The 19th Sunday after Trinity—18 October 2020
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Reading from Holy Scripture: Matthew 9:1–8 (ESV)
1 Getting into a boat [Jesus] crossed over and came to his own city. 2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 7 And he rose and went home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
Thanks to Rev. Dr. John Stephenson, who served as Trinity’s guest preacher today.
“Oh that we were there!” If I had a better voice, I’d sing to you this refrain from a beloved Christmas carol! Oh that we were there to see Jesus our Lord sweep from off the lake into town to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the bottom line of our holy religion is absolutely true. Here’s a man who speaks to other men from the level of God, who performs physical wonders as a man who acts on the same level as God. Yes, oh that we were there! But even rich and well-connected people would have a hard time getting to Galilee the way international travel is right now. And even if you could get to Capernaum, you couldn’t hop into a time capsule to land in the moment when the townspeople brought to our Lord that severely crippled man who couldn’t move a limb. Oh that we were there! But that cannot be, so perhaps we have to admit that our religion might be just fantasy, fairy-tale, fiction. …
You and I are certainly powerless to perform any miracle of time and space, but the Creator of heaven and earth, the God of Israel, He is the Lord of space and time, and when He takes flesh and becomes a man, He can and does defy the laws of time and space that limit men and even angels. “Behold I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Perhaps the biggest challenge set before us in this strange and eerie time is the question whether or not we believe this, whether we live our lives on this basis, whether we would stake and lay down our lives for this truth, this reality that Jesus Christ our enfleshed God is truly with us, even here and now?
Since things went weird back in March, lots of people haven’t known where to turn for help, and there are surely zillions of folks out there who are like drowning swimmers grasping at straws. But perhaps the weirdest thing of all is that in our public life over the last six months there has been next to no recourse to the Creator of heaven and earth, the God of Israel, the God who makes Himself known by the four Hebrew consonants that we’re best off not pronouncing for reverence’ sake, the name that He has bestowed on JESUS before Whom every knee shall bow.
Only in imagination can we go back there to Capernaum and back then to around the year 30, and the reason we need this assembly at least once a week, not as a luxury but so that we can make it through the next seven days, is that the God of Israel, the Word made flesh, the Father’s Son Whom He shares with Mary, He is with us here and now as we gather in His name, in the name that He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And as He is with us, He can and does speak in a way that alters things, He can and does act in a way that even bends physical reality.
On one famous occasion a blind man heard that Jesus was passing by, and even though He couldn’t see Him, Bartimaeus had a powerful pair of lungs, so that He was able to shout out and catch the Lord’s attention. In this holy assembly you and I can do the same, actually we can do it with a whisper; and as Holy Communion is distributed in slow motion at this time, we can kneel before the holy things and pour out our hearts’ petitions to the Holy One.
But that cripple who couldn’t move a limb, that paralytic who tasted despair to the full and likely didn’t have a good attitude to the God of Israel, because he thought the God of Israel was being mean to him, he couldn’t get himself into the presence of Christ, he couldn’t even press his own help button. There’s a lesson for you and me in the townspeople who carried him to Jesus on a stretcher. In a very practical, hands-on way they made intercession for this helpless man; and we can do the same thing by bringing needy people, desperate people, humanly hopeless cases before the Lord at the altar, supremely but not only in the General Prayer.
So if this assembly were a debating society, which it isn’t, the question before the house, the issue that those in attendance would consider and then vote on, would be this: do we really believe that the God of Israel become flesh bridges the gap between then and now, the chasm between there and here, do we really believe that Jesus speaks His body into bread and His blood into wine so that, as Luther once put it very beautifully, He might be physically as close to us right now as He was to His disciples back then?
We have no idea how long these exceptional, weird conditions are going to last, but we do know something that unbelievers don’t have a clue about, namely where to turn for help. The best thing to happen to Canada right now would be a revival of the Church, people flocking to the Lord’s house for Him to speak a powerful word to them, for Him to perform a mighty deed on them. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for a revival, and even if one were under way, it would be hard to accommodate when the churches are limited to one-third capacity which, to be honest, is where many of our congregations were at even back in early March.
“Child, your sins are forgiven.” “Take up your bed and walk.” The Lord Jesus rushes at the cripple with the forgiveness of sins, even before the paralytic has collected his thoughts, regretted his polluted heart, and asked for pardon. From the right hand of God and from the perspective of His return on the Last Day, Jesus still proclaims “Your sins are forgiven,” despite the very spotty amount of repentance He finds even from the most pious people. And, to quote Luther again, a secret power goes out from the Body of Jesus into our mortal, frail, and afflicted bodies when we kneel at the rail to receive Holy Communion. And it is not for you and me to set limits to what all the Lord can and will do to those who accept His invitation.
“Oh that we were there!” Yes, but isn’t it a thousand times better that He is here? Isn’t it better that at all times and in all places the God of Israel is present in His human soul and flesh and blood? And when we think of those who don’t know where to turn, or who are turning to the wrong places to get through this weird period of history, what can we do but implore the Lord Jesus as He is invisibly with us now and especially as He comes visibly and physically to the altar in a matter of minutes, “Oh that they were here—oh that they were here!”