(05) God’s Greatest Power: Mercy

Ted Grimsrud—Shalom Mennonite Congregation—March 14, 2010

Isaiah 33:17-24; Psalm 130; Revelation 21:1-5; Luke 5:17-26

Just about exactly ten years ago, I published a little book with the subtitle, “An Introduction to the Bible’s Main Themes.”  I had a hard time for awhile figuring out what the main title should be.  How would I best catch up those “main themes” in a short phrase?

The title I came up with was, “God’s healing strategy,” a phrase I had used in some sermons that were the early version of what went into the book.  Several people I talked with about this thought that was a pretty weak title.  It kind of makes God into a basketball coach—which isn’t too surprising, I suppose, since my dad was a basketball coach and certainly did talk about “strategy” a lot.  But no one came up with a better idea, so “God’s healing strategy” it stayed.

If I could name the book now, I might try “A God Who Heals” or “Healing Mercy.”  Or maybe, “Healing Stories” with a triple meaning—stories about God’s healing work, stories that help people find healing, but also an attempt to heal the way we read and apply at least some of the Bible’s stories.

Regardless, this is what I would want to get at with the title: The main focus of the Bible, as I understand it, centers on God and God’s intentions to bring healing to a world full of brokenness—and on how God brings such healing.  [I should say too that a new edition of my book is coming out soon, so if you missed it the first time around, be sure and buy a copy this time!]  These are the issues the Bible cares about, I would say: What needs healing—and how is the healing to be done?

And, in line with this series of sermons I’m in the midst of—what does the story of Jesus have to say about these issues?  Why do we pay attention to Jesus in relation to the Bible’s message of healing?

I want to start with a few biblical passages (slightly condensed).

Psalm 130—Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.  Lord hear my voice!  Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!  If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?  But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.  I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in God’s word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.  Hope in the Lord!  For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and great power to redeem. 

Isaiah 33:17-24—Your eyes will see the king in his beauty; they will behold a land that stretches far away.  Your mind will muse on past terror: “Where now are the attacking officers?”  No longer will you see violent invaders. Your eyes will see Jerusalem, a quiet habitation, an immovable tent, whose stakes will never be pulled up, and none of whose ropes will be broken.  But where the Lord in majesty will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams, where no war ship can pass.  For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; the Lord will save us. Then wealth in abundance will be divided; even for the lame.  And no inhabitant will say, “I am sick;” the people who live there will be forgiven their iniquity.

Revelation 21:1-5—Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “See the home of God is among mortals.  God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples; God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Luke 5:17-26—One day, while Jesus taught, religious leaders sat nearby who came from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem. The power of the Lord was with him to heal.  Some men, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed, were blocked from Jesus by the crowd. They went up on the roof and let him down in front of Jesus.  When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.”  The religious leaders complained: “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?”  Jesus answered them, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or, ‘Stand up and walk’?  But so that you may know my authority to forgive sins”—he said to the one who was paralyzed—“stand up and walk.”  The man did so, glorifying God.  Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God.”

What do these four passages tell us about what needs healing?  I think we find, even in just these few examples from the Bible, a pretty wide-ranging sense of where healing might (that is, where healing needs to) happen.  Internal and external, individual and social, personal and political, concrete and cosmic.

And then, we ask, is God up to it?  Is God powerful enough?  If we pay attention to Jesus, how might we answer these questions?

Healing from our own iniquities

In Psalm 130, the basic need is for the psalmist to be healed of his or her own “iniquities.”  This is a good place to start.  I think of a T-Bone Burnett song, “The Criminal Under My Own Hat.”

I’ve seen a lot of criminals, I’ve seen a lot of crime

Doing a lot of evil deeds, Doing a lot of time

We speak of these men as aliens From some forbidden race

We speak of these men as animals We will lock in a cage

But there’s one man I must arrest I must interrogate

One man that I must make confess Then rehabilitate

There is no other I can blame No other I can judge

No other I can cast in shame Then require blood

I see him in the shadows down the hall

I see him in the plaster on the wall

There is no crime he cannot commit No murder too complex

His heart is filled with larceny And violence and sex

His heart is filled with envy And revenge and greed

His heart is filled with nothing His heart is filled with need

He’s capable of anything Of any vicious act

This criminal is dangerous The criminal under my own hat.

The criminal under my own hat.  But the psalmist is hopeful.  “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you so that you may be revered” (Ps 130: 3-4).

We need healing from our own hearts, healing from our own damage—and healing from our own tendencies out of our damage to damage others.  Clearly here the psalmist pictures God as the one who heals us of our iniquities—God is the healer, not the condemner, not the punisher.  “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning….For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with God great power to redeem” (130:6-7).  Great power to heal.

Too bad Adam and Eve hadn’t realized this.  At the very beginning, in their iniquities they become afraid of God.  After they ate the fruit, God comes down to the garden to hang out with them, as God had always done.  But they hid from God.  They were afraid.  And lots more damage followed from this fearfulness.  The psalmist gets it right, though.  “With the Lord there is steadfast love to heal from iniquities.”

Healing from violence

When we get to Isaiah 33, we read of the need to be healed of terror, to be healed from violent invaders, to be healed from the threat of war ships.  The prophet spoke as the Hebrew nation, Judah, was under siege from the terrible Assyrian empire.  He proclaimed a vision of healing from this overwhelming violence.

So here, we see the need for healing from the damage of violence, the damage of imperialism, the damage—the text says—of terror.  This sounds pretty contemporary.  We have an awfully hard time in our modern world envisioning a place in real life where war ships cannot invade, where war ships cannot wreak their havoc.

Maybe the most difficult thing to imagine right now is that our country can open its eyes.  Though we live in a supposed democratic country, it’s hard to imagine that for the sake of medical care for all people, for the sake of resisting the impending devastation of global warming, for the sake of education and economic viability for all Americans—it’s hard to imagine that we will be able simply to recognize the obvious: We Americans cannot keep spending more on the preparation for warfare than the rest of the world combined and hope for any kind of healthy future.

It’s simply crazy when there seems to be only one thing that unifies Democrats and Republicans in Washington.  The certainty that reducing military spending cannot even be considered.  We can’t cut back on preparation for death even in face of terrible, terrible problems in our society, problems that threaten us all.  We have bipartisan consensus on this. Talk about needing the power of God to heal!

Comprehensive healing

If Psalm 130 envisions our own hearts finding healing, if Isaiah 33 envisions our political world finding healing, in Revelation 21 we get a kind of all-encompassing vision.  Here we read of a redeemed heaven and a redeemed earth.  We need to notice a couple of things here.  When John, the seer of Revelation, refers to heaven he is not thinking of some far off, otherworldly place.  He means the spirituality of the world we live in.  The new heaven must go directly along with the new earth—life on this planet, in all its dimensions, spiritual and physical, religious and secular, personal and social, life in all its dimensions transformed, life in all its dimensions renewed.

This is the second thing to notice: The “holy city, the new Jerusalem” (that is, the new heaven and new earth) “come down” to the here and now.  John sees the renewal of creation; God does not destroy and remake from scratch—God renews, God heals.

What has happened to make this possible, in John’s visions, is the passing away of all that causes damage—the passing away of the powers insofar that they murder prophets, the passing away of the structures insofar as they claim loyalty due only to the Lamb, the passing away of the belief systems insofar as they lead people to accept myths that glorify conquering through violence rather than through persevering love.  What passes away are the forces that cause tears, the forces that cause death, the forces that cause mourning and crying, the forces that cause pain.

As I study Revelation, I am more and more reading it not so much as an iron-clad promise that indeed everything will turn out fine in the end.  Rather, I am reading Revelation as imaging for us the only path toward making things turn out fine.  The healing is not necessarily certain; but if we are to find it healing it will come through following the Lamb wherever he goes—that path is what’s for certain.

When Mahatma Gandhi was named person of the 20th century by Time magazine ten years ago (along with Hitler and Einstein), it wasn’t because of his success; it wasn’t because his path is the guaranteed path humanity will take—it’s more, that his path is the path we must take if we are to have a future. If we are to find healing on the large scale Revelation 21 envisions, it will be through the path of nonviolence—that’s it.

Jesus bring healing

Well, now let’s think a bit about the story from Jesus’ life we have read.  What do we learn here?  Healing indeed needs to happen—for the man who was paralyzed, for the crowd that blocked this man from Jesus, for the religious leaders who respond to God’s healing work in Jesus not with joy but with hostility, healing needs to happen.

What does Jesus show us about healing?  What does Jesus show us about “the power of the Lord to heal” (5:17)?  Let’s consider the conflict at the heart of this story of the healing of the paralyzed man—the conflict between the religious leaders and Jesus over competing visions of God and healing.

We may not notice how radical Jesus’ actions are here.  There are two key things going on.  First, we get a picture of the paralyzed man as alienated—from the community and hence from God.  Then, we get a picture of restoration that is incredibly simple—all Jesus has to do is say, yes, indeed, you are forgiven.

We aren’t told anything about the paralysis, but clearly the man is seen as an outsider, perhaps unclean, seen to be guilty of some kind of impurity that brought his suffering upon himself.  The symbol here is that the crowd stands between the man and this great healer.  His friends found no way to bring him to Jesus because the community stops them.  But the friends know that in Jesus will be found healing and restoration—they have great faith; they climb up on the roof and drop the man right down in front of Jesus.

The image that comes to mind for me here is when my little dog Sophie persists in seeking my lap—she’ll jump up and I push her down.  But she tries again and again.  Then all of a sudden I realize, there she is, curled up and asleep—on my lap, restored to her friend!

Jesus deeply respects the persistence of the paralyzed man’s friends—and does indeed offer restoration.  He overrules the crowd.  He forgives sins and heals the paralysis.  He simply declares it so.  And makes clear that what matters most is the forgiveness.  The man is now back in the community, back in full communion with God.  This is the more difficult of Jesus’ acts, because so many people’s hearts were hardened.  Forgiveness means restoration; and the community does not like to restore.

Jesus simply declares forgiveness as real—actually, it’s not that Jesus right at this moment creates a new way to be forgiven; rather, Jesus reminds the people of what the writers of Psalm 130 and Isaiah 33 already had affirmed: “With God is great power to redeem.”  God’s greatest power is mercy.

And it is this power that Jesus reveals the religious leaders to be resisting.  Their story of what healing means stands in sharp contrast with Jesus.  For Jesus, healing is simple and straightforward.  For the religious leaders, healing is complicated, elaborate, limited, under the control of a human power elite.

Jesus scandalized the religious leaders.  But not so much by healing the physical paralysis.  Jesus scandalizes by offering forgiveness apart from the Temple rituals and sacrifices.  Jesus challenged the hard heart of formal religion that limits and restricts access to God’s mercy.

For Jesus, God has in mind to heal especially the vulnerable ones, the ones left out and marginalized—the blind, the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned (see Jesus’ opening proclamation in Luke 4).  God is a God who restores, who heals our iniquities and heals our world, blessing all the families of the earth.  In contrast, for the religious leaders, what God has in mind are rewards for the pure few and punishment for the many on the outside of the strictly enforced boundary lines.  It’s like one of my professors said once, what good is heaven unless you have people going to hell?

Jesus, though, is more like the Nick Cave song, “God’s Hotel.”  “Everybody’s got a room in God’s hotel—you’ll never see a sign hanging on the wall saying no vacancies here at all.”

Jesus indeed does inspire our hope.  And he presented a radical vision of a different kind of politics, a politics of mercy and restoration.  One way of seeing this is to look at the various healing stories and notice who he healed.  It’s an amazing picture.  A concentrated account is given in Matthew.   Matthew marks off a section of the story that goes from chapter four through chapter nine.  At the beginning of the section, Matthew writes, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and every sickness among the people” (4:23).  At the end of the section, Matthew writes the same exact words—teaching and healing.

In between we have Jesus’ greatest concentrated teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, and, then, in chapters eight and nine an extraordinary series of healing stories.  These are some of the people Jesus heals—displaying the character of this community God creates: a leper, a Roman soldier’s servant, his disciple Peter’s mother-in-law, many possessed by demons both Jew and Gentile, tax collectors and sinners, the daughter of a religious leader, a woman who can’t stop bleeding, two blind men, and a person who cannot speak.  Jews and Gentiles, powerful and marginalized people, wealthy and poor, insiders and outsiders. Everybody’s got a room at God’s hotel.

So, why do we pay attention to Jesus?  He provides the only viable path to wholeness—showing us God’s greatest power, the power of mercy.

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