Sunday, February 19, 2012

Up on the Roof

Who Can Forgive?

Gospel Reading: Mark 2: 1-12

Authority questions are often thorny ones. That’s true in government. Does the President have the authority to commit the nation to war or must the Congress act? People have thought about that since the Korean War, for though we have used military force many times, we have not had a declared war since World War II.

We confront such questions in business. It’s hard to make a policy that covers every conceivable decision that may have to be made. What level of management must make the decision about an expenditure that does not neatly fit in any category? That’s why we have the saying, “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”

The military services have to wrestle with such questions. What decisions can a commander in the field make and what questions must be referred up the chain of command, perhaps all the way to the Commander in Chief. Five Star General MacArthur was sacked by President Truman over issues of authority.

Such questions confront us in the church, as well. Presbyterians make a big distinction between the authority an elder has as an individual and the authority he has only acting in concert with all the elders. For instance, an individual elder can offer you counsel and encouragement, but only the Session can decide whether you can become a member, of whether you are eligible to commune at the Lord’s Table. Still there are murky areas. From time to time the Women in the Church hand me a book and say, “Is it OK to use this in a Bible study?” I have to ask myself the question, “Can I just say yes or no, or should this go to the entire session?”

The most important question of authority ever was raised by the scribes when they asked, “Who can forgive sins except God alone?”

I. Supplication

Jesus came to the town of Capernaum, the hometown of the brothers Peter and Andrew. Capernaum had become his “home base” when He was in Galilee. Apparently, when He was in Capernaum, He stayed at the home shared by Peter and Andrew. He had not been there for many days before word spread that He was back in town where He had caused such a stir by His earlier ministry. People came to the house to see Him and before long there was an overflow crowd spilling out the door into the street. Jesus took advantage of the opportunity and preached the word to them. His theme is summarized back in chapter one, verse fourteen: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.”

The large crowd in and about the house, however, posed a problem for four men who had a paralyzed friend they want to get to Jesus.  Whether this man’s paralysis was because of a birth defect, or injury, or one or the paralyzing diseases we are not told. What we know is that he was unable to walk and had to be carried about stretcher.

When his friends arrived at the house, they saw that there was no way they could get him through the door to where Jesus was. So they came up with a creative plan B. They went up the outdoor stairway to the flat roof. Roofs in those days served something of the purpose of our patios today. People often sat on their roofs. The roofs usually consisted of timbers that bore the load. Thatch was then put on the timbers, and then mud was put over the thatch to provide a flat and hard surface. When these men got up on the roof, they made an opening in it over the place where Jesus was sitting. They attached ropes to the man’s bed and lowered him through the roof to Jesus. Mark draws the picture vividly and perhaps with a little implied humor. What did people think when they heard somebody making a hole in the roof? Did Jesus continue to teach while they did their work? And, of course, there is the picture in our minds of the man on his bed coming down through the roof. All this was their supplication to Jesus to heal their friend.

These men wanted to get their friend to Jesus, and they had faith that Jesus could do something for their friend. It takes faith to overcome obstacles as they did. Do you believe that Jesus can save you and anyone else He wills to save? 

If you believe that you will not become discouraged by setbacks, but you will press on. It takes faith that Jesus can save you to keep pursuing Jesus until you know He has saved you. It takes faith in the covenant promises to raise your children in faith. It takes faith in the effectiveness of the means of grace to rely upon them in the ministries of the church. It takes faith that this is where people meet Jesus to invite them to come to church to hear God’s Word. It takes faith in the saving power of Jesus to go to other nations and cultures with the very same gospel you believe.

II. Declaration

Jesus’ response to their supplication for the healing of their friend is a declaration that catches us off guard. The men had brought their friend to Jesus because they believed He could heal him. They and the man himself had faith in Jesus. But, when Jesus saw their faith, instead of saying, “You are healed; get up and walk,” He said, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”

We may ask, “Why, when the man wants and obviously needs healing does Jesus declare his sins forgiven?”

First, we need to consider the relationship between sin and illness. Some would object to the idea that there might be any connection at all. However, the Bible will not let us think that. Sometimes there is a direct relationship between a particular illness and particular sin. In the book of Acts we read of King Herod, who one day dressed in his royal finery and stood up and give an oration to a group of people who wanted peace with him because their country depended on his for food. When Herod spoke the people shouted, “The voice of a god, and not a man.” Then the Scripture records: “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory…” (Acts 12: 20-23). Paul told the Corinthians that this could hold true even for Christians. The reason some of them were sick, some of them weak, and some of them had died was that they had failed to repent of their sins at the Lord’s Table.

Yet the Bible will not allow us to think simplistically as some of the Jews, and even Jesus’ own disciples, did that when their was an illness it could always be traced back to some sin. When Job suffered many things, including physical affliction, his friends thought that there must be some secret sin or sins in his life and urged him to come clean and confess. But, as it turns out, Job’s friends were dead wrong. There was no connection between Job’s sufferings and his sin. In the Gospel of John, we read of a blind man. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works God might be displayed in him” (John 9: 1-3).

So far we know that sometimes there can be a direct relationship between sin and physical infirmity and many times not. But there is always an indirect relationship. We ask, “Why is there any sickness, and why is there death?” We are hunted by illness all our lives and haunted by the specter of death. But the Bible makes it clear that this was not God’s intention for man. Why then do we get sick and eventually die? It is because of God’s judgment that has come on the whole human race because of sin. If there had been no sin, there would be no death.

The root of our susceptibility to disease and of our mortality is sin. Jesus is now saying to the man and his friends and to us that the “presenting problem” may not be the “source problem.” Late in 2002 I went to the emergency room with pain. Eventually they gave me enough medicine that is got rid of my pain and even gave me a little euphoria. I “presented” with pain, but my gallbladder was the source, and it had to come out. Jesus is telling us that the underlying problem in illness is sin.

But there is another thing. Jesus wants to make clear that the “felt need” is not necessarily the real need. This man no doubt felt that his paralysis was the need and that, if Jesus could heal that, his problem would go away. But this man had a deeper need and that was to have his sins forgiven. Sometimes people come to church, and they think, “I am not happy, and I hope the church can heal that.” Or, “My marriage is on the rocks, and I hope the church can rescue it.” Or, “I need friends, and I hope the church can give me some.” Then they are disappointed with what the church concentrates on and focuses on. They are not told how to be happy, or to fix a failed marriage, to make friends, but how to have their sins forgiven. This is the great mission of the church – to tell people how to get forgiveness for their sins, for sin can be forgiven, no matter how bad, while some of the problems we have that come ultimately from sin may have to wait for the world to come for healing.

Many churches today have bought into the idea of “felt needs programming.” As Robert Schuller advises, “Find a need and meet it; find a hurt and heal it.” I am not saying that we should not be aware of many problems people suffer with. I am not saying the church can do nothing about any of those felt needs. But I am saying this: The church must focus on real need programming. And programming for real need means proclaiming the good news of the forgiveness of sin. In one sense, the reason we come to church every Sunday is so that we can be told once again that our sins can be forgiven.

III. Consternation

Jesus’ declaration of the forgiveness of the man’s sins caused consternation for the scribes. These scribes were something like ecclesiastical lawyers. They were trained in the Law, its interpretation, and the oral tradition associated with the application of the Law.

When they heard Jesus’ declaration, they thought to themselves, “Why does this man speak like this? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” They did not speak up. Perhaps they meant to talk among themselves later in private. Or, perhaps, they intended to report to authorities at the Temple in Jerusalem what they had heard and what they thought about it. But they did not say anything to Jesus.

But Jesus read their thoughts. Clearly this is something beyond ordinary human knowledge. Sometimes we can guess the thoughts of person we know well. And, even we talk to strangers we watch their faces and their posture to try to figure out how they are responding to us. But we cannot, in any case, know for certain the very words people are thinking. This is supernatural knowledge. Jesus sometimes seems to have divine knowledge, while at other times He seems to limit Himself to the knowledge available to any other person. But, here, He knows what no person could know by human powers – what these men are thinking in response to His declaration.

The scribes were right in their theology. Men tell of forgiveness. They can announce the terms of forgiveness. They can declare for God the forgiveness He grants. When you come to church on Sundays, and join with the congregation in confessing your sins, the minister gives an assurance of pardon. But, the minister is not declaring from any authority he has the forgiveness of your sins. He reads from Scripture things God says that assure us He will forgive sins, and he tells us that if we have sincerely confessed our sins and if we rely on Christ, then our sins are forgiven, because God forgives them.

Another thing humans can do is to forgive others the offenses they commit against us. This is a grace the Bible encourages us to cultivate – to forgive others. But human beings cannot grant forgiveness in the absolute sense. The old blues and country singer Charlie Rich sang, “I’ve got a lot of crazy friends, and they forgive me for my sins.” In that song I don’t think he meant they forgave him for his offenses against them, but rather that they assured him his sins weren’t a big enough deal that he should waste any time feeling guilty or worrying about them. People still try to do that for others - they assure them that their sins aren’t so bad, that everybody sins, that the good outweighs the bad. But all this is useless. Humans can forgive sins against them, but they cannot go further.

The thing a human being needs is forgiveness of sins against God, but nobody can forgive those sins but God. The scribes were right. Any man who tried actually to grant forgiveness of sins would be guilty of blasphemy. Blasphemy is not just misusing God’s names; it is usurping God’s prerogatives and powers. It is true that no one can grant forgiveness of sins except God. If a man tries to do what God alone can do, that human blasphemes God. That is what they concluded that that was what Jesus had done. God is the one against whom all sins are directly or indirectly committed, and no one can grant the forgiveness of sins against God but God.

Bu there is an option that they did not consider. If you begin with the premise that only God can forgive, and then you hear a person forgive sins, you may conclude that he guilty of blasphemy. But the other possibility you might consider is that he is God. This they did not consider. But we can. What do we make of Jesus? Is He God? Does he have the authority to forgive sins? Mark’s Gospel intends to present us with the life, deeds, and words of Jesus in order to show us that indeed Jesus Christ is the Son of God (1:1). And if he, as Mark says, is the Son of God, who as God has authority to forgive our sins, then nothing could be more wonderful than to hear Jesus grant us forgiveness.

IV. Vindication

When Jesus perceived the consternation of the scribes, he acted for His own vindication.  He asked, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?”

That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? On the one hand it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Who knows whether what you say happens or not? You cannot see whether guilt has been removed and punishment cancelled. On the other hand, if you say to a paralytic, “Rise, take up your bed and walk,” people will see with their eyes immediately whether there is any power in your words. Either the person will get up and walk or not. So it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” without fear of contradiction for no one can observe whether is happens or not.

So Jesus went on, “But so you can know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” – He is speaking to the scribes, and now He turns to the paralyzed man – “I say to you, rise, take up your bed, and walk.” Immediately the man stood, picked up his bed, and left. Here was the vindication of Jesus authority and the proof the man’s forgiveness by the word of Jesus. Jesus is the Son of Man, a mysterious and glorious Person in Daniel 7, who is clothed with divine majesty, power, and authority. As this Son of Man he does have the authority to forgive sins as God forgives them. The miracle functions in an almost sacramental manner to confirm the reality of the forgiveness granted by the Son of Man.

You may be here today thinking, “My awareness of my sin is so keen. I doubt that I can be forgiven. My conscience testifies against me every waking moment and sometimes when I sleep. Oh, that I could hear Jesus Himself speak to me to me and tell me that all my sins are forgiven.”

If you mean to have Jesus stand physically before you and speak audible words, that will not happen, for, as He later told His disciples, after His ascension He will not be present or speak in that way. Yet He announces forgiveness. He does that in the Gospel in which we hear that he has done something far more difficult than heal a paralytic, for He went to the cross and there assumed responsibility for all our sins, and suffered in His own body and soul what our sins deserve. He has done what is necessary for our forgiveness, and if we put our faith in Him, He will grant us forgiveness. He goes on to give us too sacraments that confirm this promise. In baptism he gives us a sign that our sins will be washed away by His blood. In the Lord’s Supper He tells He gave His body and shed His blood for our sins, and that He gives Himself to us that we may receive forgiveness.

In the Gospel and the Gospel sacraments you, too, can hear Jesus saying to you, “My son, my daughter, your sins are forgiven.”


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