thou hast not called upon me, O Jacob; but thou hast been weary of me, O Israel." They were in exile, sent from Jerusalem because of their sin. Their sin was forgetting God; they turned to other nations for aid and worshipped their gods. God allowed Israel's enemies to have the victory for a moment so that they might see the error of their ways. In their repentance, God would be glorified in the lives of His people and the world would see that He is indeed God. He had a plan, even when the enemy was knocking on Israel's door. He already knew how He would restore His people. They would mourn for a moment, but God was never far away.

In all their days, Israel never forgot the good things God did for their forefathers. Even today they remember the exodus out of Egypt, the words of Moses and the gift of the Promised Land. In their mourning they looked back to what God had already done. They wallowed in the past, having no vision of what God was doing at that moment or what He had promised for the future. God said, "Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing; now shall it spring forth; shall ye know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert."

Last week our Gospel lesson ended with Jesus headed into the wilderness because the leper spoke about all the healing from Jesus. Jesus was forced to stay outside in lonely places or else He would be constantly surrounded and hounded by the people seeking physical healing without seeing Jesus as He really is the One who could give them wholeness and peace. They did not leave Him alone, however. They came to the wilderness to find Him. Thought Isaiah's words were spoken to a specific time and place, we know that the promises of God are also a foreshadowing of a future fulfillment. Perhaps Jesus was making a way in the wilderness, providing a river of life in the desert?

He was certainly a new thing that God was doing. It was so new that religious leaders of His day did not even know Him. They didn't ignore Jesus. As a matter of fact, they were right there in the front row when Jesus was teaching in today's Gospel lesson. He was probably back at Peter's house and everyone heard he came back. They were cramming into the house, packing the doorway and even waiting outside. He was there to speak and they were there to listen.

Outside there was a man on a mat, unable to walk but carried lovingly by four of his friends. They tried to get to Jesus, but there were too many people. No one was willing to move out of their way. There may have been no where to move even if they were willing. It is unlikely that they would want to move for a paralyzed man, after all he was a sinner. If he weren't a sinner, why would he be paralyzed?

His friends weren't convinced. They had faith in something. I wonder how many times they carried their friend down to the water, in the hopes that he would find healing. I wonder how long they've been taking care of him, bringing him food and water, caring for his other needs. Most people would have given up, believing that the friend had no future so why bother? Instead, these four friends had hope and together they sought the One they believed could fulfill their hope. So, the four friends took the paralyzed man to the top of the house. They dug a hole in the roof so that they could lower him down near Jesus.

Imagine this. The house was probably made of some sort of clay, mixed with sticks or straw for strength and stability. It probably was not difficult to dig into the roof, but no matter how carefully they worked, something would rain down on the room full of people listening to Jesus. Hunks of plaster, bits of twigs and straw and perhaps even remnants of animal life would have fallen on their heads. The scribes would have been annoyed enough at this disruption, but the filth would have made them even more disturbed. Then they would have gotten angry to discover this was about a paralyzed man.

On seeing their faith, Jesus said to the man, "Son, thy sins are forgiven." What does this mean? Whose faith did He see? Was it the man and his friends, or was it just the faith of his friends? No matter whose faith Jesus saw, this was an act of community. Their faith was evident to Jesus and He acted upon it. What was that faith? Did they believe Jesus would heal? Did they think Jesus could offer him a word of comfort, of hope, of peace? Was their faith in Jesus' healing power, or was it in the power and authority by which Jesus spoke?

Jesus did not heal the man. He forgave the man. This was the most shocking thing that Jesus had done so far. There were other messiah types that healed. Other prophets spoke of God's Kingdom. None had the authority to grant forgiveness. Only God could grant forgiveness of sins, and only the priests could proclaim that forgiveness. Who was Jesus to say such a thing? Forgiveness would mean restoration. It would mean acceptance in the community. It would mean life, even if the man could not walk.

The scribes mumbled to themselves that Jesus was a blasphemer. He had no authority according to their rules to offer forgiveness. It is interesting to note that Jesus did not really say that He forgave the man's sins. As a matter of fact, He said "Your sins are forgiven." He was speaking for God, yet the scribes took His words as blaspheme, which meant they were identifying Him as claiming to be divine. Jesus confronted them. "Which is easier, to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins are forgiven; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk?" So, as proof to His authority, He told the man to get up and carry his mat. The man got up, picked up the mat and went out.

The people had never seen anything like it. Yet just two weeks ago we saw that Jesus had healed many in the town of Capernaum. What was it about this healing that was so amazing? This healing established without a doubt Jesus' authority. He was the Son of man with the authority to forgive sins. He was the Son of God, not just speaking as a prophet, but acting with God's power. By faith the man was given a great gift knowledge that the past is past. The words of Isaiah had greater meaning for him. "Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old." If the man was paralyzed as a consequence for some sin, that was over. He had a new life. He was to go out and begin again. Jesus made a path in the wilderness a place of loneliness so that he could live once again in community.

We don't know if the man asked to be taken to Jesus. We don't know whether he believed that he would be restored and healed. We don't even know if he wanted it. Healing meant going out into the world, getting a job, taking care of his own needs. Is that what he really wanted? He didn't reject it. He responded to Jesus' words. He took up his mat and went out to whatever new thing God was doing in his life.

Jesus did not heal the man because the man asked to be healed. In the words of Isaiah, Jesus healed him "I, even I, am he that blotteth out they transgressions for mine own sake; and I will not remember thy sins." Jesus healed the man as a revelation of Jesus' authority, to glorify God. The man's sins were no more, they are forgiven past, present and future. This is true, given by grace, revealed in faith.

I wonder, is there one particular character in this story with whom you identify? Are you like the man, paralyzed by something in your life, needing to be taken to Jesus so that He can give you forgiveness and healing? Are you like the four men, carrying their friend in faith to the One who can fulfill their hope? Are you like the people trying to cram into Peter's house, feeling lost in the crowd, not really being able to see or hear? Are you like Peter, or Peter's mother-in-law, who now have a hole in their roof that they have to fix once the people leave them alone? Perhaps in some ways you identify with Jesus, being dumped on from above and yet knowing the healing power of a word of forgiveness.

Or, are you like the scribes? They sat at the front of the crowds, doubting all along the power and authority of Jesus. They were in the way those who needed to hear God's grace could not get to Jesus. They accused Jesus and rejected Him. From now on the religious leaders would harass Jesus, questioning Him, trying to trap Him in some way. He stood before them willing to do a new thing, to change their lives and to transform them. They were unwilling to be transformed.

Do we ever stand in the way of God's healing power over the lives of those in our own congregations? Do we put up roadblocks to keep them from seeing and hearing Jesus? In what ways are we rejecting Jesus by questioning the work that He does for others?

Paul writes, "But as God is faithful, our word toward you is not yea or nay." God's grace is available for all. He does not pick and choose to whom He will grant forgiveness based on our judgment or our laws. The promise of God is for all who have received His grace through the hearing of His Word. God is faithful even when we aren't. Our sins are forgiven past, present and future. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit as a promise of that which is to come.

For we have not reached heaven yet. We will still fail and the world will fail around us. We will still get sick. We will still have to depend on others when times are tough and we will still have to carry other's burdens. We won't always hear clearly, pushed out by the crowds. And sometimes, all too often, we'll stand in people's way, making it impossible for them to reach Jesus and receive His grace.

At our baptisms, Jesus washed us and sealed us with the Holy Spirit. Then He spoke to us as He spoke to the paralyzed man. "Arise, pick up your mat and go." We aren't forgiven and healed to stay on our mats. We are forgiven and healed so that we might go out into the world taking the Good news of Christ to others. The psalmist writes, "Blessed is he that considereth the poor." He calls upon God for mercy, unlike the Israelites in Isaiah. By calling out to God, God's grace is revealed and lives are changed. It is not just a change in one life, a transformation of an individual. Rather, it is a transformation of a community as God's grace is passed from one life to another. Thanks be to God.

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