Sunday, October 02, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 19

2 October 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 9:1-8 (Gen 28:10-17, Eph 4:22-28) (Traditional)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s gospel lesson contains two miracles: the forgiveness of the paralytic’s sins, and the restoration of his health. Both miracles are wondrous, both are healing to the paralytic, but Jesus works the miracles for two different reasons.

Notice what Jesus’ first priority is: the first thing Jesus says to the ailing man is: “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.” It is doubtful that the paralytic and his helpers sought out Jesus for confession and absolution. More likely they came seeking only a physical healing of the man’s paralyzed flesh. However, Jesus understands full well that sin is the cause of the man’s paralysis. Jesus, God in the flesh, the Word who was with God, and who was God, in the beginning, understands that sin is the root cause of all disease, of all misery, of all pain, of all natural calamities, and of death itself. The man’s paralysis, his brokenness, was merely one more step on our common march toward death, toward the final corruption and breakdown of our flesh.

And so Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter: “Do not fret, my son, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus, the Son, takes the role of the Father. He is acting under the divine authority of his Father. Notice that Jesus refers to the one he is absolving as “son.” Reverend Father Jesus is speaking as a pastor, as a father-confessor, to the one he is absolving. And this is what upsets the teachers of the law. For a man to speak on behalf of God – especially to forgive sins – is seen as blasphemy. What the lawyers, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the rest of us hypocrites cannot grasp is the incarnation – the fact that God himself would take on human flesh. For human flesh, as we all know, is corruptible. All human flesh is headed toward death. Since the fall, all of our flesh is nothing more than rotting meat.

A perfect illustration of this is cleaning out our refrigerators after the hurricane. All matter that was formerly alive – animal and plant life – is now a horrific sight: rotting, stinking, infested with mold, utterly ruined, and repulsive to our senses. This ugly sight, dear Christian friends, is a picture of ourselves. For we are fleshly creatures, infested with sin, and inching closer to our own corruption day by day.

Jesus links the man’s dying limbs, his muscles that will not move, his corrupting flesh, to his sinful state. And the first thing that needs to happen to cure him is to forgive his sins. And Jesus is himself flesh – but without sin. Jesus is the one the Psalmist prophesies as the one who will see no corruption. For the greatest miracle of all the ages is that God would take on flesh and die in our place, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the sinless for the sinful. And so Jesus carries out this ministry in our text by absolving the man of his sins: the greater of the two miracles.

Jesus’ second miracle – the healing of the man’s paralysis – was what St. John would call a “sign.” Jesus performed this miracle to prove a point. He did it to demonstrate his divinity. For they can grumble all they want about Jesus’ word of forgiveness, they can cast doubt upon its validity – but it’s hard to argue with a cripple leaving his mat behind and walking home. Although this is the lesser miracle – it is the miracle that shuts up his critics.

Our own sinful flesh seeks after, even lusts after, such miracles. Our unbelieving flesh seeks after signs so we can be convinced. I recently met a devout young Christian who told me I should leave my call here at Salem and come with him to be a missionary in Africa, since God is working miracles there. If reports are to be believed, there are many sick people being cured miraculously as the Gospel is being spread there. This may or may not be the truth, but even if it is, why should I abandon my flock to see it? Such miracles are merely signs to convince people of who Jesus is, of his power. Such signs are for unbelievers. The greater miracle happens every day around the world – including here at Salem. The greater miracle happens when Jesus’ ministers – his corruptible fleshly servants – become your father-confessors and forgive your sins. The greater miracle happens as Jesus’ incorruptible flesh and blood are placed into our mouths. The greater miracle happens here at our font, as [will happen today as / has happened today as] Skylar is carried (just like the helpless paralytic) to Jesus to receive healing and forgiveness of sins. The greater miracle happens when the preaching of the Gospel creates faith in the hearers of that miraculous Gospel.

Dear friends, the Christianity that permeates our culture is the kind of religion advocated by the teachers of the law in our text. Many a TV preacher will promise you all sorts of prosperity: health and wealth, fame and fortune, if you only have enough faith. And you can demonstrate that faith with your checkbook, can’t you? And these same folks would no doubt gasp and call us blasphemers because our pastors claim to forgive your sins. The same people who believe a man in a white suit can blow on people and cure them of their diseases will not accept a man in a white robe making the sign of the cross over people and forgiving them of their sins – which has been the church’s ministry since the day of Pentecost in 30 AD.

For the Church exists to bring people to Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. We need no other “mission statement” than that.

And notice how the crowds who witnessed Jesus’ miracle react. They are filled with awe, they praise God. Why? Because God “had given such authority to men.” Notice the word is “men.” This is plural. God has given the authority to speak on his behalf and forgive sins to men. Jesus himself gave this authority to his apostles, who in turn ordained future ministers for this work. And this divine ministry of forgiveness continues, and will continue until the final trumpet sounds. And nothing will stop the ministry of our Lord’s Church. Nothing. Not a hurricane, not a dozen hurricanes. Not scoffers and unbelievers. Not sickness, not paralysis, not sin, nor even death itself. For our Lord promises that not even Satan and hell will overcome the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

My brothers and sisters, this is the ministry of the Church. Our work is to support the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments for the forgiveness of sins. For every redeemed paralytic will walk again and be made whole according to the Lord’s timetable. Every one of us, with all of our aches and pains, our worries and our distresses, our illnesses, and our inevitable day of death – will find ourselves like the paralytic in our text made whole. For we have already had the first miracle, the greater miracle, the eradication of our sins and the deliverance of this gift to us through our Lord’s chosen means.

You don’t have to turn on a TV preacher or make a trip to Africa to see the Lord working his greatest miracles. These miracles happen to us week after week at this altar, font, and pulpit. These miracles happen to us day after day in our homes as we confess our sins, repent, and remember that we are baptized.

So let us praise God that he has given such authority to men. Take heart, my son. Take heart, my daughter. Your sins are forgiven.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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