The incarnation revealed what is possible when a human moves in God’s will, and by God’s power. In Jesus, God acted, but also demonstrated what human action in the name of God looks like. “For I have set you an example,”Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you”. Yes, this line’s context (John 13:15) is somewhat particular to his servant gesture of foot-washing, but the following discourse makes clear that this practice is barely the tip of the iceberg. Everything Jesus does and says is a demonstration of God’s work and will in the world, and the disciples are being invited to share in that way of being in the world. The point of the incarnation is to say, “This is what happens when divine action/being meets human action/being.”
Moments later, Jesus expresses to his disciples that they have perceived God’s will as revealed through Jesus’s words and actions, and have even had their status before God changed because of it: “The servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). Jesus is revealing God’s will and work, and then inviting them to join into that same will and work, becoming fruitful by honoring his command to “love one another as I have loved you.” God is at work among humanity in the human form of Jesus, so that humanity might be able to learn how to work on behalf of God in the world.
What’s Faith Got To Do With It?
This is all well and good as a bunch of theological talk, but is still missing a critical piece: faith. This all occurs in its context in a crisis moment, and the disciples will forget their loyalty to Jesus before we can scarcely turn the page on the conversation. However, before their abandonment, we get a preview of what will come to pass after the resurrection. It is yet to be tested by the crucible yet, but we get a taste of the faith that will be solidified when the disciples witness his defeat of death. In John 16:30 we read the climatic confession, “we believe that you came from God”. That curiously-worded affirmation of faith is more central to John’s gospel than is easily recognized.
“We believe that you came from God” sounds like a basic thing to affirm about Jesus, but for John’s gospel it is the critical point. Everything up until chapter 12 has been constructed to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the one sent from God. It’s a theme hiding in plain sight, captured in language like being “from God” or “from heaven”, or in Jesus’s talk about being “sent”. The fascinating turn of the fourth gospel is that it takes this basic affirmation of Jesus’s origin and uses it to launch the mission of the disciples. Just as the father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends his disciples (20:21), and when they are doing the will of God, they have access to the same divine power that Jesus put on display. What’s the connection between what Jesus did and what the sent disciples will do? Their faith.
In coming to believe that Jesus is from God, the disciples also come to believe his invitation to share in his divinely originating power and mission. They too become “from God” because now they are “from Jesus”. John tipped his hand early on that this was God’s work in Jesus: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13) In the wake of the resurrection, the disciples can truly become brothers of Jesus, sharing the same Father and God (20:17).
The Victory of Faith
There’s an old church song, “Faith is the Victory” which draws its language from 1 John 5:4-5: “…this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” The song implies that the victory is one that we, Christ’s disciples win over our enemies. However, the greater truth is that it is Jesus who becomes victorious over his enemies because of our faith. See, we may not have noticed the connection between this text andJohn 16:33, where Jesus says to his disciples: “Take courage; I have conquered the world!”. Notice how the announcement is peculiarly located—Jesus proclaims his victory before the events of either the cross or the empty tomb. What has happened at this point that evokes this claim? It is the confession of faith from the disciples—this constitutes Jesus’s victory over the world!
Now that they believe—or perhaps better, now that they are coming to believe—Jesus has won a foothold in the world. God’s work will continue. The gospel embodied in him will be embodied in his disciples who now participate in his mission. Jesus, the Sent One, will become the sender, and the faith of his disciples will become a gateway for the power of God to work goodness in the world.
Our faith is much more powerful than we know. It is not just a vehicle for our comfort or empowerment. It is a vehicle for divine action. It is the connection point at which God’s people become partners by God’s Spirit, agents of God’s creative agenda in the world. Faith is the engine translating God’s will into human action and the restoration of God’s creation.
It is easy to underestimate our faith. I often perceive mine to be quite a weak thing—apparently much smaller than even a mustard seed. But in the hands of Jesus, even our broken faith creates enormous possibilities, and becomes a tool in God’s mission.
(If you would like to walk through a study of the “Sent” theme in John, consider the following texts in their context: 1:12-13, 3:2, 3:13, 3:17, 3:31-34, 4:34, 5:23-24, 5:36-38, 6:33, 6:46, 6:57, 7:27-29, 8:14-16, 8:23-26, 8:42, 9:4, 9:29-33, 10:36, 11:27, 12:44-45, 13:3, 14:24, 15:21, 16:27-30, 17:8, 18:36-37, 19:9, 20:21. This list is not exhaustive, and perhaps the better approach is to simply take a highlighter to a fresh copy of the gospel and mark each time the theme shows up. I assure you, you will not have to travel long between occurrences! I would love to say that the theme is plainly stated in literally every chapter of John, but alas, chapter 2 only yields 2:9, which I hold to be playful language on the theme—but I’ll let you decide for yourself. )
The scriptures in general often emphasize facets of the story outside our attention, drawing theological pictures that don’t immediately appear to us when we come to them with a different set of theological questions. The phenomenon occurs in the gospels as well as the other parts of scripture, and perhaps it’s particularly poignant in the story of Jesus’s death. Our approach to the story has been so thoroughly conditioned that it’s too easy for us to enter the passion narratives with heavy expectations of the kind of things we’ll find there, and thus miss points that the story itself is giving us.
One such undervalued facet of the story is Jesus’s experience of betrayal and abandonment. The gospel narratives explore the theme thoroughly—I worked on Mark’s depiction in the sermon on the video below, but the theme exists in the other three gospels as well.
The custom in our church is to open each week’s worship with a Psalm, and for me the choice for this week was simple: Psalm 55. The Psalms capture human experiences and emotions, and demonstrate what it means to lay those experiences before God. Psalm 55 captures beautifully the anguish of betrayal, which is a profoundly common (universal?) human experience.
The poem opens with a cry to God, expressing the poet’s distress over “the noise of the enemy”, and the “clamor of the wicked”, and then elaborates:
My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest.
(Psalm 55:4-8, NRSV)
Having described the anguish in terms many other Psalms might use, this Psalm then plays its twist: the enemies are actually the poet’s friends.
It is not enemies who taunt me— I could bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me— I could hide from them. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng.
(Psalm 55:12-14, NRSV)
The psalmist begins to call for God’s response before further describing the experience of betrayal:
My companion laid hands on a friend and violated a covenant with me with speech smoother than butter, but with a heart set on war; with words that were softer than oil, but in fact were drawn swords. (Psalm 55:20-21, NRSV)
The cries for help and the poet’s statements of trusting the Lord in the face of distress are similar to what we find in other laments throughout the Psalms. However, this one’s way of evoking empathy from the reader (or worshipper) is by the dramatic unfolding of a painful reality—it is indeed our friends who can hurt us in the deepest way possible. This psalm hold that card and then slaps it down on the table with the authority of experience, and all those who hear it can only wince and grieve alongside of the one who has tasted bitter betrayal.
How might we respond to such a psalm? With empathy for the betrayed for sure, but also I think a deeper commitment to be faithful friends who avoid dealing out this kind of bitterness to others. There is, after all a beautiful reality on display even in the bitter sadness—we experience betrayal only because friendship and faithfulness really do matter to us. The depth of our anguish and sorrow reveals our capacity to love and the role of companionship and community in a full human life. It is the shadow side of something we deeply value—even if we don’t know how to do it right. So in its own way, a Psalm like this with its tragic experience of betrayal is leading us to a more careful, vibrant experience of community, full of the sort of friendship that marks a flourishing humanity.
The Psalm also provides its own way forward, the laying of such a naked human experience before God. It is a raw prayer of pain, but also holding a latent hope that such wrongs will be made right. If the psalmist’s prayers are a bit too vindictive for us, we can at least laud the poet’s trust in the Lord to avenge the harm rather than taking vengeance personally.
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
Be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,
Or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Happy are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2 is one of the royal psalms (2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 93, 110, 132, 144) and as such celebrates the partnership between God and the Davidic king. The king becomes an instrument of God’s rule over the earth, not unlike the prototypical humans of Genesis 1, and is given the task of enforcing God’s will among the nations, bending the rebellious forces to submission before the Lord. All of this is a reflection of the divine sanctioning of the king’s power.
And yet, being good poetry, the Psalms also carries a subversive note as well. It calls out to the kings of the other nations to “be warned” and to “be wise”, calling them to serve the Lord in the realization of their subordination to God’s own power.
Indeed, this call, though posed to the nations, is also before the king who sits in Jerusalem as well. God’s own king is only blessed (or “happy”), when he has taken refuge in the Lord. The form of the beatitude (“Blessed is the man who…”) helps pair the Psalm with the one before it, and Psalm 1 marks out the road that leads to blessing as sharply forked between those who take the path of the “wicked” and those whose attention is given to God’s instruction. the point of all this is that even the king of Judah, who has received power from God in partnership with God, must use that power in accordance with God’s own wisdom. Any power that fails to do this is doomed to “perish” as both of these first two psalms attest (Psalm 1:6, 2:11).
The second psalm, then, does indeed affirm the power of the king, but places that power in a theological context, one which will take on particular ethical flavors in others Psalms as it becomes clear what God expects the king in Jerusalem to do—preserve justice and righteousness. It is this sort of context that enriches the Psalm’s messianic flavor—the Psalm was read by the early church as containing the seed idea of the messiah as a Son of God who will become the true king. We should not miss though, that it also contains a word about what kind of king that messiah would be—one who is not only empowered by God, but who is attentive to God’s way as well.
Those who see their lives as joined to such a messiah, receive here not just an affirmation, but a call to faithfulness as people following God’s way in the world.
This sermon is from Cedar Lane (Tullahoma, TN) on January 29, 2017. It’s a sermon about the healing of the paralyzed man, (“the Paralytic”, as the old translations say). It’s part of a sermon series on Mark. The video below is essentially the audio of the sermon with the slides. The manuscript below has been revised by evaluating the transcript of the recording.
How did you get here?
How did you get here?
I want us to stop and reflect on that question for a moment, despite all you smart-alecks who just said to yourselves, “In the car.” You know who you are.
I want you to think for a second about how you got here, to think about the story that led to you coming to Jesus. What led you to come into this community of faith, or to come to this place in your life? Everybody’s got a story.
There’s an old story in our family a about my great-great-grandfather who when he was a little boy had a head to parents who were ahead Ted serious respiratory illnesses were common back in those generations and they lived over on the east coast and they made the decision, under medical advice to make for their respiratory problems they would make these trips over to over to Texas and they made this journey several times. On one of these my great-great-great-grandmother fell so ill that she did not recover from her sickness and she died and her husband was so struck with grief and his own illness that on the journey back east he just laid in the back of this carriage that was pulled by the two horses.My my great-great-grandfather and his brother, even though they were young boys, were in charge of getting them back home, while their father just laid in the back of the carriage. They asked, “How will we get home? We don’t know the way.” And he said, “The horses know the way. Let them guide you back.” Well, the horses didn’t know the way, and so the next five generations of our family lived in North Alabama.
Everybody’s got a story about how you ended up where you are—that brought you to this moment. The text in Mark that we’re looking at opens with a crazy story about how a man came to Jesus. Jesus had been preaching around in the communities around Galilee but he comes back home to Capernaum. When he’s there people begin to gather. The house fills up, and there’s such a crowd there that it’s standing room only all the way out to the door, to the edge of the house.
Our story says that there was a man who was paralyzed. We don’t get a lot of details about how he came to be like that. Certainly would not have been unusual back in this time for somebody in normal work to suffer terrible injuries. Beyond that, people that have sicknesses and illnesses or birth defects, or for whatever reason their body’s broken. The text doesn’t really tell us how the man came to be like this, but we know his situation is such that he is paralyzed. He can’t walk.
Mark says that a group of people bring this paralyzed man to Jesus. Four of them each get a corner of the mat, but it’s actually a larger crowd with them. They want to get to the house where Jesus is they can’t get inside because it’s so crowded in there. They can’t find a place among all the people who are already there with Jesus—which is a sad little note in this story.
They don’t give up, so they climb up on the roof.The carve a little hole in the roof there, and they lower this man down through the roof. Can you imagine it? Jesus is there and all of a sudden the tiles of the ceiling or the thatching or whatever, it starts spreading apart, and you hear the ruckus. Then, all of a sudden, you see some light, and this man is lowered down right there in front of Jesus. What a story about how somebody got to Jesus!
Think about the things that brought this man to Jesus. Sicknesses, or injury or whatever it was that caused his paralysis. There’s also the the crowd of people. There were the determined friends who were carrying him. Often, that’s what it takes, right? How many of you came to Jesus because of the determination of a group of friends, a determined community of people who said, “We’re not going to rest until this person gets to Jesus.” Sometimes that’s what it takes.
Some of you came here by way of your own great-great-great grandfather who made a decision about a church, five generations back. Some of you got here because the church served you and your family in some way. Some of you are here because a coworker just kept getting into your ear. That’s just the surface of the story—there are all sorts of things at work to bring you to Jesus, to bring you to the place where you could be healed. To the place where you could be whole.
We might imagine the story going on from here something like this: Jesus sees them and he would say say to them “Be healed!”, but this story takes a turn that is unexpected. It is a moment that we would not predict. Jesus doesn’t look at the man and just give him the healing which he and certainly his friends have sought. Instead, Jesus looks at the man it says that Jesus sees the faith of the ones who have brought him. His faith, too, I’m sure, but Jesus notes “their faith”, in the plural. Then, Jesus says to the paralyzed man, “Son your sins are forgiven.” He seems pretty content to leave it at that. So what do we have now? We’ve got a man, still paralyzed, who has received forgiveness—not really the thing that he came for.
You know when I think about this story, I think that Mark wants to make it clear that Jesus knows more than we do. Jesus knows more about how the things that are broken got broken.He knows more about what’s really wrong, and he sees what really needs to be fixed. Jesus knows more about what it means to be whole for me than I could ever imagine. Jesus knows more about what it means for me to be whole then all those other people who were part of bringing me to Jesus might even imagine.
Jesus has a more of a perception about what our brokenness really looks like than we do. We have some understanding of it, but Jesus sees the full scope of it. Jesus gives the man a greater and deeper healing than he even realized he needed.
But you just know, it wasn’t just about the paralyzed man. Jesus also perceives some other level of brokenness in the crowd as well. I don’t really know how that man reacted to Jesus’s forgiveness, but the text does tell us how the other people in the crowd reacted. It says that they start muttering to each other, saying things like “Who does this guy think he is? We know that it is only God who can forgive sins so what is this guy saying? That’s blasphemy, for him to take on the authority that belongs to God alone—Who does this guy think he is?”
When they challenge each other in that way it says “Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these things among themselves.” See, it’s not just the man that has some kind of hidden unseen bit of brokenness that needs to be healed. Jesus perceived the brokenness in the community too. He sees that these people are more concerned about their standards about the way that people should talk about God than they are about whether this man actually receive forgiveness or not. He perceives that their religious sensibilities are more important to them than the man on the mat. And so, just like he offered the man the forgiveness that he didn’t understand he needed, he’s also going to offer to this community a word that they didn’t come to hear, either. He looks at them and he says
“Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 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!” (Mark 2:8-12, NRSV)
You see, there is a multiple healing taking place in this story. There is the man who is paralyzed, made whole by his body. The thing that he actually came for in the first place finally gets done. But it’s also the community’s perception of God and God’s work in the world that’s healed as well. Jesus takes their grumbling, stubborn religiosity and he shows them something new. He offers them a way towards something that’s a little bit more whole as well. Jesus, who knows more, is able to perceive exactly what it is that I need and what we need as a community. Jesus gives us what we need on the way to being made whole—very rarely according to our time frame or our expectations about the way it should happen—but Jesus does bring us along towards the journey of being made whole.
There is so much of what it means to be a follower of Jesus tucked inside of this story. This is a story about what it means to be laid open by Jesus and for Jesus in his own authoritative way brings us towards a complete and full wholeness, beyond what we could have even imagined. This man that comes in the story, he had people in his life that loves him so much that they were willing to do whatever they could to make his body whole again. He had an amazing group of people who were willing to do something outlandish, foolish for his sake. But in Jesus, he meets the one whose expectation about what it means for him to be whole blows their expectations out of the water. Jesus loves us deeper and has a greater vision for the wholeness and fullness of our lives in our humanity than even the people we know in our lives who love us the most. This man comes to Jesus broken in ways that he doesn’t even understand, and Jesus makes him whole in a way that he never could have imagined.
This story also shows us that sometimes grace comes to us in stages. A little forgiveness here, a bit of reconciliation there. Until the last day, Jesus is making us whole step by step. None of us have been made fully whole yet, and yet we can say that many of us have already tasted the grace of God. We’ve received things like having relationships restored back to us that we thought we lost. We’ve received forgiveness and the relief that it brings. We’ve received that taste of God’s grace that shows us that we are loved. We’ve received a part of it, but don’t we also all carry with us some bit of brokenness left? It’s easy for us to believe that all those things define us for who we are. What was the man’s name in the story in mark? “Paralyzed man.” The only way we know him is by his brokenness. If that sounds harsh, I’d suggest that for many of us that’s how we know ourselves, too.
“I am guy with an anger problem…”
“I am the woman with chronic pain issues…”
“I am the man who can’t get along with my brother…”
“I am the woman who carries a deep grudge against my father who’s long ago dead…”
“I am the person whose marriage is falling apart…”
“I am the person who doesn’t seem to be able to hold down a job…”
I am broken and for many of us that’s how we know ourselves. Jesus perceives us to be something more. Jesus perceives in us our value, our dignity, our life as the children of God—that we are images of the Divine. Jesus sees in us what we are, what we will be when we are whole—he does not know us only by our brokenness. Our brokenness maybe part of our story, it may be part of the way that we come to Jesus.It is not the whole of our identity.
Part of what i want you to hear in this story is Jesus’s vision for you as a whole person—in this story this man he has no idea what it means for him to coast or thick to go see Jesus but he comes to find out it comes to claim it comes to own it and then he at the end of the story walk away whole in body, whole in soul, in spirit. When the crowd sees it they see the man and they can’t help but say alright that’s amazing and we’ve never seen anything like it. The man who was at the beginning of the story just “the paralyzed man” becomes a living, walking, witness to the power of God at work in Jesus—and so are we.
This story challenges us on a lot of fronts, but one of the most profound challenges is that it invites us to think about which crowd we are. There’s at least three options. There’s the first crowd that is willing to do whatever it takes to get a person to Jesus. There is the other crowd that is so stuck on their religious knowledge that they resent Jesus’s healing of the man. Then, there is the crowd at the end— which I guess was partly made up of parts of both of the first two— the crowd that seea what Jesus is doing, is amazed, and then is more ready to experience it themselves.
If you permit me just a little bit of imagination, I think we can make up an epilogue to this story. The story leaves off with everybody amazed, but I bet we can trace it out a little further. How would you react if you had seen it? How would you react if you had seen it, and knew somebody else who was sick, who was broken? I bet everybody in that crowd that knew somebody at their home who was laying on a mat—I bet they went and found somebody else to help carry them to Jesus.
A few years ago we were getting ready to have VBS and we asked Dr. John Fortner to come and help prep our adults with a theological understanding of the story we were going to work on—the Joseph narrative. One of the best insights for me that came out of that story was how the Joseph story really fits into the larger narrative of the patriarchs, and particularly into the story of Jacob.
For most of Jacob’s life, he is an absolute control freak, scheming for control over virtually everyone in his life. He lies cheats and steals his way to the top. Even though God appears to him, and promises to be with him, he seems to believe that life would be much better if he (Jacob) were in control, and he consistently resists God’s initiative.
Now, I think most people would see and agree with that. Unfortunately, we tend to atomize the text—we separate out the stories of the Bible into individual tales, and lose the intergenerational narrative that Genesis (and the rest of scripture) is telling. When we do that we lose some insights—for instance, the significance of the Joseph saga.
The Joseph saga is not just about how things worked out for Joseph. It’s about how things worked out for Jacob. It’s about how things worked out for God’s people. See, the Joseph story is really just a long stretch within the story of Jacob—it’s the definitive blow to Jacob’s mentality that he is in charge. He can’t manipulate God. He can’t micromanage the promise of God. It seems like he’s in control until Joseph (he thinks) dies. That concept completely rocks Jacob’s world, and since he’s not in control, he basically gives up on life and waits to die. He seems to think God has abandoned him.
However, after he learns Joseph is alive, Jacob has another theophany, where God appears to him, reassures him that he is still with him, after all this time. Jacob turns loose of all the control, and it seems to me like he actually reinterprets his life through that insight. Now he can (for the first time!) tell Joseph about the promise of God. (Joseph will later tell the rest of the brothers.) Now he can refer to God as the one who “has been my shepherd all my life to this day.” Jacob can finally affirm the promise of God and the continual working of God, even in light of his own impending death! Reading Genesis 48 with this insight has been a powerful adjustment to the way I’ve read the Joseph saga before, and indeed the way I see my own life.
Think about the deeper lesson here about reading the scriptures: Anytime we read a text, we need to remember to pull back and see it from a perspective of the broader story of the mission of God. Each story is unique and important on its own terms, but becomes even more incredible when viewed in terms of a longer context. Reading a text like the Joseph saga with a missional perspective allows us to pick up different layers of what’s happening in the moment of the text as well as how that text contributes to (or complicates) the larger story of God and the world.
It’s not just Joseph’s story. It’s not even Jacob’s story. It certainly isn’t simply my story. These are all moments in God’s story.
The Bible’s story hinges on what God wants to do and what God can do with Abraham’s descendants—and neither is particularly clear in the early chapters of the saga. God and Abraham seem to both be feeling their way through the new relationship, and I’m beginning to take more seriously the language of Abraham as God’s friend—it’s kind of easy to read the story almost like Abram and God are pals, traveling around together just for the sake of it.
There are of course moments when something else shines through all of the odd episodes of Abraham’s story. The narrative reaches outside of itself and shows itself to be more than a story about one man’s weird relationship with God. In these moments, the Abraham saga becomes a critical piece in the story of God and Creation. One such moment takes place in Genesis 18.
Here is a well-worn story of Abraham bargaining with God, negotiating on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or at least on behalf of his kin who live there. I won’t retrace the story here, because I want to focus in on one particular facet of the episode—the terms of the negotiation. We’ll pick up with God’s internal monologue (dialogue?) regarding whether or not he’ll let Abraham in on what’s about to happen:
The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
Here God opens up, just a smidge, about the long-term plan for Abraham and his descendants. They are to become a great nation which will bless the world, (just as God promised Abram in Genesis 12. But also, catch the important added note here: What kind of nation will they be? What does God want to become the characteristic mark of Abraham’s children? They are to be a people who keep the way of the Lord by “doing righteousness and justice”. Continue reading “Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice”