Luke 5:12-26
Pastor Chris Tweitmann

What do you believe is the greatest need in life?

Before we go further, let’s clarify our terms.

A need is a lack of something that is required – something essential.

So then, what do you believe is the greatest need in life?

Is it knowledge or wisdom – an education, the benefit of experience – having the right answers to the many questions we face in this life?

Is it stability and security – gainful and regular employment – being able to provide or to be provided with resources like food, clothing, and shelter?

Is it health and well-being – physically, emotionally, mentally – possessing a sense of belonging, intimacy, respect, and esteem?

What do you believe is your greatest need in life?

Notice how I added the possessive pronoun – “your” this time around?

I did because we might think that our answer to the question might be different than someone else’s.

We may even argue that the answer to the question will vary depending on our stage of life.

But what if it’s possible that the answer to the question is the same for all of us?

What is our greatest need in life?

Today as we return the Gospel of Luke and keep following Jesus closely, we are going to receive the answer to this question.

The answer, at first, might surprise us.

But what’s even more surprising, what is the heart of the good news that brings us together, is that Jesus not only knows our greatest need in life; Jesus comes into our lives, into our world to meet that need.  (TEXT)

Have you ever been seriously unwell? So ravaged by a disease that you had to be isolated from others?

As we continue to navigate life in a COVID-19 world, both those who have been infected with the coronavirus – no matter whether it was a mild or severe case

– and those who already are immune-compromised and therefore cannot take the risk of being infected by the coronavirus,

both groups of people have some sense of the feeling of being isolated and cut off from others for a time.

But imagine if that period of isolation due to sickness lasted indefinitely.

What if the symptoms of whatever was ailing you were so visible – impossible to cover or minimize – not only did you increasing feel self-conscious about your sorry state – but even worse, other people, out of fear of becoming infected, intentionally avoided you?

Take it a step further and picture your sense of isolation from the community around you being a matter of law.

Your family, friends, and neighbors are legally required to cut themselves off from you.

This is the lived experience – the day-to-day reality for the first person Jesus encounters in our passage today.

Luke, the writer of this gospel account, a physician by trade, describes this man’s body as being covered with a severe, advanced skin disease.

“While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy.” – Luke 5:12

This man’s condition is a living death sentence.

Not only does he suffer bodily, but due to his capacity to infect others, this man is classified, labeled, as a leper which turns his ailment into more than a physical illness; it also becomes a social disease.

For the Law as recorded in the book of Leviticus, chapter 13 is clear.

Being as contagious as he is, the burden is on this man to exile himself from the community – to loudly announce his presence and proximity – so that others can steer clear of him.

But Jesus coming to town changes everything for this man.

In a bold, courageous act evidencing both his desperation and his conviction, this man crosses the line and breaks the Law of separation to get as close as he possibly can to Jesus.

“When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” -Luke 5:12

Falling to the ground – adopting a posture of both submission and vulnerability, this man expresses his faith even as he pleads his case, declaring that if Jesus is willing, Jesus can make him clean.

What this man is begging for is more than physical healing.

After a lifetime of being functionally invisible, this man is asking to be seen, to be acknowledged – and more than this, to be approached, to be touched.

It’s a big ask. There’s a sizable risk of rejection.

Being seen in such close proximity to this contagious leper, let alone to reach out and make contact with him, Jesus would contaminate himself – cut himself off from the community. But Jesus doesn’t hesitate.

God does not come down in the flesh – get that close to us – only to offer long-distance relief.

“Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said.” – Luke 5:13

As Jesus affirms his willingness to heal this man, Jesus backs up his words with an outstretched hand – touching the man without hesitation.

“Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.” – Luke 5:13

Addressing the disease, Jesus commands a cure and immediately the wretched skin ailment that has imprisoned this man all his life goes away.

Jesus then orders the new man standing before him to follow the prescribed protocols set down long ago by Moses that will certify his cleansing.

“Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” -Luke 5:14

And even though Jesus orders this man to keep this miraculous moment to himself, the word about Jesus continues to get out.

“Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses.” – Luke 5:15

Individual encounters like the one this man experienced quickly become eclipsed by crowds.

Throngs of people regularly gather to hear what Jesus has to say – and more importantly – to them – to be healed of all that ails them.

So large, so persistent are these growing crowds, Luke tells us, the only place Jesus could find a little peace and quiet

“But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” – Luke 5:16

– the space to abide, to listen, and be directed by the Father – is out in the solitude of the desert, the wilderness.

Now, whenever someone starts to draw a crowd – especially one that follows them all around – the people in charge start to take notice.

No doubt they heard the rumors about Jesus.

But as rumors eventually became testimonies about miracles, and Jesus goes viral, the religious leadership, the professional theologians, gather from all over the land – north, south, east, and west – to size up Jesus – to investigate firsthand the work he is doing.

“One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem.” – Luke 5:17

And from the way Luke conveys it, none can deny the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick.

“And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick.” – Luke 5:17

By now, all the excitement and demand for Jesus had reached such a fever pitch, it was standing room only – standing in line, standing outside the door, hoping to get in for an appointment.

How far have you been willing to go for a friend?

What’s the farthest you’ve been carried by someone else?

Do you know what it’s like to come such a long way only to hit a dead end?

Have you ever faced an obstacle before you that seemed insurmountable, only to find yourself picked up by others?

To have another person shoulder your burden?

If you can relate, then you know what it was like for that man on the mat – the one who was paralyzed – who couldn’t walk – who couldn’t get through the crowd, past the door, and within earshot of Jesus.

“Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd…” -Luke 5:18 – 19

God never created us to walk alone. We are better together. We were made for community.

As God’s children, our Heavenly Father calls us to carry each other – especially when we can’t lift up ourselves.

Apparently, the man on the mat – the one who couldn’t walk – had true friends – people who didn’t just pay lip service to love thy neighbor but who put their neighbor on their backs as an expression both of their love and their faith in God.

“When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.” – Luke 5:19

Bypassing the crowded door and choosing to take the stairs instead – stairs that were common to homes at that time, providing access to their flat roofs, these friends begin to shift tiles, to dig and claw through thatch and clay,  in order to create an opening for their companion – to make space for their friend to get to Jesus.

As everyone can’t help but suddenly look up and witness this man on the mat being slowly lowered into the middle of the room, Jesus is impressed by the faith of this man’s friends.

We’ll notice Jesus talks a lot about the gift of faith – those who take hold of it and those who don’t.

Later Jesus will remark even the smallest seed of faith has the capacity to move a mountain.

While it ain’t no mountain, right now, what Jesus sees being exercised before him – faith that is willing to raise the roof – apparently is high enough.

That’s the kind of faith Jesus seeks to give, to provoke in us to exercise.

However, Jesus’ commendation of the faith of these friends is not communicated as expected as Jesus turns to the man on the mat and declares, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

“When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” -Luke 5:20

Seemingly up until now, when Jesus has addressed the afflicted, Jesus has, as he did with the man, who suffered from the severe skin disease, spoken in terms of being healed – not being forgiven.

This is a new wrinkle to Jesus’ work and ministry. Not everyone is a fan, however.

In particular, the religious leaders take great offense at the presumption, the audacity of Jesus to confer something that is clearly outside his purview – outside of any human’s capacity.

“The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” -Luke 5:21”

Performing miracles is fine. Acts of healing are all well and good.

But granting absolution – the forgiveness of another’s sins – that is something only God alone can grant.

Even as every one of the religious leaders is thinking the same thing, nothing is said aloud by them.

Perhaps fearing they will turn the crowd against them, the religious leaders try to keep their damning critique, their indictment to themselves.

This is just the beginning of an opposition to Jesus that will grow – like the crowds.

Eventually, this opposition will even win over the crowds – these same crowds who here are filled with awe and praising God in their amazement over the remarkable things, Jesus is doing.

“Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.” -Luke 5:26

But for now, the opposition remains silent. Jesus, however, knows what they are thinking.

“Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts?” – Luke 5:22

Jesus challenges their unspoken rebuke, their telegraphed hardness of heart with a question: “Which is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven” or “You are healed”?

“Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” -Luke 5:23

The obvious answer is to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Why? Because there is no visible, tangible verification of this happening – sins being forgiven.

On the other hand, telling someone who is paralyzed, “Get up and walk,” based on what happens next, there is or is not visible, tangible verification of the authority and power, I am claiming to have.

The point of Jesus’ question is revealed as he declares what he is about to do verifies his credibility in forgiving sins.

“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, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. –Luke 5:24 – 25

Turning to the paralyzed man, he tells him to pick up his mat and go home – which the man, who previously couldn’t walk – does instantly – praising God every step of the way.

The rebuttal Jesus is making to his silent critics goes like this.

Forgiving sins and making the lame walk are both things only God can do.

So, if I can say to this paralyzed man, “Get up and walk” and he does it, then it’s a safe bet if I say to him “Your sins are forgiven,” I can do that too.

Do we follow Jesus’ logic?

In showing his power to heal – a power that can be verified, Jesus also is demonstrating his even greater authority to make good on his promise to forgive sins.

And this brings us to the even deeper takeaway from this encounter which relates back to the question posed at the start of this message, “What is our greatest need?”  

According to Jesus, our greatest need is forgiveness.

Think about it.

The man on the mat doesn’t come looking for forgiveness.

Neither do his friends who carry and lower him before Jesus. They aren’t looking for forgiveness either. They are seeking for their friend to be healed.

The crowds who keep multiplying aren’t gathering to receive forgiveness. Luke explicitly tells us they come looking to be healed – or at least to watch somebody else be made well.

The religious leaders assemble from all around to authenticate a ministry of healing – not the pardoning of sins. Hence their shock, their unspoken bristling.

But Jesus reveals at this moment what our greatest need is – not just the greatest need of the man on the mat but the greatest need we all have – forgiveness.

An important clarification needs to be made.

Throughout the Gospel of Luke, we witness Jesus’ teaching constantly being mixed with acts of healing.

But in every case of healing, Jesus will not always speak of sins being forgiven as he does here.

Therefore, we might be tempted to assume when Jesus does talk of sins being forgiven in the context of healing someone that unforgiven sin is the cause of that person’s ailment – that forgiveness was the necessary precursor to being healed.

Jesus, however, in the Gospel of John, when questioned about this by his disciples – whether another person’s sickness or disease was due to unforgiven sin, Jesus rejects this premise and corrects this misperception.

Likewise, Jesus here does not present the healing of this paralyzed man as being made possible because his sins have been forgiven.

No, Jesus presents the forgiveness of sins as this man’s fundamental need that through his ability to physically heal this man, he is able – he has the authority to meet.

Neither person in our passage today – the man with the severe skin disease or the man who is paralyzed – neither person is sick because of their sin.

But, their ailments – just like all disease, sickness, and impairments- are reflections of the deeper problem of sin – of a broken creation – of life not being the way it’s supposed to be.

Therefore, all of the healing Jesus does is but a sign – a sign pointing beyond the various and different afflictions which we each suffer – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually – pointing to the common point of fraility we all share – sin – our separation from God, from each other, and even from ourselves – our truest and best selves.

Another way to think about this is to recognize, all of the works of healing we witness Jesus perform in the Gospels, while impactful, remain ultimately temporary.

Those who are healed are still vulnerable to suffering in other ways. Those who are healed still must contend with the decay and breakdown that comes with aging as well as the inevitability of death.

Just as our suffering and sickness are but a symptom of a deeper problem – a broken, flawed creation, the moments of healing we witness Jesus deliver also are but signs pointing to the bigger and wider redemption, reconciliation, and restoration that Jesus not only has the authority and ability – but also the desire to bring into our lives.

Once again, our greatest need is forgiveness.

But is this our perception of our greatest need?

It’s easy to let the answer to the question of our greatest need fluctuate based on our circumstances.

We have this tendency to strictly focus on what is right in front of us.

It’s tempting for our greatest need to become confused with our greatest want.

But Jesus’ desire isn’t to give us what we want; it’s to give what we need.

And oftentimes when we realize this, Jesus – our relationship with Jesus – no longer becomes a priority in our lives.

Instead, we gravitate towards those people and those situations we believe will help us to get what we want out of life.

Jesus becomes persona not grata – out of sight, out of mind for us – UNTIL we hit that wall, face that obstacle, find ourselves stuck, get doubled over by that fateful blow or unexpected diagnosis.

Even then, we come to Jesus, not looking for what we need but again for what we want.

Like the crowds that came to Jesus, we arrive with our shopping list in hand. We come looking for a sign, a miracle, for something wondrous to happen in our lives.

But then Jesus turns to us and says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

And we respond, “Yeah, I know, Jesus. Thanks and all but that isn’t what I asked for.”

Maybe the reason we don’t perceive forgiveness as our greatest need is because we don’t really appreciate what Jesus is offering us.

Too many of us have reduced the offer, the gift of God’s forgiveness in Christ to a mere transaction.

Forgiveness is nothing more, in the accounting of all our honest mistakes and willful disobedience, nothing more than Jesus handing us an all-inclusive, iron-clad pardon.

Forgiveness is nothing more than a totally clean slate – no matter how many times we befoul it.

Forgiveness is nothing more than Jesus covering all our debts – even if and as we keep running up a tab.

Forgiveness is nothing more than Jesus paying the price for our sin as we just keep consuming and laying waste with reckless abandon.

But the forgiveness we need, the forgiveness Jesus offers is more than a transaction – so that at business’ end for this world or at closing time for our lives, when our number is called, we can simply point to a notation on the divine ledger as our admission ticket into the afterlife.

No, the forgiveness we need, the forgiveness Jesus offers, purposes not simply to set us free later but to set us free now.

The forgiveness we need, the forgiveness Jesus offers lays claim on us, taking hold of us, empowering and transforming us – to live lives no longer haunted by our guilt and shame, to live for tomorrow and each day no longer limited by our mistakes and failures.

When we understand forgiveness in this way – how deep, penetrating, and all-encompassing it is intended to be, many of us suddenly can relate to the religious leaders who bristled and asked, “Who is Jesus to forgive sins?”

Sometimes we struggle to let God forgive us.

Who is Jesus to forgive me?

How can Christ forgive what I’ve done?

Who is Jesus to forgive when they – that person I wronged – won’t forgive me?

How can Jesus forgive me when I can’t forgive myself?

Or perhaps we’re listening right now and looking at it the other way.

Maybe you’ve been recently been wronged. Maybe you’re still stinging from age-old wounds of betrayal or abuse.

And you’re asking, who is Jesus to forgive them?

How can Christ forgive what they’ve done to me?

Who is Jesus to forgive them when I can’t? When I’ve tried but I can’t forgive?

In a broken creation, in a world marred by sin, we all play the same game.

We all vacillate between the two extremes – of either taking more responsibility than is ours to take and punishing ourselves  or pinning all the responsibility on someone else and making them our scapegoat.

But deep, deep down, we know the truth. We’re all broken.

We all contribute to the problem. Assigning percentages of blame doesn’t change the net result.

We’ve all got the stink of sin, evil, and death on us.

And therefore our greatest need is forgiveness.

It’s because there are some things we can’t forgive in ourselves,

it’s because there are some things we can’t forgive about others,

it’s because there are some things others can’t forgive about us,

it’s because these are some things only God can forgive, that forgiveness is our greatest need.

It’s because of those things that only Christ can reconcile within and between us, that forgiveness is our greatest need.

It’s because of those things that only the Spirit can work through, somehow redeem and in the end, bring something new out of, that forgiveness is our greatest need.

The forgiveness Jesus extends to us isn’t merely parole. Forgiveness that is conditional –  so long as don’t mess up.

Christ doesn’t forgive so that we just keep playing it safe – working hard either to stay out of trouble or not to get caught.

Jesus forgives to unleash us to live the full and abundant life he extends to us – so that we hold nothing back, so that we aren’t afraid to stumble and fall as we boldly risk crossing lines and climbing through barriers in order to better know and grow closer with God.

But the forgiveness Jesus offers to us isn’t for own, individual peace of mind. Forgiveness is intended to be a shared asset.

Forgiveness is our greatest need because without the forgiveness only God can give, we cannot authentically and fully love and serve one another.

The greatest commandment or rule of life Jesus calls us to observe is to love God by loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Notice all of our relationships are connected to each other. A breakdown in one of those relational connections affects the rest.

And if we try and work backward from what Jesus outlined, out of our love for ourselves trying to love others, and thus in turn expressing our love to the Lord, it doesn’t work. It can’t work, because we can’t truly love ourselves if we can’t forgive ourselves.

And if we can’t forgive ourselves, we sure as heck aren’t going to be able – let alone willing – to forgive others.

The relational connection has to flow the other way.

It is out of God’s love for us that we love others.

It is in receiving the love we need first from God and then from God through the love of others, that we can truly love ourselves.

We can truly love ourselves because our love isn’t dependent upon competing with or being affirmed by other people.

Our love for ourselves as well as our love for others comes from God’s unconditional love for us.

And what is the ultimate expression of God’s unconditional love for us?

His forgiveness of us in Christ – forgiving in ourselves and in others what we can’t forgive.

And how do we most completely express our love for God, our love toward others, and our self-love?

Through forgiving as we have been forgiven.

There’s a quote we’ve probably heard before. It’s a bit cheesy but it’s still true and it goes something like this:

If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator.

If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist.

If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist.

If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer.

But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Savior.

Where is the freedom of the forgiveness we have thanks to Jesus unrealized potential in your life?

Where might Christ’s forgiveness be the catalyst for you no longer living in fear but instead, walking by faith?

In the midst of the list of grievances we keep adding to, all the grudges we are stubbornly refuse to let go of, and the old wounds we keep nursing, where could the promise and power of God’s forgiveness become the transformative difference in our relationships?

What if reconciliation rather than resentment became the defining narrative of your life?

Beloved, forgiveness is the greatest need we have and thanks be to God, forgiveness is what the Lord is more than willing to give to us in Jesus.

This is why God came to us in Christ.

This is why Jesus will walk the way of the Cross.

This is why Jesus will roll back the stone of death’s tomb.

This is why Jesus will fill and empower us with his Spirit.

So that we can be forgiven.

So that we can know and live out of the freedom of forgiveness.

So that we can love and serve one another not from a place of fear but out of a posture of forgiveness.

This is the word of the Lord.