St Barnabas 4th August 2012
Reading – Luke 5:17-26
You should have seen Abner in the old days. He was the life and soul of the party. He knew how to work hard and to play hard. If there was something going on in the village, the chances were, Abner was at the heart of it. Everyone knew him. He was the local character who made children laugh and the ladies blush, the sort of man everyone wanted to invite to their do.
That was before his accident. Quite what Abner was doing up that tree is a matter of debate. Some was he was preparing another one of his practical jokes. Some say he was trying to help his neighbour. Abner himself never said. All we knew there was a loud crack of a branch breaking, a shout and then a dull thud. We found Abner lying on the ground dazed. Now it wasn’t the first time Abner had been knocked out, and we thought he’d bounce back as usual. It was only when we tried to get him to his feet we realised the awful truth. His legs just didn’t work any more.
Days passed, then weeks. We all prayed and hoped that there would be some sign of improvement, a slight movement of his foot or a bend of his knee. But nothing. Abner just lay there, unable to move. And it wasn’t just his body that was injured. Something changed about Abner during that time. This happy, outgoing character became angry and moody. There were times when you just couldn’t say anything right to him. Sometimes he would scream at you to leave him alone. He often didn’t even thank us for all that we did for him.
It’s perhaps not surprising that many people stopped being Abner’s friend. Even his family seemed to desert him. But we boys from the village stuck by him. After all, we had grown up together. We had played the same games together, we had gone after the same girls, we had even got drunk together – only occasionally, you understand.
And of course after the accident Abner had literally nothing. He had no work, and no money coming in. Someone had to care for him, to make sure he had food and drink, to tend him when he got sick, to provide him with a place to sleep and rest. And, in case you’re wondering, the religious people weren’t that much help, either. They declared Abner’s accident to be God’s judgement on his wild living. Not that they ever said it directly to his face, you understand. For, as far as they were concerned, Abner was now unclean, beyond the pale, which is why they never, ever visited.
So the weeks passed on into months, and months into years. We never thought that much about the future because we couldn’t see the situation changing. We all took it in turns to look after Abner as best we could in between work and family and all the other demands on our time. He was our friend, and there was that unspoken understanding between us, that we would always look care for him. Even when it became wearing, exhausting and positively unrewarding.
That was before this man Jesus arrived that day back in Galilee. We had heard some stories about this lad growing up in Nazareth, of course. We had been led to believe he would be someone special, but for years he kept on working quietly in his carpenter’s shop at home. Then for a few brief months he disappeared. We heard reports down south of some strange goings on at the river Jordan, and at a place called Cana. We weren’t too sure what was going on.
But then one day this Jesus returned – no longer a carpenter, but a preacher and a healer. You can imagine the stir He created! Especially when He went back home and announced: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”. We weren’t there, but I understand the congregation were split right in two. Some wanted to put him to death for blasphemy there and then. Others wanted to praise God that the long-awaited Messiah had come.
We reserved our judgement, at least for a little while. There had been others, you see, that had made the same kind of big claims, but they were all sound and no action. It quickly turned out that this Jesus was someone different. Demons driven out, a miraculous catch of fish, even a mother-in-law healed – now that really was a sign of the Lord’s power at work.
We told all this to Abner. “Yeah right”, he said. “So if this Jesus is so great, why I am still lying on this filthy bed of straw?” “It’s ‘cos you haven’t met Him”, I said. “And I don’t want to, either”, he replied. “I’m not the sort of person Jesus can help”. “Don’t be too sure about that”, I answered back. “I heard He healed a leper the other day”. “Lucky leper”, was Abner’s only reply.
We tried to persuade Abner this Jesus could make a difference but he was having none of it. “OK, then”, I finally said. “We’ll take you to Jesus so you can decide for yourself”. “And how are you going to do that?” he asked. That was a good question. In the end the four of us arranged this kind of litter we could carry him in. It wasn’t far to the next village where Jesus was teaching, although by the end of the journey it certainly seemed far enough.
There was just one problem. The place where Jesus was teaching was absolutely crammed solid. It wasn’t too hard to see why. The religious bigwigs from Judea and Jerusalem had finally got wind of Jesus, and they had come up to investigate the reports that had reached their ears. I am sure that in a footnote in a sub-paragraph in a sub-section of their miscellaneous rules and regulations there must have been a clause specifying that no carpenter might claim to be the Messiah without the appropriate independent verification. And so here they were blocking up every doorway and every window, doing a spot of verifying. It was quite plain from the expression on their faces they weren’t enjoying what they were hearing.
But we had a rather more immediate concern. We had brought Abner to meet Jesus and it looked like we had missed our chance. “I suppose you’d better take me home”, he said sarcastically. Well, that did it. We weren’t going to turn round now, especially as our shoulders and our arms were aching from our trek. It was then I spotted the back stairs leading up to the flat roof. The other friends looked at me, and I looked at them. We nodded to each other, and picked Abner up. “Fancy playing one last practical joke?” I asked. “Why not? I’ve got nothing to lose” he said impassively.
I tell you, it took some time to get Abner up all those stairs. But in the end we did it. Our next job, then, was to work out where Jesus was sitting. We didn’t want Abner to end up in the lap of a Pharisee, I suspect neither of them would have been too pleased! However as we listened it soon became clear where all the comments were being directed, right into the middle of the room. And so we began to make a hole in the roof. Now you’re probably thinking what the house owner made of all this. Well, we are all practical men. We know how to put a roof together and to take it apart again. When the events of the day were all over, we fixed it good and proper, and even though I say it myself, I reckon it was an improvement on how it was before.
But the real drama took place down below. Carefully, so carefully we lowered Abner down on the ropes. The angry voices grew silent. Slowly Abner reached the floor in front of Jesus, without even a jolt or a loud bang. We wondered how Jesus would react. Would He be angry at this interruption, or surprised, or would He even tell us just to pull Him up again? Actually, He did none of those things. He looked up at us peering through the hole.
I shall never forget that look on Jesus’ face. It was as if Jesus was asking us a question, “Do you believe I have the power to heal your friend?” and He was looking straight into our souls. And I thought to myself, “Yes, I do believe. I don’t know exactly who you are, but I have brought you my friend because I believe you can make a difference”. Then Jesus looked down at Abner and said some words I will never forget, “Friend, your sins are forgiven”.
You should have heard the commotion at this point. A tidal wave of grumbling and angry whispers went right around the room. It wasn’t too hard to make out the gist of what they were saying: “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” In their eyes Jesus was now doing more than infringing a footnote in a sub-section of their rulebook. He was, so to speak, taking the rulebook and tearing it apart. He was claiming there was a different way to God than through legal code and ritual observance, and He was that way.
But I wasn’t really paying attention to them. I was looking at Jesus looking at Abner. That same look as if He was peering directly into His soul. And then I think I understood Jesus’ words. Jesus knew all about Abner’s anger and bitterness since his accident. He knew all about Abner’s years of hard living. Jesus knew Abner’s heart and He saw this was where the real healing had to take place – on the inside. It wasn’t so much a damaged back that prevented Abner from being the person God wanted him to be. It was the power of sin that meant Abner’s life revolved around himself and his concerns and his moods. And don’t think that I say this because somehow I think Abner was a special case. I tell you since that day I too have had a long hard look at my life and seen how I have needed to be cured of the sin that paralyses my heart.
As the first ripples of grumbling died down Jesus lifted His head to look at His critics. Maybe they wanted Him to justify Himself theologically or to begin a learned argument from the Scriptures. I could imagine that sort of debate would have been right up their street. But no, Jesus instead asked a couple of very simple but very powerful questions: “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?
And before anyone had time to answer He turned back to Abner: “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins – I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.”
Now Abner was never any good at doing what other people asked him to do. When he was young he would never come when his parents asked him. When he learnt a trade the only way he could make a living was by working for himself. He would never take instructions from anyone else. But here Jesus asked him to do something, and without a murmur, without a sarcastic comment Abner did it, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for someone who had been paralysed for years just to stand up.
And he did exactly what Jesus asked. He didn’t try any of his old tricks to show how clever he was. He stood up, picked up his mattress and went home. In fact he went home so fast it was hard to catch up with him. But then Abner was a man with a mission. He wanted to go back to his family, to say sorry for the years he had given them grief, to ask for a fresh start, to take his proper place as the son in the family.
Now you probably expecting me to say we’ve got the old Abner back. In some ways that’s true. He is still the hard-working, outgoing person we all knew and loved. But in many ways he is different. How can I put it? That’s right, his life is full of praise. He sees each day as a wonderful gift from God. He thanks God for every ounce of strength and health he possesses. He does not grumble when others tell him to do something he doesn’t like and he is grateful for the help people give him. And above all else, he is thankful for Jesus and the way his life has been changed.
I’d like to take some credit for the change in Abner’s life. I’d like to say it was my idea of bringing him to Jesus that led to this wonderful miracle. But actually all I was doing was what any true friend would do. You see, there are so many people like Abner out there. I don’t mean they look crippled, I mean they think Jesus can’t do anything for them. All I would say is if you love someone, if you really, truly care about them, then you have to show them Jesus can make a difference. After all, there is greater way of serving anyone than to bring them to Jesus, is there?