It is an undisputed fact that the majority of people in the United States believe in God or a higher power of some sorts. I believe the last figures I saw were roughly in the area of 87-90 percent. It’s really quite an astounding figure given the rapid advances in science and technology, and it is also quite interesting given that many scholars and pundits once believed that religious belief would eventually go the way of the dinosaur as science exerted itself as the true path to knowledge. But belief in God hasn’t gone the way of the dinosaur partially because science has run into its own limitations and partially because, I think, there is a deep seeded desire in humanity to long for our creator. One of these is provable; the other, not so much, but I will say that I am not the only person who thinks we have an innate longing for God. Folks who are much smarter than I have said as much.
But regardless of the why, there is the definite fact that most people believe in God; however, not everyone adheres to a religious belief. Not everyone belongs to a particular religion. Not everyone attends worship. Oftentimes a person’s faith remains highly individualistic and very private. Face it, when we walk around society, for the most part you cannot tell the difference between someone who believes and someone who doesn’t believe.
The reason for this, I think, is that we have defined faith as something we simply believe. It is a certain type of knowledge. I can intellectually come to the understanding that there is a God, but if that thought simply stays in my head, then it oftentimes doesn’t make much of a difference in my life. Recently, I have had several talks with a man who has struggled with whether or not God exists. After a couple of talks and presenting him with a book that I have found helpful, he agreed that the preponderance of the evidence points toward the existence of God. However, he told me bluntly, “It hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference in my life.”
I responded, “That’s because it’s all up in your head. It hasn’t gotten down into your heart yet.”
He then asked, “How does that happen?”
And that, my friends, is the ultimate question, isn’t it? That, my friends, is the difference between people who simply believe in God and people who actively worship God and live for God. For the two of these are not the same. One sees faith as an intellectual assertion and the other sees faith as a lived out relationship, and one of these is much, much more prevalent than the other. One of these is intellectual, and the other is transformational. So, how does one move from intellect to true transformation? I think our lesson from the book of Mark this morning gives us some insight.
This short snippet is actually jam packed with lessons of who Jesus is; what He is here to do; and the nature of what truly is transformative. It begins with the gospel writer telling us that Jesus has returned home to Capernaum. He is in a house, and the majority of the commentators I consulted believe this is Peter or Andrew’s house. Jesus has been preaching around the countryside, and is looking to rest. However, his message has proved popular, and soon a large crowd gathers around the house to hear Jesus proclaim the Word.
While most of us might think it impressive that Jesus draws such a large number of people, the crowd actually becomes a hindrance in this case. In fact, throughout the book of Mark, the crowd almost universally is a barrier to people trying to find healing from the Master. Mark Edwards picks up on this in his commentary with these brilliant words, “Being part of the crowd around Jesus is not the same as being a disciple of Jesus. The crowd stands and observes; disciples must commit themselves to action...” In this particular instance, the four men carrying their friend are acting as disciples, for they take drastic action to get their friend to Jesus. They climb up on the roof of the house and dig a hole through the roof.
Walter Wessel describes the house in this way, “In order to understand the action these verses describe, it is necessary to visualize the layout of a typical Palestinian peasant’s house. It was usually a small one-room structure with a flat roof. Access to the roof was by means of an outside stairway. The roof itself was usually made of wooden beams with thatch and compacted earth in order to shed the rain. Sometimes tiles were laid between the beams and the thatch and earth placed over them.”
So, these four men, carry their friend to the roof, remove the tiles, dig through the thatch and dirt, and make a way for their friend. They will stop at nothing to get their friend to Jesus. And there is no way possible that Jesus didn’t notice this. It is highly probable that dirt rained down upon His head as these men tore through the roof. He was showered with dirt and debris, and then the paralytic is lowered down and laid at his feet. Mark tells us that Jesus first observed the faith of these men.
Now, before we get into what Jesus does next, let me make the clear distinction of what faith means here. Faith is not an intellectual belief. It is much more than that. Faith here is something that compels action. It is something down deep within these men. It is something which leads them to place their ultimate trust, not in themselves; not in the scribes or the chief priests; not in doctors or healers; but in Jesus.
Again, Mark Edwards cuts through our feeble notions of intellectual faith when he writes the following, “If an opening to Jesus cannot be found, one must be made. That is a description of faith: it will remove any obstacle–even a roof if necessary–to get to Jesus. The first mention of faith in (the book of) Mark significantly links it with acting rather than with knowing or feeling. We know nothing of the beliefs of the four friends of the paralytic except that they take action, including circumventing crowds and removing roofs to ensure their charge is brought to Jesus. Faith is first and foremost not knowledge about Jesus but active trust that Jesus is sufficient for one’s deepest and most heartfelt needs.”
Faith is first and foremost not knowledge about Jesus but active trust that Jesus is sufficient for one’s deepest and most heartfelt needs.
Again, this ties directly to the remarks I made at the beginning of this sermon–this marks the difference between someone who believes there is a God and those who deeply trust God and walk with a true transformation in their lives. For oftentimes, those who believe in God do not put their trust in Him. It is human nature to trust in things that we can see and control. It is human nature to trust ourselves to achieve what we want and desire. We trust our knowledge, our checkbooks, our ability to work, our looks, our government, our doctors, our lawyers, our gender, our sexuality, our ethnicity, our heritage, in money, in possessions, in the church, in people, in science, in technology, and in a whole host of other things. But true faith recognizes these things as barriers. They actually prevent us from living our lives in radical trust in God. And the reason we seem to lack peace and assurance in our lives is that all of these other things we put our trust into will let us down. None of these things can fully satisfy us. None of these things is perfect. None of these things can ultimately be sufficient for our deepest and most heartfelt needs. So, again that begs the question: how can we move from depending upon ourselves; from depending on all those other things to a radical dependence upon God? Let’s continue with the story.
When Jesus sees the paralytic laying at His feet, He does something rather odd. He does NOT say, “Friend, I have compassion for you. Get up and walk.” No. Those aren’t the first words out of Jesus’ mouth. Instead, Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Why would Jesus say this? It doesn’t seem like the man needs forgiveness. It seems like he needs healing. Why not jump straight to the healing?
I think it has something to do with the reaction of the scribes. Immediately after Jesus pronounces forgiveness, the scribes get angry. They say, “Who can forgive sins but God alone? This is blasphemy.”
The reason the scribes say this is because of the thread that runs strongly through the Old Testament; a thread that said: the reason a person becomes sick, paralyzed, or has anything bad happen to them is a result of that person’s sin. So, if a person did something wrong–broke a commandment, failed to offer a sacrifice, or what have you–then God would strike them with a malady. God would put that person under His curse. Because of this view, the scribes believed that the paralyzed man was under God’s curse. They believed he was suffering as a consequence of his sin. No man could remove that curse. No man could bring that kind of forgiveness. Only God could. Jesus is putting Himself as God’s spoke’s person, and that was completely and utterly disrespectful for a man to do.
But Jesus knew the hearts of the scribes, and He knew this was a teachable moment. Jesus turns to the scribes and asks, “Which is easier: to say your sins are forgiven or rise, take up your mat and walk?” In reality the easiest thing to say was, “Your sins are forgiven.” This actually could not be verified immediately. No one could tell if God had indeed forgiven a person’s sin, so it was easy to say but hard to verify. On the other hand, to say, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk,” was to take a troublesome risk. If you were to say this, it could not easily be verified. If you were to say this and the person were not able to walk, then you would revealed as a fraud. You would be shown to have no blessing or authorization of God. And in reality, neither of these things are easy at all. Both of these things are impossible for humans. But both are quite easy for God.
Jesus brings this straight forward to the crowd when He then says, “But so that you will know that the Son of Man has the authority to forgive sins on earth,” turning toward the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, take up your mat and go home.” And the man did. Jesus shows that He indeed has both the power of forgiveness and the power to heal. And everyone went away praising God and saying, “We have never seen anything like this.”
Now, what hadn’t the crowd seen before? What cause them to rejoice so much? From their perspective, they had never seen a man remove God’s curse from one who was afflicted. They had never seen a man remove God’s punishment from someone who had sinned. Such a thing was unheard of. Jesus became the one who forgave, cured, and restored to wholeness.
Let me quote William Lane here, “It was not [and is not] God’s intention that man should live with the pressure of death upon him. Sickness, disease and death are the consequence of the sinful condition of all men. Consequently every healing is a driving back of death and an invasion of the providence of sin. That is why it is appropriate for Jesus to proclaim the remission of sins....Jesus’ pronouncement of pardon is the recognition that man can be genuinely whole only when the breach occasioned by sin has been healed through God’s forgiveness of sins.”
Only can we be truly whole when the breach occasioned by sin has been healed through God’s forgiveness of sins. We will not find wholeness; we will not find peace; we will not find fulfillment until we understand how we have been forgiven of our sins. Our trust of God will not become a heart thing until we understand what Christ has done in removing the curse of sin through the cross. And this is not something we can accomplish on our own.
The paralytic could not come to Jesus on his own. His friends had to take him, but his friends could only get him so far. They could not heal his paralyzed legs. They could not forgive his sins. They could not restore his relationship with God or with his body. Only Jesus could. Only Jesus could make that happen, and they trusted Jesus to accomplish that. They did not trust themselves. And Jesus made it happen. Jesus removed the curse of sin and restored the paralytic to wholeness–body and soul. It was an act of sheer grace. What could not be accomplished by themselves; what could not be accomplished by any human being was accomplished by God and God alone.
Faith moves from being a head thing–an intellectual process–to a heart thing, to transformation when we put our trust in what Jesus has done and not what we do. It’s when we drive through anything and everything that seeks to keep us from Him. It’s when we acknowledge our sinfulness, our need for forgiveness, our need to be made whole that God will move us from our head into our heart–will show us the true level of His mercy–the true level of His love. When in our brokenness, we are laid at the feet of Jesus; when we hear Him say, “Your sins are forgiven.”; when we hear Him say, “Be made whole”; when we experience this sheer grace even before uttering a single word, this changes the way we look at the world; it changes our hearts; it changes our minds; it changes our actions.
Christianity says: your life will not be changed until you can begin to grasp the mystery of grace–the mystery of being loved while broken–the mystery of being loved when you don’t deserve it–the mystery of being forgiven by the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the son into the world not to condemn you but to save you. Amen.