Joy to the World
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, September 12, 2014
Texts: Psalm 150, Mark 1:1-12
Thursday morning I wheeled my bicycle out of my office. Before heading outside I stuck my head in the door of the day care room across the hall. I waved to my favorite little guy in the room. (He's my favorite because he knows my name and always waves.) One of the staff people, Kate, came over to say good morning. She was holding a little girl, Ava. Ava is new to day care and she was crying. Kate explained that saying good bye in the morning was sometimes difficult. Little people wanted to stay with mom.
What do you do when you see a little girl crying? You do what you can to cheer her up. I took my helmet off, so I would be less scary. She turned her head to watch this funny old man. She was still sniffling, but at least I hadn't made things worse. Since she was looking my direction, I explained I was going to ride off on my bicycle. Kate carried her out into the hall to show her my bike. I asked Ava if she wanted to ride in the panier on the back of my bike. She shook her head, but I could see she was slowly coming away from the pain of saying goodbye to mom. Kate asked if Ava had a bike at home. She nodded her head. I asked if she had a green bike? She shook her head no. A blue bike? No. A pink bike? She almost smiled. And slowly nodded her head yes.
It was the beginning of joy. A small beginning. Mom was still absent. But there were other facts deserving of her attention. Like pink bicycles and funny old men and a nice woman named Kate who would hold you and let you cry when you needed to.
The sniffles stopped. We talked for a few more minutes. How tall was her bike? Did her brother have a bicycle? Kate talked about her new yellow bike. Someone who was moving out of state had given it to her. Ava finally managed a little bit of smile. Her cuddling in Kate's arms expressed satisfaction rather than grief.
I headed off to work on my sermon rather proud of myself. I had helped put a smile on a little girl's face. That's not bad for a morning's work. Jesus did things like that. He was famous for making people smile.
Once he was teaching in Peter's house in Capernaum. The placed was jammed with people. People eager to learn from this master rabbi. Other people eager to detect error and heresy in Jesus' words. But critic or fan, Jesus mesmerized them all.
Well, he did until there was a commotion on the roof. Dust started drifting down from a spot in the center of the ceiling. People began crowding away from a rain of dust and clods and sticks. Whatever Jesus had been saying was forgotten. What was happening? A minute or two later you could see hands reaching into the growing hole in the ceiling. Hands ripping up the ceiling. The hole got larger. You could see the heads silhouetted against the blinding light of the Mediterranean sky. Finally the destruction stopped. The hole was filled with a lumpy shape as the people on the roof lowered something into the room.
Once the shape was below the ceiling, people could see it was a litter with a person on it. The people on the roof continued feeding rope until the litter was on the floor. On the litter, a paralyzed man.
Jesus stepped over, and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
The words surprised the crowd. The man's obvious problem was that he was not ambulatory. He was lying on a litter, apparently carried here by his friends. The man needed healing of some sort. But forgiveness? Where did that come from. The crowd may have been puzzled by this direct, immediate statement by Jesus, but perceptive people in the crowd could see it touched a deep chord in the man.
The man visibly relaxed. A smile spread on his face. The crowd murmured approval.
We love it when we see someone go from tight and pained to ease and comfort. We love it when people are happy.
But not everyone there at Peter's house was happy. The experts in the crowd, the scholars, the brainiacs started muttering to each other: “Who does this guy think he is. Only God can forgive sins.”
Jesus didn't blink. He read the protest in their faces and immediately pushed back.
“What do you think?” he said. “Is it easier to say to someone, 'You're forgiven.' or to say, 'You're healed?'”
It's a fun question full of double meanings.
You could take it to be a simple question about words: In which case, both statements are equally easy. You are forgiven. You are healed. Either way, easy to say. But clearly Jesus meant something more than this.
It could be a question about power. Which takes more power, forgiving someone or healing someone? You could spend all day arguing that. Plus you could argue whether healing and forgiveness are sides of a single coin of human need. Is it easier to heal physical maladies or to lead someone to the full experience of radical forgiveness?
Or it could be a question of authority. If a person has the power to heal, does that confer the authority to forgive? Do humans have the authority to speak forgiveness?
Jesus deliberately stirs all these questions together and throws down his challenge:
I have just announced to this man divine forgiveness. You scholars dispute my authority to pronounce forgiveness. You think only God can do that. Well, watch me do something else only God can do: And he says to the man on the litter. “Get up, pick up your bed and get out of here.”
The man blinked his eyes. Then just like that, he jumped up, grabbed the litter and pushed his way through the crowd out into the sunshine.
Leaving behind a thrilled, happy crowd and some very annoyed brainiacs.
Even after the excitement died down a bit and people were again listening to Jesus teach, the conservative religious leaders were muttering among themselves. “He has no right! That was blasphemous!”
They had a carefully constructed description of reality. Jesus violated that construct. Jesus' words and actions spread contagious joy in a world of pain and hopelessness. The happy effect of the ministry of Jesus was obvious. But these scholars were so committed to their ideological construct, they were blind to the waves of joy swashing around them. They paid more attention to the scowls on the faces of their fellow experts than they did to the smiles on the faces of the crowds of ordinary people who found new life and joy in the ministry of Jesus.
In the past year or so, I've had conversations with two different people who told me they were deeply suspicious of happy people and happy churches because they were afraid these happy people and happy churches were not sufficiently attuned to “the truth.”
We are Christians. The dominant emotion stirred by the ministry of Jesus 2000 years ago was joy. Authentic Christian ministry today should also be characterized by joy. Christian ministry is supremely a message of mercy, grace, welcome, healing, wholeness and hope. Jesus' ministry today is a ministry of joy. It is not the bad news about evil people conspiring to take over the nation or the world. Our message is not that the world is getting worse and worse. If that's true, there's no call for us to announce it. Rather we are called to step into the tears of this world and whisper hope and healing. Our message is the good news that no matter what happens, no matter who wins elections, no matter what calamities erupt, God is at work to bring about the establishment of the kingdom of heaven. And a salient trait of his kingdom is joy.
When is the last time you heard someone tell their story of religious conversion? Was a story of darkness or light? Sadness or happiness? Over and over when I hear these stories, I catch the notes of joy.
On Thursday, I was visiting with someone because a mutual friend wanted us to meet. After we had visited a while I asked this person if she had any interest in church. Nope. She said. Any interest in God? Nope. She said again.
A little later I asked, “Has God ever showed up in your life?” “No,” she said. Then paused, “Well, there was one time.” She told about a crisis that ended with joy. That seemed to her to be God showing up in her life. That story prompted her to think of another, again a tale of crisis and unexpected aid. The mere memory put a smile on her face.
The essence of authentic Christianity is joy
Now let me turn this story about Jesus on its head. The villains in this story are religious conservatives. They are so obsessed with their doctrines, they are blind to the wonder and joy erupted by Jesus' ministry. Using these frowning Pharisees as a negative example, for 2000 years preachers have cautioned against falling into the trap of valuing our religious traditions more than the joy and freedom of Jesus.
But here in Seattle, the greatest risk is that we will be blinded to wonder and joy by fundamentalist scientism. Thorough-going atheism dismisses the ecstasy and bliss of believers as magical thinking. Wishful thinking. Fundamentalist scientism is the gloomy perspective that insists there is no goodness at the heart of reality. Stuff happens. Period. Some of it's pleasant. Some of it's unpleasant.
Some of these gloomy atheists sound just like the Pharisees. They are so committed to their ideology they can walk right through the middle of joy and not be touched.
This is tragic. Jesus offers better.
Believers are real people. We know the full range of human experience. Joy and grief. Confidence and fear. Hope and despair. We still live here in this world with all its complications. But when you listen to believers you will find us coming back again and again to the bedrock of faith in God. And when we get there, when faith fills our vision, we experience joy.
Like the little girl at day care, we are grief stricken at times. We are heart broken. Just this week two people closely connected with our church lost parents. That hurts. We keenly feel the pain of loss, of disappointment, of injustice. These things are as real as mom's absence while Ava is at day care. But faith is also a connection with reality.
Faith becomes the bicycle, the vehicle of joy, that takes from grief to joy, from shadows to light. Faith assures us that just as Kate held Ava until she could find a new focus for her life, God holds us in our hard times. Faith is aware of the pain of this world and points to other realities, realities as durable and solid as the things of this world that break our hearts and crush our spirits.
There is no “scientific” proof of the realities seen by faith. That's okay. When we have tasted the joy of the kingdom of God, the cold, rigid structures of Phariseaism and scientism have little appeal. We happily join the crowds cheering the wonders and sweetness of Jesus.