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Our Felt Need, Our Deepest Need

Following the Messiah means finding a new perspective on our greatest needs.


I promise I will not fall into that well-worn tradition of preaching on those well-intentioned, moralistic oaths, doomed to fail, that we call "new year's resolutions." I was sitting in our living room preparing this sermon yesterday, and the sheer armies of joggers that ran by my front window was staggering. My town never sees more recreational jogging than it does on January 1.

But I want to start this year in the gospel. That's what I need. Our reading comes from the Gospel of Mark: that brief, fast outline of a gospel that is full of rich material and yet keeps moving.

The Messiah Jesus planned to be

(Read Mark 2:1-12.)

In these first chapters of his gospel, Mark is giving us an introduction to Jesus: this is, after all, a gospel. But he is doing it in a very particular way. He is not just introducing Jesus the man; he is introducing Jesus the Christ. Christ is really just a Greek rendering of that Hebrew word "Messiah." Mark is taking time and introducing Jesus as Christ, as Messiah. He is very particular about how he weaves his story together in order to accomplish this goal.

What's interesting is that he introduces Jesus as Messiah before anyone in the text of the gospel ever actually says the word "Christ" or "Messiah." As a matter of fact, it's not until Mark 8:29 that someone finally utters that Greek word Christos. It is in 8:27-28 that Jesus is talking with his disciples and they have this interchange.

(Read Mark 8:27-29.)

Just about every interpreter, in any commentary or study Bible you read, will say that this point is a shift. It's the hinge of the whole Gospel of Mark. It's at that point that the people, Jesus' audience, finally realize exactly who he is.

Why does Mark do this? Why does he make us wait until chapter eight to finally learn who Jesus is? Why doesn't Jesus come clean about his identity as the messianic king spoken of in the Old Testament in the first chapter?

The reason can be found if we look at the kind of people Jesus was preaching to. Jesus was preaching to a particular historical audience: a particularly oppressed people group, actually. The Jews of the first century had suffered under years of foreign occupation. They had been overrun by the Persians, and after that they were overrun by the Greeks, and after that they were overrun by the Romans. They were ruled to this day, the moment of Jesus' life, by the Roman army, which was a very cruel, oppressive army. The era of Israelite power and influence that they read about in their Bibles—the Old Testament, as we call it—was a distant memory. It seemed abstract, like a fantasy: an illusion that they could ever have had such power and such wonder as they did in the days of David or of Solomon. As a matter of fact, they only experienced short moments of power or freedom during those 400 or 500 years since the exile. Even those short moments in the third and second centuries B.C. were really tumultuous; they were times of an unquiet peace.

Jesus knows this. Jesus understands his Jewish audience, and he understands that the only hope they had in their dire situation was this character who was spoken of throughout the Old Testament, throughout the psalms: this hope of the Son of David, this king who would come, and they would call him "Messiah." This Messiah would come and restore their former historical wonder. It is understandable to us that they might have not just expected a man coming and preaching the Bible like a rabbi, but that they would have expected a king, a military commander, a political hero, a champion of the nation of Israel who would come and drive back the Roman oppressor and his wicked puppet kings (like King Herod). They would expect a military commander.

But that wasn't the sort of Messiah Jesus planned to be. See, he understood the messianic expectation of the people, and he understood they were looking for a political and cultural leader, but he also understood that he was the true Messiah and what he had in mind was not a revolution of political proportions or cultural proportions; it was a revolution of cosmic proportions. His objective was not to rule the small plot of ground on the East Mediterranean—the Israelite or the Palestinian Levant, as it is sometimes referred to now by geography books. His enemies were not Roman soldiers, nor were they puppet kings or local governors. Jesus had bigger fish to fry. Jesus wanted to take on that enemy trifecta of Satan, sin, and death.

That is why the events described in the first eight chapters of Mark are written the way that they are. They are meant for a very particular purpose. They are actually a kind of reeducation manual, not on who people wanted the Messiah to be, but who the Messiah really is. They are a historical essay about who Messiah ought to be. Or, if you prefer an artistic metaphor, these first chapters paint a portrait of what the true Messiah—who the true Messiah is. With each of Jesus' teachings about the kingdom of God in these early chapters, with each struggle from temptation, with each healing, Mark, the gospel writer, keeps begging these questions: "Who is this man? Who can do something like this? Who acts like this? Who talks like this?"

As a matter of fact, these very questions are put in the mouths of the participants, the characters in his stories. Look at Mark 2:7. Look what Jesus' critics say: "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" These are honest questions, the questions of his critics. These are really good examples of the kinds of questions Mark wants us to be asking as we are reading the gospel. We need to try to read it with a fresh perspective. We need to try to read it as if we've never read it before, so we can be sensitive to these kinds of narrative and plot developments. Even though no one is talking about Jesus' Messiahhood in these early stories, we are learning about who the Messiah is and how he works and what he means for this world.

The Messiah on the move

We've been listening to some of the Chronicles of Narnia on an audiobook CD. Today we were listening to The Magician's Nephew, but it reminded me of this part of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It's a well-known part, and you've probably heard it in sermon illustrations before.

Remember the story? I'll give it to you briefly. The story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is about a land called Narnia: a fantasyland under the curse of a villain, the White Witch, who has put the land under a curse for a constant but never-ending winter. There is this saying, "It's always winter, but it's never Christmas."

The main characters—these four children named Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy—keep hearing about this figure of Aslan, this king who rules over the land, even though the White Witch now seems to be in control. He's the rightful king of Narnia. They keep hearing this one phrase, "Aslan is on the move." The children are perplexed. They wonder, Who is this Aslan? Why is everyone speaking about him? What does this mean for Aslan to be on the move?

Slowly they start to figure out what that means. They start to see effects of Aslan's moving all around them. They see the weather—it's getting warmer. They see that the snow is starting to melt and that the flowers are starting to blossom in radiant colors. They see that animals whom the White Witch had turned to stone are now reported to be walking around on the countryside in their proper selves. Slowly the children start to understand what it means for Aslan to be on the move, so that by the time they meet Aslan—by the time they actually encounter him—they already love him. They embrace him; they are ready to follow him anywhere, because they have seen who he is and what he means to the land of Narnia.

I think the gospel writer Mark is doing something of the same thing here. Jesus is doing something of the same thing in the way that he preaches. Mark is showing who the Messiah is, what the Messiah ought to be, and what the Messiah ought to mean for the world before actually using the word. If Jesus came out and said, "I am the Christ," people would run and grab swords and lances and shields because they would want a revolution. But that would obscure the true nature of his purpose, of his mission.

So we have all these little bits of Jesus' life that Mark is giving us: the baptism, the temptation in the wilderness, the calling together of this motley group of disciples, the teaching with authority, the casting out of the unclean spirit, the healing of fever and the healing of leprosy, and now the healing of this paralytic. These are not just disjointed stories stuck together so we can be quizzed on them later. They're not just proof texts for stuff Jesus can do. Rather, they are a collage that brings into focus who the Messiah is and what it means for the Messiah to be on the move. Jesus is showing that he is about much more than a political agenda. He is about much more than a temporary cultural moment in the ancient Near East. His program is cosmic; his program is eternal; his program gets at the heart of the human predicament. That is what the Messiah ought to be, and that is who the Messiah is.

The felt need

We're in the middle of this disclosing in chapter two about who Jesus is and what he means for the world. This passage, Mark 2:1-12, adds a new and significant aspect to the Messiahhood of Jesus.

Look at the passage. The object, the focus of Jesus' attention, is very clear. His attention and his energy are all focused on this one person: this man who is being lowered out of a vandalized ceiling by his friends. Let's act as if we're reading this for the first time, and we weren't taught this story when we were children. What's important here? What does this man need? Is his main problem that he is a paralytic, or is his main problem something else—that he is a sinner, perhaps?

For Jesus, the answer is yes. Which one is it? Is it that he is a paralytic or a sinner? Well, yes, it's both. This man suffers from a terribly debilitating physical condition, and it has left him completely helpless and dependent on the generosity and the goodwill of his friends. He can't do anything unless his friends do it for him. This, of course, is why his friends are vandalizing this house, pulling back the sod of the roof to lower him down in the midst of the crowd.

This paralysis is the need that this man feels most; it's his greatest felt need. This is the one that dogs him every waking moment of his life. Maybe Jesus can heal him—maybe this strange itinerant preacher can change his life. People say that he does. Maybe he can change my life.

That's why the people of Capernaum, by the way, have gathered around. They want to see the big show; they want to see the carnival act of Jesus who goes around healing and preaching and making their religious leaders so angry. That's why the crowd is hushed as this man is lowered down. They are waiting for the fireworks. Jesus approaches the man, and look what he says: "Son, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5).

I imagine there were two responses to this: the first being the one of the crowd who had gathered around to see the fireworks, to see the big show. This response would have been something like confusion. "Jesus, what don't you get about what's happening here? What don't you get about the gurney that's being lowered down by the men and the guy with the skinny, limp legs that have no life in them? He didn't come to the temple, Jesus. He's not looking for forgiveness. You need to connect the dots, Jesus."

Then a second response is that of the religious leaders, who are a little more theologically sophisticated: the scribes who have dedicated their lives to memorizing and writing down whole sections of the Torah and the prophets, interpreting the Scriptures. They hear what Jesus is saying. They see what he is getting at. Their response is not confusion, but indignation. They are appalled: "Who on Earth do you think you are to claim to forgive this man's sin? You have been preaching so far, and you preach like a rabbi, and that's okay—but rabbis don't forgive sins. That is the prerogative of God alone. Sin is between man and God. It is not the work of a rabbi to forgive a man's sins." Jesus seems to think that he has this authority.

By the way, Jesus is not referring to a particular sin. It's not as if Jesus ran into this man earlier in the day and this man took his parking spot, and Jesus is now forgiving him for it, right? There is not a particular sin. Jesus is offering wholesale forgiveness of his sins. The scribes and the Pharisees get the magnitude of his declaration, but they are savvy enough not to rebuke him publicly. Instead, their rebuttal is silent. Note that when Jesus speaks aloud—"Why are you thinking these things?" (Mark 2:8)—he is speaking to a quiet room. No none has said or done anything. He knows their subtle, unspoken inclination to rebuke his divine authority.

This is true of the paralytic, as well. Notice that the most passive, quiet, inactive person in the room is the paralytic. The scribes are active in their hushed critique; their hearts are boiling inside them. It would be hard to call them passive or inactive. They're very active, and they're very impassioned by their rebellion against Jesus. This whole scene closes with the crowd audibly and passionately praising the Lord, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!" (Mark 2:12) There is all this activity in the story, and yet in the midst of it all, you have this paralytic who is unmoving, unspeaking, totally impotent. He is a completely passive character apart from the fact that at the very end of the story, he picks up his bed and obeys Jesus and walks out. That is the only thing he does. But notice that Jesus, the Messiah, perceives the man's heart and the heart of his friends, and he calls him "son."

The deepest need

What Mark is highlighting here is a very particular truth about Jesus as the Messiah: The Messiah is the agent of salvation. He is the lone actor. He alone, rightly and reliably, perceives the heart of a man or a woman, the human heart, and he alone can whisper that sweet sentence, as the hymn says, "Son, son, your sins are all forgiven." This whole man's life, he probably thought of his paralysis as his greatest curse. This was probably his worst part: the thing he could never get away from. It was his most obvious lack, his most felt need, and yet Jesus uses this felt need to engage and satisfy his deepest need. It was his paralysis that made it possible—you might even say it was his paralysis that qualified him to come for the Messiah who was on the move.

This is how it works for us too, isn't it? We find ourselves lying exposed before Jesus. We find ourselves helpless, without excuse. We have no more "yes," "but," "but I." It's just us and all of our failures and our personal wounds and our broken relationships and our guilt and our crimes and our worst moments: the things that dog us every day, the thing we think keeps us from ever being whole. That's where the Messiah meets us. There is a reason why stories that Christians tell about their first meaningful encounters with Jesus so often include some sort of horrific or traumatic or dramatic fall. Sometimes we remember times when we felt helpless or afraid, terrified and abandoned, and that's when the Lord called us his son, his daughter.

My grandfather, who died just a few years ago, was a staunch modernist agnostic his whole life. A graduate of Harvard, he fought in two wars as a pilot. He was a man who had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. He relied on no one, until he acquired lymphoma. In the middle of chemotherapy treatment, with his body wracked and destroyed, he fell in love with Jesus Christ. He lived 10 more years as a worshipper of Jesus, but it took that event to qualify him to be before the Messiah on the move.

It's not always so dramatic. It can be subtle; it can be a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. All of our personal treasures and our goals and the things we long for, our desires, our idolizing of convenience and comfort: It all leads to a sort of dissatisfaction that makes us look for something else. There is this turning towards God. There is what one of my colleagues calls a "divine click" that happens inside. I think that's the voice of the Lord saying, "Son, daughter." The paralytic's faith that Jesus could heal him of his paralysis signifies a deeper inclination of his heart, and Jesus recognizes it and lays hold of it. The paralytic's felt need gave him opportunity to have his deepest need, the need for forgiveness, satisfied.

What it means to be the Messiah

In the Gospel of John, John talks about it in a different way. Jesus says this in John 10:27: "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me." This is Jesus preaching of himself as the Good Shepherd. I think that what we see here in the story of the paralytic is an instance of the sheep hearing the Good Shepherd's voice and knowing him, and he knows them as sons.

There are really two kinds of people in this story. There are those who belong to Jesus and those who don't, those who reject him. The point is never more clear than the fact that Jesus addresses each group before they even open their mouths. He doesn't have to converse with them because he can perceive their hearts. He knows their hearts, and it shows us that Jesus' salvation and his judgment are not about what we say; rather, it is an affair of the heart. Jesus knows his sheep's hearts and they know him, but everybody—everybody, remember—is standing in that room watching this scene unfold, and they're still waiting for the fireworks. They're still waiting for the big show. They want to see a healing; that's why they came.

Imagine you're watching one of those reality shows where they find some person who is in a very dire situation. It's usually a very tragic but honorable character: a retired fireman with 10 adopted children who has left his job to minister to youth in the inner city, and he lives in a small shack with his wife and children and elderly grandmother, and he needs a new house, right? So the whole neighborhood comes out, and they are cheering words of encouragement; the big RV pulls up, the host jumps out of the RV, the cameras are there, the bulldozers are surrounding the shack, and the host runs up to them with a microphone. Then imagine that he says, "Hey, your sins are forgiven." You could not even find these Nielsen ratings in the basement, right? You'd have to create a new place to find these ratings.

You can imagine what people were thinking as they see Jesus step forward and say, "Son, your sins are forgiven." People came to see the big show, and Jesus gives them this: forgiveness of sins. Okay, but how about seeing this man stand up and walk, Jesus? How about you doing what everyone came out here to see you do? It's an honest question. But Jesus also has an honest question. He returns to them and says, "Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'?" (Mark 2:9). That's also an honest question, because Jesus knows the answer, and he is probably the only one.

You see, Jesus is completely alone in knowing what it means to say "your sins are forgiven." He is completely alone in the knowledge of what it means to be the Messiah. They're still learning what it means to be Christ. He knows that death awaits him, that he is on his way to the cross, and he knows the charge that will bring him there is this accusation of blasphemy from the scribes, just like the one he hears in this story as he perceives their hearts. It must have cut him like a knife to see the plan, the conspiracy, already taking root. He looks at their faces and goes, There it is—that's how it's going to happen.

This scene sets the stage for the rest of the Gospel of Mark, because Jesus is standing between his accusers and the one he came to save. He perceives the hearts of the scribes, he perceives the conspiracy taking root, and then he turns and he sees this paralytic man lying helpless on the floor, with nowhere else to turn. Jesus heals the man.

Notice how he does it. Jesus, being God, does things just by saying them. If I want to turn on a light, what do I do? I have to go find a flashlight and put a bulb in it and put in batteries and hit the button, or I need to flip a switch and make sure the bulb works. If God wants to make light, he says, "Let there be light." When Jesus does things, he does things like his Father. He says it. He says, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home" (Mark 2:11). He speaks the man healed. This is how God's Word works. Jesus doesn't have to concoct a potion for the man to drink; he doesn't have to rub his hands together and perform chiropractic medicine. He just speaks, and it's done.


Note how Jesus forgives the man's sins. He says, "Son, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5). That is exactly what the Messiah is doing. He is on his way to the cross for the forgiveness of sins. That's what his whole ministry is about. When he preaches, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Matt. 3:2), the king is on the move and he is heading to Jerusalem, where he won't sit on a throne—rather, he will hang on a cross, and in doing so he will fulfill his role as the Savior, as the saving Messiah. The work is as good as done. He can say to this man, "Your sins are forgiven."

Following Christ and being a part of his kingdom doesn't mean all of your felt needs will be met. It doesn't mean whatever ails you will instantly be healed. It doesn't mean you'll finally get all those goals and comforts and conveniences you long for. It doesn't mean that—don't believe any charlatan who tells you that's what it means to be a Christian or to have faith. Rather, what it means is that you adopt a different perspective about those felt needs. You get a different perspective in which your felt needs become opportunities: opportunities to encounter the Messiah, the Christ, as the answer to your deepest need. It's the need of your soul to be forgiven, the need to be fully accepted by the only God, the only Lord and Creator of the heavens and the Earth, and his Son, Jesus Christ, who rightfully reigns at his right hand in heaven. To be fully accepted and loved and adored: That's what it means to stand before a Messiah who loves you even though he has seen you at your worst and your most helpless, your most corrupt. He meets you there, and he says to you, "Son, daughter, your sins are forgiven."

Scott Redd is the president and associate professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and he is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. He blogs regularly at sunergoi.com.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The Messiah Jesus planned to be

II. The Messiah on the move

III. The felt need

IV. The deepest need

V. What it means to be the Messiah