Monday, October 23, 2017

Sermon on Matthew 9:1-8, for the 19th Sunday after Trinity, "Your Sins are Forgiven"

            “I could tell you the story of my life before I met Jesus—how I was paralyzed, and who I was before that incredible day when Jesus said my sins are forgiven, and then healed me. But my story is not really so important in the big picture. And besides, I don’t know your story either. I don’t know the sins that marked your life, the doubts or fears, or the physical illnesses and challenges that may face you. All I know is that meeting Jesus changed my life forever. I was one of hundreds of people healed by Jesus—but far more important than our names and backstories was what Jesus did for us, and who He was.
            I wouldn’t even be telling you this story if it weren’t for my friends. They had incredible faith in Jesus, that He would heal me. It’s hard to find friends like that, who would stop at nothing to help you when you were truly in need. You have to imagine, that when they carried me on that mat to the crowded house where Jesus was teaching, I began to lose heart. How could we even get close enough to be seen by Jesus? I was ready to give up—was this even going to work? You probably don't know how it felt in those days to have people look at your illness or injury, and wonder aloud things like, “What sin is he guilty of, that God punished him this way?” You can read other examples like that in the Gospels. It was just the way people thought.  Being in public made me feel like a spectacle. People don’t realize how cruel their words can be.
            But just when it seemed there was no way in, my friends did the most remarkable and embarrassing thing. They climbed up on this guy’s roof, with Jesus inside, and dug a hole through the mud roof! You can imagine how embarrassed I was, and with all the cries and shouts of what’s going on, and here I am, helpless, coming down on ropes in front of Jesus. I thought my friends were crazy! But like I said, it’s hard to find friends like that, who will go out on a limb for you, and did they ever.
            But the next big surprise was when Jesus first spoke to me. He didn’t know me, but the first words from His mouth were, “Take heart child, your sins are forgiven you.” He didn’t say, “I forgive you”—as though I had personally done Him wrong, but “Take heart…your sins are forgiven you.” I hadn't done anything. Just showed up, and He forgave all my sins. For some people, guilt is a feeling that torments them. For others, guilt is barely on their radar. I don’t what type you are, and how your conscience responds when you sin—but He wasn’t talking about my feelings—He was telling me that my sins, that objective guilt, was all forgiven. Of course I didn’t process that all right away, but through reflection on those incredible words, it’s clear that Jesus was erasing my debt before God. The scribes sure knew what He was talking about. All of a sudden their faces turned to frowns—not at me, but at Jesus.
            And again, who was this Jesus? Suddenly He’s reading their minds, saying, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or to say, ‘rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then He turned to me and said—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” It was pretty unnerving to have someone reading their thoughts—I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty used to my thoughts being my own private space. Nobody invades my thoughts, and I don’t particularly want them to see my fears and personal demons. But here Jesus looks right in the window into our minds. Is that why He told me, “Take heart child”? I could feel my spirit lifting with a joy I had never felt before, even before He healed me! Have you listened to the teachings of Jesus’ apostles, and felt that same peace with God, when your sins are declared forgiven?
            So which do you think is easier; for Jesus to forgive my sins, or to say, “Rise and walk?” Of course, anyone could just say your sins are forgiven—but how could anyone prove it? But only someone with real authority—God’s authority—could say, “Rise and walk!” And then here I am, a walking, living proof of Jesus’ power! But Jesus said, His ability to heal me, proved that He had the authority on earth to forgive my sins too! The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. I’ve had many years to reflect on the beauty of those words. Even now I realize that the greater gift that Jesus gave me that day was my forgiveness. My healing would last until death. But my forgiveness lasts for all eternity.
            Jesus saw wickedness, evil in the hearts of those scribes. Do you fear to think what He sees in yours? Do you know that none of us have any secrets from Him? Scripture tells us, “no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). That can scare the living daylights out of you—that your own thoughts and actions are not private territory to God. The only one fooled if we say we have no sin, is ourselves. God already knows. But I hope that you know, it doesn’t have to be such a frightening realization. At the same time that Jesus was reading my thoughts, He told me, “take heart child, your sins are forgiven.” Do you think He would turn away from you if He saw your thoughts; or is it more likely you would turn away? Well, he did not speak fear to my heart or condemnation, but peace and courage! He did not turn away from my suffering, as I'd seen so often, but He spoke life and healing, when I needed it, in body and soul.
            I don’t know your personal story; and I guess the details don’t matter too much. More important than who you are or where you came from or what you’ve done, or how healthy or sick you are, is that Jesus is the Great Physician of body and soul. It all starts with forgiveness. I didn’t even know I needed it that day. It’s not even what I came for—and certainly wasn’t on the minds of my good friends. But Jesus knew even better than us what I needed most.
            Leaving behind the little role play of that healed man, I hope you can reflect on how great a gift Jesus’ forgiveness is. When the crowds saw Jesus heal and forgive this paralytic, they were afraid; and they glorified God who had given such authority to men. It was so strange, back in that day, for the Jews to hear a man like Jesus declare “your sins are forgiven.” I don’t think those words strike us so strange today, because we’ve believed and accepted for 2,000 years that God has entrusted His forgiveness to men. The church proclaims the forgiveness of sins with the very authority of Jesus. Pastors absolve you of your sins, not on any independent authority of their own, but on the very authority of Jesus Himself, who said to His disciples, after the resurrection, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:22-23). For those who repent of their sins, we declare they are forgiven—and it is so—by Jesus’ word. For those who remain unrepentant, their forgiveness is withheld, as long as they do not repent—and it is so—by Jesus’ word. We have no independent authority to change God’s Word in this matter, only to speak as He has said. But what remarkable authority to speak on earth that your sins are forgiven, and to be assured by Jesus that it is also done in heaven!
            As we have been forgiven by Jesus, so we forgive others. Though we hear of forgiveness countless times in church, we always need both to live in Christ's forgiveness, and also live that forgiveness toward others. Forgiving someone means that you will no longer hold that wrong against them. Forgiveness is not a brushing aside of sin, or a sweeping it under the rug, or pooh-poohing sin, or any other expression that makes sin seem trivial. But forgiveness allows us to admit a real wrong has been done, a real hurt has been caused, a real failure to obey God’s command to either love God, or to love neighbor.  And that means we have a real debt that exists between us and God. We acknowledge this real debt—and that we can’t pay it—and then forgiveness is the Gospel word that Jesus has actually paid the real debt by His death on the cross. Take heart child, your sins are forgiven. ARE! Jesus has made things right between us and God. And so we forgive others. We tell them the debt has been taken away, and I will not hold it against you.
            If God is not behind that forgiveness, it will stutter, sputter, and fail. We are ever weak when it comes to treating others the way God has treated us. And if we think we’ll do it under our own steam, we won’t succeed. But God’s divine forgiveness pours into us generously through all these outlets that He has given—His Word, preached, read, heard, and taken to heart. His washing of Holy Baptism, where your sins are washed away, and you are joined to the saving life of Jesus. His Supper, where Jesus gives you His body and His blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins. The absolution—where Jesus appoints His ministers to speak to you on His behalf—your sins are forgiven. In all the ways that God pours out His forgiveness for us, that creates His new life in us. It enables us to forgive and love as He has loved us. He fills us with the faith to be great friends to the paralytic, to the suffering, to the lonely, or whoever needs our friendship and our willingness to bring them to Jesus. For Jesus knows what we need, and He comes to take away our fears, sin, and our weakness, and to give us His life. All glory to God! Amen.

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       Special note: Ephesians 4:26 may be puzzling: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” We should understand from this verse that anger in itself isn’t always a sin. It’s the outcome or actions we take as a result that may be sinful. We are warned to avoid sinning in our anger, and certainly not to go to sleep with unresolved resentment.

  1. Read Matt. 9:1-8. What was the obvious need of the paralyzed man? What did Jesus address first instead?
  2. What did the Jewish people often (incorrectly) assume about a person suffering an illness? John 9:1-5
  3. Why is our sin the most life-threatening ailment we face? Read Romans 6:23 Why is it even more important to have forgiveness than physical health? (hint: what happens even to all healthy people eventually?)
  4. Why were Jesus’ words, “Your sins are forgiven!” such a shock to the religious leaders? What was the sin they accused Him of doing? Read the parallel account of this healing in Mark 2:1-12 (esp. 7).
  5. How did Jesus address their challenge of His authority? How did Jesus demonstrate His authority? (cf. later, John 10:17-18)
  6. What are the consequences of not having forgiveness? How does it affect our lives or those around us? How does forgiveness change us? What did Jesus do to make forgiveness possible?
  7. How has Jesus entrusted the power to forgive to His church? Read John 20:21-23; Luke 10:16; 24:45-49. Let’s forgive!

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