Celebrating life

Scriptures: Mark 2:1-22

As I approach these passages today, using the Narrative Lectionary, it tends to use much longer Scripture passages, rather than lots of different ones. The idea is so you can hear the stories.

But I have to say that it was tough, because, studying this week, the three passages that are here, the three separate things in your Bible that have different headings, are all worthy of sermons.

In fact, if you were to go to a resource like sermoncentral.com or whatever, you would find a whole lot of sermons on each one. So I could have preached on any one of these things.

Since I’m going to be giving a kind of overview of and weaving a thread hopefully through all three of them, I want to encourage you to study, to look. I have to say the commentators aren’t so helpful.

They all send you to Matthew for their commentary, rather than doing their own for Mark. But I think that, in part, deals with the fact that, before formal study came about, in terms of Biblical historical criticism, they kind of tried to harmonize and merge the Gospels. They didn’t look at them in their separate contexts.

Which is what we’re doing. We’re looking at Mark in and of itself. Because he had a different focus, a different audience, and a different purpose for his writing of the Gospel, even though it was about the same thing, the life of Jesus.

There are going to be details like the paralyzed man was lowered through the roof. It says, “after they had dug through it,” and I’m not going to go into the architecture of the day and the building materials of the day. If you want to talk about that and ask about that, come to the 4 o’clock Bible study.

I’m not going to be talking about new wine and wineskins and old wineskins and how they made it in those days and why that made sense. You might not understand that today. If you want to find out, talk to Jeff [who makes wine]. Or come to the Bible study at 4 p.m. He’ll be coming to that too, so you get to kill two birds with one stone.

So there is going to be a number of different things that I’m not going to cover today. What I want to do, hopefully, is weave a thread through this. I came up with something that I think is pretty unique, and that is the fact that, for Jesus, what we see here – remember, Mark’s main focus is “Who is this guy?” Nobody seems to be able to recognize him.

Now, again, we know the answer. It says in the very first verse in the very first chapter: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

You see, all through his Scripture, his Gospel here, people don’t get it. We get it, but they don’t get it. And it wasn’t because Jesus was being obscure, despite what some people may say, in modern scholarship.

It’s very clear that he was saying who he was. What we see here is that we have a misunderstanding about what’s going on, followed by Jesus giving a declaration, and then people celebrating and praising him for life, the life that he brings by his presence.

If we look at the paralytic story, it says when they returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. I find that fascinating. Think about that for a moment. Jesus was from Nazareth. But apparently he called Capernaum home.

Admittedly, elsewhere in the Gospels you read that he went back to Nazareth at one point, and their unbelief meant that he couldn’t do miracles, and in fact they ended up trying to throw him off a cliff because of his interpretation of Isaiah. So they were fulfilling the truism that says no prophet is honored in his own hometown.

So Jesus made a new home in Capernaum, which is a place that was not pure Jew. It was contaminated by a lot of Gentiles – in their understanding. It had a lot of exposure to other cultures. But it made for a wonderful base of operations.

So he’s home, and he comes to the house, and so many people gather around him and go in the house, there was no room, not even in front of the door. They’re out in the streets here. And I can’t help but wonder and imagine, actually, because of everything that had gone before with the miracles and the cleansing of the leper and such things, that these people are excited.

They’re there, and they’re enthusiastic, and they’re excited, and they are ready to hear Jesus. They are ready to see what he does, hear what he says. They are excited about this prophet.

And these four guys – I’m assuming it’s men. If you’ve ever tried to carry anybody, even using four guys on the corners, carrying him more than a block would be kind of tough, if he’s average size.

But these four guys have a paralytic friend, and they love him so much that they actually push through the crowd and they get up on the roof, and they lower him through the roof.

It says in the Scriptures that when Jesus saw their faith – notice, not the faith of the paralytic, but the faith of his friends, those that loved him and cared for him, those that were willing to sacrifice for him – when he saw the faith of his friends, he said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Here we have the first misunderstanding. Again, we know from chapter 1, verse 1, that this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Well, these people, particularly the scribes and Pharisees, did not understand Jesus’ godhood.

Jesus is declaring who he is. How do we know this? Well, these scribes and the Pharisees were questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak this way? Blasphemy. Who can forgive sins but God alone?” They did not see him as God.

Now, I want to point out something. Being concerned for taking the name of the Lord God in vain, usurping His prerogative, is not a bad thing. Okay? It’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. I don’t want to take God’s name in vain or usurp His prerogatives in any way.

The problem was that they didn’t understand who they were dealing with. They didn’t understand who Jesus was, and they weren’t willing to admit it. I imagine they got quite a shock.

I don’t know about you, but if I’d been thinking something in my head, thinking those questions, and then all of a sudden someone said, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?” I’d be a little bit freaked.

Then he says, “Which is easier to say? To say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or to say, ‘Stand up, take your mat, and walk.’ So that you know that the Son of Man has authority” – and there he takes the title for himself, the Son of Man – it has capitals in your Bible, because it refers to a deific figure from the Daniel prophecies. You can look those up on your own time.

“So that you know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins, I say to you, stand up, take your mat, and go home.” And the man did. Remember, really crowded house. I doubt they lifted him up on ropes back up through the ceiling.

So he had to get up, roll up his mat, and then push his way through the crowd. So he was feeling well enough, he was strong enough, he had been made whole enough, he had new life enough, that he pushed his way through the crowd.

Everyone was amazed and they glorified God, or some other translations say they praised God, saying “We have never seen anything like this.” I don’t think they know what to make of Christ. But they’re willing to celebrate the life that he brings, regardless of their knowledge of who he is, in fullness.

They were celebrating and praising God for a miracle unlike any which they had ever seen before. I warrant they were praising God for the teachings since that’s what Mark cares about. About who Jesus was. And the enthusiasm grew.

Then Mark goes through a story here, how he called Matthew. Levi was the son of Alphaeus, he was also Matthew, and he was a tax collector.

I want to touch on this and dwell on this for a moment, as we deal with Jesus sitting at the dinner at Levi’s house. How many people here like the IRS? I didn’t think so. Tax collectors are not very popular people.

There’s a joke about a guy that was in a bar. He had a standing challenge. He was a body builder and a bulky guy, and he’d squeeze a lemon and he’d squeeze it fully out. Then he would challenge anybody to get any more juice out of the lemon, and if they could he’d buy a round of drinks for everybody. But if they couldn’t, then they had to buy the round of drinks. And he’d never lost.

Well, this man comes in, and he’s about average size, five foot six, about average build, little kind of nerdy glasses. He says, “I’ll take you up on that challenge.” The big guy looked at him and just kind of laughed.

The little guy came up and he grabbed the lemon and squeezed it, and out came three more drops. The big guy was just like “Oh my! How did he do that?” One of his friends leaned over and said, “That’s the IRS guy.”

They know how to squeeze you. Well, it was no different back then. In fact, they were hated even worse, because they were seen as traitors to the Jewish kind.

That’s because they weren’t collecting taxes for the Temple. They weren’t collecting taxes for the local government. They were collecting taxes for the Romans – the enemy. So everybody hated the tax collectors there.

Frequently they were unscrupulous in what they did, because they made their money off skimming money off the top. That’s how they made their living. In fact, there was one tax man who was actually known to be honest and straightforward, and he got a special thing on his headstone, “Here lies an honest tax man.”

That man was unusual. But Matthew was not unusual. But Jesus calls him, and he changes. He follows Jesus. He gets a new life. And Jesus not only calls Levi/Matthew as one of his disciples, but then he goes to dinner at his house to celebrate the new life that Matthew has gained.

So while he was having dinner at Levi’s house, where he had been invited after this radical change of heart, through Jesus saying “Follow me,” and he’s celebrating with the only people he knows – his friends. Fellow tax collectors and sinners. And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, there was the hope that other people would be touched by Jesus the way he was. Celebrating life that came through Christ.

The scribes and the Pharisees saw that he was eating with tax collectors, and they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Now, again, a concern for holiness is not a bad thing in and of itself. We all want to be holy. We have hymns, “Take Time To Be Holy”; things like that. Holiness is something that is a lifestyle that we need to practice.

But these Pharisees didn’t get it. They didn’t get why Jesus was there. They didn’t get who he was. And they were actually thinking that they were better than the tax collectors and sinners. They were looking down on them – they were prideful because they were ritually clean.

So that’s why they asked, and I can just hear the sneer in their voice, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

I want you to notice again – you’d think that these guys would learn – they asked the disciples. Now remember, this is a party. Have any of you all ever been at a party? There’s a lot of talk talk talk talk talk. I heard somebody once say that the best description of a cocktail party was a gaggle of geese.

So it’s hard to hear sometimes what people are saying. Well, from wherever he was, Jesus hears the scribes and Pharisees say this, and instead of the disciples answering, he does. So they’re over here in the corner [kind of mumbling into his hand] “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus from across the room says, “I’ll tell you why.”

He says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous, but the sinners.” You see, he was declaring himself as the one who would change the lives of the sick and the sinner, the lame. He would be giving them new life, new beginnings.

This is why he came. It’s important for us to understand that, because we are so often like the Pharisees and the scribes. We get into our church thing. We like to do things our way. And we don’t understand the radical newness that Christ brings into people’s lives.

Sometimes we have problems, even though we say a prayer of confession every week, we don’t really see ourselves as sinners. Sinners are people who do worse things than we do. We don’t see ourselves as in need, necessarily, of a Savior, at least not this week.

Yet Christ came for those people. He came for you people! That is why He came, because God loved you. You. He chose you. You were elected by Him. He loved you enough that the Son came and died to cleanse your sins, because you did need Him. You’re broken, without Him.

But the good news is He brings healing, through the blood on the cross and the resurrection from the tomb. And we are made new creatures, and we have reason to celebrate, even as did Matthew and his friends. Even as did the paralytic and his friends, and all the people who saw the wonderful miracle of God changing the life of someone.

In the third passage, we had John’s disciples and the Pharisees fasting, and the people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”

And again, fasting is not bad. It’s a good practice. When we get into Lent, I always give at least one sermon on fasting, spiritual disciplines. Because I think it’s important for us to do.

Fasting was a regular practice, a spiritual discipline in the day. It’s one that’s kind of fallen out of favor with us these days, and it’s something that, you know – I’m as guilty of it as anybody. It’s something that maybe we need to understand a little better.

It doesn’t have to be food, in today’s culture. There may be medical reasons, for medicine or a condition where you have to eat at regular times, and you really can’t fast effectively without hurting yourself. But there are other things that you might be able to fast from. And I recommend that.

But this time, these people were fasting from eating, one of the easiest things. So they asked why his disciples didn’t fast, and Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.”

This image, again, proclaims who Christ is. It is very Biblical. There’s lots of imagery of the bridegroom and the bride in the Old Testament. And you remember who was almost always the bridegroom? God. And the bride was His chosen people, Israel.

So Jesus is saying, I am God, I am the bridegroom, and I am here with my chosen people, and as long as I’m with them, they need to celebrate. They had a cultural practice of celebration with the bridegroom. As long as he was present, they celebrated, sometimes for days. Then when he left, they would mourn. (Maybe because all the good food was gone.)

So Christ is basically again claiming that he is God, and he is here with his people. Who were, according to the passage above, tax collectors and the sinners. The sick and the lame. The ones who recognized their need for God and salvation.

And these teachings – remember, Mark is concerned with teachings about who he is – are something that the Scribes or Pharisees, in their rigidness, had no framework for accepting and believing.

So he gives two metaphors for that, as he deals with sewing a piece of shrunk cloth on an old cloak. Now, I have to admit, I don’t sew. My wife sews. She’s pretty good. But even so, I did take Home Ec, back in the eighth grade, when it was still called Home Ec.

I learned that cotton shrinks when you wash it, and if you were to put a cotton patch on a piece of a shirt that had a tear, and then you washed it, the cotton shrinks and at best you’re going to have gathering. At worst, it’s going to rip right out. And as Jesus notes, create a larger tear than was there to start with.

The same sort of thing with wine, and new wine in an old wineskin. It would burst the old wineskin. Again, I don’t want to go into why that happens – I want to leave you hanging. But the fact is, you can’t put something new in the old. Part of that, I will tell you, the old wineskins were rigid. They got old, and they got hardened. The new wine can then burst them.

The new teachings, the new understanding of who Christ is, the new life that He brings, bursts the old life asunder. I think that’s an important lesson for us to understand if we know that Jesus Christ is God.

Sometimes I fear that we in the church are unfortunately much more like those Pharisees and scribes than the tax collectors and sinners. We say prayers of confession. We supposedly recognize ourselves as sinners in need of God’s grace. We claim the need for salvation through Jesus Christ, and we have confessed and professed our faith in Him alone.

But then, when we live out our life, we live it without the celebration that I believe should be there.

I am a very, very strong proponent of Reformed faith and the Presbyterian Church. I just got put this year in the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, and I’m excited about it. Because I’m very concerned about being Reformed and very concerned about being Presbyterian.

I think that some of the problems that we have are because we’ve kind of drifted away from that. We’re no longer very Reformed and we’re no longer very Presbyterian in a lot of ways, and I think it’s something we need to go back to.

But one thing I will always rebel against, and that is the image of Presbyterians as God’s “frozen chosen.” We are known as that. Because when we come to church, we’re completely silent and still. We don’t seem to show those signs of celebration and worship that exist in other churches.

We may be feeling it in our hearts, but we certainly don’t seem to display it very much. You know, my son – he’s not here, but I put him on the spot in Morning Sun – there are a number of people that have asked me if he wants to be a music director. Because he gets into the hymns, waving his arm like he’s directing.

And I love that he does that, because that means that he’s enjoying the music so much. I mean, think of our first hymn today. “Praise Him! Praise Him! Jesus our blessed Redeemer.” Just bouncy, joyous, full of life and celebration. And smiles? You can smile while you sing – did you know that?

You have been selected by God. You have been chosen by Him to be one of His people. He has chosen you. It doesn’t matter what sins you committed. It doesn’t matter what magnificent things you might have done. Because God is greater than all of that. And He loves you.

He loves you so much that His Son came specifically to save us, by dying on the cross and shedding His blood for us, and then by being raised again. So that we could be His people, His children, adopted into His family, as we are new creatures by baptism, the water and the blood. We have new life!

New life. Celebrating the life we gained in Jesus Christ. That kind of life, that kind of celebration is infectious. You’ve heard about people who have “infectious smiles.” You know, they smile and it seems like everyone else starts smiling. Or infectious laughs. They’ll start laughing and people who never even heard the joke start laughing.

Well, you can have an infectious life as well. I think that this is part of what God calls us to do, that is exemplified here in these passages. The people, having seen the change that God made in their lives, or in the lives of others, celebrated and spread the news to other people. And they praised God right where they were.

Church should not be like the story of the little boy who was about three years old, and was standing on the pew instead of sitting like he should. His mom was right next to him, and he was turned around and was facing the other people. And he was just smiling at them, and moving his head, and smiling.

And his mom grabbed him by the ear and twisted and pulled him and said, “Sit down!” So he sits down and starts snuffling a bit, because probably twisting his ear kind of hurt. And she goes, “That’s better.”

There’s a place for decorum, yes. We don’t want people going crazy. But don’t ever quench the spirit of celebration. Of life. The new life that you have gained in Jesus Christ.

We should praise God in our worship. We can have that celebration and joy in our hearts. Even while doing things decently and in order. The two are not mutually exclusive. Then in our lives outside of the church here and worship, we need to exhibit that same sort of celebration.

I know that there are trials and troubles and tribulations that get into everybody’s way. But we have the one thing that overcomes all other things. We have Jesus Christ. The one who came and died and was raised again, and sent his Spirit to be among us.

You see, the bridegroom is with us all the time now, through the Holy Spirit. He went away. He came back. So we can celebrate all the time. All the time. Until that point when Christ comes back physically and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Everyone will celebrate then, who believe in Him.

So my encouragement to you, during this cold, wintery, blustery January week, is to celebrate life. Speak life. Bring life. Share life. Let others know what Jesus has done for you, that you might bring praise to the Father who is in heaven above.

If you celebrate your life, each and every day, knowing who Jesus Christ really is, even as they did not in these passages, then you can’t help but witness to the grace and mercy of Christ and lead others to know His love as well. And that is a cause for celebration.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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