Trinity Nineteen Sermon, October 17, 2004| Rev. Rolf Preus| Matthew 9:1-8
The Gergesenes had begged Jesus to leave their community after He had delivered two men from demon possession by sending the demons that possessed them into a herd of swine. The demons stampeded the swine off of a cliff into the Sea of Galilee where they drowned. The men who were physically possessed by the demons were so completely under their demonic control that they viciously attacked passersby so that no one could go near them. Jesus drove the devils out of those men, not only to show His divine power, but also to show His divine compassion. He set them free and brought them relief. The power of the demons that had possessed the men was graphically illustrated when those same demons drove a large herd of swine into the Sea. But apparently the pigs were of more value to the people of Gergesa than were the two tormented men that Jesus saved. They wanted Jesus to go. So He did. Jesus left those faithless people, crossed over the Sea of Galilee, and came to Capernaum, where He lived.
If you don’t want Jesus around, He won’t impose Himself on you. You can’t force Him to leave. He leaves of His own accord, just as He comes to you willingly, not because you asked Him to come, but because He loves you and wants to help you in your deepest need. Your deepest need is always to be set free from evil so that you can hallow God’s name for His great love for you. This is why we pray as we do. First we ask that God’s name be hallowed among us. Our final petition is that God will deliver us from evil. God hallows His name among us by delivering us from evil. He delivers us from evil by bringing us into His kingdom, by revealing to us His good and gracious will for us, by providing for every physical and material need we have, by forgiving us all our sins, and by preserving us through trials and temptations. Jesus is the Lord who gives us the right to call God “Father.” Jesus always glorified His Father. He teaches us to do the same. After He forgave and healed the paralytic, the crowds were amazed and they gave glory to God. They glorified God for the power God gave to men.
That power is here among us. It is the power of Jesus to forgive sins. Jesus saw the faith of the people who brought the paralytic to Him. From St. Luke’s account (Luke 5:18-26) of this event, we learn that the paralytic’s friends tore a hole through the roof of the house where Jesus was in order to bring the paralyzed man to the One who could help him. Some people ask Jesus to leave. They find His divine power over evil too unsettling and would prefer that He leave them alone. Others not only run to where Jesus is, they bring others with them, breaking through ceilings if need be. And Jesus, seeing their faith, gave even more than what faith desired. All his friends were hoping for was the healing of the man’s body. What Jesus gave was far greater. By forgiving him his sins, Jesus opened to him the door of heaven itself. By forgiving him, Jesus guaranteed him the resurrection to eternal life where there will be no paralysis of the limbs, deafness of the ears, blindness of the eyes, or any other physical ailment.
The relationship between forgiveness and physical health is undeniable. Not that if your sins are forgiven your physical ailments will cease. There is no promise from God that this is the case. What is the case is that the One who has the power to take away from you what sin has caused has the power as well to take away the sin that caused it. All physical ailments of every description are a result of sin. It’s not as if this sin must cause that ailment, though sometimes that’s true. Certainly kinds of diseases are passed on through voluntary behavior that God’s law strictly forbids. But most sicknesses and physical disabilities we suffer can’t be traced to a specific sin unless we are talking about the original sin of Adam and Eve. Sin is a condition of sinful humanity. It is not just things we do that God’s law forbids. Sin permeates who and what we are and the world in which we live. God’s good creation was corrupted by evil when sin invaded His world. The verdict God gave to the world He made in the beginning was that it was very good. Had sin not entered the world, neither sickness nor death would have entered and we would not suffer the kinds of sicknesses we suffer. When Jesus healed diseases He showed Himself to be the Creator God who made a good world. He was not willing to abandon in its sin and corruption the world He loved. As the hymnist put it:
Praise to thee and adoration blessed Jesus, Son of God
Who to serve Thine own creation did’st partake of flesh and blood.
But as St. John lamented:
He was in the world,
And the world was made by Him,
And the world did not know Him.
He came to His own,
And His own did not receive Him. (John 1:10-11)
There is only one way for us to receive Him. That is through faith. Faith is not here a virtue that God sees and rewards, as if when we believe in God we draw God to us by the attraction of our faith. If we are speaking of faith as a virtue we must place it under love because the greatest virtue of all is love. No, faith doesn’t draw God to us. Faith simply receives Him when He comes. It does so, not by doing, but by not doing anything at all. To say that faith must do in order to obtain God’s grace is to define faith as a work. This is directly contrary to the Word of God. Faith does not do. St. Paul writes in Roman 4:5, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. Again, in verse 16 he writes, “Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure . . .” Faith doesn’t do. Faith is done to.
Jesus saw the faith of the paralytic’s friends. He also saw the unbelief within the scribes. Jesus is God. He sees all things. He knows if you believe in Him. He knows if you don’t believe in Him. Nobody but God can see faith or unbelief. We can see the fruit of faith but we cannot see that it comes from faith. Only God can see this. We can also see clear evidence of denying the faith, but we can never pass final judgment because we cannot know for sure that someone who denies Christ one day will not trust in Him the next day. So we leave the judgment of faith up to God.
God doesn’t leave us to judge faith. God does, however, give us the words to which faith clings. The multitudes glorified God, who had given such power to men. It is not only the single man, Jesus, who is clearly and undeniably also God, who has the power to forgive sins. God gave this power to men. Jesus said, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.” Jesus proved his authority to forgive by healing the man’s paralysis. That much is clear. What should be equally clear to us is that the Son of Man retains His power on earth to forgive sins because He has given this power to men. Mere sinful, mortal, erring men have the power here on this earth to forgive sins in the name of and by the authority of Jesus Christ Himself.
The One to whom the treasure belongs has the power to give the treasure away. He purchased the power He gave. God doesn’t forgive sins in opposition to His nature as a holy and just God. God forgives sins and God forgives sinners in accordance with His nature as a just God. Listen to how St. Paul sets this forth:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23-26)
God is just to justify the one who believes in Jesus because Jesus has shed His blood to redeem us and to take away God’s anger against us by taking away our sins. Jesus has the full right to forgive sinners their sins because Jesus has purchased full forgiveness for all sinners by redeeming us with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.
If Jesus has the right to forgive sinners their sins Jesus also has the right to give us the right to forgive sinners their sins in His holy name. And that is precisely what He has done.
This man is blaspheming! So the scribes slandered Jesus. But Jesus answered their slander by proving He had the authority to forgive sins here on earth where sinners live. And Jesus has given to His church on earth the same authority. When the minister of Christ speaks Christ’s words of forgiveness to the penitent the penitent is forgiven of his sins just as surely as was that paralytic that Jesus forgave nearly two thousand years ago. Only God can forgive sins! So people argue against the absolution, against Holy Baptism, and against the Lord’s Supper. Their argument is that no man laying on the hands or pouring water or distributing sacramental elements can give the forgiveness of sins to sinners. But they most certainly can. They can because Jesus says so. Jesus is the One who is doing the forgiving when mere sinful men speak in His stead and by His command.
But the mere saying of words can’t accomplish anything, can it? Think of the unbelievers who told Jesus to leave their town. Think of the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees who questioned Jesus’ authority to forgive helpless and sinful people. Think of all the unbelievers who have heard Jesus words and despised Jesus and His suffering, shut their hearts to His gospel, and refused to acknowledge their sin. Certainly they are not forgiven! Well, they certainly haven’t received forgiveness. They may not regard themselves as forgiven by God because forgiveness comes only from Jesus and they do not have Jesus. But the words of the gospel and the sacraments most certainly do give forgiveness. Those who don’t believe the words don’t receive what the words give. But this does not mean that the words don’t give what the words say. They aren’t mere human words, but divine words. Christ forces Himself on no one, but wherever His words are spoken, there He Himself is pleased to be, forgiving helpless and undeserving sinners.
Christ’s church is that assembly of believers who want to be with Jesus and hear His words of forgiveness. The church lives on the words of absolution. She sees these words as her greatest treasure and her most compelling need. It has happened that churches have shut Jesus out and He’s been left standing on the outside, knocking on the door of His own church, inviting Himself back in.
But He won’t break down the door. Instead, He will speak. By speaking through men He will absolve. He, who has all authority in heaven and on earth, will continue to forgive sins here on earth where sinners need it. His holy Christian Church on earth will be found wherever His words are spoken, for by means of those words the Holy Spirit will call and gather Christ’s church on earth. Where and when God pleases He will bring unbelievers to faith by the power of His almighty word. So that we remain Christians, we will go to where that pure gospel is proclaimed and we will never ask Jesus to leave.