Forgiveness

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dunIn the wild purple of the glow'ring sun,Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroudThe menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowedWith bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,They leave their trenches, going over the top,While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,Flounders in mud. O, Jesus, make it stop!

So wrote the war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, in action, in 1918. He was one of the war poets not killed in action. But he knew at first hand the truth of C.S. Lewis' saying: 'There are two creatures only which kill their own kind in large numbers: rats, and men.' And he'd have agreed with Mark Twain's saying: 'Man is the one creature in the animal kingdom capable of blushing. He is the only one that needs to.' 'O Jesus, make it stop!' But 2000 years has passed since Jesus came a first time, and he has not made it stop. In 2000 years of man's inhumanity to man, God has not stepped in to intervene. And that is, perhaps, the greatest stumbling block to many who are on the outside of Christian faith. Why does God not stop it? Why does he not respond to the crying needs of his world? Is he not good enough to care? Or is he not powerful enough to act? Well, as he reveals himself in the Bible, God is good and God is powerful, all-powerful. And he is well able to step in amidst all our inhumanity to one another and make it stop. We said that in the Psalm we read earlier:

the LORD is coming, he is coming to judge the earth.He will judge the world in righteousness,and the peoples in his truth. (Psalm 97.13)

God is fully aware of the needs of his world as humanity continues to misbehave. And Jesus will make it stop. But that should make us think twice about what we consider our deepest need in this world. If Jesus is going to come again in judgement, our deepest need is to be on the right side of him when he does. Our deepest need is not the destruction of landmines, nor the removal of Saddam Hussein. Not the mending of the family, nor the discovery of a cure for AIDS. Our deepest need is to be reconciled to God before he does make it all stop - us included, with all the inhumanity to man (to family, to husband, wife, friends) that we commit. And that's the lesson of Matthew 9.1-8. It's a lesson about our deepest need in life and about the one way that need can be met. So first, OUR DEEPEST NEED Matthew 9.1:

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat.

And it's perfectly obvious what he needed, what he wanted from Jesus. And we know Jesus was both good and powerful enough to meet the need, because he'd done it before. Chapter 8, verse 5: When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 'Lord,' he said, 'my servant lies at home paralysed and in terrible suffering.' Jesus said to him, 'I will go and heal him.' And he did, chapter 8, verse 13. So, back to Matthew 9.2: 'Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Take heart, son; your legs are restored.'' But that's just what he doesn't say. Here is the real Matthew 9.2:

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.'

What does that tell you about Jesus? That he's blind? That he's insensitive to peoples' needs? No. It tells you that our ideas of what we really need and Jesus' idea are utterly different. It tells you that our felt needs are not in Jesus' view our most pressing needs; that our deepest needs are not physical, or social, or global, but spiritual. Just imagine for a moment that the materialists were right. Imagine that the lie on which our culture is built was true. That there is no God. That there's no-one out there to whom we are answerable; and that when we die, we go nowhere - we cease to exist. If that were true, this paralysed man's deepest need would indeed have been his physical need. If the here and now is all there is and something robs us of enjoying the here and now, then that something is surely our greatest enemy, and its removal our deepest need. Whether it's illness or disability, as in this man's case. Or whether it's a failure in life, or a bereavement, or the break-up of a marriage, or a financial crisis, or a hope never realised. If we believe the here and now is all there is, we become engrossed in those felt needs. Engrossed. And maybe also embittered. But materialism is a lie. The here and now is not all there is. Far from it: it's just the transit lounge before one of two destinations in eternity. There is a God, and when we die we do indeed go somewhere - to meet him. And if in this life we've said to God (if only unconsciously) 'Stay out of my life; I want to run it myself,' then he will grant us our wish. He will stay out. Or rather, he will make us stay out. He will be in heaven. And we, by choice, will be in hell. So said Jesus. Which is why he makes us sit up and think as he does in verse 2. Our felt needs are not our deepest need. Our deepest need is to be reconciled to God in this life and for the next. I remember well the first time I went sailing. It was in a four-man racing dinghy, and we sailed out of one of the channel ports. A while out to sea, I was asked to open the self-bailer in the bottom of the boat. Unknown to us, there was a huge crack right around it. So when I flicked the catch to open it, the whole assembly fell out of the bottom, leaving a gaping hole through which an alarming spout of water started to gush - just like in the cartoons. And, novice though I was, even I could see we were sinking; you didn't need a yaught master's certificate to work out that we were in trouble. And two of us tried to plug the hole and began to bail water furiously out of the boat as we headed back into port. About five minutes later, without warning, our helmsmen suddenly jibed. The boat veered round, the boom of the sail swung across and whacked both of us smartly on the head. And I was just about to give our helmsman a piece of my mind when I saw why he'd done it. We'd been heading straight under the bows of a car-ferry. We'd been so engrossed in bailing water to stay afloat that we hadn't noticed we were on collision course with a ship. So engrossed with the obvious need that we hadn't even noticed the bigger one. Well, here comes this paralysed man to Jesus and we say to ourselves, 'His need is obvious.' And Jesus says, 'Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.' So engrossed are we with his obvious need that we hadn't even noticed the bigger one. But there is a bigger one. For him, and for us. We're all heading straight under the judgement of God. And our deepest need is not simply to stay happily afloat in this life (which isn't possible without God, anyway). Our deepest need is that unless we're reconciled to him, we're on a collision course with God. Being reconciled means us letting God have his rightful place as God. And it means God forgiving our sin - that is, forgiving us for refusing him that place to begin with. So that the four words we most need to hear from God are there in verse 2: 'Your sins are forgiven.' Now this paralysed man may well have been aware of his spiritual need. Whereas at least some of us simply won't see sin as our problem - let alone our most urgent problem. 'After all,' we say, 'We've lived a good life by anyone's standards.' But what about by God's standards? Let me read God's own verdict on us from elsewhere in the NT:

There is no-one righteous, not even oneAll have turned away,they have together become worthless;there is no-one who does good, not even oneTherefore, no-one will be declared in the right in God's sight by observing the law; rather, through the law, we become conscious of sin.' (Romans 3.10-12, 20)

So if we're not conscious of sin, it's simply because we're not conscious of God. I remember a winter walking holiday in the Lakes. And one day I commented to the friend I was with how amazingly clean the sheep managed to keep themselves - how white their fleeces were. Well, it snowed overnight. And the following day I took it all back about how clean the sheep were. Things look very different against the brilliance of fresh snow. And if we're not conscious of sin, it's because we've never seen ourselves against the brilliance of God's standards. We can think ourselves to have a pretty clean sheet. But our clean sheet looks pretty filthy against the brilliance of God and his law. That's why coming to faith in Jesus is so humbling. That's why a new believer often feels he or she is getting worse, as conscience comes back to life. That's why the Christian life is full of painful self-discovery. But it's a healthy thing to be conscious of sin, and that our deepest need is the forgiveness of our sins. 'O Jesus, make it stop,' asked Siegfried Sassoon. And he will. He will make all sin stop. That's why we had that OT reading from the book of Daniel, describing his vision of the end of time:

'As I looked,thrones were set in place,and the Ancient of Days took his seatThousands upon thousands attended him;ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. [You, me everyone.]The court was seated, and the books were opened.[Then] in my vision; I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power.' (Daniel 7.9-14)

And in Matthew 9.6, that figure - the 'Son of man' - is who Jesus claims to be. He claims to be this figure to whom God delegates the business of judgement day. He claims that he will step in to wrap up history and that we'll meet him. He claims that he has the authority to judge us for all our dismissal of his Father, and for all our inhumanity to one another. And, verse 6, he claims to have the authority to forgive us so that here on earth, ahead of that meeting, we can come back on the right side of him. That's our deepest need on earth. Not health or wealth or even happiness. But to hear those words from Jesus: 'Your sins are forgiven.' But isn't this all rather other-worldly and dismissive of needs in this world? Well, Jesus isn't dismissive of needs in this world: verses 6 and 7 -he does heal the man. But (verse 2), he also forces us to get our perspective right. Imagine we could have brought this man from heaven, to interview this morning. And I'd asked him for his thoughts about what happened that day. He might have said something like this:

'Well, it was marvellous to be healed. To be able to walk and run and play with the children. It was great to be able to work again, earn some money, move to a better neighbourhood, send the kids to a decent school. And what a turn-round from the depressions and the sense that life for me was pretty much over.'

'But it was far more important to have my sins forgiven. Because of course, I got older. I was never as bad as before, but I got arthritis and spent the last five years house-bound. And then I died. Since when I've been with God in heaven, in a new body and in a place with no sin, no suffering, no sickness, no death.'

That's the perspective. Heaven is the place where human needs are ultimately met. Because heaven is the place from which God will ultimately exclude everything and everyone that opposes his good purposes. And that includes human beings who remain unreconciled to him. If we are to be in heaven, we have to be reconciled to God in this life, by turning to him, and being forgiven by him. That's the perspective. So that the first Secretary General of the United Nations was absolutely right when he said this: 'The role of the UN is not to bring about heaven on earth, but to prevent hell on earth in the meantime.' So: have you yet seen your sin as your deepest need? And if we have, and it's brought us to Jesus, do we count the forgiveness of sins as our greatest blessing? Do we say those four words of verse 2 to ourselves daily, 'Your sins are forgiven'? And do we believe that because of that, God is for us whatever we're going through in the here and now? And do we believe that forgiveness is the key to heaven, and that we're going there - with nothing to fear from death? Secondly, HOW OUR DEEPEST NEED IS MET Verse 2 again:

Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.'

The first upset is that Jesus thinks this man has a deeper need than the physical one. The second upset is that Jesus claims he has the authority to meet it. 'Take heart, son; your deepest need is forgiveness from God, and I forgive you.' Imagine that after the service you get into your car, and you're just starting the engine when there's a sickening crunch and someone else has run into you. You get out to inspect the damage - the smashed lights and the caved-in body-work. The offending driver makes his sheepish apologies. At which point I arrive, and I go up to the guy who's just crunched your car and say, 'That's all right. I forgive you.' What would you think of me? If I'm not the offended party, I have no right to be doing any forgiving at all. The offended party alone can forgive. Well, with sin, God is the offended party. And Jesus takes it upon himself to forgive it: 'Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.' No wonder, verse 3:

At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, 'This fellow is blaspheming!'

In other words, 'This guy's just a man like any of us, and he's talking as if he was God.' And they've just begged the biggest question that faces any of us in life. Namely, who do you think Jesus is? Was he just a man? Or was he, is he, God-become-man? I guess a number of us here will be just looking into Christian things. We'd say we were friendly towards the church; we'd say to our Christian friends, 'Well, I admire your faith.' And if asked what we thought about Jesus we'd say he was a good man, perhaps the best of men. If that is what you think about Jesus, can I encourage you once and for all to abandon it as a totally untenable position? If you believe Jesus was just a man then you cannot believe he was a good man. Good men - if they're just men like us - don't go round, verse 2, speaking as if they were God, and had the right to forgive sins. Good men - if they're just men like us - don't go around, verse 6, claiming to be the person we'll all meet as our Judge at the end of time. If you believe that Jesus was just a man, you have to believe he was either a madman or a bad man. And if you believe that, you cannot be friendly towards the church. And you cannot say to Christians, 'I admire your faith.' The last time someone said to me, 'I admire your faith, I told him he shouldn't. He looked rather taken aback, but knowing he wasn't a Christian I said, 'Look, you've just told me you don't believe what I believe. In other words, you must believe that what I believe is wrong and dangerous. In which case, you can't admire me for believing it. And if you cared about me, you'd be trying to talk me out of it.' People who understand the claims of Jesus cannot be neutral. These people in verse 3 understood - and they didn't like it at all. Read to the end of Matthew's Gospel and you find they not only accused him of blasphemy; they crucified him for it. People who understand the claims of Jesus are either passionately against, or passionately for him. And if we're neither, it means that as yet, we haven't understood. He claimed what only God has the right to claim. And for those with eyes to see, he did enough to enable us to trust that claim. Verse 4:

Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, 'Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier? To say, 'Your sins are forgiven?', or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man does have authority on earth to forgive sins.' Then he said to the paralytic, 'Get up, take your mat and go home.' And the man got up and went home.' (Matthew 9.4-7)

He has the authority to meet the visible need. Which enables me to trust he has the authority to meet the invisible need. But the ultimate demonstration of his authority comes at the end of the four Gospels. Read to Matthew 27 and you find Jesus was crucified for his claim to be God. Read to Matthew 28 and you find he was raised from the dead. As if God had reached down from his side and said, 'You don't believe his claim to be my Son? Well, watch this.' His resurrection tells me he was truly all he claimed to be. And that gives the clue to understanding why he died. It was no accident. It was planned as the way of forgiveness. The person who will judge me at the end of time stepped into time as a man. And when he died, he took upon himself the judgement we deserve so as to be able to forgive us. The Judge faced our judgement in our place so he could forgive us. The Judge took the initiative to bring about the greatest 'out of court settlement' the world has ever seen. People refuse it every day. Yet, that's the heart of the Christian message. And just as people dislike it for being other-worldly, so they dislike it for its certainty. Our culture hates certainty about anything, but especially about the things of God. Billy Graham was interviewed on Songs of Praise a few years ago and he was asked, 'Dr Graham, what do you believe will happen to you when you die?' And Billy Graham replied, 'I'm quite certain that I will go to be with the Lord Jesus in heaven.' To which the interviewer said, 'Isn't that a very arrogant thing to say?' In our culture, certainty is arrogance. After all, how can you be sure, here and now? Surely we'll only know when we get there whether we've made the grade for heaven? That's the official Roman Catholic line. That's Islam. That's every man-made religious system. But, verse 6, the truth is that God's Son has authority, here and now, on earth to forgive sins. The very same person who will judge me has been here, has explained the score to me, and has died in my place in order to forgive me. So that it's possible to trust those facts, and to come to him in prayer, and ask to be forgiven. And then to believe that those words of verse 2 are applicable to me, 'Take heart, Ian, your sins are forgiven.' That's the basis of Christian certainty. The basis of Christian certainty is not that the gospel says to me, 'Take heart, Ian, your life is good enough.' The basis of Christian certainty is that the gospel says to me, 'Take heart, Ian; at every point where your life is not good enough, your sins are forgiven.' I asked earlier: Have you yet seen your sin as your deepest need? The other thing this passage asks is: Have your sins been forgiven? Do you have that humble certainty that here and now, on earth, Jesus' verdict on you is: 'Forgiven', 'Accepted'? If our answer to that is, 'No,' or 'I'm not sure,', it's because our faith is still focused upon ourselves. We still wrongly believe that Christian certainty rests on God declaring our lives to be good enough. But Christian faith is focused away from ourselves, in Jesus. It rests not on God declaring my life to be good enough, but on God declaring my sins to be forgiven. Well let me finish with a question. What are you going to do about Matthew 9.1-8? Jesus says our greatest problem is our sin. And he says that he alone is the solution to the problem. So what are you going to do with Jesus? It may be that, like the people in verse 3, you dislike him. Maybe you dislike him more as a result of hearing this. You dislike what he says about you and about himself. Because you realise you can't just be neutral and British and friendly about all this. Well, do keep coming and listening; do read a Gospel for yourself - maybe start with Matthew, chapters 1-9. At the other end of the scale, many of us are like this man in verse 2. We've come to Jesus in faith, found the forgiveness of sins and made a new start in life with God in his rightful place. But it may be that some here are like the people in verse 8: people who seemed to recognise something of who Jesus was, but who didn't have the faith of the people of verse 2. Maybe that's you. You're saying to yourself, 'I recognise the truth of what Jesus says about himself and what he says about me and my need. But I've not yet done anything about it.' In which case, be glad that Jesus has not yet answered that request of Siegfried Sassoon - 'O Jesus, make it stop!' Be glad that he hasn't stepped in: because the moment he does, all opportunity to respond and be forgiven and change sides is over. Jesus could step in at any time - but where would you stand with him? The reason he delays that moment is to give more time for more people to respond. While we're busy asking the question of him, 'Why doesn't he make it stop?', he is asking the question of us: 'Why don't they respond to this out of court settlement, before it's too late?' Well, why not respond? If you can say to yourself, 'I think this is true', why not say it to Jesus and start out in the Christian life? Asking him to forgive you; and asking him to take up his rightful place as Lord of your life from now on. I'm going to end with a prayer that would be suitable for someone who wanted to do that. It wouldn't be suitable if you're further back thinking about all this. But if you want to respond to Christ now, and you're prepared to be a public follower of his, you could echo this prayer in your mind as I say it:

Lord Jesus,I believe that you are God and the rightful Lord of my life. I admit that I have rebelled against you, sinning in thought, word and deed. I am sorry, and I now turn to you and yield to you your rightful place as Lord. I believe that you died in my place to bear the judgement of my sins. And as I turn to you, I ask you to forgive my sins on account of your death.Please forgive me and enter my life by your Spirit to enable me to live for you from now on.Amen.

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