Good morning, Friends!
I’m going to read you three stories this morning. At the end of each story, I’m going to ask you a question.
Sounds pretty simple, right? Three stories, three questions. Real quick, real easy. Get it done, and we can all go home. Are you ready? Here we go.
Story #1 – Mark 1:40-2:17
A man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
But instead, he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.
All right, that’s the first story. Here’s the first question: If you talked with the guy in this story, the guy who had leprosy, and you asked him, was he saved, what would he say?
I think he would have said yes. He had a horrible disease. No one would touch him. No one would come near him. He wasn’t even allowed to walk into a community.
This guy had heard about Jesus. Jesus was his only hope. He came to Jesus on his knees and begged Jesus, “If you’re willing, you can make me clean!”
Now here’s a really interesting point. Even before he healed this person, it says that Jesus reached out and touched him. While he was still a leper. While he was still untouchable, Jesus touched him. It’s very clear.
For this person, being saved meant that Jesus reached out to him, when no one else would touch him or hold his hand. The healing was important – but Jesus’ love, his acceptance, happened even before he got all better.
Then Jesus answered, “Am I willing? Of course I’m willing!” That’s important for us to remember. God is willing to help us. Jesus wants to save people. Helping, healing, saving is Jesus’ deepest desire. “Don’t be afraid to ask!” this story is saying to us. “Of course Jesus wants to help you!”
And then, Jesus says, “Be clean!” and it’s done. The guy was healed immediately. It’s like God saying, “Let there be light!” and there was light. It’s like God saying to all the different creatures, “Be alive!” and they were alive. Jesus says, “Be clean!” and this poor guy was alive again.
For this person, being saved meant being healed. If you asked him, “Were you saved today?” he would have said, “Yes!”
OK, let’s listen to another story. It comes from the same chapter of the gospel.
Story #2 – Mark 2:1-12
A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them.
Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?
But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all.
This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
OK, I’m going to ask you the same question. If you went up to this guy, the guy who was paralyzed, and you asked him, “Did Jesus save you?”, what would he have said?
I think he would have said, “Yes!” He wasn’t able to walk. He wasn’t able to move. He had no life.
The story doesn’t ask if he was paralyzed because of an illness. It doesn’t say if he had an accident. It doesn’t blame the guy for the condition that he was in. Anybody could see that he was in trouble. The guy knew it himself, better than anyone.
What Jesus also saw, was the faith of the people who carried him so that he could get to see Jesus. That’s actually one of the most important roles that any of us can ever have.
We may not be able to say the word that will fix another person who’s messed up. We may not have the power to change their situation. But we can be the ones who carry them to Jesus. We can be the ones who won’t take no for an answer.
It was really crowded that day around Jesus. The crowd was so thick that you couldn’t get near him. People wouldn’t get out of the way.
Nevertheless, they persisted. They made a way, where there was no way. Sometimes that’s what prayer is all about. It’s not giving up. It’s working around the obstacles. It’s lifting and carrying the person we love and care about, to get them close to Jesus, so that Jesus can see our friend or our loved one and do what Jesus clearly wants to do.
Sometimes, if a person is going to be saved, we need to dig a hole and get them through first. We can’t just sit at home and think nice thoughts and hope that something good will happen.
This guy’s friends rolled up their sleeves and carried their friend to Jesus. And when at first they couldn’t get close, they found another way. They made another way! If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. They found a different way. Sometimes salvation comes by improvisation. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. That’s our job, too.
Can you imagine how scared this poor guy was? First he had to get up his nerve and ask to be taken to Jesus. Or maybe his friends just came into the house and said, “Guess what! We’re taking you on a little trip today. We’re going to see this guy Jesus that we all heard about!” Maybe he didn’t even have any choice in the matter.
And then, they picked him up and carried him through the crowd. I used to be an ambulance driver, and the #1 fear that all my patients had was, “Don’t drop me! Don’t let me go!” There’s something about being strapped down and helpless that really scares people. I’ve seen it so many times.
So they carry him through the crowd, and this guy has to lie there and watch his friends chop a hole through the roof, and then lower him down on ropes. By the time he there in front of Jesus, laying on the floor, he must have been terrified.
He was looking up at Jesus, with his eyes filled with fear and hope, and did Jesus say, “OK, you’re healed!”?
No, he didn’t say that. What did he say? He said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Sometimes being saved is about healing. Sometimes it’s about Jesus reaching out, even before the healing and salvation take place. Sometimes it’s hearing Jesus say, “You are my daughter, you are my son, you are my beloved child.”
And sometimes it’s about forgiveness. This guy didn’t ask Jesus to forgive him. Jesus saw that there was something that needed to be made whole again. And again, Jesus didn’t blame the guy. He didn’t make him feel bad for his condition.
But Jesus knew that there were big knots that needed to be untied inside before this person was going to be well again. Jesus knows about that sort of thing much better than we do. In this case, it took faith, and stout friends who wouldn’t give up.
It took forgiveness of sins. In the gospel, “sin” doesn’t always mean something bad we’ve done. It doesn’t always mean an evil act, something that we did or failed to do. The word for “sin” can mean missing the mark. It’s like you shot at something, and you missed your target, and the bullet kept on going, and you hit something else instead.
Sometimes in life it feels like you were the victim of a drive-by shooting. You didn’t plan to get hurt that day. Sometimes we’re just innocent bystanders.
It’s like the world is filled with drive-by sin and drive-by suffering. We may not always be the ones who started it, or caused it. But we still get tangled up in it. And forgiveness is simply God saying, “Let’s start over. Let’s not look at the past. We’ve got a hope, we’ve got a future together. We’ve got a lot of living yet to do. Let’s start over again today. Let’s make it good!”
Now, there was something else happened, before the man was healed, before the man was saved. You remember, it was really crowded?
There were a lot of other people in the crowd watching. There were preachers in the crowd. There were people who wrote books about God’s rules. If this story were happening today, some of the people watching would have TV shows and radio hours.
They thought they knew everything, and they were saying to themselves, “What does this guy Jesus know about forgiveness? Who does he think he is, anyway? Only God forgives sins. I know that I sure don’t!”
Jesus knows more about sin and hurt and brokenness than any of us will ever know. He knows why. He knows when. He knows how deep it hurts. He knows about shame, and pain, and helpless frustration. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves!
And Jesus knows more about what God will and won’t forgive than any of us will ever understand. In fact, God’s forgiveness is right out of our hands. It’s not something we control. We are not the judge and jury over each other. Only God knows our hearts and our motives and all our mistakes.
And although God is interested in truth and fairness, God is also interested in setting things right. God is way more interested in healing than punishment. God is really interested in mercy and forgiveness. If you have never heard this and taken it all the way into your heart, you really haven’t got the memo.
A lot of people there that day hadn’t got the memo, either. And Jesus really had an axe to grind with them, too. “You think you know so much about God?” he said. “Why are you even thinking these things? You tell me, everybody – which is easier, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say to this broken human being, your brother, ‘Get up and walk!’?”
“Which is easier – words, or actions? Talk, or God’s power? You all tell me.” And then Jesus said, “Just so you know – just so you know” and he turned to the man laying there in front of everyone – “Get up. Pick up your bed. Go on home.”
And he did. And everybody there was – gob-smacked.
It seems to me that there were several kinds of salvation going on there that day. If you asked the man who was paralyzed, “Were you saved today?”, he would have said, “Yes! Absolutely! I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t move, and look at me now! Come on, let’s dance! I’m saved!”
If you asked the friends of that man what happened, the ones who carried him there on a bed, and probably carried him home on their shoulders, they would have said, “Our faith helped make it happen! All we knew was that we just had to bring him to Jesus. That’s all we could do, but it was enough. We made a way, where there was no way. We couldn’t get in through the door, so we climbed up on the roof and chopped our way in!”
When faith and prayer and work and creativity are all at work, then salvation has a chance to happen. They were good people and stout friends, but that day sure ended differently than anyone expected. Sometimes we are part of the process when God makes a change.
And, you know, I think some other people got saved that day, too. The ones who opened their eyes and saw what Jesus did. The ones who got the memo about forgiveness. Maybe they got healed a little bit, too. Maybe they got saved as well.
OK, I said this morning I was going to read three stories, and ask a question each time.
Story #3 – Mark 2:13-17
Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
OK, third story, same question: if you asked Levi, the man in this third story, if you asked Levi, “Were you saved?”, what would he say?
You all know that tax collectors were not popular in Jesus’ day. They were like sub-contractors for the occupying Roman army. The Romans said, “OK, you’re responsible for collecting this amount of taxes from this area. We don’t care how you do it. Just pay us. Here’s some soldiers to help you. Whatever extra money you collect, you can keep.”
Tax collectors were seen as traitors, as the worst kind of betrayers of their own people. They took advantage of the slavery of their country. People spat at them. They hated them. This was a kind of sin that no one could forgive.
The man’s name was Levi, which meant that he was descended from the priesthood. The Levites were the ones who were supposed to be ultra loyal to God, even when everyone else gave up. So, here he was, this descendant of the royal priesthood, this man who traced his family all the way back to Aaron, the brother of Moses. Collecting taxes for Rome, and pocketing whatever he could grab on the side.
And Jesus walked up to him and said, “Follow me.”
That didn’t just mean, “Let’s talk a little bit.” Jesus was inviting Levi to turn his entire life 180 degrees around. He was inviting him to join in Jesus’ innermost circle of friends. Jesus was holding out his hand, and asking him to become a disciple, to become a witness and an apostle.
And that’s what Levi did. He stood up, and he walked away, and he never looked back. He gave up his despicable, dishonorable, larcenous career choice, and he threw everything he had in with Jesus. If you asked Levi where and when he was saved, he would have said, “”Here. Today.”
I’ve read you three different stories this morning. Did somebody get saved in each one of them?
Were they different? Some people were saved when they were healed. Some people were saved, when their friends helped them. One person was saved, when he changed his career.
We could have read a lot more stories about people being saved. The gospels are full of these stories. And they’re all a little bit different from each other.
Some people are saved from illness. Some are saved by being forgiven. Some are saved by being accepted again. Some are saved from mental illness or addiction. They’re all different. The one thing in common is that Jesus is there in all the stories.
If someone ever says to you, that the only way to be saved is to join their church, or to believe their way, that’s not true. The Bible shows us that people are saved in all kinds of wonderful ways. And we’re not in control of that.
Peter was saved in a storm when he was drowning. Paul was saved when he was on his way to arrest some of Jesus’ followers and drag them back in chains for trial and execution.
You go down through history, and people are saved in ways that will turn your hat around. John Newton, the guy who wrote Amazing Grace, was saved when he was captain of a ship and had captured a whole boat load of people in Africa and was bringing them over here to be slaves. Half way across, God got ahold him, and he turned the ship around and took them all home and set them free. That was the amazing grace that saved him.
Whatever destroys people’s lives – illness, blindness, paralyzing fear; enslavement, addiction; ignorance, pride, hypocrisy, laziness; any kind of untruth; any kind of unfaithfulness; any failure or brokenness you can imagine; Jesus can give you a new life.
Jesus saves. And there are more ways he can make it happen than you can ever imagine.
And it’s not something that we need to earn. It’s not something we deserve. Jesus loves us, and wants to save us.