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....To Forgive is Divine

…..To Forgive is Divine

Reading: Mark 2:1-12

Introduction: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Those very familiar words begin Mark’s account of the story of Jesus. We usually don’t spend much time with Mark’s gospel at this time of year. After all, December sermons are supposed to be preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and Mark didn’t take time in his account to tell us that story. In fact, if all we had was Mark’s gospel we would not have any idea that the birth or any other aspect of Jesus’ life was important until he reached the time of his ministry. Mark skips those stories and leads off with the ministry of John the Baptist. Our first encounter with Jesus Christ, the Son of God is when he comes to be baptized by John. John tells us that there is one coming after him that is more important than John; in fact while John baptizes with water, the one coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Then comes Jesus, and upon being baptized there is a voice from heaven: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” Heavenly words thus confirm Mark’s initial announcement.
But who is Jesus? Where did he come from? Is he human or not human? If he is already Divine, why is the Spirit descending upon him at this point? Mark’s struggle is one that we have ourselves when we step back and ask about the nature of Jesus. It is easy to say he is fully human and he is fully divine, but what does that mean? When the Hebrews writer tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin, where is the divine part? When Jesus performs miracles and speaks words that only God can speak, where is the human part? How do you tell this story of the beginning of the gospel when you skip Christmas? Mark proceeds by giving us a series of very human snapshots here at the beginning of his story. Jesus, comes to John; Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness; Jesus comes to Galilee preaching God’s gospel: The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel. That’s his message, and it sounds like a human voice, not a divine voice at that point. Then Mark tells us about Jesus walking beside the sea, calling four guys to leave their nets and follow him. With access to no other information, it appears that when Jesus speaks, people drop everything and follow him.
Then comes the encounter in the synagogue; Jesus is teaching so he is perceived already by the people as some sort of teacher. But then the unclean spirit cries out, announcing “I know who you are; you are the holy one of God.” We see the divine at work as Jesus speaks with more power than an ordinary human—“Be silent and come out of him,” he says. In a contest between unclean spirits and the Holy Spirit empowered Jesus, Jesus wins! The audience is impressed. They ask, “Who is this? He commands even unclean spirits and they obey him.” Mark then tells about multiple healings as Jesus enters the home of Simon and Andrew, heals the mother-in-law of Peter and then countless others as people line up at the door to be healed. The demons know who he is, but he has the power to forbid them to speak. So who is Jesus? Perhaps a more intriguing question is, what is it like to be Jesus in these stories? To see these circumstances through his eyes? To be overwhelmed with crowds because of the power to heal. To go off by yourself in prayer and determine not to go back to town where the crowds are but move on because the crowds are now in the way of you fulfilling your mission.
What’s it like to be Jesus when the leper falls at his feet, and he has choices to make? We expect him to heal the man by this time in Mark’s gospel, but Mark also shows the humanity of Jesus as he has compassion and then actually touches the leper as a sign of his acceptance. And think what Mark has accomplished in just 45 verses in establishing the ministry and identity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That is the background to the story we read last week, the story of the paralyzed man let down through the roof by his friends. Last week we explored this incident through the eyes of the paralyzed man, and we found ourselves in the story, not as the four friends on the roof or as witnesses in the crowd but as the paralytic made human and whole by Jesus. This morning, I want to enter the story again, but this time through the eyes of Jesus. Think what it must have been like after the story of healing the leper got out. With a mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God as your primary mission, now you can’t enter a town because the crowds are too big. One would think big crowds would be good, but in this case they not! So you stay out in the country for a few days before returning to town. This soon into your ministry, so many people are around that you can’t preach! Doesn’t that sound odd? Your power to heal people is interfering with your mission!
When you return to town, you create a situation where the crowd can be limited by the size of the room you’re in. And you go about doing what you are here to do—preaching and teaching. Then comes the disturbance on the roof, the mat lowered through the ceiling, the sermon interrupted. So what do you see? If you are Jesus, what do you see? You look up and you see four guys willing to make you and a whole lot of people very angry—especially the homeowner—because of their conviction that you can heal their friend. You see a invalid man—a religious and social outcast now laying there at your feet. You see the embodiment of all that you came to correct in this world. As this one man represents all that you came to change, you boldly announce your identity.
Your sins are forgiven. Those are the most powerful words you can utter in order to declare your true identity.
Some people get it immediately—only they don’t get it! And you know what they’re thinking. Only God can forgive sins! Blasphemy! They understand the concept, they just don’t grasp your identity. To demonstrate your ultimate authority you then provide a more visual manifestation of your authority. You command the man to rise, take up his bed and walk. And before everyone’s eyes, physical health is restored, giving credibility to the larger pronouncement of forgiveness. So the man walks out whole, the crowd is amazed even if they are baffled by what they have seen.
I asked you to identify with Jesus in this story, but there is a problem with that isn’t there? After all, Jesus is acting in divine ways in this story, claiming the prerogative of God to forgive sins. He is acting within his identity that we try to understand when we claim he lives with two natures—100 % human and 100 % divine. So in this story, which parts of Jesus can we imitate and which parts can we only watch from a distance? Are we to discern the human parts of Jesus in this story and imitate that, and omit the rest?
I want to return to the language of John the Baptist for a moment in Mark’s gospel: “I baptize you with water, he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Remember, when Jesus is baptized by John with this baptism of water, what happens? The Holy Spirit descends and the voice comes from the heavens. Now fast forward with me to life after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Mark’s gospel ends—at least I believe it originally ended—quite abruptly in v. 8 of chapter sixteen with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead and the women who have discovered the empty tomb walk off in fear and silence. Mark’s story of the “beginning” is over, and the question is, what happens next? It is almost as if Mark is asking his audience to complete the story. So we find ourselves running to Luke-Acts to find out what happens next. Luke tells us that after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the mission of the church begins when the same Holy Spirit that came upon Jesus comes upon the church. In fact Peter announces that the path to salvation is now open to all whom the Lord calls to himself. People who respond in faith to the gracious call imitate Jesus. Just as he was baptized and received the Holy Spirit, so his followers are baptized and receive the Holy Spirit.
Now for many of you, I know that Acts 2:38 is old news this morning—Peter’s command to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins and reception of the Holy Spirit—that’s the verse that we get all hung up on and start asking all of those questions about whether one has to be baptized or not in order to be saved. Notice, that is not how I framed the question this morning. Luke tells the same story as Mark about John’s baptism of Jesus and the Spirit’s descent. The issue here not a command to do something new, but an invitation to imitate Jesus. Here’s my point, and my ultimate question this morning: when we imitate Jesus in baptism and we receive the Holy Spirit, what happens to our nature? We talk about the human and the divine in Jesus and how that makes him different from us in the end. We can imitate the human in Jesus but not the God-nature. But is that true? When we imitate his baptism there is the promise that what happened to him happens to us. The Holy Spirit comes upon us as well. So now what is our nature? It’s no longer 100 % human and 0% divine, is it? And when it comes to the imitation of Jesus in this story in Mark 2, are we at not called to imitate the divine in Jesus as well as the human? In fact if the most divine element in this story is his power to forgive sins, and if, as Mark portrays it, the physical healing is both secondary and even at times a hindrance to the mission of proclamation, then our imitation should focus on the greater offer of divine presence.
Listen to how Paul describes this in II Corinthians 5, beginning with verse 14: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Do you hear what he is saying? Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation! That’s what Jesus offered the paralyzed man; that’s what has been given to us. And with new creation comes the very ministry that Jesus himself brought to the paralytic, reconciliation. Not counting trespasses against people. Forgiveness of sins. We no longer regard others from a human point of view because we have become like Christ. He died for all so that we might no longer live for ourselves but for him who died and was raised for us. When we stop being the paralytic and are made whole by Jesus, we become like Jesus! We are given his mission, his ministry of reconciliation. We bring to others the very announcement of forgiveness that he brought to the paralytic. And we do so, not with mere human words but with that same Holy Spirit presence and empowerment. We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us. We are no longer people only of human nature; we are people who share in divine nature. The paradox of Jesus becomes the paradox within us! Just as it is futile to speak of percentages in Jesus, it is futile to speak of them in us. Paul understands that with us, the divine nature not yet fully complete. We are in process. Day by day we are being transformed into the image and glory of Christ. But the call to be like Jesus, the call given through the presence of the Holy Spirit within us is to be Jesus. We are no longer just the victim in this story. We become the new nature and we announce to others, “your sins are forgiven.” This is more than bumper sticker theology that says “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” We are ambassadors! We no longer see through old nature, human nature eyes. We no longer regard one another from a human point of view. That new vision is what makes this a safe place! We see each other with the eyes of Jesus. We see even ourselves with the eyes of Jesus. We discern from within the power of the new nature, the transformation of our identity.
And so we make our plea this morning: “Be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, December 3, 2000.

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