"How far are we prepared to carry our burdens, how many roofs are we prepared to dig through, how many barriers are we willing to climb over or break down in order to lay that stretcher at the feet of the one who can bring release?"
There's a lot going on in this story from Mark's Gospel. It's one of the most memorable pictures that we have in the Bible. Jesus overwhelmed with so many people clamouring to hear his words or receive healing that the crowd stretched around the house and down the road. Those four friends digging holes in a roof so that they could get their stretchered mate down and into the presence of Jesus.
Then that confrontation with the teachers of the Law where Jesus could easily have been found guilty of blasphemy, for which the penalty was to be stoned to death. And finally the paralysed man getting up off his bed and walking joyfully through the somewhat amazed crowd of onlookers.
Quite an eventful few hours, wouldn't you agree?
I want us to look briefly at some of the different characters in the story and try and draw some points that might make this familiar tale relevant to us today.
Firstly the paralysed man. We don't know what was the cause of his paralysis, all we know is that he was unable to make the journey unaided. And here it's vitally important in our understanding of the story and indeed the miracle that you understand the culture and the way in which the Jews connected illness to sin.
To the Jews a sick man was a man with whom God was angry. The Rabbis had a saying "There is no sick man healed of his sickness until all of his sins have been forgiven him."
What a burden to have to bear for anyone who was at all unwell, whether short term or with a chronic condition. I don't know if when you were young you were a chubby child, or maybe a spotty one - and I'm not going to ask for a show of hands - but don't they and other types of affliction inevitably lead to other children taunting the person concerned, and lots of name calling?
And what happens to the maybe only slightly overweight child who is continually told that they are fat?
They become insecure and convinced that they are different, unable to make friends as easily as those less rotund. And as they become more insecure, chances are they'll start comfort eating and the problem gets worse.
It's an over-simplification I know, but that sort of cycle does go on in life and indeed can go on into adulthood. That man on a stretcher may well have had years of such treatment and as a result had become overwhelmed by the guilt that had been heaped upon his shoulders by others.
He was ill, therefore he was full of sin, therefore God was seriously angry with him as an individual and he could not be healed. Therefore he got more ill.
I said earlier that we don't know what the medical problem with this man was - whether it was a medical or psychological condition that prevented him from walking.
That's not to try and play down the miraculous but to try and understand why Jesus acted as he did. Because if you remember, it wasn't healing that Jesus offered initially.
Jesus said to the paralysed man, "My son, your sins are forgiven."
Not "You are healed, get up and walk." but "Your sins are forgiven."
And that response tells us something about human nature and also about Jesus.
What was the first thing that Jesus saw as he looked into that man's eyes? Can I suggest that it was fear?
Here was a man who was totally convinced that God had some sort of personal vendetta against him; that he was virtually an outcast due to his condition. And here he was, face to face with â€¦ well, what did the man see as he looked up into Jesus' eyes?
What did he feel as Jesus told him that his sins were forgiven?
William Barclay explains it this way. 'The first thing that Jesus said to him was "Child, God is not angry with you. It's all right." It was like speaking to a frightened child in the dark. The burden of terror of God and estrangement from God rolled from his heart, and that very fact made the cure all but complete.
The man looked into Jesus' eyes and saw love and forgiveness. He saw reflected in Jesus' eyes the love of his heavenly Father rather than the judgement of an distant and unapproachable God.
Let's briefly look at Jesus' role in this story - briefly only because I want to look at some of the other characters as well.
What do we know about Jesus?
Strange question maybe, and yet it ought to be a question that we could easily respond to. He was the Son of God, yes, but what else does the Bible tell us about the nature of Jesus?
Without getting too bogged down with things theological is it enough for me to say that within Jesus is all that is in the nature and personality of God, all that is perfect love and justice.
John 5:22 and Jesus' own words "The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgement to the Son, that all may honour the Son as they honour the Father."
If justice belongs to the Son then so does forgiveness. When Jesus looked into that man's eyes and saw the fear of God's judgement for sins presumed, it was the Word of God that brought release, as Jesus offered the forgiveness that the man craved in order to unlock the chains which kept him bound.
Jesus not only showed and indeed shows the world the love of God. He also shows us God's justice and forgiveness.
And what about the teachers of the Law?
Verse 6 "But some of the teachers of religious law who were sitting there said to themselves, 'What? This is blasphemy! Who but God can forgive sins!'"
Only God could forgive sin, and to claim to be able to do so was blasphemous and punishable by death by stoning.
So what does Jesus do when he realises the way that their minds are going? He says to them "Ok, if we're going to get pedantic about this which would you rather I did, tell him his sins are forgiven, or that he is healed?"
So Jesus simply tells the men to get up, he's healed. Which of course he does, much to the amazement of all those standing around trying to see what was going on.
The implications for the teachers of the Law were unthinkable. A man who is sick is sick because of sin. He needs forgiveness in order to be healed, and cannot be healed UNTIL forgiven. This man was plainly healed THEREFORE he must be forgiven, and Jesus' claim to be able to forgive sin must be true.
They were powerless to accuse him, and could only plot Jesus' downfall. It was here, so early in His ministry on earth that Jesus in effect signed his own death warrant.
The other main players in this story are the four friends who brought the man to the house where Jesus was teaching. Although they only figure in two verses of the reading, these four friends have a lot to say to us - about overcoming barriers, stopping at nothing to reach a goal.
Firstly they had to carry the stretcher for what was possibly some distance to the house. Maybe they'd followed Jesus for a while, because he doesn't seem to have stayed in one place for very long. It's a hot country, strength sapping weather, but they were not going to be put off.
When they got to the house there was another barrier, a crowd of people pouring out of the door and outside onto the street. There was no way that they could get the man anywhere near the door. You can imagine the jostling of the crowd as they try and get a glimpse of Jesus or hear a word or two as he teaches inside - no outside broadcast or microphones in those days.
One of them might have squeezed through, maybe two, but not all four and a stretchered patient. They could have just parked their friend outside and waited until Jesus left the house, but that might have meant a long wait in the hot sun, and the uncertainty of a wasted day. But these friends were so determined.
So they broke in through the roof - well, you would wouldn't you?
Presumably they risked the anger of the owner of the house, maybe arrest for criminal damage. They risked bringing down the roof on top of Jesus' head. Certainly there would have been a lot of dust and debris falling down as the digging continued on the roof.
What did Jesus think, and the crowd inside the house? This must have created quite a disturbance. But this was the one chance that the four had to get their friend down at the feet of Jesus.
They risked failure. What if Jesus had been unwilling to help? What if the crowd ganged up on them to stop them damaging the house?
Somehow it didn't seem to matter.
They were prepared to be reckless in their pursuit of their goal. There was no barrier that was going to stop them from showing God that they were absolutely serious in their intent. No distance, no crowd or any walls. Nothing between them and the love and compassion of their God.
And that's where the story touches our lives. We all have friends, relatives, neighbours, and issues that trouble us, that we feel deeply about. It might be illness, relationship problems, impending war in Iraq etc etc. The person or issue that concerns us is, in a sense, less important than the lengths that we are prepared to go to bring that request to the feet of Jesus.
How deeply do we actually care?
Are we prepared to take time out of our busy lives to get close to Jesus? Are we prepared to take risks? Because when we bring these things to God in prayer, when we ask for healing, reconciliation, solutions we lay ourselves open and vulnerable to receiving a different answer to the one that we thought that we needed. Is that a risk that we are prepared to take?
The Christian writer and Minister David Watson' a great teacher and preacher whose books have influenced thousands of Christians - and who in the 1970s was vicar at St Michael Le Belfry in York discovered he had cancer. He was determined that God could and would heal him and was prayed for and over by just about every famous minister and healer in the world. Yet the cancer continued to grow and he had to come to terms with the fact that God was not going to heal him physically '- he was going to die.
Here is a man who risked all to get the healing that he thought would be his, (he wrote a book about his illness) and yet found that through his illness that it was his faith, not his health that was renewed - to the point where he could write just before he died
"For those know God and who are trusting in Christ as their Saviour there is nothing to fear, and it is sufficient to know that we shall be like him and perfectly with him. Nothing could be more wonderful than that. Never fear the worst. The best is yet to come."
His risk taking became a glorious triumph that has inspired many that have had to come to terms with death.
Those four friends risked a lot to bring healing to their friend. The outcome was probably not quite what they expected (Jesus offering forgiveness rather than healing initially) but the result was triumphant.
As a Church, as individuals are we prepared to take risks to bring those things that are on our hearts to the feet of Jesus?
How far are we prepared to carry our burdens, how many roofs are we prepared to dig through, how many barriers are we willing to climb over or break down in order to lay that stretcher at the feet of the one who can bring release?
You all have, on the sheet you were given at the start of the service, a picture of a stretcher. I want you to look at that and on it lay on it in your imagination the person, the relationship, the issue that is troubling your heart at this moment.
How far are you willing to travel with that stretcher?
How much do you want to bring that stretcher to the feet of Jesus?
I'm going to suggest something that you might feel uncomfortable about doing. There's going to be a moment or two of quiet now where you can bring your burden to Jesus, but I want to ask if you are prepared to risk just a little more than a moment of quiet prayer.
On the table below is a basket. Are you prepared to make that symbolic journey to get out of your pew and bring your stretcher to Jesus just as those four friends did - those who have difficulty walking excused of course?
You are risking very little, only fear of being noticed. But Jesus will honour that risk taking just as he honoured the faithful love of those four friends who would overcome all barriers for their friend.
Are you willing to overcome all barriers to lay your burden, your stretcher at the feet of Jesus?