|If we listen deeply
to God's Word today, perhaps we'll go home astonished and, I think, very
Isaiah starts off telling
us, speaking for God, "Look, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs
forth. Do you not see?" Then he goes on to describe some of
the new things God is doing and perhaps, if we hear these again, we will
begin to be astonished. But my guess is that we will probably be astonished
at the wrong part, because when Isaiah says:
"God is doing a new thing.
God is making rivers flow in the desert. God is giving people water
to drink in the wastelands."
These are new things
and they are astonishing. But the really new thing and astonishing
thing is what God does, as Isaiah describes at the end of that passage.
"It is I. I am the one who blots out your offenses. I forgive
Isaiah is announcing
is that God takes the initiative to forgive. And that really is a
new thing, especially for people who are brought up in the tradition of
this Bible, the Jewish tradition. You had to earn your forgiveness.
That is what the whole Book of Job is about.
Remember the argument
that Job’s friends had with him? "You're a sinner and until you are
ready to confess that and beg forgiveness and do penance and be punished,
you can't be forgiven. You'll never be healed."
Isaiah is saying, "No,
it's not that way at all. God takes the initiative." It even
goes beyond what Isaiah said earlier in that book. If you look back
in the 30th Chapter of Isaiah, there is a beautiful passage that I always
like to reflect on about God. Isaiah says, "God is always waiting
to be gracious to us."
Still, that suggests
that we must take the imitative to turn to God. Now Isaiah is saying,
“No! God takes the initiative, reaches out and forgives us,” realizing
that God knows us, of course, that punishment won't change us. But
loving us will change us. We can be loved into goodness. We
can never be punished into goodness. And that is what God is revealing
through the words of Isaiah today.
And, of course, in the
Gospel, Jesus is revealing the same thing. He takes the initiative.
This man comes before him paralyzed but, evidently, even more seriously
sick in spirit. And Jesus takes the initiative and says, "My son,
your sins are forgiven."
And look how those who
were monitoring Jesus--because that's what they were doing--were beginning
to be suspicious of him. He was beginning to proclaim this reign of God,
something so different from what they had heard before. The religious leaders
were afraid of what he was doing and so they challenged him, "How can you
forgive sins? Only God can do that!"
And, also, they were
concerned because Jesus was usurping the role of the temple. You
couldn't have your sins forgiven unless you changed and went through rituals
and offered sacrifices--paid, in a sense, for your sins—and only then would
they be forgiven. Now suddenly Jesus is saying, "Your sins are forgiven.
God loves you. God heals you." And then, to show that the healing
has taken place in the spirit, Jesus heals the man's body.
It is a marvelous teaching
and I think, for some of us, it is a new teaching also, or at least one
that we have to keep reminding ourselves of. Because we, I think,
often get into that pattern of thinking that somehow we have to earn God's
love, somehow I have to pay a penalty for my sins. I must do penance.
I must be punished. And only then can I be forgiven.
What God is telling us
today is: "No. It doesn't work like that! God loves you and draws
you forth into goodness." It is a new thing and it is a marvelous
thing. And perhaps, as we think about it deeply, we will begin to
be astonished and also begin to experience how much God loves me and how
God reaches out to forgive me, draws goodness out of me, draws me into
goodness and full humanness by loving me.
And now comes the challenge,
because this is what God expects us to do also.
In the beginning of the
Sermon on the Mount, one of the things that Jesus said was, "You have heard
it was said of old, thou shall not kill, but I say to you, ‘Do not even
have anger, hatred, resentment in your heart against your brother or sister.’”
Then, to show how important
it is that you be reconciled and that you reach out to do the reconciling,
Jesus says, “Look! Even if you are bringing your gift to the altar and
there you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,
leave your gift at the altar. Go first and be reconciled.”
There is nothing more
important for Jesus than for us to know God loves us and forgives us, but
God also wants us to reach out in reconciliation, forgiveness and love
to our brothers and sisters. In fact, on Easter Sunday night, when
Jesus appears to the disciples, what is the first thing he tells them?
He says, "Peace be with you!” And he says, “As I have forgiven you, you
must forgive one another. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.”
Jesus is telling his
community of disciples that their first and most important work is that
of reconciling, of bringing reconciliation, forgiveness and love into their
community and beyond their community into the world.
God takes the initiative
and forgives us and loves us. But God also wants us to take the initiative,
to reach out and forgive. If anyone has anything that could be a
barrier between me and that person, I must be the one to reach out and
to reconcile and to forgive.
As so this is a challenge
for us in our everyday life, within our family, within the workplace, in
school - wherever we are. It is a challenge for us always to be the
reconciling, the forgiving, the loving person--to draw goodness out of
people by loving them, not punishing them. But it goes beyond that,
I remind you, because
I know that I have spoken about this before, of Pope John Paul's Peace
Day Statement for January 1 of 2002. It was a statement shortly after
September 11th and John Paul was grappling with it and he says something
like, "It almost seems that the horrific evil in the world is triumphing
And he recalls from his
own youth how he lived through Nazi tyranny and then four and a half decades
of totalitarian communist tyranny--evil, seeming to triumph. He says
that out of that he learned, though, evil doesn't triumph - that God's
goodness continues to be at work in the world.
Even in the face of the
horrific violence of September 11th, he's telling us, in his judgment,
it won't be overcome by returning violence with violence. “No,” he
says, “if you want peace, it must be built on two pillars: the pillar of
justice and the pillar of that special kind of love we call forgiveness.”
That's the only way--to
have people within our family, within our community, in our nation and
in our world. To build it on those two pillars - justice and that special
kind of love we call forgiveness.
As I mentioned before,
St. Paul was challenged for being fickle, saying “yes” sometimes, “no”
sometimes. But he said, "No! I am not like that." I try to
be like Jesus who says “yes” to God at every moment.
So perhaps what we need
to do this morning is imitate Paul who imitates Jesus and say “yes” to
God. Say “yes” to the new things God is doing in our midst; “yes”
to this call to be forgiving, loving, reconciling people and to make that
a firm and constant “yes”--no bending back and forth—“yes” to God and “yes”
to God's new ways.
If we do that perhaps
we will be astonished at not only what God does, but at what we do.
We will be different. We will also be astonished, I think, at how
reaching out in forgiveness and love will bring peace into our relationships,
into our lives, into our hearts and ultimately, into our world.
In the name of the Father,
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.