Whole—A Sermon on Mark 2:1-12

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.

Unexpected

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.

He comes to Jesus broken in ways he can't understand. He's made whole in ways he never imagined. Click To Tweet

A Taste of Grace

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.

Our brokenness may be part of the journey but it is never our destination. Click To Tweet 

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.
Amen.

Not Native—A Meditation on Matthew 1:1-17

This week, I was thinking about how the book of Matthew starts, and meditating on what it means for me and my neighbors to read that text. I’ve talked and written about the passage before, but it became clear to me that I’ve often glossed over what may be the most significant feature of the text for me, and for many readers like me, a feature which seriously affects our experience of reading the text: the names are weird.

Of course, “weird” isn’t an objective term, but names something important, even if subjective, that we experience in reading the Bible, particularly in texts like the genealogies. These texts are just chock full of names that are weird to me, that would be weird in our culture. By my count, of the 48 names in the genealogy, only about 10, a fifth, are regularly used by people in our culture. For every Jacob in the list that sounds familiar, there is a Zadok, a Jotham, an Abiud, a Nashon, and a Salathiel. My wife are in the process of picking baby names, and there is no way on God’s green earth she would let me use about eighty percent of these.

The fact of this unfamiliarity becomes abundantly clear in any type of group reading setting. Almost any reader will struggle through pronouncing all the names on the list, which makes sense given that nobody in our churches knows anybody named Jeconiah or Zerubbabel.

So what does that unfamiliarity do to us? I think it reinforces to us that we are non-natives when it comes to the world of the Bible. Even those of us who grew up hearing the names in Sunday School have to admit that for all our time as visitors to the Bible, or even as immigrants who have lived in its world, we are still a bit out of our own water.

It strikes me that this has long been true of Christian readers of the Bible, at least since Cornelius, the first non-Jewish convert. After all, I suppose many of these Semitic names would have sounded strange to the Gentile Christians of Rome, Ephesus, and Athens, just as they do to me. Even in those cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean world, the gospel message was cross-cultural, wrapped in strange and foreign garb. Quickly translated into greek, these Hebrew names signaled to our early brothers and sisters that they were joining a story that arose in another people, with another language and another culture. And yet, somehow, they found a home in that foreign text. They willingly immigrated to the narrative world of the Bible, learned to speak its language of faith, and made some version of it their own.

Even though we often ignore it, it’s a good thing to be reminded of the foreign weirdness of the scriptures from time to time. First, it reminds us that we have some translation work to do if the gospel is going to be intelligible to our neighbors—they may not be as used to moving through the Biblical weirdness as we are, glossing over the odd names and applying the bits and pieces of cultural information we’ve picked up along the way.

Second, it keeps us from pretending that we own the book. We take a little too much ownership of the Bible sometimes; it can be our way of domesticating it, pretending that we are fully aligned with it. In reality, we are always learning what it means to live in its world. Hearing and recognizing the weirdness of the names may also prepare me to read with humility and a little healthy caution about my ability to easily and naturally understand what is happening in these texts that come to me from another culture.

Finally, recognizing the foreign character of the scriptures prepares me to have a more cosmopolitan faith, one that can be conversant with other cultures besides my own. Recognizing that my faith is really an ancient Hebrew-Greek faith spoken in a Southern American accent prepares me to hear that faith spoken in other accents as well. The faith of the Bible is not an American faith, at least not in origin. So, when I hear other accents struggling to pronounce the genealogies, I can lay down any presupposition of superiority, knowing that I too had to learn how to say names like Hezron and Abijah, and that I too am a non-native to the language and faith of the Bible.

I have much to learn.

Are You the One?—A Sermon from Matthew 11

We humans invest. We invest our time, energy, and money in projects, people, and plans for profit. We’re looking to get all kinds of things back from those investments, but most of us end up making a mix of good and bad investments along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how they’re going to turn out.

Lots of people invested in Jesus while he was on earth. For some of them, it was the investment of time in trying to go hear him, or just see him pass by—Zaccheus started out like that, even though he ended up much more heavily invested by the time the story was over. Some were invested in things Jesus was opposing—the religious and political elites of Jerusalem were heavily invested in the temple, and no doubt felt that investment was threatened by the way Jesus talked about the temple and acted when he came to visit it. Others were invested in different ways: Peter talked about having left everything behind to follow Jesus, and one time Jesus told him he was going to end up with a pretty good return on that investment.

But I don’t know if anybody was more invested in Jesus than John the Baptist. It seems like John could have had pretty good life following the priestly calling that he was in line for. But instead he spent most of his life in the wilderness—Luke tells us that he was living there even before he started preaching (1:80), and if anything the Bible says about John is to be believed, it was anything but a plush, cushy lifestyle. Jesus says as much here in Matthew 11—John lived the prophet’s lifestyle in the desert, far from the fine robes people would have found if they had gone looking in the palaces. He was out in the wilderness, living a life of denial, decked out in rough looking clothes, eating locusts and wild honey, and all of it was investment in the kingdom of God.

Continue reading “Are You the One?—A Sermon from Matthew 11”

The Sending—A Sermon from Matthew 10

As we’ve been walking through Matthew’s story, we’ve walked with Jesus through several episodes that reveal his authority. Jesus teaches with authority and orders around demons with authority. He claims the authority to forgive sins, and  points his finger at the sky and demands that the storm obey him. The people in the story who get it are the ones who understand his authority, and either come to him humbly, needing his authoritative action, or who obey his call to follow. The ones who get it are the lepers and tax collectors, the blind and the lame.  They are the ones who, apparently conscious of their own brokenness, recognize the authority of Jesus to do something about it. We’ve been seeing the story through their eyes, and our attention and focus have been centered on Jesus.

And then, here in chapter ten, there is a startling turning point in the gospel. Like a skilled filmmaker who suddenly changes the focus of a lens, bringing what was blurred in the background of the shot into clear focus, Matthew reveals that he is not simply telling the story about Jesus, but about his disciples. They’ve been there the whole time—following Jesus from synagogue to synagogue, town to town, house to house. They’ve been watching him teach, hearing him proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven, and then they’ve watched him act out that sermon by healing the sick, casting out demons, and offering forgiveness. They’ve been here the whole time, but always in the background. But now, Matthew twists the lens, and they suddenly jump from the background to the front of the story.

Continue reading “The Sending—A Sermon from Matthew 10”

Kingdom Come: A Sermon about Matthew's Genealogy

He was the “Son of God”, the “bringer of Good News”, the Lord, the Savior, the one who would restore order and justice to the earth—at least that was Rome’s official story about Caesar.  History also seems to look favorably on the Pax Romana, and in many ways, that version of reality isn’t that far off. The Roman Empire brought relative peace, wealth, and stability to many in the mediterranean world.

However, there was another side to life in Caesar’s world. Beneath the heel of the empire were whole peoples, exploited for the empire’s sake, hopeless to fight back against the efficient military machine of Rome’s storied army. In Palestine, a particularly dark cloud hung over the recipients of Caesar’s “good news”. The Jewish people living in Judea and Galilee lived in a world in which power was king—and they had none of it. They had always been a proud people, and once a powerful nation, but now lived under another flag. Over and over again they rose up to resist the Empire, trying to beat the empire at its own game by asserting their own power—and they failed miserably. Rome brutally asserted its power over what was, to them, a strategic territory filled with a stubborn, irritating, and irrational people. Religious leaders based in the temple used divine distinction to stoke the fires of resentment that justified bouts of armed revolution. Many a would-be leader rose to fame by resisting the Romans, claiming divine consent for their revolutionary attempts to throw the pagans out. Certainly not everyone joined in the violence, but everyone felt the force of Rome’s response to it. To some it was an empire of peace, but to others, it was an empire of violence.

Also, while it was an empire of wealth, it was also an empire of poverty, built on the backs of slaves and enslaved nations. Wealth drifted upward, and the few who controlled land or other means increased their assets while the poor became poorer with each generation. Some of the most recent historical work is trying to move beyond simple binary descriptions as elite/nonelite or haves/have-nots, but even still, the best estimate show that between 75-97 percent of the population in the roman world lived in poverty, if that is defined by living at or near subsistence level.

Beyond that violence and turbulence, the economic conditions were tough as well. Under  the empire and its elite accomplices, a small minority controlled land, food, and wealth. Although historians are working to get beyond simple distinctions like elite/poor, the best estimates now are that somewhere between 75% to 97% of the population across the empire lived in poverty—meaning at or below subsistence levels, with very few resources. Palestine, having been rocked by violence and dependent on agriculture, was worse off than most areas.  For many of the Jews of Palestine, life under the Roman empire was anything but a life of wealth—it was a life of poverty.

As far as stability goes, Rome knew that it needed local leaders who sought to keep the people in check, and found more than enough who were willing to become accomplices to the empire’s power in exchange for a few of the empire’s coins. These imperial elite played a dangerous game, negotiating the terms of the relationship between the people and the empire. When the people were pushed too far, revolution erupted. When the empire’s power was too openly challenged, the military convincingly crushed the opposition. The imperial elites danced between these two, trying to keep both parties reasonably content in the effort to maintain their own power, and often failing. Thus the people of Judea and Galilee faced a cycle of would-be revolution, followed by crackdowns, growing dissatisfaction, and new uprisings.

Caesar promised a world of peace, wealth, and stability. For many of the people living in Jerusalem, Judea, and Galilee in the first century, the reality was a life of violence, poverty, and turbulence. Is it any wonder that many of the people were anxious for a change? Caesar’s world was a world where power stood in the place of justice, where influence held more sway than righteousness, and where rich and the poor were nearly destined to become richer and poorer. Depending on who you were, you either hoped it would go on forever, or hoped and prayed that God would intervene, and remake the world into something else.

The book of Matthew grows out of the latter perspective, and is thoroughly subversive to the empire. It begins with the assumption that this is not Caesar’s world. It is God’s world, and God has been active in it a lot longer than Caesar could imagine. The book’s opening line, “The book of the generations of Jesus Christ” calls us back to Genesis, to the story of God creating the world and of God’s relationships and promises to the patriarchs. It points toward the language Genesis uses to introduce its own narrative (“The book of the generations of the heavens and the earth” Gen 2:4), and to move to new phases of the story. (5:1, 10:1, etc.). Matthew uses it here to let the reader know that he is about to tell about a new phase in that same story. He does all this because he wants us to know, from the very beginning, that this is not a narrative set in Caesar’s world—it is God’s world, and Caesar is just living in it. Beyond that, the genealogy is a substitute for a formula such as “in the days of Caesar Augustus…”, and gives the story of Jesus it’s primary context, which is not in the history of the Roman empire, but in the narrative of God’s covenant people. He is the son of Abraham and the son of David, being born in this moment of the story of God’s people.

Matthew marks the significance of the moment by structuring his genealogical list into three periods. There is the period from Abraham to David, one from David to the Exile, and from the exile to the moment of Jesus. Abraham, David, the Exile, represent critical moments in the story, and by noting the time, Matthew is underlining the importance of Jesus. Matthew 1:17 points out the symmetry of this for the reader, “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.” The only problem is, Matthew’s math is wrong. 

Most of the time, we don’t notice stuff like this because we read the Bible too quickly, but if you count up the named generations Matthew lists, the numbers should be fourteen, fourteen, and thirteen. Now, to be clear, I don’t think that’s a mistake—ancient authors loved to play with numbers in settings like this, and I feel certain that Matthew is doing this on purpose, somewhat playfully. I think he is setting us up to look at the story and ask, “Who comes after Jesus?” It’s a great way to open his book, because the rest of the gospel really teases out this question, as Jesus recruits disciples, teaches them about a new way of life, and then eventually charges them to do the exact same thing, replicating their experience of discipleship throughout the world. The genealogy is therefore connected with the rest of Matthew’s story, right up to the end, where Jesus gives the great commission, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew’s gospel, from the genealogy to the commission, points to the question, “Who comes after Jesus?” and, I think, to an answer.

The answer is “us.” We are the descendants of Jesus. Ultimately, Jesus’s work is producing a sustained community that lives consciously under the reign of God—a community of which we are now a part. In our living as disciples of Jesus we find ourselves in Jesus’s story, and the mission of his life become our mission. We continue his story. We are the fourteenth generation.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Some folks worry about who their ancestors were. I am more concerned with who my descendants will be.” Matthew’s story shares that concern, and even the genealogy, which seems to look back, looks forward to the fulfillment of Jesus’s mission. As we take our part in that mission, may we look forward to its fulfillment as well, and trust that to that end  we will be used by God, for God’s own glory.  Amen.

Matthew's Genealogy and the End of the Exile

After reading N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, I read Matthew’s genealogy a little differently this morning.

Reflecting on the way I normally read Matthew’s first chapter, I think I have typically read the counts that Matthew offers as simply being about the persons involved—Abraham to David, David to Jechoniah, and Jechoniah to Jesus. I’ve typically thought about that as one of the playful ways that Matthew, like the other gospels, shows that Jesus is in fact the Messiah.  I suppose that reading is fine as far as it goes, but this morning a new layer seemed apparent.

One of the insights from Wright that I found extremely helpful was the perspective that Israel still thought about itself as in exile into the new Testament period—indeed, for many Jews, long after that period. The spirit of the day was one of waiting for the promised day of Israel’s full restoration from exile. (There is so much more to be said about this.)

Reading Matthew with that perspective fresh on my mind, it’s clear that the counted generations are not there simply to highlight certain people, but also the periods between those persons. So you’re looking at the period leading up to the Davidic kingdom, the period of the rule of the Davidic kings, and the period of exile during which those kings lost their throne.

What seems to me to be extremely significant in that reading is that by Matthew’s reckoning, Jesus then represents the true end to the exile, the inauguration of a new period in the Davidic kingship.  This doesn’t deny my normal way of reading the text, but certainly shifts the emphasis towards what is happening with Israel in the coming of Jesus.