The readings today are very familiar – that lovely, lovely passage from Isaiah, and then the story of Jesus healing the paralysed man. I've taken the service title, “A Road in the Wilderness” from the Isaiah passage: “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert,” for reasons which we'll come to in a bit. But for now, let's have a look at the Gospel story.
The story of Jesus healing the paralysed man is an old friend, of course. You remember how he was at home that day – Mark tells us that he was in his own home, and how there was a huge crowd – absolutely no room for anybody, there were crowds out the door, you couldn't get anywhere. Bring your own floor.... and then some!
And there was this man who was paralysed and four people, friends, I suppose, carried him to Jesus, but they couldn't get near him, so they dug through the roof to get at him. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, “Your sins are forgiven”. At which everybody (except possibly the paralysed man) looked at him rather blankly. Hang about, teaching is one thing, but forgiving sins? Surely only God can do that, with sacrifice and repentance involved? Isn't this blasphemy?
Jesus realises this is what they're thinking, and says, “Well, okay, but which is easier – to forgive sins, or to heal him?” And, to make it absolutely clear, he says to the paralysed man, “Stand up, take your mat, and go home!” And the man does just that thing.
So what's it all about? Why does Jesus make a point of stressing that for this guy, forgiveness is important? After all, on another occasion he makes it quite clear that when there was a disaster and people were killed, it was totally nothing to do with their sinfulness or otherwise. Yet it seems that for this man, forgiveness and healing were inextricably linked.
Now, I might be barking totally up the wrong tree here, but I have this feeling that his paralysis wasn't actually caused by anything obvious, like falling on his head or a virus or something like that. I have a feeling that it was his way of coping.
We don't know, we aren't told, and it wouldn't be polite to enquire, what he felt he needed forgiveness for. Perhaps he really had done something dreadful; maybe he had committed a crime and didn't want to have to face up to it. Or maybe it was nothing criminal, but something for which he couldn't forgive himself – perhaps he'd hurt someone very badly, or destroyed a friendship, or something. Or perhaps it was none of these things, perhaps it was just that he was, quite literally, paralysed by an overwhelming sense of guilt and worthlessness and failure.
That can happen. And people have different ways of coping with it. Our friend in the Bible was, quite literally, paralysed by it. Others turn to alcohol or drugs to help them cope. Still others turn to food, either totally controlling their intake and ending up anorexic, or else binge-eating, or developing another eating disorder. Others become depressed, or seriously angry – taking out their sense of failure on those around them.
So our friend became paralysed – and the only way through, the only way out of his wasteland of despair, was by Jesus looking him in the face and saying “Your sins are forgiven!”
And you know what else struck me, when I read this story – that it wasn't the paralysed man's faith that brought him to Jesus, but it was his friends' faith! It says “When Jesus saw their faith”. It doesn't say “When Jesus saw his faith.” It's quite possible that the man was so sunk in despair that he simply had no faith that anything would help him. He hated himself, and he assumed other people would hate him, and he certainly assumed that God hated him! But his friends had no such expectations. They believed that Jesus could help their friend, even if they didn't know how. It was worth a try, they reckoned. So much so that it was worth digging a hole in the roof – the roof would have been made of sticks and clay laid over a foundation of beams, by the way, so easy enough to repair afterwards, but it must have been a tad disconcerting to be in there when someone started digging through it, all the same!
And it was the friends' faith that first drew Jesus to this man. And he was able to give him what he needed, that assurance of forgiveness that he so badly needed to hear. Jesus was speaking with God's authority, and the man heard that.
The religious people there were aghast, of course; where were the outward signs of repentance? Where was the sacrifice? They couldn't see into the man's heart the way Jesus could. They didn't see the anguish, the self-hatred, the despair.... but Jesus did, and he forgave him, which was what the man really needed.
And at this point, I am going to pick up the Old Testament reading, because it fits in here. Our friend was paralysed with sin and doubt and despair. He was, if you like, stuck in the wilderness. It may have been a wilderness of his own making, or it may not, we don't know, and it's not for us to judge. But through Jesus, God opened up a road through the wilderness for him. God produced rivers in the desert that his life had become. He was thirsting for God's love and forgiveness and acceptance and healing, and Jesus provided these in abundance.
But in the Isaiah passage the prophet goes on to declare “Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob; but you have been weary of me, O Israel!” Despite all the evidence, God's people have turned away, yet again. As we are all too apt to do. It's human nature to turn away from God; we reckon we can do a pretty good job of being human all by our little tiny selves, and we don't need help from God.
Well, to a certain extent that's true. Many of us, perhaps most of us, do get along all right without God. We aren't paralysed with self-loathing, or drinking, or taking drugs, or using food as a way of coping. At least, we don't reckon we are – and, indeed, maybe we aren't.
But God says differently. God says that we can't get along without him, no matter how much we reckon we can. If we're doing such a great job of being human by ourselves, we'll do an even better one with God's help.
But you and I know that, or we'd not be here in Church this morning. Many of us have been God's people these many years. We have learnt, perhaps quickly and easily, perhaps slowly and painfully, to accept ourselves exactly as we are, to know that God loves us. For us, the road through the wilderness has been opened. We have heard our dear Lord say “Your sins are forgiven” and have believed it. We've been able to take up our mats and walk.
But there are those folk who haven't been able to do this. Even Christian folk, sometimes. People who are as stuck, as paralysed, as our friend in the Gospel story. There can be things in your past that hold them back, things from which you need to find healing and release.
You all know that Philip Larkin poem, “This be the verse”, the one that doesn't quite begin “They muck you up, your mum & dad”. Well, it's true. Larkin was unnecessarily pessimistic – the poem, after all, finishes
“Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.”
But all, the same, he had a point. All of us carry an awful lot of baggage with us from our past, from our childhoods. Many of us can cope – some of us can't.
But the absolute joy of this morning's gospel story is that there is a way through the wilderness. When we're paralysed with doubt and fear and indecision and sin and general stuckness, when God seems as far away as Mars, and heaven just a pretty fairy-tale – well, God knows all about it, and God sends us friends. Friends who have faith, whose faith will carry us through.
Sometimes we're the friend, of course. We're the ones whose job it is to bring our own friends to Jesus, to pray for them, to hold them before the Throne of Grace. Other times, we're the one who's being brought.
Old St Paul, who occasionally talked a great deal of sense, spoke of “The Shield of Faith”. And the whole point of the shield, in the Roman army, was that you used it to shield your neighbour as well as yourself. We aren't Christians in splendid isolation, just us! We're part of the Church, the universal Church, and we know we can rely on our fellow-Christians to support us and pray for us through the dark times, just as we pray for, and support, other Christians through their dark times.
There is a road through the wilderness. Our sins are forgiven. Thanks be to God!
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