Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
October 14th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
God Descends - Genesis 28:10-17 and Matthew 9:1-8
The Stairway which God revealed to Jacob, that stairway connecting heaven and earth, is not a ladder that we must climb to get up into heaven. This stairway, rather, is the means by which God comes down to us, God coming to speak words of comfort and promise for Jacob, and for every family on earth. Central to the Christian Gospel is this descent of God, the surprising news that God is not sitting in heaven, waiting for us sinners to somehow find our way up to Him, only to face His judgment upon our arrival. Rather, the Good News is this: the LORD Himself descends in mission, coming to remove the judgment we have earned, coming to seek and to save the lost, coming to save you and me.
As we consider and support the work of the Orphan Grain Train today, an organization that seeks both to serve bodily needs of people in crisis, and also to proclaim the Christian Gospel into these same crises, our readings about Jacob’s stairway and the paralytic carried to Jesus by his four friends serve us very well. There are many comparisons to be made between these two stories, as well as contrasts, their common center being the God who descends in Gospel mission to body and soul, even still today, through the work of the Orphan Grain Train, and through your daily life.
In Genesis, we see Jacob on the run, fleeing for his life from his twin brother Esau, who was born first, and so was the rightful heir of their father Isaac. Esau is angry, because Jacob had taken both his birthright and his father’s blessing from him. Jacob is in desperate straits, fleeing, alone, across the wilderness.
In Matthew, we see a paralytic, a man who can’t even walk, let alone run like Jacob, and yet also a man in desperate straits, dependent on others to care for him, his body no doubt full of bed sores, his mind tortured by boredom and uselessness.
Jacob is running for his life, completely alone, no friends to help him, reduced to using a stone for a pillow, sleeping out in the open, where all the dangers of the wilderness threatened him, like wild animals, the harsh weather, thieves and murderers. Jacob was nearly defeated.
Our paralyzed friend is not alone. In fact, he has four very good friends, friends with faith in the promise they had heard or perhaps observed, in Jesus. For Jesus of Nazareth possessed power from God to heal the sick. These friends will make a remarkable difference in the paralytic’s life, and he needs it, for while not friendless, he like Jacob is also nearly defeated, unable to move, constantly at the mercy of the world around him, constantly dependent on the good will of others
Jacob is focused on his bodily life, on avoiding death and injury, which threatened through the anger of Esau. The paralytic is also forced to focus, day by day, on his bodily needs, for injury has found him and death is near his door. His friends also seem to be most concerned for his bodily well-being, hoping for a physical miracle that would release their friend from his paralysis. In both cases, not much thought seems to be given to the problem of sin and the need for righteousness before Almighty God. To this point in his life, Jacob has never given much thought to the right worship of God, the LORD God who had revealed Himself to Jacob’s father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham. Likewise, the crowds pressed around Jesus mostly in hope they might be freed from some illness, some infirmity.
Jacob is guilty. Esau is right to be angry with him, for conspiring with their mother to steal Esau’s blessing. You know the story, how Jacob pretended to be the hairy hunter Esau, his arms covered in animal skins, deceiving his father Isaac in order to receive his final blessing, the blessing their father intended for Esau. Jacob is a trickster and a thief, guilty though and through.
The paralytic is guilty too. Not that we should or would call him guilty, because Jesus has taught us that individual illnesses and sufferings are not to be directly connected to the sufferer’s particular sins. We should not call him guilty for being a paralytic. But no doubt he felt guilt, guilt for all the work and time his friends had to devote to him, guilt for not being able to contribute to his family’s well being. And while we are not to connect a particular physical malady to the sufferer’s particular individual sin, the sinfulness of all mankind is, in general, behind every disease, every paralysis, all suffering.
God comes to Jacob, the LORD Almighty descending to this fleeing one, this desperate, lonely, frightened, guilty man. The paralytic’s faithful friends bring him to God, God come into human flesh and visibly present on the earth. Out of faith and love these four men find a way to help their paralyzed friend, another desperate, lonely, frightened, guilty man. From Mark’s Gospel we know they dig a hole in the thatched roof and lower him down with ropes, into the presence of Jesus.
The LORD God meets Jacob in the middle of his crisis, coming to him with a word of promise, a promise of protection, and a promise of blessing, blessing not just for Jacob and his descendents, but a blessing for every family in the earth. God meets Jacob, repeating and renewing the promises He made to Abraham and Isaac, his grandfather and father. God meets Jacob in his crisis, renewing promises, and by that Word of Promise renewing faith, teaching Jacob something about true worship, which happens when God descends with his gifts, descends to men and women. Through this lesson, God gives Jacob strength and hope to continue on.
Jesus meets the paralytic, lowered through the roof to find God in a house, an unimportant house in a little no-where place called Capernaum. There the paralyzed man finds the blessing for every family God had promised to Jacob, for that blessing is God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, come to rescue sinners from peril and death.
Since eternal salvation is His primary business, Jesus first addresses the paralyzed man’s real crisis: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” What’s that? A man with an obvious physical need is brought to Jesus, and Jesus forgives his sins? Yes, forgiveness is always at the center of true worship of the LORD God Almighty. The healing of the paralysis, while certainly a wonderful blessing, is the lesser miracle, done to give evidence that Jesus does have authority, the authority of God, both to heal, and even more, to forgive.
Where does this authority come from? We know nothing that makes us demand just punishment for the paralytic. But why is it just, how is it right that the LORD should rescue Jacob from the danger his sin had placed him? How is it just and right that Jacob should receive such extravagant promises of blessing, and even a central role in the blessing of every nation on earth? Well, even as our discussion today has moved back and forth in time thousands of years, from Jacob to Jesus and back, so also the authority of Jesus to forgive sins comes out of chronological order. Jesus’ authority to forgive sins comes from the cross.
God began with the end in mind, even before He created the heavens and the earth. Even back when He was making promises to Jacob, Jesus’ authority to forgive and restore and give new life to sinners was based in the cross, based in the decision made before time by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the decision to descend and do whatever it takes to rescue us sinners from ourselves, to rescue us and renew us and remake us into a holy people for God’s eternal enjoyment. God’s mission has always been the same, and He has been proclaiming it and working it out and delivering it through faith to sinners like you and me, ever since sin first darkened the beautiful garden bringing guilt and illness and death.
God’s mission has always been the same, descending to earth to save sinners, and God is still at it. God the Father is still sending His Son, still giving His Spirit, still descending and seeking us out, still coming to meet sinners, to deliver forgiveness, to complete His Mission. This is true worship, whenever God gathers His people around His promises. Won on the Cross 2,000 years ago, the promise of forgiveness is proclaimed and delivered to you and all who gather around the preached Word, the living waters of the font, the Holy meal of Jesus.
We are by our nature much more focused on the bodily problems and crises that confront us in our lives. We should first and foremost be concerned with our problem with sin and God’s merciful solution in Christ. But we are still sinners, like every other living person on earth, and in our weakness, the physical usually trumps the spiritual. God knows this, and even stoops to work through these earthly concerns of ours for our eternal benefit. God truly does care about our earthly lives; He gave them to us, after all. He created you and cares for you, and His ultimate desire is to wash you clean, to give you a good conscience by the forgiveness found in Jesus’ blood, to share with you the new, perfect resurrected life of Jesus, both now, and in the world to come. To do this, God often works through our physical needs, coming and serving us in our earthly crises, so that in the midst of them, He can finally capture our attention and address our greatest need.
The Orphan Grain Train is one way that God continues to reach out, caring for people body and soul, both for today, with blankets and food and help in times of need, and also for eternity, by proclaiming the good news of the free forgiveness God the Father has for all people who trust in Christ Jesus. God does His mission work through the Orphan Grain Train, and also through you, as you, motivated by the love of Christ, care for the neighbors He gives you, as recently so many of you have been caring for Katherine, body and soul, in all her many illnesses. God works through you and every Christian as you pray, as you invite, as you serve your neighbor and confess Christ, who comes down His stairway of Word and Sacrament, to serve sinners, even in this place in little Fairview Montana. By God’s powerful Word of grace, this place truly becomes the house of God, the gate of heaven. So rejoice that God comes down to you in blessing. And pray that He will continue to work through the Orphan Grain Train, and St John congregation, as the LORD continues His mission, delivering His blessings for every family on earth. Amen.