The song popularized by Louis Armstrong ‘What a Wonderful World’ is a beautiful song that celebrates nature: Trees of green, red roses too, they bloom for me and you; Skies of blue, clouds of white, bright blessed day and dark sacred nights. Nature is marveled at and I’m sure you have experienced that and felt the same wonder. It’s a song that also celebrates friendship, and above all it celebrates falling in love: Friends shake hands saying, ‘How do you do?’ What they are really saying is, ‘I love you.’ It’s a great song about the fantastic gifts of life: creation; friendship; falling in love. But as we saw from the pictures, there is something wrong with our world.
But in Mitch Markowitz’s film Good Morning Vietnam while the song says one thing the pictures say another. As we are told ‘the roses bloom for me and for you’, we see a bomb going off. As we hear the words ‘the colours of the rainbow so pretty in the sky’, we see protesters being beaten. And, most poignant of all, the chorus of ‘I say to myself, what a wonderful world’ is accompanied by images of the little child’s sandal. That’s the world we live in. It should be so good and yet there is something desperately wrong. The film’s artistry is very clever because it shows us that the world is not the place it ought to be. It should be a wonderful world, but all too often it is spoilt by people. The film is summed up by the Vietnamese girl with whom Robin Williams has fallen in love.
She says that so many things do not happen the way you want them to. The Bible actually goes deeper than that. The Bible says that so many things don’t happen the way we want them to because people are not what they should be. People are sick, indeed dying, says Jesus, and we so desperately need a doctor. The tragedy is, most people do not realize their condition is fatal. Before we realize how desperate we are, we need to realize three things: who Jesus is, why he came and how he alone can make us well again.
1. Who is Jesus?
“Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:1-2)
Mark in his gospel elaborates on the context of this story.
“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.” (Mark 2:1-4)
We can certainly say Jesus was popular. We also see the drastic lengths people will go to see him. Jesus was in Capernaum. News of Jesus arrival spread quickly. Life was very public. In the morning the door was opened, anyone who wished might come in. A crowd soon filled the home to capacity and had jammed the area around the doorway, so eager were they people to hear Jesus. So popular, these men couldn’t get near the house with their sick friend, it was so crowded.
So they climbed onto the roof and started digging. The roof of a Palestinian house is flat. The roof was a place of rest and quiet, and even sleep in Summer. The stairs were built on the outside of the house so access was easy. The roof consisted of flat beams laid across from wall to wall about three feet apart, a bit like the construction of an Elizabethan ceiling. The space between the beams was filled with brushwood packed tightly with mud which dried to a kind of clay. Often on top of this they would put earth and grass would grow. It was quite easy therefore to dig out the filling between the beams. It didn’t damage the structure of the house and was easily repaired. That’s how the men got their friend into the crowded room.
People have always been eager to hear Jesus. Probably the most popular person in history. But we can say much more than that. “But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” (Matthew 9:6).
By using the title “The Son of Man”, Jesus was claiming much more than authority to forgive. He was claiming both the right to forgive and power to heal, as God himself. The phrase “Son of Man” is never used of any other person, nor by anyone else except Jesus, of himself. But Jesus didn’t dream it up himself. The title comes from Daniel 7 and his hearers would have understood immediately what Jesus was claiming.
“In my vision at night 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; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting kingdom that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)
No mistaking who that would be. First question. Who is Jesus? Answer – God’s anointed Son. Second question:
2. Why did Jesus come?
Matthew included this story for a more significant reason, than to simply show that Jesus is popular. In chapter 9, Matthew begins to catalogue the growing opposition to Jesus as the religious leaders began to realise who it was He claimed to be. Lets see how Jesus answers them so provocatively.
2.1 The Priority of Forgiveness
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:2)
It was no accident that Jesus chose to say these words. There is nothing more important nor profound nor provocative that Jesus could say. Jesus wasn’t a fool. He could see the man was paralyzed. He knew why his friends had brought him. He could sense their hope of a miracle. He knew they knew He was their only hope. But he was not primarily a healer of broken bodies. That is not why Jesus came. Jesus knew this person’s deepest need, as Jesus knows ours. He was not distracted by the presenting need.
There was nothing superficial about Jesus diagnosis. There is nothing more important that Jesus can say to you and me than these same words, “Your sins our forgiven.” Do you know that your sins are forgiven? I didn’t say “hope”, I said “know”. Know for sure your sins are forgiven, past, present and future? On what basis can we know for sure? Isn’t that arrogant? No, because it has nothing to do with us. We can’t earn forgiveness and we certainly don’t deserve it. It has nothing to do with us but everything to do with Jesus. That is what grace means. God’s free undeserved, unmerited favour expressed in Jesus Christ. It is surely the greatest, most wonderful treasure in the whole world. A clean heart, a clear conscience, a sound mind. And it is ours as we confess our sins. The apostle John writes,
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)
This is a continuous present experience. There is nothing more liberating than to know that we are forgiven through faith in Jesus. Nothing. Nor is there anything more profound that we can share with someone else. The priority of forgiveness.
2.2 The Prerogative to Forgive
“At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” (Matthew 9:3)
This was no casual utterance of Jesus. Jesus is intentionally provocative. He knew what he was saying and what effect it would have on those who heard. Luke fills in some of the detail and tells us in his account in Luke 5:17 that “Pharisees and teachers of the Law who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem were sitting there“. It was a set up. Jesus therefore lays down the gauntlet. Openly and publicly. He knows what they are thinking. By what authority do you say “Your sins are forgiven”. Only God can forgive sin.
The Jews knew that every sin, every injustice, was first and foremost against God and only secondly against another person. We have here not only the priority of forgiveness of sin and the prerogative to forgive sin, but above all,
2.3 The Power to Forgive Sin
“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 I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” (Matthew 9:4-6)
Authority is always in proportion to power. There is no authority without power. Knowing what these teachers were thinking and why they had come, Jesus set a trap of his own. He asked them a question. A simple question that appealed to their logic. They knew that both the right to forgive and the power to heal instantly and completely could only come from God.
But the one was impossible to test, the other easy. “So lets link the two” says Jesus. “Lets double the stakes” All or nothing. “I claim to forgive, you deny it and its difficult to test, but if I also claim the power to heal, you can immediately detect whether my claim is true or false.” And if I can show my power to do the latter, you cannot deny my authority to do the former. Are you with me? The teachers were trapped, in public surrounded by believers, skeptics and spectators, all had sufficient grey matter to understand the logic of Jesus question. Jesus not only asked them the question he also gave them the answer. Jesus is not only popular and provocative but he is powerful.
“But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.”(Matthew 9:5-6)
The priority to forgive; the prerogative to forgive and the power to forgive. Jesus healed this man first and foremost by assuring him that he was forgiven, and then healed his body in compassion to prove it. Like this man, Jesus treats us as individuals. He deals with us as personally as He did with this person brought by his friends. Jesus claims the absolute and complete authority to forgive you your sins. To give you peace with God. To bring you into a personal, relationship with Him. We had three questions this morning and we have answered two: Who is Jesus? Answer : The Anointed Son of Man.
Why did Jesus come? Answer : To rescue sinners and forgive your sin. Our final question is this:
3. How can I be forgiven?
“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:9-10)
Let the enormity of that sentence sink in. Jesus spends time with sinners. He goes to their homes. He eats with them. He wants to meet their friends. This is shocking. A Holy God came to earth not to destroy sinners but to rescue them. That is why the role of the church is not to make people feel guilty or point out your sin – that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says,
‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Matthew 9:12-13).
Jesus makes it quite clear he is interested only in people who know they are sick, not in people who think they are well. So, the qualification for coming to Jesus is not, ‘Are you good enough?’ but, ‘Are you bad enough?’ ‘Are you desperate enough to know you need rescuing’. What does Jesus say to Levi? “Follow me” (9:9) The word “follow” means “to walk the same road” Notice three things about this sentence.
3.1 An Imperative Command
Notice Jesus takes the initiative. The word “follow” reflects Jesus initiative and is in the imperative mode. Jesus was issuing a command. Jesus was not saying, “Would you like to follow me” This was no invitation. It was a command from the King to be obeyed. Levi stood up immediately and followed Jesus. An imperative command.
3.2 An Irrevocable Claim
Not only is the verb in the imperative, it is also in the present tense. That means Jesus was commanding the beginning of an action and its habitual continuance. Jesus was saying “Start following me, and continue as a habit of life to follow me.” This gives the lie to the superficial appeals sometimes made, when people are invited to make a decision for Christ. Jesus was not calling Levi to make a decision to come forward at the end of the service, but to a lifelong path of discipleship. To walk the same road that Jesus was walking meant the road of self sacrifice, the road of separation, of altruism, of suffering, of holiness but is is also the road home. The road to rescue is all of grace. Of all the disciples Levi probably gave up the most. He, of all of them, literally left everything to follow Jesus. Peter and Andrew, James and John could at least go back to fishing. There were always fish to catch, always the old trade to fall back on. But Levi burnt his boats completely.
With that one action, in one moment of time he had put himself out of a job forever. He could never go back to being a tax collector. The Jews would never employ a quisling. The Romans wouldn’t give him a second chance. Levi was a man who staked everything on Christ. He suddenly knew that the little villa by the sea at Joppa and the cash stowed away in the hollowed-out bricks at the back of his home simply weren’t worth anything compared to being wanted – for himself.
The old Levi was good for nothing. He was dead to the world even while he lived. The new Levi, aptly re-named Matthew, meaning gift of the Lord, was as different to the old Levi as if he had died and been born all over again. In fact that’s what had happened to him. And that is what happens to us when we hear God’s voice in Jesus Christ and respond to his call. An imperative command, an irrevocable claim.
3.3 An Irresistible Call
Jesus didn’t just say “Follow me”. What he actually said was “Follow with me”. Matthew was not being called simply to become a follower. Jesus was welcoming Matthew to be his companion and co-worker. It was to be a side by side walk down the same road. At last, someone accepted him for who he was. To know that God loves us so much that he sent Jesus to rescue us to serve with him is surely irresistible. Such love.
An imperative command, irrevocable claim, irresistible call. Maybe you are thinking, “That’s OK for Matthew but not for me. I’ve blown it once too often. God’s grace won’t reach that far… Then remember the other disciple Peter. Remember after he had blown it, when he had denied Jesus, not once but three times. After the resurrection of Jesus, the angels tells the disciples, “Go… tell his disciples, especially Peter that he will go ahead of you to Galilee” (Mark 16:7).
“Be sure and tell Peter he’s not left out… one failure doesn’t make him a flop”… Not many second chances in the world today… ask the boy who didn’t make the junior football team… the 55-year-old made redundant… the mother of three who found herself dumped for a “pretty little thing”…
The message of the world is ruthless and unforgiving “Around here we don’t tolerate incompetence” or “Not much room at the top” or “Three strikes and you’re out” or “It’s a dog-eat-dog-world”. But Jesus has a simple answer… “Be sure to tell Peter he gets to bat again.”
It’s not every day you get a second chance. Peter must have known that. The next time he saw Jesus he got so excited that he jumped into the Sea of Galilee! It was also enough to cause this backwoods Galilean to carry the gospel of the second chance to Rome where they killed him. If you’ve ever wondered what would make a man willing to be crucified upside down, maybe now you know. It’s not every day you find someone who’ll give you a second chance – much less someone who’ll give you a second chance every day. In Jesus, praise God, we find both.