What's New

West Side Moravian Church
February 23, 2003

Readings for the day Songs for the day
  • Isaiah 43:1-25
  • Mark 2:1-12
  • "To the Hills I Lift My Eyes" [#729]
    (Words by Charles Wesley; tune from The Foundery Collection: "Amsterdam")
  • "God, Teach Us Peacemaking" [#687]
    (Words by Jane Parker Huber; Traditional Irish melody: "Slane")
  • "Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ"
    (Words by Fred Kaan; Jamaican folk tune: "Linstead" )


The newness of a marriage

On Friday night, I attended the wedding of Ellen and my friend Travis. While I was anticipating that occasion, this morning's passage from Isaiah kept running through my mind:

Isaiah 43:19a
See, I am doing a new deed, even now it comes to light; can you not see it?

What is a marriage if not something completely new? There is still the same Travis. There is still the same Ellen. The love between them already exists, and it will continue. And there are still the same parents and grandparents, uncles, siblings, and friends. Yet there is something very new today which did not exist last week.

The past has been good, Travis has told me. But now there is something new. There is a marriage, a new relationship and a new unity between Travis and Ellen. "Even now it comes to light; can you not see it?"

The newness of return

Isaiah's song sings of Israel's return from exile. Soon, very soon, the prophet says, God's people will return from the distant lands where they were sent many years before. The exiles and their children are to come back across the desert wastelands and return to the land which God had given to them through their ancestors.

The lectionary only lists about half the chapter, but I needed to read the whole song in order to remember how exciting was this news from God. The Israelites were living in foreign lands with no real hope for ever returning home. They were weighed down by powerlessness. But now, God says,

Isaiah 43:5-7
Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will bring your offspring from the east and gather you from the west. To the north I will say, 'Give them up' and to the south, 'Do not hold them'. Bring back my sons from far away, my daughters from the end of the earth, all those who bear my name, whom I have created for my glory, whom I have formed, whom I have made.

Like the marriage, this is to be a new beginning of a relationship in love. God values and loves his people, just as Travis and Ellen love and value each other. God says,

Isaiah 43:4a
… you are are precious in in my eyes … you are honoured and I love you …

God was present and active in the past, of course. The people of Israel were God's people from their beginning. All of this will continue. Yet there is something new here, a new relationship with God and a new unity.

Unlike a marriage, the relationship foretold by Isaiah is not a relationship between equals. God, who is without equal, is about to act on behalf of a group of human beings. God has the love, God has the power, God determines the value, and God will act.

Isaiah 43:11-12
I, I am Yahweh, there is no other saviour but me. It is I who have spoken, have saved, have made the proclamation, not any strangers among you. You are my witnesses – it is Yahweh who speaks – and I, I am you God.


The gospel story for today tells about a paralytic. I know a little about paralysis. Not the physical kind which kept the man in our story from standing up and walking, but the psychological paralysis which is equally effective in keeping us from standing up and getting something done.

The $2 bill

One winter, I found a new $2 bill lying in the snow in my back yard. It was shortly after Christmas, and the children of my backyard neighbor frequently travelled that path, so I guessed that it belonged to one of them. When I saw my neighbor was working in his garage, I walked over with the money. Sure enough, the kids had received $2 bills as Christmas presents. My neighbor accepted the bill with thanks and then, like any normal person, he began a bit of conversation.

This is the sort of situation in which I am paralyzed. I've already completed the task for which I came. I can't think of reasonable answers to difficult questions like "How are you?" or "How are you doing?" Faced with ordinary friendliness I can't think of anything to say or do, my mind becomes paralyzed, and I quickly become focused on nothing but escape.

I was hoping that most of the youth would be at the retreat today. They'd just say, "That's so dumb." (They're right, of course, except that "dumb" is a paralysis of speech while I suffer paralysis of thought.) Sometimes ordinary events weigh me down so much that I can't carry on a conversation.

Isaiah 43: 1
But now, thus says Yahweh, who created you, Jacob, who formed you, Israel:
Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine.

Sunday School mural painting

Another time, I was a Sunday School teacher. My class was going to paint a mural on the classroom wall. It was a small class, half a dozen eighth-graders, but I did feel that I needed another adult to help supervise the activities. What's more, I knew the perfect candidate for the job. All I needed to do was ask him.

Most people would simply pick up the telephone and call. In fact, that's what I tried to do – about 5 times. That's what people do; that was what I knew to do. But, for me, making a phone call is an occasion for paralysis. In the end, the paralysis got to me and I gave up trying to phone him. Instead, I walked the 3 miles to his house.

Jesus has not removed all the paralysis in my life. Just because I believe in Jesus has not meant that I can think of anything to say when someone asks me how I am. I continue to be uncomfortable making any personal phone calls. (On the other hand, I did find a way to fulfill the task at hand.)

A careful reading of Acts and the Epistles, not to mention later church history, shows that we should not expect to have every one of our paralyses healed at our demand. We all return to the failed patterns of the past. How many times did Simon Peter back away from the good news of Jesus Christ? How often will a congregation build a tradition out of what was done last year? How often has the Church of Christ turned back to the familiar methods of the secular world, those of titles and bureaucracy, of laws and wars?

But now, God says,

Isaiah 43:18-19
No need to recall the past, no need to think about what was done before. See, I am doing a new deed, even now it comes to light; can you not see it? Yes, I am making a road in the wilderness, paths in the wilds.

Liberals in Madison

While I was living in Madison, I was invited to attend a conference on the church and social issues. (Just from the phrasing you can probably guess that this was a gathering of politically liberal Christians. Those of you who are politically more conservative are welcome to chuckle quietly but humbly at this story.)

One typical failing of the politically liberal folks is the tendency to take on responsibility for all of the world's problems. At a conference on social issues, there were naturally a large number of problems being examined. The attendees gradually became more and more burdened as they discovered or rediscovered the ills of the world.

This particular conference included a designated reflector, a person who had no responsibilities except to watch the rest of us and at the end of the day share his reflections on what he saw. The designated reflector was an ordained Lutheran from Carthage College. At the end of the day, this man stood up and pointed out that the people at the conference seemed to be loading themselves down with guilt about the problems of the world.

Then he raised his hand over us and said,

As a called and ordained minister of Jesus Christ, in His name and by His authority, I now absolve you of all your sins.

I could feel the weight lifting off everyone in that room. I could almost see it floating away. What a wonderful insight our reflector had! It was not the problems of the world which weighed down the people attending that conference. It was their estrangement from the good news from God which threatened to paralyze them.

Something new in Jesus Christ

Which is easier

So now we have returned to the gospel story. Jesus asked,

Mark 2:9
Which is easier? To say…, "Your sins are forgiven" or to say, "Get up, pick up your [bed] and walk"?

I'm not so sure of the answer to that question. To those of us who believe – with the religious leaders in the story – that only God can forgive sins, declaring someone's sins forgiven is an awesome responsibility. I've only done it once, and it felt like jumping off a cliff.

I don't think it would feel any safer to tell a paralyzed man to stand up and walk away, especially in front of a large audience and several of the man's own personal friends. Offering that kind of hope to a paralyzed man would put a burden on me that I am not competent to carry.

Mark 2:9
Which is easier? To say…, "Your sins are forgiven" or to say, "Get up, pick up your [bed] and walk"?

Jesus says both of those things. That's not the old way of doing things. This is something new. And the paralyzed man gets up – that's not his old way of life, either. He was set free to stand up and walk, to live in a new way. The people who saw it …

Mark 2:12
… were all astounded and praised God saying, "We have never seen anything like this."

Singing God's praise

The people who saw Jesus at work praised God for what they had seen. Likewise, in Isaiah's song this morning, we read God's words:

Isaiah 43:21
The people I have formed for myself will sing my praises.

Singing God's praise is at the very heart of worship. Praise means that rather than paying attention to ourselves we give our attention to God. Instead of locking our minds into what we usually do, we pay attention to what God is doing.

In the past, I wanted to reshape the world, to reform the church, and to set all my neighbors straight. Perhaps you have wanted the same things. But which of us can make up for our own mistakes? Sometimes I can't even carry on a conversation! And are we going to set the whole world right? No, that's too heavy a burden for any of us. God says,

Isaiah 43:25
I it is, I it is, who who must blot out everything and not remember your sins.

God says,

Isaiah 43:12
It is I who have spoken, have saved, have made the proclamation …. You are my witnesses – it is Yahweh who speaks – and I, I am your God.

So this is our assignment: To bear witness that God is the one who speaks, who acts, who sets people free, who forgives sins, who brings peace.

In the past, human beings have spent lives and treasure in uncounted attempts to set the world right, according to their own lights. In the past, human beings have judged each other based on which side we stand on. And none of this has set the world right, and none of this has brought peace. But now God has done a new thing.

I bear witness that God formed all the peoples of the world. I bear witness that all people are precious in God's sight, that they are honored, and that God loves them. I bear witness that God alone is able to judge rightly, and that God alone can set us right. I bear witness that God opens a new path for us to follow.

Which is easier? To say, "Your sins are forgiven" or to say, "Take up your life and follow me"? Jesus says both of these things. And because our sins are forgiven we are freed from the paralysis which has weighed us down with the failures of the past. We are free to stand up and follow God's new path.

What follows

What will following God's path entail? Is it someone sitting next to you, or is it someone across the world, to whom you need to echo God's words –

Isaiah 43:4a
… you are are precious in in my eyes … you are honoured and I love you …

This message isn't finished. As persons, as families, and as congregations, you need to help finish it. Let's begin that job together as we continue to praise God.

Scripture quotations from The Jerusalem Bible ©1966 Doubleday & Company, Inc.