(The pictures above were taken during my trip to the Holy Land in 2011. Click on each photo to expand.)
I preached my inaugural sermon at Hampton UMC yesterday on Mark 2:1-12. I called it “The Main Thing.” I reflected on the surprise or disappointment that the four friends likely felt when Jesus told their paralyzed friend, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Surely they wanted Jesus to do for their friend what he had done for so many people in Mark 1: they wanted Jesus to heal the man physically. Who said anything about forgiveness?
Forgiveness of sins, however, is the main thing. It’s the reason Jesus came into the world.
In the background of my thinking was something that Joseph Ratzinger (formerly Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in his excellent book on the first Christmas: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. Discussing the angel’s words to Joseph in Matthew 1:21 that the Messiah will “save his people from their sins,” Ratzinger writes,
The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation… Certainly it does not match the immediate expectations of Messianic salvation nurtured by men who felt oppressed not so much by their sins as by their sufferings, their lack of freedom, the wretched conditions of their existence.
Although our present-day challenges—in the industrialized West at least—can’t compare with Israel’s in the first century, isn’t it still true that forgiveness of sins often falls far short of what we think we need? Yet, as Ratzinger argues,
Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else, he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him—if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you are not truly healed.
Like most preachers, I worry about repeating myself—repeating a theme, an idea, a sermon illustration. I don’t want to be boring or predictable. I also want my sermons to be practical and relevant—”the Good News you can use.” But this message of forgiveness of sins, made possible by the cross of Jesus Christ, is the central message of Christianity. The message of the cross can’t be repeated often enough. No message is more relevant for our lives.
1. Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip Whitmore (New York: Image, 2012), 42-43.
2. Ibid., 44.