Sunday, August 16, 2015

Through the Roof: A Sermon on Mark 2:1-12

Last week, we journeyed with Jesus on a preaching tour of Galilee, where he touched a leper to restore him to health in body and soul, because Christ's contagious holiness wins out. Now, returning to Capernaum, we find Jesus staying in a house – whether he owns his own house there, or maybe it's Simon's family's house, we don't know – and people find out he's there (Mark 2:1). Remember, Jesus couldn't even walk into town openly any more; he had to sneak in (Mark 1:45). I don't know what the capacity of a typical house in Capernaum was, but as soon as people heard Jesus was there, they crammed in like a tin of sardines. Violation of the fire code, is what it was. But everyone wanted to hear Jesus (Mark 2:2)! We find out in this story that even the scribes were there, and they had seats (Mark 2:6). That wonders me: Did people just clear a way for them out of respect, or did the scribes get there early? Were they there to judge, or were they there because they too were intrigued to hear Jesus? Whatever the case, the place was packed all the way out the door, and everyone was listening to Jesus “speaking the word to them” (Mark 2:3), explaining the message of the kingdom in greater depth, maybe for hours. What I wouldn't give for a video of that!

Enter a new cast of characters, stage left. We meet a paralyzed man – can't walk, can't move, can't do anything for himself. Where was he last chapter when the whole village gathered around so that Jesus could heal all the sick (Mark 1:33-34)? Mark doesn't tell us that, and Mark also doesn't tell us who it was who brought him this time. The paralyzed man has a house, and it's hard to believe he lives by himself, so maybe it's his parents, siblings, or close friends who are caring for him. But whoever they are, they run into a big problem – a problem the size of the crowd. The crowd of gawkers, half-hearted hearers of the word (but, alas, not doers of it), are an obstacle to reaching Jesus.

Sadly, that's often the case today. For many people, the crowds of churchgoers all thronging into the house present an obstacle for people seeking the healing that only Jesus can give. Surveys of people's dissatisfaction with Christianity seldom find it rooted in a reaction to the Jesus they meet in the Gospels. It usually has more to do with the actions and attitudes, real or perceived, of Christians, or at least people who claim the name. In too many cases, our multitude is “thronging round to keep them back from Jesus,” not to let them through. The good news of Jesus is a stone of stumbling enough without all the oil slicks of our hypocrisy, the icy frost of our judgment, the ball bearings of our nitpicking and fear-mongering, and the banana peels of our self-righteousness. Jesus doesn't need us to crowd the way to him; he asks us to point, love, lead, and get out of the way. “Oh! help them on to Jesus!” let that be our cry forever.

Yet still the crowd is so often there, obscuring sight of Jesus, making it hard for people to hear his voice through all our mindless chatter and senseless bickering. For many seekers, the crowd is the end of the search. Faced with the impenetrability of the crowd, who show no signs of making way to bring the needy in contact with the One they need, most seekers would dejectedly – or maybe scornfully and pridefully – turn around and walk away. “If I can't get through, it must not be worth my time,” they think. “No need to be a sheep and join the crowd,” they say. And think of all the rude and ill-tempered hypocrites in the crowd! Most seekers would turn away. But not the men carrying the mat. They didn't come to find a crowd. They came to find Jesus, and they intend to reach Jesus, crowd or no crowd. If we're a hindrance, they'll go around us. If the doorway's blocked, they'll make their own way. They'll persevere. They'll dig through the roof (Mark 2:4).

What does the crowd see when they do? Probably falling chunks of dirt, maybe straw. Maybe they dive out of the way. What do the scribes see? Probably a nuisance. What does Jesus see? He sees their faith (Mark 2:5). Not just the paralyzed man's faith – Jesus sees the faith of the whole group who brought him, the ones who lugged him up a flight of steps and ripped a roof apart because they're convinced that Jesus is capable and willing of helping someone they love. His disability isn't a crisis, not a sudden medical emergency; but unless Jesus intervenes, the status quo is here to stay. It takes more than just that one man's faith. It takes the faith of a family, the faith of a social circle. They carry their helpless friend to Jesus, because they believe, they really and truly believe. And that's a rarity in the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus has been insisting that people believe in the good news, that they put all their eggs in one basket, the basket of God's kingdom breaking through here and now. Up until this point, how many people in the story have specifically been identified as believers? In so many words, none. Some, like the first disciples and like the imploring leper, are painted with faith-like colors (though even the disciples are frequently slammed for their cringeworthy lack of faith), but not a single person is called a believer until these four or five come on the scene. If we want to start seeing what faith looks like to Jesus as Mark knows him, cast your eyes on this: when the way is crowded, when the door isn't open, when Jesus seems out of reach, faith goes through the roof!

That's what Jesus sees in them: a through-the-roof faith. They have faith that, if they send their friend down through the roof, Jesus can heal him, Jesus can fix things, Jesus can make things right. They have faith enough to put Jesus on the spot. And so we expect Jesus to say, “Go in peace; your faith has made you well” (cf. Mark 5:34). But that isn't what Jesus does. He says, “Child, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Note what Jesus doesn't say. He doesn't say, “Child, understand, you were always perfect the way I made you.” He doesn't say, “Child, just love yourself the way you are.” He doesn't say, “Child, you can't help you were born this way, oriented to 'the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life' (1 John 2:16), so it's all good.” In telling the man he's forgiving his sins, he's saying that this paralyzed man has sins that need forgiven.

To this man, that's surely not news. To the average man on the street today, that might be a news off the station's blooper reel. As a culture, we've become beholden to a therapeutic worldview in all things – at our worst, we're still convinced we don't sin, we're just products of a broken system – or better, we're “differently habituated,” we're “ethically diverse.” So we don't need forgiveness or repentance, the culture says, just self-acceptance. The only sin, a modern might say, is to speak seriously of sin. Jesus will have none of this nonsense: he speaks unapologetically of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and all the rest. Aimed at a scribe, those words might be news also – not because the scribe doesn't believe in sin, but because the scribe believes in everyone else's sins but his own. Sadly, too many Christians' outlook could be summed up in that same phrase: we believe in everyone's sins but our own. May we instead say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Jesus reinforces the truth that the man has sinned, but not to condemn him. Jesus tells the bad news only to delight in the good news. Jesus announces, “Child, your sins are forgiven” – not just some sins, not just recent sins or easy sins, not just his personal Top Ten list of sins, but all the sins that this man's ever managed to commit in word, in thought, in deed. They're forgiven, erased, blotted out, dealt with and dismantled and discarded. Not a one of them is relevant to the position this man suddenly now occupies in the sight of God. Not a one of them has any rightful grasp on him any longer. His body may, at this moment, still be stiff as a board, but his soul is spotless and new, unchained by the mercy in Jesus' eyes. Don't fear a crippled body; fear a crippled soul (cf. Matthew 10:28).

This can be a hard lesson to learn. I talked last week about my college roommate for whom the life of faith was all about looking for miracles. But there's a miracle greater than restoring sight to the blind or making a paralyzed man run. And that higher miracle is the mighty act of God that breathes new creation into a human soul, transmuting sin into sanctity, inability into innocence, and death into discipleship. It's the miracle of being born again. It's the miracle of forgiveness, complete and heart-deep forgiveness, the forgiveness that Jesus gives to the paralyzed man and that he offers to you and to me as a continual well of blessing, to make us “holy and blameless and irreproachable” (Colossians 1:22) and “fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Oh, “blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1)!

It's a gift that only comes from God – and that fact doesn't go lost on the hecklers in the audience. The scribes have been sitting there the whole time, watching this all unfold. They may well have been in the synagogue where Jesus showed up their pedantic preaching: “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). They may have been in the synagogue to witness the crowds trumpeting Jesus' authority to chase demons away (Mark 1:27). Now, as Jesus keeps spreading his message, they've seen him announce that he can give God's special gifts (Mark 2:6). If they'd ever hoped to reserve judgment about Jesus and the authority he claims, he leaves them and us no third way out, he confronts us and demands a decision. “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15), choose how to respond to this Jesus.

As for the scribes, they're being almost reasonable. They know that this kind of forgiveness has to be a gift from God alone. Every sin is a sin principally against God. Every lie is a denial of God's truth, every impure thought or act a denial of God's holiness, every uncharitable deed a denial of God's love, every attack on a neighbor or enemy an offense against God's image. And only God can forgive that core element of sin that is a transgression against God's kingship and God's character.  Sin, at its core, is always sin against God.  Yet here comes this man, presuming to forgive someone of all his sins against God, putting himself forward in God's role, to stand on earth in God's shoes! If it's not true, then he's slandering God and cheapening his glory by watering down God's uniqueness – and the word for that great offense is blasphemy, a capital crime (Mark 2:7).

The scribal logic has only one itsy-bitsy flaw. In practice, they skip over that crucial word: 'if.' If it's not true, then the charge of blasphemy follows. Now, for the scribes, there's no need for investigation; they just assume from the outset that Jesus is laying claim to what surely can't be his. They haven't even spoken their concerns, they're just grumbling in their inner monologue, but Jesus is determined to show himself as the Lord to whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from [whom] no secrets are hid” (Collect for Purity).  “Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely” (Psalm 139:4). Jesus pushes back against the scribes' secret faulty logic with a better argument of his own: Only God has authority to forgive, but only God has power to heal. It's easy to just say the words, “You're forgiven,” because there's no immediate visible change. So you could run around claiming to forgive sins all you want. But once you say, “Arise, take up your mat, and walk,” it's pretty obvious if your words are doing anything more than wasting breath (Mark 2:8-9).

So Jesus resolves to let them test whether “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). It all comes back to authority – the crowds have been amazed at the authority Jesus already showed, but does his authority cover even this? Here's the first time in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. In a world of wild animals, in a world where Herod's a fox (Luke 13:32) and Rome's a dragon-powered beast (Revelation 13:1-10) and the Pharisees are snakes, a brood of vipers (Matthew 23:33), Jesus stands tall as the Last Adam, the fresh start of a new way to be human. To the scribes, Jesus' humanity was the whole problem: he's human, so he can't do what God can do. But Jesus goes the other way around: Jesus is precisely the New Human who only God can be, and he came to sanctify many brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11). He's the Son of Man who, when the beasts fall away, stands alone to hold “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:13-14). When Jesus calls himself “Son of Man,” you know the kingdom's near, and all that kingdom's authority – yes, authority to forgive, and yes, authority to heal – is in his hands.

So Jesus turns back to the paralytic, who could almost have dropped out of the story once the scribes pushed their way to the forefront. Jesus gives him the harder words: “I say to you, stand up, take up your mat, and go to your house” (Mark 2:11). Last week, the leper played fast and loose with Jesus' instructions (Mark 1:43-45), but this paralytic is a stickler for what Jesus tells him. Jesus says stand, he stands. Jesus says pick up the mat, he picks up the mat without hesitation. Jesus says go home, he leaves immediately, walking on legs restored by the Son of Man's grace. Jesus didn't ask him to climb a mountain or swim across the sea or soar through the sky. All Jesus asked him was to get up, pick up his mat, and walk home – yet not one of those things, all things we take for granted, was within this particular man's reach apart from the grace of God. Jesus didn't ask him to do the incredible, the headline-grabbing, the sensational. Jesus asked him to do what was personally impossible for him to do without the gift that Jesus was giving him. And because he believed, so he obeyed, and so he did.

I have to think that, as soon as the crowd let him and his mat out the door, the man's friends raced down the stairs and walked with him. Did they gibber excitedly to each other? Did they walk in stunned silence, knowing no words could ever do justice to what they'd just seen? But as for those left behind, the crowd was wowed, and they put the lie to the scribes' accusation: far from blaspheming God, Jesus gave cause to honor God's glory (Mark 2:12). But a one-time praise, just like a once-and-done prayer, is no substitute for a lifetime of faith. Are we like the paralyzed man and his friends? Or are we more like the crowds, surfing from one flashy wave to the next, praising God in Jesus sporadically without a continuous disposition of faith?

Here's the crux of the story: Without Jesus, we have no more power in us than the paralyzed man had in him. We're helpless without his grace. Paul talks dramatically about us being “dead in trespasses” in our former state (Colossians 2:13). “Apart from me you can do nothing,” said Jesus himself (John 15:5). Left outside the house, nothing's going to change. Spiritual paralysis isn't something we can shake off if we just stretch our moral muscles. Nor can we immerse ourselves in the virtual reality of so many distractions, dreaming we're spiritually in motion while we're atrophied and immobile. To be loosed from spiritual paralysis, to find the higher healing of forgiveness, we have to meet Jesus.

And spiritual paralysis can't be dealt with alone. The paralyzed man needed more than just his faith; he needed to be presented to Jesus by a faithful community, even a community as small as his household or his friends from cottage meeting. It didn't have to be a thunderous parade. The whole town didn't need to carry him. But he did not and could not go it alone. We were never meant to live the life of faith in isolation, playing make-believe that the world's a deserted island. The life of faith is a life of continually carrying the helpless to Jesus, a life of presenting each other to him and believing that Jesus will do great things, believing that he'll show us what the kingdom's wholeness looks like.

That kind of faith doesn't meekly crawl through the door. That kind of faith doesn't stand in line, doesn't wait its turn in the queue with a stiff upper lip. That kind of faith doesn't sit down on a scribe's chair and judge the word of God when it's being preached. When the way is blocked, when God seems distant, when hope is fading, faith goes through the roof! Faith breaks apart everything in its path that stands between us and Jesus. Faith doesn't wait outside; faith is desperate to enter Christ's house, desperate to join the church, desperate to discover Jesus there, speaking his word. Faith is adamant, insistent, on reaching Jesus. Faith doesn't care which of the neighbors is watching; faith doesn't care if the scribes scowl. Faith is eager to “just to take him at his word,” and faith expects Jesus to do more than talk the talk. Faith is ready to see Jesus unleash life!

Faith doesn't deny the dilemma. Faith doesn't back down from the stark decision: either Jesus has the authority of God on earth, or Jesus is a blasphemer. Either Jesus is the promised Son of Man or he isn't worth of a moment of your time. Disciples' faith and scribes' doubt is on the same page here: the one reaction to Jesus that he refuses to leave on the table is what the crowds mostly do: chant and cheer and gape and gawk, and think of Jesus as a nice curiosity, one more hobby, one added option for our relentless thirst for consumer choice. Jesus has no intention of being anyone's hobby. The Son of Man isn't a market niche. Jesus isn't looking for an entourage of faithless fans. Jesus didn't come to get fifteen minutes of fame; he came to reveal the kingdom come!

The scribes understand what the crowds don't. But they take the faithless option. To them, Jesus is showing himself as just another pretender, presuming to disgrace God by making much of himself. To them, Jesus is perverting the religion of Israel. That is the one and only alternative to the unthinkable notion that the kingdom has come precisely to those who were least ready for it. And that's what the scribes most fear. But people carrying a man on a mat also understand what the crowds don't. They stare down the same dilemma. But what the scribes dismiss as unthinkable, faith believes. Faith believes that the Son of Man is no blasphemer. Faith stakes everything on the Son of Man having God's authority on earth and in heaven. Faith believes that Jesus isn't worth just a moment of our time, but every moment of all time. Faith receives forgiveness as a free gift, not because we're ready to be forgiven, but because God is ready and eager and yearning to forgive. Faith humbly trusts Jesus for “full salvation, great and free.” Faith believes the kingdom comes exactly the way that Jesus says it does. Faith dares to stand tall when Jesus tells us to get up off our keisters and go make disciples. And when Jesus answers our faith, a through-the-roof faith answers him – obediently and joyfully. “O for grace to trust him more!” O God, give us faith that's through the roof!

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