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Focus Text: Mark 2:1-12
As this passage of Mark’s gospel opens, we find Jesus in
Capernaum in a house that the context suggests was actually his house. When word gets around that
he’s returned home, people begin gathering at the house – clamoring for
attention, to hear him and experience some of the healing that he had been
offering (note the previous passages in chapter 1). His fame was already
spreading, and people camped out wherever he went (like a rock star). I sort of
imagine him fighting his way into the living area of the house and, feeling
obligated and compassionate to those who had shown up, began to preach.
But while he’s preaching, over the din he hears the sound of
digging in the ceiling. Now first century homes like this one had flat roofs
with an outside staircase leading to the top, so it wasn’t unusual for people
to be on the roof – but as the mud and dirt begin to rain down on him, Jesus
looks up to see an ever-widening hole appear and then a stretcher being lowered
in front of him. Talk about an intrusion! You think a brick tossed at your Jag
is a hassle – imagine someone digging a hole in your roof!
But Jesus is seemingly unfazed and recognizes what is
happening – four friends go to extraordinary, audacious lengths to get their
friend in front of Jesus, believing that Jesus could do something for him. And
Jesus is slowed down enough in his spirit to engage the young man and hear the
cry for help without anger or indignation.
After all, that was a primary focus of Jesus’ mission. Turn
back to Mark 1:15. Here we see the theme Jesus’ preaching and activity boiled
down to one sentence: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near.
Repent and believe the good news!” For first century Jews, the phrase “Kingdom
of God” had both spiritual and political connotations. When they heard “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of Heaven”
(the terms are interchangeable), it meant to them the “reign” of God – that God
would somehow return to dwell with them (in the Temple) in a powerful way, and
that also God would throw out the pagan Roman oppressors who occupied their
land. Jesus’ message that “the Kingdom of God” was at hand would have been
music to their ears at first, but it would become clear that Jesus’
interpretation of that phrase was much different than the peoples’ expectation.
The mindset of much of first century Israel was focused on
who was “in” and who was “out” as the true people of God. Those who followed
the Torah (the law) to the letter, those who were healthy and strong, were
“in”. Sinners (prostitutes, tax collectors, and the like), Romans, the blind,
the lame, the infirmed, were out. It was a very exclusive definition of the
Kingdom. Jesus, however, focuses his idea of the Kingdom of God on bringing the
outsiders in. Mark wants us to understand that in Jesus’ ministry healings and exorcisms were evidence of
God’s Kingdom breaking in. Look at the previous context in chapter 1. The
healing of the leper is a classic example in 1:40-45. Lepers (leprosy being a
horrific skin disease) were outcasts, living in colonies outside the community.
Jesus heals the man and commands him to “show himself to the priests” – a
restoration to the community “as a testimony to them”. The healing of the body,
the healing of spirit through the exorcism of evil, were not just cool miracles
but pointed statements by Jesus on the inclusive kind of Kingdom he was
In fact, the ministry of Jesus was largely about making
people whole. In the Bible there is a deep
connection between body and spirit. Those of us in the Western world have
bought into the mindset of ancient Greek philosophy (Plato) that we have a body
and a soul and they’re separate parts. That’s not the worldview of the Bible
and the ancient Hebrews. The Bible sees the person as a whole – body and spirit
as one part, not separate entities. What we do with one affects the other.
This week I’ve been reading Thomas Long’s excellent new book
on Christian funerals, Accompany Them
With Singing, where he points out how we are to understand the relationship
between body and spirit from a biblical perspective:
"Christians…do not believe that human beings are only bodies, nor do they believe that
they are souls who, for the time being, have
bodies; Christians affirm, rather, that human beings are embodied. What others call “the soul”
and “the body,” Christians call the “breath of God” and dust; and when it comes
to living human beings, they form an inseparable unity. There is no such
reality in the Christian lexicon as “the real me” apart from “the embodied me”
In fact, a first-century Jew would have thought that if one
was sick or infirmed it was because either they or someone in their family had
done some terrible sin. See John 9 for a great treatise on that.
The point is that one does not heal the body without the
soul and vice versa. There’s evidence for this in modern medicine as well –
witness the number of articles by physicians on the connection between prayer
and healing. We are only truly “healthy” when we recognize this connection and
recognize that we can’t destroy our bodies through excess and abuse and expect
to have a peaceful spirit, nor can we harbor anger, evil thoughts, grudges,
stress, etc. and expect our bodies to be healthy. One affects the other.
For Jesus, then, the
basic prescription for healing is forgiveness. The word “sin” in the New
Testament is translated from the Greek word “hamartia” – a term borrowed from
archery that literally means “to miss the mark.” That’s a broad definition of
sin that’s more than a simple list of
“bad” things we might do. The Bible sees sin more like a disease – a
spiritual and, oftentimes, physical illness that separates us from God and each
other. When we “sin” we’re not becoming the whole and healthy people we were
created to be.
The cure, then, is forgiveness – the forgiveness of God.
Jesus looks at the young man at his feet, the hole in his roof, the anxious
faces of his friends staring down and says, “Son, your sins are forgiven”. Now,
you can read this a couple of ways: Jesus might simply be forgiving the man and
his friends for trashing his house or, more likely, Jesus recognizes the
desperation in this young man, his friends, and all the people gathered in the
house. They are all in need of health and wholeness – they are all in need of a
new start, a fresh target.
Who could offer that? In the first century view, forgiveness
could come from God alone. That’s why when Jesus says to the young man, “Your
sins are forgiven” there seems to be a collective gasp from the crowd gathered
in the house. Jesus had just done what only God could do, thus Mark makes it
clear that healing and forgiveness were
signs of Jesus’ divine authority. The religious leaders cried “Blasphemy!”
They would do this often, because Jesus would constantly claim this authority –
and then back it up. “Which is easier” Jesus asks them, to say “Your sins are
forgiven” or “Get up, take your mat and walk? But that you might know that the
Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins…get up, take up your mat,
and go home.” And the young man does just that – released from the infirmity
and the weight of sin on him. Jesus had indeed done what only God could do. The
implication? Jesus is God’s own representative – the “son of man” – God himself
– with all the authority in heaven and earth to forgive sin.
In Jesus name, the disciples would be granted that same
authority (that’s what we see in Acts 3 and in many other instances throughout
the New Testament). To forgive and be forgiven, to be able to start anew and
heal, is the authority and commandment of God given to us. The cure for what ails us is grace – receiving and transmitting the
forgiveness and reconciliation of God.
But forgiveness, while we all agree is part of Jesus’ agenda,
is much harder for us to embrace in practice. In fact, for many people forgiveness is offensive. The religious
leaders of Jesus’ day very much embraced their authority to punish people for
their transgressions. Their thinking was that people should “get what they
deserve”. That’s one of the reasons Jesus is nailed to a cross – to punish him
for believing and demonstrating that everyone is eligible to receive the grace
and forgiveness of God. We read about them, see them on the movie screen, and
shake our heads – how could they be so blind?
Well – how many people in reality feel the same way? How
many people wear their grudges and desire for revenge as a weight around their
necks every day? Someone has wronged me, someone has taken from me, someone has
messed up my life. They deserve everything that’s coming to them. And if they
want forgiveness, they’ll have to come begging for it. Forgiveness is elusive
while revenge is sweet. But it’s that sweetness that makes us sick.
And while forgiving someone else is hard, forgiving
ourselves is even more difficult. Many people are held down by their past,
regretful, spiteful, depressed – all because they can’t forgive themselves for
Forgiveness is hard,
but it’s the only way to spiritual health. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we forget the wrong
someone has done to us or what we’ve done ourselves. It doesn’t mean that our
actions don’t have consequences. What forgiveness means is giving up our desire
to punish and giving ourselves over to God’s grace. Forgiveness means that we
release the anger and regret, knowing that holding on to it only hurts us in
the long run. It’s the only cure for the disease of sin.
All of us need the forgiveness of God that is offered
through Christ. Sin is a chronic disease. For what do you need to be forgiven?
What are the things in your life that keep you from health? What is the sick
bed that you need to leave behind – to rise take up your mat and walk into a
new future that God is offering you?
And who do you need to forgive? What feelings do you need to
let go of? Who needs the forgiveness of God coming through you? Remember,
forgiveness is not so much about the other person’s response but about our need
for health and wholeness. We need to slow down and recognize that often the
bricks that get thrown at us and holes that get punched in roof are cries from
others for our help!
As we move through Mark’s gospel, it’s important for us to
remember that it begins with Jesus proclaiming and offering forgiveness,
health, restoration – and it ends the same say – when even amidst the pain of
the cross, the violence of injustice and revenge, Jesus calls out “Father,
forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
That’s a powerful message for us. May you find health in
giving and receiving the forgiveness of
This week's sermon podcast is up on iTunes and on our web site. I really enjoyed talking about Matthew this week and all the thematic stuff that's so important to understanding where the text is taking us. I've also attached the Powerpoint slides from this morning's sermon so that you can follow along and have the notes Just click on Download Matthew.
Despite spending ten years in the military, I can't say that I've ever been much of a runner. Maybe it was the whole obligation thing or, perhaps more likely, it's just the pain of it all. I remember in basic training that I got shin splints so bad that I had to go on sick call (the one and only time I ever did). They sent me to the hospital for some physical therapy for half a day, where a pretty second lieutenant nurse gave me a leg massage and showed me some stretches to do to loosen up the leg muscles. Best moment of the whole basic training experience, I might add.
The next morning, we ran another ten miles and a couple of buddies carried me up the barracks stairs. But the stretches (and the memory of the nurse) helped me get back on my feet each day. From then on, running was way more like work than anything close to fun.
Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run, however, may have convinced me to try it again (I've become more obsessed with the bike in recent years). His look at a tribe in the remote wilds of Mexico and their running habits was inspirational and informative. Imagine, for example, running 50 miles at a pop and actually enjoying the experience. These folks run ultramarathons like they were a simple walk across the street.
Turns out that there's a reason for it–as humans we were, indeed, born to run. Our physiology and structure are designed for us to cover long distances, which our human ancestors used to literally run down food like deer, who are designed for the short sprint. McDougall's discussion of all the anatomical and cultural background of that is a fascinating read.
What interested me even more, though, was the assertion that we were born to run but born to do it with very little padding on our feet. Running shoes, it turns out, are actually what cause most of the pain in our bodies when we run as our feet search out a harder surface to push off on and covet the opportunity to splay outward. I now know why my kids insist on running around outside in their bare feet–that's the natural thing to do! I'm trying to imagine an army platoon running in bare feet, but you get the picture. McDougall's case is compelling and backed by a lot of evidence.
The book is structured around an impending race between the Tarahumara and some American ultramarathoners that takes place in the remotest of wilderness areas, out of the limelight of media coverage. Those sections read almost like a novel. McDougall's a good writer and this book will hook you.
I was a little disappointed that he didn't offer much in the way of tips for those of us who may have been inspired by the book. I, for one, am a little skeptical about running being that much fun, but this book at least gives me the impetus to try it the right way.
All in all, a really interesting book about changing one's perceptions and expectations.
One man. Nine extraordinary quests. On a mission to understand the mysteries of modern life — from love to work to fame — A.J. Jacobs becomes a human guinea pig and immerses himself in a series of radical lifestyle experiments. To figure out how to reclaim his dignity, he follows George Washington’s 110 Rules of Life. To explore fame, he goes undercover as a movie star. To investigate dating, he becomes a single woman. To understand decision-making, he tries to eliminate irrationality from his brain. And many more. The results are equal parts funny and enlightening. Go ahead, immerse yourself in these new worlds. To see the new video, click here.
A.J. Jacobs is one of my favorite writers and I can't wait to read his new book "The Guinea Pig Diaries." Jacobs is the author of another book that I reviewed and mentioned in a sermon–"The Year of Living Biblically." His stuff is interesting, hilarious, and kind of says out loud what many of us would be thinking.