I can relate to the paralyzed man in our passage today can’t you? We are not told if his physical condition is related to his spiritual state. We are not told if he is paralyzed because of his sins. But we know how physical disease can lead to spiritual paralysis and how spiritual paralysis can affect our physical state. At times in my life have been overcome with fear and doubt. And that has crippled me from making hard decisions. But Jesus has a message for those of us who are paralyzed. Throughout our journey through Matthew the Gospel writer has been revealing to us Jesus’ authority. First, he revealed to us Jesus’ authority as a teacher, then his authority to heal our physical bodies, then his authority over the demonic powers. And now Jesus has revealed his ultimate authority, an authority reserved only for God. The authority to forgive sins. Jesus did this, the text tells us, “in his own city”. This is not Bethlehem, the city he was born in, nor it Nazareth, the city he was raised in, this miracle occurred in Capernaum. We were told all the way back in Matthew Chapter four that Capernaum was where Jesus chose to begin his ministry. It was where he felt most called to minister, it is where he felt most at home. But even here, on his home turf, Jesus is met with opposition. This is the first mention of people thinking that Jesus was committing blasphemy. A charge that would eventually get him crucified. But Jesus is not afraid. He stands firm. He is courageous in the face of opposition. And strangely he encourages the paralyzed man to be courageous as well.
I can think of a lot of appropriate reactions to having your sins suddenly forgiven. Relief, thankfulness, gratefulness, fear and awe, being humbled come to mind. But Jesus tells this man, “take heart, your sins are forgiven.” I know the Lord has forgiven me of my sins, that he has washed me as white as snow, but honestly my automatic reaction isn’t to have courage. The word here for courage can be variously translated as “bolstered because warmed up”, “embolden from within” ,”bolstered from within which supports unflinching courage, to radiate warm confidence because one’s heart is warm.” I know this word is important because in the New Testament only Jesus says it. It is not an encouragement that any mere mortal can provide us. It is a divine conviction. A divine fire that forges our hearts to be both compassionate and strong. In Matthew 9:22 Jesus says to the woman with a bleeding condition, “take heart, daughter your faith has made you well.” In Matthew 14 the disciples are caught in a storm. And they see Jesus walking across the water. They think he is a ghost but Jesus replies, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” In John 16:33 Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples before his crucified and he says to them, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Even, after Jesus ascended into heaven he returned once more to speak a word of encouragement. In Acts 23 Paul is on trial in Jerusalem for preaching the Risen Christ. A crowd threatens to tear him apart even before the trial is done. So the Roman soldiers take him back to the barracks. Luke tells us, “ the following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem , so you must testify also in Rome.”
This being mother’s day I was reminded of a courageous woman in the Bible, that being the Judge Deborah. For those who don’t approve of women in leadership Deborah is sort of hard to explain. She was a tough cookie. And she had to be. Israel was in a time of political and social chaos. The end of the book of Judges sums up the times pretty well, “ in those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Just listen to Deborah’s song, “that the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, bless the LORD!.” Now those are some fighting words. That is one courageous woman.
As many of you know my mother is also named Deborah. And she just happens to be part of a woman’s group at her church named “courageous women.” Honestly, I used to think that was a bit of a silly name. And I made fun of it a little bit to her. I mean how courageous is it for a bunch of women to gather together to study the Bible? But then I realized how wrong I was for even thinking that. It is courageous to gather together to study God’s Word, may we be men or women. And any group that she is in has to be courageous. Because she is one of the most courageous persons of faith I know, male or female. There comes a time in your life when you get to know your parents as individuals as real people, rather than just your mom and dad. I found out who my mother truly was about six years ago. As some of you may know she works for the University of Virginia. She travels around the country advising state and local government officials on how to better improve their leadership. On the last night of her seminars she has a “Christian Stewardship Seminar.” I attended one of these seminars six years ago. And for the first time I heard my mother’s testimony. I asked her if I could share it today and she agreed. I planned on summarizing it. But after reading through it and weeping, I realized I could not do it justice. I read it to you now in full. She entitled it, ““Deborah’s Song – Joy Full Whatever Comes”, after today’s verse in the book of Judges.
“WE ARE WHO WE WERE WHEN: Each of us has our story. Every life is full of questions and trials to bear. We reach for, grapple with, and wonder about the profound – what is the meaning of life? What is the good life? Is this all there is?
I am Deborah, the unexpected fifth born child of a dairy farm family in Western New York. Three generations lived together and at age 7, I became “Aunt Debbie” as my 6 nieces and nephews came into my life to babysit like a little Mom. I worked in the fields, did the morning and evening milking and so many daily chores. I called the cows in from the fields – I have always been known for my powerful and musical voice. But joyful song was not in my life.
When I was in middle school, I was so depressed. Much of my childhood was just grim, full of conflict, always problems on my shoulders, and I felt that if I could only be a better person, I could make a difference. But then I would “fail” again. I often felt like a fake. I felt frozen inside, often uncertain about my true feelings and how to be in relationship with other people, much less in a divine relationship. I put on a brave face to the outer world but I was sinking down in a pit of despair.
My darkest point was the night when I had decided to commit suicide by slitting my wrists in the bathtub. No one else was around. But some force, Some One, stayed my hand. All of the sudden I was intensely aware, listening to the sounds of bird song outside and feeling the gentle breeze coming through the window. These ordinary things felt extraordinary, as if a lifelong barrier had fallen away. Time felt suspended. I looked out the window and saw a gorgeous sunset. All of the sudden, I felt surrounded by a warm, loving Divine presence. I left that bathroom with a personal sense that there was a God who cared for me.
Some days later my boy friend Dave Spencer asked me to go to a Saturday church service with a missionary home from Africa. I said yes. Things seem to be coincidences but with reflection I have come to see that they are not – they are God-incidences. If he had asked me a month earlier, I probably would have said no. That night I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.
FROM DARKNESS TO ETERNAL LIFE I realized it was all about Amazing Grace. Not about doing enough good works to earn God’s favor. God’s love was infinitely deeper, richer and eternal – sacrificial love. Christ was wholly God, and wholly human. As it says in John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Here was the Good News, the Gospel Truth. There is enormous mystery in divine truths but I had the faith that night to begin to perceive those truths, to begin my Christian walk.
Our Christian faith equips us for life’s challenges. Since my trust in Christ at age 15, my faith walk has taken many twists and turns. I will be honest that like all sinful beings, I have often strayed on my path. Every time I came back, God was there for me. God’s promise is not to keep us from all trouble, but to be with us always in our troubles.
Within a year it was clear that something was very wrong with me – I had petit mal epilepsy. I had always been very fit and strong. I could lift and throw over 1,000 hay bales a day. But I was collapsing while unloading even one hay load. I believe that when adversity comes into my life, God will make good come of it. God gave this teenage Deborah the great blessing of working at Gowanda State Mental Hospital after school, weekends, and summers for two years. It was a profound living lesson every day in compassion as ‘suffering together’ – I came to see that we are all fragile human beings in mind and soul. It built my character and gave me my career mission of “Delivering on Democracy Every Day,” working with public organizations to better serve citizens.
When I went away to college at Syracuse University, the once strong farm girl couldn’t even walk across campus. At 19, I had heart catheterization surgery that revealed my heart is in the wrong place close to my spine and my mitral valve was leaking. I moped around campus for a month or so listening to my heartbeat, waiting for the beats and the pain in my back, fearing it might stop. My boyfriend, the Welshman, Robert Roberts was at my side (we married when I was 20).
Then I realized this was all about TRUST. Did I trust God to take care of me or not? So I turned it over to God – whether I lived to be 21, or 41, or 81, it would be well with my soul. My life motto was born – “Joy Full Whatever Comes.”
JOY-FULL WHATEVER COMES For over twenty years my heart problems limited what I could do physically. I was told to not even mop a floor. I lived with fear of becoming an invalid. In my thirties God blessed us with our son Will and daughter Caitlin. But I was often exhausted during their childhood, getting up to drive 60 miles to the University of Virginia, teaching, and then driving home. I had little energy for anything but parenting and work.
But God is Great and God is Good. In my forties, my mitral valve was better, it still seeps but it is not in prolapse. This is a rare medical occurrence, which I claim as a miracle, God’s grace to me. I tried to regain my farm girl strength by exercising. I was leg pressing 425 pounds. Foolishly I destroyed all the cartilage in my knees, so by age 60, I needed double-knee replacement. That brought my new life companions – Althea my artificial right knee and Lydia my left knee, manufactured in Hoosier country. There were complications, both during and after surgery, including nerve damage and extreme chronic pain. My 2015 diagnosis was that I am a part of the less than 5 percent of patients permanently worse off after knee replacement.
I did not ask ‘Why me?’ I believe that our Great God did have a plan and this was meant for my good. When normal physical therapy didn’t work, I got into the water, a kind environment for joints and pain. In March 2014, when I could only walk one-quarter mile with great difficulty, I swam 5 miles – 20 times farther. In the choir loft at our February 2016 Ash Wednesday Service, I was thinking about what to give up for Lent? Then a gentle, quiet thought came to me – “What to give into?” So I resolved to go to the Wellness Center early the next morning and trust God – to see how far I could swim. Over 13 hours I swam 15.3 miles that day – 6.4 times the Ironman Triathlon Swim distance. With my life-long fear of drowning, I never imagined becoming a water endurance champ. May God’s gift carry me to be alive and well at 90.
COURAGEOUS BEINGS IN THE MIDST OF SPIRITUAL WARFARE
But the greatest miracles in our life are spiritual healing, not physical healing, like my rejoicing in the faith of my wonderful son William and daughter Caitlin. We are Human Beings, not Human Doings. By our nature we remain flawed, sinful beings. But we know we are not finished beings. God is not done with us yet. God wants us to be Courageous Beings, believing and living the Good News of the Gospel.
As Christians, we are children of an Eternal Father. We are disciples of Jesus Christ. And we are instruments of the Holy Spirit to a hurting and dying world. This is the miracle that I am most thankful for in my Christian walk. Each of us is given spiritual gifts and human talents. Jesus entrusts each of us with a market place ministry – mine is as a professor working with local government leaders across our nation. For over 25 years I have invited participants to an optional Christian Stewardship session at the seminars I teach. What is your ministry?
Witnessing scares us – we worry about being awkward, ill at ease, too timid, saying the wrong thing, or giving offense. Evangelism isn’t about the dreaded ‘knocking on doors’ of strangers. It is about being courageous – being willing enough to walk through the open doors that the Holy Spirit swings wide-open for us in our daily lives. In so many ways as a professor, I have experienced the joy of seeing people accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, of coming alongside hurting people, of giving my time to truly listen and be with another person, of caring for a fellow human being during hard times.
Life is hard. Life is a test. The entire Bible reminds us vividly that life is hard because we always contend against the powers of darkness. For instance, my namesake Deborah the Judge was both a brave battle warrior and a blessed peacemaker. She sang songs praising the Lord under a Palm tree, holding court as the Israelites came to her to mediate disputes. And the Book of Judges records the land had peace for 40 years.
Every day we are in Spiritual Warfare (Ephesians 6:10-20). I always say, “Remember the third party in the room – the Evil One.” But we lose the fight if we fall into the trap of fighting with the world’s sinful way – self centered and self consumed, fearful and angry, dominating or ignoring others. Every day we encounter Evil. Satan comes after us attacking our weak spots, not our sweet spots. The Evil One looks for chinks in your armor – his favorite spot for attack is who and what you love. The Evil trickster loves to hangs out in churches more than dens of iniquity – pulling Christians into trench warfare and ambushing us with guerilla tactics, using subtle tear-you-down, wear-you-out strategies to divide the Body of Christ and church families.
Indeed, Ephesians 6 tells us how to be courageous in spiritual warfare. First, we shouldn’t be like the Roman legions that ruled the world with iron fist intimidation. Instead, we claim the Loving High Ground Advantage with Jesus – the Apostle Paul tells us to be Prayer Warriors and Ambassadors for Christ, putting on the whole Armor of God.
In my market place ministry, I use a police bulletproof vest made of Kevlar to represent our Spiritual Armor, because Kevlar is 10 times stronger than steel and highly protective, yet is lightweight, flexible and comfortable. We need to put on the Belt of Truth, Breastplate of Righteousness, Shield of Faith, the Sword of the Spirit that is the Word of God, the Helmet of Salvation, and keep our feet shod with the Gospel of Peace. We cannot live our lives in fear. When life is uncertain, we must live and walk by faith.”
When I heard my mother’s testimony for the first time I wept. And I realized something that changed my perspective on my life. I remembered as a kid my mother always being tired. And to be honest I resented it. I felt like she was never there in the way I wanted her to be. But hearing her testimony, learning that the doctors had doubted that she would even be able to have children, I came to realize the sacrifice my mother had made to bring me into the world. She had broken her body that I may live. And her testimony reminds me that we conquer by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony. Her testimony reminds me of the testimony of another who reminds us at the Lord’s table that he broke his body for us and he shed his blood. By his authority he washes away all our sin and overcomes every power of darkness. To Paraphrase the Band Big Daddy Weave, when I think about the kindness of Jesus that draws me in and the grace that is greater than all my sin, a fire rises within my heart and then this once doubtful and fearful man becomes courageous.