Not so many years ago it was quite normal in a close community for doors to be left open for neighbors to pop around for a chat or a cup of tea, to exchange gossip or concerns, borrow the odd cup of sugar or pint of milk, maybe just keep an eye on the kids for a few minutes while you popped over to the shops. Children would consider the whole neighborhood to be part of some big extended household, and Mothers would not be too concerned if little Peter or Jenny were gone for a couple of hours, because she'd know that they would be perfectly safe.
At least that's how I seem to remember it was.
It's not quite the same now. Very few front doors are left invitingly open, for fear of the wrong sort of visitor entering, and doors are locked when the house is left empty even for a few minutes. Mothers now want to know exactly where Peter and Jenny are going off playing, and would rather they were back for tea so that she knows where they are.
A lot has changed in a very short space of time.
I mention this simply because of the parallels between the situation that I remember as a child, and that of the house in which Jesus found himself in the story that we heard from Mark's gospel.
Life in first century Palestine was a very public one. The door of a house was invariably an open door, unless for a particular reason the occupier wanted privacy. An open door was an open invitation for anyone to visit and enter. In a smaller house, of which this was probably one, the door opened out directly onto the street without any form of entrance hall for folk to gather. So when people heard, as they must have done pretty quickly in a close-knit community, that they had something of a celebrity in their midst, open house was pretty soon crowded house, with everyone wanting to catch a glimpse of this Jesus that they'd heard so much about - to listen to what he had to say, perhaps touch him, ask for healing for themselves or a loved one.
We don't know much about the many people in the crowd - how many found comfort or healing in his presence - because the story is dominated by one man on a stretcher and some rather resourceful friends, who had all arrived a bit too late to get anywhere near the door.
The roof of a simple Palestinian house was accessible via outside steps, as it was used as an extra open room. It was built using beams in-filled by brushwood and tightly packed clay. Quite often the roof would sprout a flourishing crop of grass. More importantly, it was a relatively easy task to dig out some of the filling between two beams and let their friend down directly at Jesus' feet. It didn't even damage the roof too much, as the hole could easily be repaired again.
So picture the scene. Jesus is pinned down in a small room, with an audience of goodness knows how many people crammed into every available space. And along with the hopeful and curious, the needy and the believers were some slightly less desirable folk. For wherever Jesus went, so did the officials - looking for a really cast-iron reason to denounce him as a blasphemer, and therefore only fit for stoning to death. They were probably sent by the Sanhedrin, the supreme court. It was one of the functions of the Sanhedrin to deal with anyone accused of being a false prophet, of making outrageous claims.
And no doubt it was for these officials it was just another boring day until the roof opened up and down came the stretcher, neatly at the feet of Jesus.
I wonder what Jesus' initial reaction was? Amusement? Disbelief that someone would go to such lengths to get to Him? Embarrassment at the damage being done to some poor friend's house? On the face of it we might possibly say that Jesus could have handled the situation a little more tactfully. He could have simply taken the man by the hand, pulled him to his feet and said 'Ok, there you go...you're cured... now fix the roof!' which although it would have upset the officials a little, would have passed without much more than a mention in the official report which found its way back to the Sanhedrin.
But instead of taking the easy option, Jesus treads on very dangerous ground by literally throwing the gauntlet down to the opposition. 'Son, your sins are forgiven!'
Was this why the man had allowed himself to be lowered through the roof? After all, it must have been quite a dangerous operation - he could have fallen off the stretcher and been killed by the fall onto a hard clay floor. Was his first thought about sin? Or about Healing?
Mark doesn't tell us. However, one thing is clear from the bible. It was an essential of the Jewish faith that only God could forgive sins. For any man to even claim to do so was considered an insult to God - potentially it could have provided the Sanhedrin with the evidence of blasphemy that they were looking for, and there was only one punishment for blasphemy - stoning to death.
In the middle of that enthusiastic crowd these officials were obviously not ready to denounce Jesus - they could have found themselves at the receiving end of violence - but perhaps you can imagine the way that their minds were working.
Then it all goes wrong. Jesus has seen them and knows exactly what's going on in their minds - he can see the way they're thinking. So he challenges them on the very grounds upon which he finds himself accused.
These days we see most disease as having its origins with some form of micro-organism, be it a bacteria or virus, and we tend to look to a treatment that takes this knowledge into account. But it's only in a relatively short space of time (in the grand order of things), that this major advance in human knowledge has taken place. In Jesus' day it was very clear to the people where disease had its roots. They couldn't equate a loving God with the suffering that disease brought, and therefore all disease must have its origins with Satan and must have been caused by sin, because sin separated a person from the love of God. A sick man was a man who had sinned.
So when Jesus said to the paralytic 'Your sins are forgiven!' it was very much a case of 'Whoa there!. what's this guy saying? No-one forgives sins except God!'
'Ok,' replies Jesus. 'Which of these is easier to say...."Your sins are forgiven" or "Get up and walk"?' After all, anyone could say to someone 'Your sins are forgiven', and how would you know? How could it be checked?
Jesus effectively says to the experts in the law 'You're obviously not happy that I forgive this man his sins, and yet according to your beliefs the reason why this man is ill is because he's sinned, and can't be cured UNTIL he's been forgiven. Ok then, watch this!' Then Jesus says to the man 'Take up your mat and go home!'
What could the experts say? The man could not be cured unless he was forgiven. He was cured, therefore he was forgiven. Therefore Jesus' claim to be able to forgive sins must be true. They must have been furious. This was something very new, something potentially very dangerous to the established religion. Jesus effectively signed his own death warrant with those words. There was no way that the religious leaders could tolerate His claims.
In our reading from Isaiah we heard these words ' Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! See, it springs up; do you not perceive it?'
It wasn't that God was literally telling the people that what had happened before wasn't important any longer, of course it was. After all, they had only to look back at their time in exile and the way that God had looked after them despite their continual backsliding and sinning. But what had happened was that they were so immersed in the memory of what had gone before, that they were incapable of recognizing that God was acting in the present, in the 'here and now'. The prophet was saying that although their God was unchanging, and his power and purpose consistent, that his methods of working might actually change, might actually be new. No one could predict how God might act.
Coming back to Mark's gospel, we find a remarkable parallel. Again we see God doing a New Thing, and again we find the religious leaders refusing to believe what is being said to them, or indeed the evidence of their own eyes. They refused to believe or acknowledge Jesus because the facts just didn't fit in with their idea of how God should act.
And Oh dear, isn't this the point in the sermon where the preacher says something like 'And how relevant this message is to the church today'
The fact that the paralytic man was able to get up, pick up his mat and walk away from that house, is a sign - a dramatic representation - of something more important than mere physical healing.
William Barclay, in his commentary on Mark's gospel, gives the example of an essay written by Lewis Hind where Hind talks of the day when he discovered his father. He had always respected and admired his father; but he's always been more than a little afraid of him as well. He was in church with his father one Sunday. It was a hot and drowsy sort of day. He grew sleepier and sleepier. He just couldn't keep his eyes open no matter how hard he tried, and suddenly found himself dropping off to sleep. His head nodded. He saw his father's hand go up; and he was sure that his father was going to shake or hit him. Then he saw his father smile gently and put his arm around his shoulder. He cuddled the lad so that he might be more comfortable.
That day Hind discovered that his father was not as he had thought him to be, and understood that he was loved by his father.
It could be said that that in essence this is exactly what was happening when Jesus said the words that he did in that small house 'Son, your sins are forgiven!' said Jesus. But hang on, said the officials, that's God's job - forgiving. And God is the God of the infinite, he's this vast all-powerful, all-seeing God who controls all things, brings all things in existence and sustains all life. God who is almost impossible to describe. This is the God who can forgive.
But this is also the God who can bring His forgiveness into a small house in Capernaum; the God who can lift a paralytic man to his feet; the God who can see into the hearts of men and know what they are thinking; the God who can put his arm around us and be discovered in a new way. Yes, Jesus brings the healing touch that the world seems so much in need of in so many ways, but more importantly he brings God's forgiveness, and so often the need of forgiveness comes before the need of healing. Because the healing that Jesus brings is more easily understood perhaps as Wholeness - which encompasses both spiritual and physical healing. Jesus didn't come to earth simply to make ill people better, but to make broken people whole. It was the faith of people that impressed Jesus - people humble enough to recognise who Jesus might be, see how that knowledge showed up the imperfections of their own lives, and still want to kneel at his feet. And Jesus, who sees into the hearts of men, saw the need and met it.
'I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers them no more.' said the final verse of our OT reading from Isaiah 43. In forgiving the man, Jesus acts with the authority of God himself and, as always, his actions bring glory to God. As Paul puts it, Jesus is here the 'Yes' to the promise of Isaiah 43:25, and he enables us to say 'Amen' to the glory of God.
This is Paul's heartfelt prayer for a people he felt deep love for, and it is also a message of encouragement and hope which was not only relevant then but is just as relevant today.
Paul starts by pleading with the congregation. Don't consider yourselves any better than those Gentiles who have come to the faith. You might be Jews and yes, Jesus came to earth as a Jew living and ministering among Jews, but there were reasons for this that stretched way back to Abraham and the early Patriarchs. God's promises had to be fulfilled.
But God's promises were not just to the Jews, and to back up his argument Paul uses verses from the Jewish Scriptures - the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament - where there are definite references to God's future acceptance of the Gentiles into His family
"I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing praises to your name." And in another place it is written, "Rejoice, O you Gentiles, along with his people, the Jews." And yet again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; praise him, all you people of the earth." And the prophet Isaiah said, "The heir to David's throne will come, and he will rule over the Gentiles. They will place their hopes on him."
On the subject of unity, it's as simple as this, says Paul. Christ Jesus came into the world to save all men, and that 'all' includes not only you but also those others that you might frown at and think slightly less worthy of that saving grace.
A Spirit of unity is what is needed.
Paul pleads with his congregation in Rome to accept the basic premise that in God's eyes there is neither Jew nor Gentile but one people loved by God and accepted by God as equals.
In our Church today, beset by denominational differences and barriers to unity, where congregations and buildings are slowly crumbling, Paul's message comes as a timely reminder. Within any town, and this is particularly true in Wales where the number of places of worship are almost double that of the rest of the UK because of language issues, there are congregations who hardly ever meet. We are all part of the same Church, we all worship the same God, we all read the same Bible, all the main denominations would hopefully acknowledge Jesus Christ as Saviour. Yet differences, often lost in the mists of time keep us apart.
What does Paul say to us?
"So accept each other just as Christ has accepted you; then God"
And why should we welcome and accept them?
"...then God will be glorified."
Not just so we can get to know them a bit better but 'for the glory of God'
As we leave Christmas, and travel forward into a new year at a speed that seems frightening, Paul brings us down to earth with a timely reminder of what it's all about.
Christ came into this world for a purpose, it was not on a whim that God decided that he would do this. There was a very real purpose, and that was to bring mankind back into a relationship with its creator, back into God's family just as the prodigal son was welcomed back into his father's house.
Jesus did not just come to bring salvation to the Jews, although he came as a Jew and lived among Jews. It is clear from Jesus' own words, and Paul shows the Scriptural basis for believing this that Jesus came that all might know the saving grace of God.
And that's the message at the heart of our faith. God came to earth, taking the form of a human being to bring hope to a world that had lost its way, lost the plot.
Paul goes on in this passage to sum up his hopes for the congregation in Rome
"So I pray that God, who gives you hope, will keep you happy and full of peace as you believe in him. May you overflow with hope through the power of the Holy Spirit"
What a prayer to offer up for loved ones, and what a prayer for us to read and say aloud for ourselves
The world needs hope at this moment. Since the 9/11 atrocity hope has become a somewhat rare commodity to be replaced by unease and fear. A programme on the Brooklyn Bridge showed people who were refusing to walk over it for fear of a bomb attack. The rest of the world waits with unease as the United States decides how far they are willing to go in their quest to destroy terrorist organisations. There is continuing tension within the Middle East.
Closer to home we continue to see pictures on our TV screens of children who have suffered at the hands of adults, old folk mugged for small amounts of money. Drugs continue to fuel the shoplifting figures and car crime statistics. A recent police strike against the drug dealers in one of our towns led to a drop of up to 50% in related crime on property and shoplifting.
This is the world in which we live. It is difficult sometimes to see within it the hope and peace and joy that Paul wished upon his listeners, but that is the challenge that faces us as Christians.
It's told that there was a cabinet meeting in the darkest days of the last war, just after France had capitulated. Winston Churchill outlined the situation in the starkest colours. Britain stood alone. There was a silence when he finished speaking, and no doubt on the faces of many there was despair, perhaps some ready to give up the struggle. Winston Churchill looked around and said 'Gentlemen, I find it rather inspiring'
And there is something within the Christian message that can echo Paul's word of hope even within the darkest of days. God is there, above all that mankind can do to spoil creation, and there is no situation that can be counted as hopeless while there is the grace of Jesus and the peace and power of God present in the world.
But there is more to Christian faith than hope for now or the immediate future. Our hope rests in the Kingdom of God and the promise of an eternity spent in the presence of God. Our hope is in the now and the hereafter. In the now because the Kingdom of God is wherever God is allowed to reign, and if that is in your heart then you are living in the Kingdom. It looks to the hereafter because that is the promise of the New Testament 'He who believes HAS eternal life'
Our hope lies in the victory of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. It grows as we start to trust God's promises and act upon them, and then adds two other benefits, peace and joy
The NIV translates v13 'May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him'
This hope is a dynamic thing, as indeed is faith itself - it grows as we grow. The Scriptures talk of us starting off as children in the faith and then growing as we begin to be fed on spiritual food. And it is the maturity that comes with this growth that can help us to face those important moments in our lives when doubts and fears creep in.
Paul wishes his readers. But what do we mean by 'joy'? Is it that brief moment of present giving and receiving, or the welcoming of friends and relatives into our homes for the Christmas period? Or is it more than these?
In the world 'joy' seems inextricably joined with 'longing'. We long for something for ages, we get it and there is a pause in our longing as we enjoy the moment of possession. But it's often only a moment and then the longing comes back, directed towards something else, and we're caught in this endless cycle of emotional ups and downs.
Can you relate to this? There seem to be so many people out there who are caught up in this. You see them constantly flicking through the pages of catalogues, wondering whether to they ought to be replacing the washing machine they bought 2 or 3 years ago because it hasn't got the latest add-ons. Or wandering round car showrooms because the stereo in their present one isn't working as well as it might.
Christian joy, based as Paul says on a God of hope, is not dependent on things or possessions. Our joy comes from the knowledge and certainty of God's presence in our lives, and the certain knowledge that nothing - no September 11th, or illness or personal problems can separate us from the love of God.
And it is this Good News, of God's eternal love for all mankind, this joy, that Paul wants the congregation to extend to all believers, whether Jew or Gentile, whether Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Catholic or whatever.
Mankind erected the barriers; Christ died to break them down.
Paul not only wishes his listeners joy. He also wishes them peace. There seem to be two barriers to mankind knowing this peace that Paul talks about. One is the tension that pervades our lives. Newspaper stories of atrocities, editorials telling us how badly off we are compared to other countries even when we feel perfectly comfortable, scare stories about health issues and all the other means that editors have at their disposal to up the sales of their paper. We worry, it's inevitable, and these worries mean that there is a tension in our lives which distances us from God's peace - that serenity, that inner strength that can combat the knocks that we get day by day.
The other reason that we struggle to find peace is that there is an inner tension, and that is more to do with where we are spiritually in our walk with God. If we have committed ourselves fully to Him, if we have emptied ourselves of self and opened ourselves to be filled with His Spirit then there is no room for this tension in our lives. We probably all know of people who seem to have this quality, an inner peace and tranquillity. But this is something that should be the experience of us all, because the power to achieve this inner peace is available through the power of God's Spirit living in us.
'So I pray that God, who gives you hope, will keep you happy and full of peace as you believe in him. May you overflow with hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.'
Within this passage from Paul's letter to the Church in Rome we have a very real message for today. It comes with a heartfelt prayer of hope, peace and joy for all of mankind. It also comes with the hope for unity among believers, not just so that they might get along better together, but so that God's name might be glorified through this unity.