A sermon preached at Moortown Baptist Church on Sunday 13th March 2022. The sermon can be watched here.
I want you to know that in this talk I am aiming to tell the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God, in company with Mark.
I also want you to know that in trying to tell something of the good news, I am standing under the dark clouds of Ukraine. I am not going to speak much about Ukraine and the war – you know enough already, but we don’t come into the company of Jesus to ignore the world and to find peace, we come to pray for the world, as Jesus taught us, God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. Jesus reminds us that his house is a house of prayer for all nations – (certainly for Ukraine, and not excluding Russia and Belarus).
So we don’t hear the word of God for ourselves in our protected isolation, but we read it with those who are in dark and dreadful places … places where God goes shining light into earth’s darkest places, shining the light of boundless salvation, boundlessly.
Is it difficult to read this story with Zelenskiy and the Ukrainians, fleeing and fighting – and also with poor Putin and his good and not so good Russians – all of them in deep darkness. It is difficult because this is a very cheerful optimistic story. It starts with a lame man thinking he will never walk again like an ordinary whole man. But quickly his friends come into the action: they have heard of this healer Jesus, and see this as a chance worth trying. So they lift him on his bed, fight their way through the crowd, destroy a bit of sacred property, and drop their friend at the feet of Jesus.
And Jesus sees their faith, in their action, and immediately, without prompting, tells the man the good news, Son your sins are forgiven.
Was the man stunned by good news, or was he mystified by its apparent irrelevance: he wanted to be healed, why did he need to be forgiven: he’d not been doing anything for years, except lie, useless and bored, on his mat. (True, he was a burden to his carers, but he tried to be grateful and cheerful).
Some Scribes quibbled: they are God-defenders, who object to this carpenter’s son, because he is trespassing on God’s prerogative, for only God can forgive sin.
So, Jesus is challenged on two fronts: front one is the scribes, front two is the lame man.
Jesus shows the scribes that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins – God gives to human beings a legitimate share in doing his liberating and healing work. And we must not refuse God’s commission to work for him in the world, by saying, as the scribes did, We revere God so deeply that we will leave work like forgiving to God alone. (Remember: God is Trinity, and God does not like the word ‘alone’ – God likes words such as ‘with’ and ‘for’ and ‘towards’ and ‘together’ and ‘in’. God loves to delegate, to share, to see human beings imaging God in the world as they steward the creation with God, as they love and care and repair – as they forgive.)
On the second front, Jesus says to the man, Stand up, pick up your baggage, and walk … Rise to a fuller way of being human, of living as my Son. Get back into being active in the world, useful to others, serving in the light of the coming kingdom of God. The word of Jesus is inspiring, empowering; the man couldn’t have imagined five minutes before that he would ever got off his bed, but now he is walking …
And all the people were aroused, and said We’ve seen something today, never seen the like of it before …
So, can you see what I mean when I say, this is a very cheerful, optimistic story?
Have you ever seen anything like it? You’ve probably been caught in bad moments when the world has collapsed in five minutes – but this is a good five minutes that opens up the vision and the reality of God’s good world, for which we pray in our lameness.
And it is good to be excited by this story, but it is not enough to be amazed, as the crowd was, and then go home to a quiet supper.
What does it mean to be called to get on our feet, to roll up our bed and walk? We don’t know where the man walked to or what he did with his mobility, but that’s between him and God – his story calls us to stand up and walk, to rise to our full humanity, and to walk in the way of Jesus, which means serving and suffering with Jesus on his way.
The trouble with this cheerful optimistic story of a great speedy success in doing good is that such stories are rare and not easily duplicated in the world.
Sometimes the stories in the early chapters of Mark are read as though they are the model for our living so that every day can be seamlessly triumphant with healing love and easy fellowship. But often we live like the lame man, unable to act even when we want to, unable to help even when help is urgently needed. Don’t you have a feeling of frustration, perhaps of shame, when you think of Ukraine and have to accept that we in the West can do very little to protect the people there – we have great power, even nuclear weapons, but prudence tells us we can’t use that power, we have legs but they don’t take us anywhere?
All round the world, there are many places where the West has intervened and not solved the problem, sometimes made it worse; and other places where terrible things are done and we don’t even think of doing anything.
(Remember Neville Chamberlain in 1938 when Hitler was carving up Czechoslovakia, dismiss a “quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing”. )
What is being done in Ukraine now makes clear how many sin aggressively and so fall short of the glory of God. And alongside them, good well-meaning people find themselves too weak or too lazy or too fearful to do anything about the cold hate and destruction: are we not brought to realize that for all our goodness, all our good intentions, we too fall short of the glory of God? Some sin by deliberate action, others sin by omission and indifference, some rush in all guns blazing, others run away – and so all sin.
Now this story today does not by itself help us if we are overwhelmed by the darkness of sin, our falling short of the glory of God. It might be Ukraine, it may well be something else, that holds the mirror of truth up to us: in reality, we are blatant or lame sinners, or lazy obstructive God-defenders who refuse to welcome God when he comes.
If you are frustrated and tied to your bed, you may well wish to meet Jesus and for him to heal you in spirit and body in five minutes, to release you from the grip of sin.
As we watch what is being done in Ukraine, we cry out to God, Stop it now! Release us from this murderous madness. But that is unlikely: Macron and Schulz talk with Putin for an hour at a time, pleading for Cease Fire Now and Putin is not moved.
There’s so much in ourselves and in the world about us, near and far, that forces us to realize, Healing is not happening now – not likely to happen soon. Worn out, apathy threatens us; giving up is not what Jesus told the man to do …
There is comfort and help in this story, but you won’t get it if you just stare at this story as though it’s the only story in the world. Like many other stories in the early chapters of Mark, this is a cheerful optimistic story, in a cheerful optimistic period in the life of the Son of God. In Galilee, there was space and freedom for Jesus to go round healing, and casting out evil spirits, and having useful arguments with the God-defenders who just couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize God coming to them in Jesus. In Galilee, Jesus annoyed some people by his words and his good work, so they thought of doing him harm, but he could slip out to the hills or the wilderness, so that things could cool downn – there was another town he could move to.
The Galilee part of Jesus’ life must never be lost or belittled. It is right that we read it and are carried along by its happy wind.
But it is not the whole of Jesus’ life, and we are called to follow him all the way.
And as we know, Jesus left Galilee, went to Jerusalem, and fell into the hands of his enemies, who had their reasons for wanting to get rid of him. There was no escape. The friends he had chosen in Galilee to be ‘with him’ failed and deserted him, and they lost faith and hope in his work, they lost God. Jesus himself persisted faithfully, in loneliness and increasing weakness.
Jesus did not sail through the crucifixion untouched by physical pain, or despair. He lost the rollicking optimism of Galilee completely, though he retained a bit of his biting wit, but he was enabled to hold faith even in weakness.
In faith, when in Galilee, he had said to the lame man, Son your sins are forgiven, and so he showed by healing that the Father had authorised him to forgive on earth.
In faith, in Galilee, He taught his disciples to forgive sins, because they too were sons of Man, that is human beings whom God had given authority to forgive sins on earth, in this life.
And now, in dark Jerusalem, when they drive nails into his hands, he is faithful in his prayer, Father, forgive them, they know not what they do. (Their ignorance is not an excuse, rather it is evidence of sin, of a need to be forgiven and released from sin’s guilt and power.)
Jesus didn’t forgive sins only in sunny free Galilee, but also in the darkness of Calvary.
And then he died, and that was the end, the triumph of darkness, suggesting the futility of Jesus… so the disciples and others thought at the time…and some disciples were broken, and his critics thought they had made their point, they had cancelled out Galilee on Golgotha.
But just as we mustn’t make the Galilee stories the whole of the story of Jesus, so we mustn’t say, Galilee plus Jerusalem/Golgotha is the whole story. The whole story is not a sum with an equal plus followed by an equal minus, leaving us with Nothing – the sum of the Gospel is a plus, a minus and then a plus to a value beyond imagination.
If you will be a disciple of Jesus, go with him all the way – don’t stop in Galilee, go on, through Golgotha, and to what happens next:
Jesus comes back, alive, Jesus of Galilee comes again, and says to the disciples, I am with you, you are with me, so it’s right to say, We, we start again what started so brightly in Galilee and then came to nothing – Now we will risk the Galilee mission all over again, Galilee mission always carries the risk that it will climax in a Calvary. But we risk it again, this time going into all the world, telling the good news and healing the sick, and fighting with evil powers and quite likely suffering various secondary calvaries, you with me and for the world.
Life with the risen Christ is Galilee life again – it is not being lifted out of this world into some spiritual height above the earth, where we reign on high. Don’t misinterpret the bodily resurrection of Jesus in that way. Let Jesus-alive come to you, and hear him when he says, Stand up, pack up your baggage and walk, on the earth, with me, for me, for God’s kingdom, declaring the forgiveness of sins which effectively releases people, individually and in groups, so that they stand and walk, living in God’s light and love for all the world.
Whatever darkness we are in, whether Ukraine or something else, keep walking with Jesus-alive, with the whole Jesus who lives through optimism and pessimism. With him, let us walk each step of our up-and-down road in this mixed-up world, until God brings his kingdom in its fullness.
Now we sing: For the healing of the nations