Words Just Words
The world's great dramas deal with forgiveness, not sickness, not marital problems, not even death, but forgiveness and guilt. Think of Victor Hugo's Les Miserable, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Shakespear's Hamlet, and even the hit movie Saving Private Ryan. There, as an act of penance, in order to merit in their own minds returning home, a squad of soldiers undertake the hopeless task of saving Private Ryan. Yes, the world's great dramas deal with forgiveness, so you would think we in the Church, the very ones in the forgiving "business", would be right in business. But we have a problem, and it is us.
We are like the friends of the paralytic. Do you think they were bringing their friend to Jesus for forgiveness? Do you think they believed that Jesus would forgive him his sins? Do you think they carried him up those stairs, dug through the roof, and lowered him by ropes so Jesus could say, "Son, your sins are forgiven?" No, they were bringing their friend to Jesus to be healed, to be freed from his bed. When Jesus says to their friend, "Your sins are forgiven," I'm sure a wave of disappointment swept over them. Words just words is all Jesus gave their friend, not healing, not help.
A Jesus who forgives sins is not what people really want. People want a Jesus who heals broken bodies. That's why 4,500 people packed an Austin church to hear miracle talking Oral Roberts. People want a Jesus who builds marriages. That's why churches offer marriage enrichment seminars and Christian step by step programs for marriage growth. People want a Jesus who will tell them how to raise their children. That's why churches offer classes and seminars on child rearing. People want a Jesus who will help them run their businesses. That's why books are written which claim to glean business principles from Jesus. People want a Jesus who delivers from depression and phobias. That's why churches offer programs where Jesus is presented as the great healer of personality.
And you know what? I'm in agreement. My fleshy heart, my fallen reasoning sees what they see. What people want in our day is training, guidance, and step by step programs. Their great problem in life isn't sin, isn't separation from God but rocky marriages, difficult children, struggling businesses, and problem personalities. People willingly confess to being a poor spouse, a bad parent, an inept business person, or a neurotic in life, but not to being poor, miserable sinners who deserve punishment today and forever. A Jesus who died to deliver us from sin, death, and the devil isn't popular, but a Jesus who delivers from bad marriages, poor health, and social inadequacies sure is!
But even if you do believe sin is the big problem of us all, there's still another stumbling block. You see it in the church leaders in our text. To them forgiveness isn't possible here on earth. O sure God forgives sins in heaven. He erases the marks on our ledgers high in heaven, but down here on earth, through the mouth of a Man, never. Why that's blaspheme.
Friends, this is right where many of us are. We secretly agree with the official teaching of many church bodies which reject the concept of an absolution spoken by a human being. O a pastor can make a Declaration of Pardon, that is, he can announce: "There is forgiveness." But don't you see? This places forgiveness right where the teachers of the law placed it in Jesus' day, in heaven safe with God. It is not here on earth for you. Forgiveness exists all right, but that's all a Declaration of Pardon can say.
There's still a more subtle form of depriving people of an earthly absolution. It's to make forgiveness dependent on the sincerity, intensity, or comprehensiveness of your confession. "I forgive you if you're really repentant." "I forgive you insofar as you have confessed to me all your sins." Such an absolution places forgiveness not far away in heaven but in our hearts. It's only ours when we meet the selected criteria. It has probably occurred to some of you that this is the danger of the absolution in the page 15 liturgy where the pastor says, "Upon this your confession...I forgive you." It's true; if we emphasize our confession, we're in danger of conditioning the forgiveness of sins on how well we confess.
Yes, even if we recognize forgiveness as our crying need, if we regard the absolution as merely stating what is available or dependent on our level of repentance, we make the absolution words just words. O they express what exists somewhere for some people, but they don't do anything. The absolution doesn't remove a persons sins from them as far as east is from west as our Introit said. It doesn't actually send a person's sins away from them as Jesus did for the paralyzed man. The absolution then is not a very practical help at all. Teaching someone how to be married, showing someone how to raise their kids, or healing someone's body, now that's practical and useful.
Can you see how we fall into the trap of undervaluing the absolution? The world wants something else, and besides the absolution doesn't seem to provide anything anyway. But thanks be to God that He doesn't leave us to our own devices. He doesn't merely provide sinners with what they want. No, He gives us what we need. Our God through Jesus Christ forgives sins on earth today, this very day, through the Office of the Keys.
You see the teachers of the law we're right. Only God can forgive sins. Men have no right to forgive sins on their own. God the Son came into this world as a Man. He came bearing the full weight of God's holy Law. All the do's and don'ts of the 10 Commandments were on His shoulders. And as a Man He kept those Laws. The Commandments we break numerous times a day He kept perfectly as a Man. But there's more. There was hell to pay for our sinning. The Commandments that lay broken at our feet each day had to be paid for. So Jesus went to the cross bearing the guilt of all men and women, girls and boys, church members and non-members. He went to the cross guilty of all our sins, spread out His hands, and died for them.
But friends, there's no forgiveness there. Yes, that's where forgiveness for lust, pride, greed, worry, and gossip was won, but even if you could get there, you would find no forgiveness. Go to the holy land; go to Calvary itself; find a piece of the very cross, and you still wouldn't have forgiveness for your sins. Calvary is where your many sins were paid for, but that is not where forgiveness of sins is distributed or handed out. Where on earth does God forgive sins? Martin Luther said it this way, "God wills to forgive sins nowhere else on earth than through the mouth of a man." That's pretty startling, isn't it? Forgiveness on earth is found only in the mouth of a man.
Here's how it works. What did Jesus do on the evening He rose from the dead? He appeared in the upper room, and breathed on the disciples and said, "Receive you the Holy Spirit. Whosoever's sins you forgive they are forgiven." And what did He repeatedly commission those disciples to do? Preach in the whole world forgiveness of sins in His name. He didn't send them out to teach people how to have happy marriages. He didn't send them into all the world to show people how to raise their kids. He didn't say, "Go into the world and show people how to live well-adjusted lives." He didn't even send them to heal everybody of all the horrible disease there are. No, He sent them out to forgive sins on earth with their lips.
Shout it from the mountain tops fellow sinners: "God has placed the forgiveness of sins on earth for us!" It's not hidden in heaven where God may or may not be erasing your sins off your ledger. Forgiveness isn't in your heart connected to how well you confess, how sincerely you repent, or how sorry you really are. Then too, your forgiveness would be debatable, only as certain as you felt. No, your Lord has put the forgiveness of your sins in the mouth of a man for him to put into your ears.
Dr. Ray Martens, the past president of our Concordia University, said at the last circuit conference I attended that he wished pastors would stop merely preaching about forgiveness, saying there is forgiveness. He said that we ought to go out there and say, "I forgive you" because that is what our job is. He's right. I'm not telling you that there is some hypothetical forgiveness somewhere for you whether in heaven or in your heart, I am saying, 'I forgive you your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." I send your sins away from you right now for Jesus' sake.
Now let me show you how complete, how certain this forgiveness is. Let me show you that you can see your sins literally sent away from you by those words. The devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, preach to us constantly that the absolution is words just words. It doesn't really do anything. It expresses desire on my part, but not reality. Well, dear friends, God's Words are never just words.
God said, "Let there be light" and where there was only darkness, light appeared. God said, "Be fruitful and multiply," and these bodies were given the power to bring life into this world. God said, "This is My Body; this is My Blood," and behold His Body and Blood are present. God says through me, "I forgive you," and you are forgiven. It matters not whether you can't forgive yourself or other people won't forgive you. You are forgiven because God has said so, and God can't lie. What He speaks becomes reality. Your forgiveness is as sure as light, reproduction, and the presence of His Body and Blood in the Holy Communion.
Of course, this forgiveness is hard to see, isn't it? But God wants you to be sure of it, surer than you are of anything else in your life. That's why He healed the paralytic in our text. He said He did it so we may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. As sure as that man took up his bed and walked, so sure are you forgiven of your sins. As sure as the paralysis left the body of that man, so sure have your sins went from you today. As sure as that man could go home free at long last from his paralysis, so sure can you go home free of your sins today.
Ah, but you don't FEEL that forgiven, do you? Your sin is very serious, very big, and can't so easily be sent away from you, so you think. Therefore, you think that since you can't see or feel your sins sent away by my the Absolution, they are still on you. Tell me. When you have offended someone and are tormented over what you have done, where do you find peace? Do you wait till your heart has a feeling of relief which makes you think that person has forgiven you? That would be foolish, wouldn't it? The important point is not how you feel about your sin, but how the person you sinned against feels toward you. The only way that can be known is by the insulted person telling you he forgives you. You are to go by what he says not by what you feel.
God, through me, tells you today: "I forgive you. Everything is okay between Me and you. Christ carried your sins away from you, and I have no idea where they are now." These are more than just words; more than just the subject of great dramas; they are reality. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Epiphany VII (2-20-00), Mark 2:1-12