October 23, 2016

The Son of Man Has Authority on Earth to Forgive Sins

Passage: Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Mark 2:1-12
Service Type:

But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

I read news—electronically and hard copy—as a matter of course. I wouldn’t consider myself a news junkie but I do try to read for preaching purposes. It is an attempt to understand the culture in which members of our congregation are immersed so that I might bring to bear the glory of the gospel in our time and space. No one sitting here this morning thinks that published news is objective; a pure reporting of the facts. News reflects the ideology of those who report the news. In fact stories are told (and others not told) in order to advance an ideology.

When I visit the webpage of the internet provider we use in our home a series of stories scroll across the screen—presumably things the content provider thinks I ought to know. In the corner are web links of subjects for what is “trending now;” the clear implication is here is where to go to be current. I get email notifications from Twitter about what is popular on my network—I didn’t know I had a network. Messages arrive about who to follow. All of these messages and news publications imply that these things are important—and ought to be important to me. Perhaps, like me, when you take a vacation you also take a vacation from reading news. I find I am remarkably more relaxed about life when I do.

But how do you cut through all that “news” to know what matters? Is the solution simply to shut it all off? The sheer volume of it all makes a person dizzy. For the electronically connected young person today who has never know anything else it must, at times, be overwhelming. Or is the overwhelming feeling my projection from the perspective of an old guy who has to have some sense of organization of it all to be comfortable with it. But is it any happier just to go with the flow?

This past summer Valerie and I took three of our grandchildren away for a couple of days—a five, seven, and eight year old. It was great fun. My favourite moment was driving in the car listening to my five tear-old grandson singing a song he considered very funny. It was “rock a bye baby on the tree top” and somehow at the end of the song the baby crashed onto the heads of his sister and cousin, which evoked great gales of laughter. This, of course, prompted another verse sung louder with additional embellishments evoking even greater laughter. And so on. I wonder how these little ones will navigate the world they have inherited from us and that is emerging for them.

1. “The begging of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” so begins the gospel of Mark. His gospel was written to be heard. It was first heard by Christians in Rome whose world was in chaos. As we have noted previously, the Emperor Nero had unleashed persecution against Christians falsely accusing them for the burning of Rome—fires that Nero himself directed to be set in order to clear some slum areas of the city. Paul and Peter perished in this wave of persecution. It was to these beleaguered followers of Jesus that Mark comes and his gospel is written and proclaimed to encourage these believers. The great theme that unites Mark’s gospel is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is victor.

When we hear Mark’s gospel announced to us today we hear it from the perspective of a cultural lens very different than that of the first century Roman world, to be sure. We might find similarities—the multi-religious nature of the society and the persecution of Christians, for example. Even still the message is a penetrating one for any culture—the great news that is so good that it has to be shared is that in Jesus Christ God has come among us. He cuts through the noise of the many voices insisting that other news ought to have our attention; in Jesus God is among us. Mark is confident that it is good news for the grandchildren of any generation—he preserves the story for us of how Jesus, the Son of God, welcomed children; of how he took them up in his arms and blessed them.

Over and over in this story of Jesus we note that he does not often answer the questions put to him. Jesus will help his hearers to reframe their questions because the premises of their questions, shaped by their culture, reflect the world’s self-understanding and contradicts the gospel. We often ask amiss. Take for example when we come to the scripture and ask, what does the Bible teach about sex? It is our culture that is sex-obsessed not the scriptures. Further the guidance the Bible affords on this matter is always understood in the larger context of what the scripture says about life.

In other words, any answer to the particulars of our life is understood in relationship to this great story that God has come among us in Jesus Christ. It assumes the creation story that humans, male and female, are in God’s image. Recall that it was to this great story that Jesus referred to when answering a question about divorce. Human life is at its best lived in obedience to Jesus Christ. This is the grand narrative of the story of our existence according to the Bible. The Apostle John wrote that in him (Jesus) was life, that everything came into existence through him and for him. Indifference to God does not change the reality of our human existence.

Mark is confident that Jesus Christ, himself crucified for our sakes, is worthy of our allegiance even when the world persecutes followers simply because they follow Jesus. Think about the madness that has been unleashed against these Roman believers such that they hide in catacombs and wonder about who will turn them in or the next wave of persecution. This word of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God sustained them; will it not also sustain us in the midst of our worries or wonder of turmoil that may be on the horizon. The stories Mark chose to relate form the many he knew about Jesus were chosen to sustain, to encourage, to foster holding on to the One whose grip on them was even stronger than they could imagine. Nothing could thwart the future Jesus has won for them (and us); Jesus Christ, the Son of God is victor.

2. I know that every generation is nervous about the direction the next generation is heading; and maybe grandparents have that doubled as they think of their grandchildren. I do recall my grandparents wondering about the “kids”—meaning my cousins, brothers and me. But I don’t want to make light of this concern as if to say, “relax, there is nothing to worry about.”

Professor James Smith of Calvin College described this uneasy feeling about the future eloquently. “I'm talking about a kind of existential feeling that things are unraveling, that a social tapestry we could take for granted is fraying and threadbare to the point of tearing. Injustices that simmered below the surface for many of us (who are white) have erupted onto the surface; … terror and violence have made social conventions especially tenuous. So much that we used to be able to count on in our public life together has been disparaged, mocked, and dismissed. I don't think I'm the only one who has asked friends, late at night: 'What the hell is going on?'

As Mark tells this story of the victory of Jesus Christ over all that destroys life the message 'Fear not' is at the heart of the gospel. It's not a dismissal of our fears. When Jesus encourages disciples to 'be not afraid,' he is in fact recognizing their fear. He doesn't say, 'There's nothing to be afraid of.' Instead the gospel announces: 'Be not afraid.' Let's make room to be honest about our fears. But let's also apprentice ourselves to the Prince of Peace, whose Spirit grants us a kind of peace and courage we could never muster on our own. 'I have said these things to you,' Jesus assures us, 'that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world' (John 16:33).

3. Every generation, as we have noted, hears the gospel in the midst of its own agenda or self-undersatnding. Self-determination is the god of our culture coupled with the great myth of human autonomy. And so the idea of God is treated with indifference. Life functions just fine without God, it is thought. The attitude in one of “take it or leave it.” The author of our small group study, Nate Locke, invites listeners to consider the evidence that the stories of Jesus in Mark’s gospel provide with relationship to Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Five stories are highlighted—Jesus forgives sins, heals the paralytic man, calms the storm, casts out demons, and raises the dead. All of these events astonish, amaze, and even make witnesses fearful. So the question the author raises is, if God has come in Jesus can we afford to ignore him?

Consider this story we read of the paralytic man carried to Jesus by his friends; so determined are they to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus they remove roofing material to let him down on his stretcher in front of Jesus. Listen to the first thing Jesus says. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” Does this surprise you? If you are in the room are your wondering if Jesus doesn’t notice that the man is paralyzed?

Clearly Jesus knows there is something much heavier weighing on this paralytic man’s heart than his paralysis. In the Bible the light of God’s presence renders the human aware of their sin. Recall Peter in the presence of Jesus after catching a great haul of fish, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus is keenly aware of what this man is thinking in his heart. Here our Lord indicates that forgiveness of sin is our more pressing need.

Philip Yancey, in his book Vanishing Grace [(Zondervan, 2014), page 21] quotes comedian Cathy Ladman who said: "All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt with different holidays." Her assessment of religion may not be entirely accurate, but she does touch on something that I believe is universally experienced; guilt. If there was no guilt why do we endeavor to cover up our lies or feel shame about anything? If guilt was simply the conditioning of religious teachers them why isn’t it easily jettisoned?

The gospel points out that we feel guilty because we are—we have turned from God and gone our own way. We were made for better things and that knowledge is within us. Now as a brief aside there is a false sense of guilt; guilt because we can’t do everything, or guilt because of not meeting someone of someone else’s agenda for you, for example. This is false guilt. The gospel asserts that much of the turmoil within the human heart is the experience of the guilt of sin having turned from God.

Those who say all guilt is false guilt—perhaps what our comedian was intimating—must face the outcome of such a claim. Namely, to claim such is to say there is no right or wrong of justice or injustice. Nothing really matters. If there is nothing to feel guilty about then there is nothing to be guilty for. But most people want justice of some sort meted out to the person who robbed or mugged them.

In the news last summer was the story of a rape victim who regretted reporting sexual assault. The Halifax woman was ostensibly successful because the man who assaulted her was convicted and sentenced. She said that the two-year process had been punishing; further the man convicted was released pending an appeal. Will this and so many incidents like it ever be set right? Our human efforts at justice are at best partial. This points that a greater judgement day awaits. Forgiveness is never to say that it didn’t really matter. Our Lord invites us to trust him that one day all will be set to rights and be seen to be so. Our Lord invites us to receive his forgiveness because God is the one who deals with it decisively for ever—“as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12) Further we live out that forgiveness extending it to others knowing that all things will one day be set right.

The scribes in the room that day bristled at Jesus. They were correct that ultimately forgiveness of sin is God’s prerogative. What they were unable to consider was the identity of Jesus—that he was God. So, “which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk,” asks our Lord. Clearly the business about sins—healing is easier for them to verify.

But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!

Friends, the gospels affirm that Jesus Christ is the manifest face of God. If you want to know what God thinks about disease or paralysis or the like you only need to look here. He heals. Every instance of healing here points to that great day when “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” This paralyzed man indeed got up and walked, but he too one day died. In the blessing that is faith in Jesus Christ our life is kept by him for life that is to come.

According to Mark’s gospel Jesus Christ is this good news we Christians have to share. It may be that in our culture there are not many places where we can chat about God. Be brave. Talk of Jesus because to do so is to speak “of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”