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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

February 4, 2018

 Letting the Lord Give Life

Isaiah 43:18-25; Mark 2:1-12

            This morning’s text is a classic Marcan account.  It is action-packed; it is fast-moving; it is bold, and it is surprising in some ways, and brimming with detail.  This account takes place in Capernaum, right where we found ourselves last Sunday, in the synagogue.  This is the only place in the four Gospels where we are ever told that Jesus was “at home,” probably the home of Peter, a stone’s throw from that synagogue. 

            Let us begin, though, by focusing first upon these four friends of this paralyzed man.  And let’s all confess: Where would any of us be without the help of others?  Without the presence of friends, of people who love us when we are worthy of that love, and even more importantly, love us when we are not, people who help us because we cannot help ourselves, where would we be?  These friends, in seeing how packed with people the house in fact was, were inventive.  They climb up on the roof and somehow manage to lift the mat with the friend on it.  Obviously with rope in hand, they remove the roof – actually the New Testament says, “they unroof the roof” – and they let the paralyzed man down on his pallet right in the midst of the crowd.

            Fascinatingly, we are told “when Jesus saw their faith” – meaning the four friends’ faith – Jesus says something that on the surface might be surprising, or inept, or inappropriate to the moment.  Jesus says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  I say “inappropriate” because today, if the man were there, he might say, “Thank you, Jesus, but perhaps you have not noticed that I have other problems that might just be more pressing.”  He might think Jesus should address his paralysis, not his sins.  But think about it: Are there any words that any of us need more to hear than these: “Son, daughter, your sins are forgiven.”

            Ask Megan Barry or Robert Forrest how important, how crucial to life these words are.  Or, more fittingly, be honest with yourself, and admit that all of us need to hear these words!  All of us are in need of these gracious words of Jesus, all the time, because all of us find ourselves caught up in the web of sin, literally trapped in our own too-small lives.  It is not just the bad things that we do, or for that matter, the good things that we omit or fail to do.  According to Saint Augustine, “sin is the chronic inward curve of the self.”  He used a Latin term for it, the word “incurvatus,” to suggest that all of us are chronically turned in upon ourselves in ways that do not give life, in ways that paralyze all of us in one way or another.

            I will never forget it – number of years ago, going to the new East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.  To that classically designed building they added a very dramatic modern wing, and in it was a sculpture that you could literally enter.  You walk inside a room, and the room with a seat on it is made up of hundreds and hundreds of little square mirrors.  As you sit in it you see an infinite number of reflections of yourself coming back at you.  The artist calls the work, “Mirrored Cell,” and a lot of us live in our own prisons, trapped in our own lives.  I think that is why Jesus offered this first word to the paralyzed man.  He expected Jesus to say something about his paralysis, but Jesus instead here is saying something far more profound, not just to that man, but to everybody who was in the house where Jesus was “at home,” and to all of us, who, two thousand years later, hear the words of Jesus as the very Word of God.  Perhaps Jesus knew that if all that He did was deal with this man’s paralysis, the man would be happy for a while, he would have gotten what he wanted from Jesus; but the man would still be trapped, paralyzed, caught in his own sinfulness.  So Jesus starts with first things first, the forgiveness of our sins, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only word that finally sets us free.

            Of course this word, like so many words Jesus spoke, was scandalous to the scribes, who were the Jewish religious authorities from the local community.  I love their question: “Who can forgive sins, but God alone?”  I like to think that Jesus just let that question – whispered by different scribes to each other scandalously – simply hang in the air:  “Who can forgive sins, but God alone?”

            Jesus asks a question at that point that probably none of us here can really answer, but it is an incredible question.  Jesus says, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic?  ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up, and take up your mat and walk’?  But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you, ‘Stand up, take up your mat and walk.”  The amazing part of this account is that the man does exactly what Jesus suggests!  I say “amazing” because I am not sure that all of us here would want to do what the paralytic did, which was to leave his old life behind, and with courage, to step out into the future.

            Remember what C.S. Lewis said so long ago?  Many of us “prefer a familiar captivity to an unfamiliar freedom.”  I can imagine many of us saying, “Jesus, thank you, but I don’t know that I want this much freedom, and this much newness, suddenly offered to me.”  Jesus is always doing this in the Gospel.  He is calling us from something less than fullness of life to the life He has created, and called us to claim as our own, a gift from God.

            In this story, the man is “carried” in by his friends, but he “carries” out his own mat.  He moves from a passive victim in life, to somebody who is willing to walk in newness of life.  This is always the call of Jesus.  It is the call from something less than life, to fullness of life.  Which is why Irenaeus, the early Church Father, could say, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  That is the call of Jesus, always.  The call to abundant life is what is behind the word, “Son, daughter, your sins are forgiven.”

            Friday afternoon, Connie and I went to the installation of the new Bishop of Nashville, Marc Spalding.  I had been invited eleven years earlier to Bishop Choby’s installation, because of this congregation, and its standing historically in the community, so we accepted the invitation to come again.  It was held this time at Sagrado Corazon, which used to be known as Two Rivers Baptist Church, that you will recall got into financial trouble, and had to sell their building to the diocese of Nashville.  It is called Sagrado Corazon (Sacred Heart) because Nashville’s burgeoning Hispanic population, that does so much work in our community, calls that place their spiritual home, their place of worship.  The church was packed to overflowing, and for this Presbyterian, I must confess, there was a whole lot about it that was not my taste in Christian worship or liturgy.  The diversity of the Church is one of its real joys

            My favorite moment by far was when the Archbishop, a man named Joseph Kurtz from Louisville, offered a personal word in the homily to a young man he obviously has believed in for many years, the new Bishop of Nashville, J. Marc Spalding.  It was for the Roman Catholic Church the festival of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple (You can read about it in Luke 2.), when Mary and Joseph go to the Temple as faithful Jews to present their son, Jesus, in Jerusalem.  We are told about that older couple, Simeon and Anna, who have every day devotedly been praying in the Temple for “the consolation of Israel.”  When Simeon sees Jesus, he says, “Let now thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”  The Archbishop said at that point that he imagined Simeon picking up the baby Jesus in their midst in the Temple, as he uttered these words.  He said to Bishop Spalding, “That is your principle duty, to lift up Jesus in the midst of the people, and to proclaim the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

            “Son, daughter, your sins are forgiven.”  This is the good news of the Gospel, and it is the miracle of that Gospel that God can and wills and wants to forgive your sin, so that you too can pick up your pallet and walk in newness of life.

                                                                                    Amen.

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