You Can’t Always Get What You Want, or: But If You Try Sometimes You Just Might Find You Get What You Need, Ooooh Baby Yeah (Luke 5:1-26)

Friends, what do you want more than anything?

When you’re a kid it’s usually pretty easy to answer this question: you want a million dollars, or you want that special girl to like you, or you want to wish for infinite wishes (though everyone agrees that’s against the rules somehow).

But the older you get the harder it gets to answer this question. Why?

Because the more experience we have in life the more we realize, first, that many of the things we think we want would actually be really bad for us, and second, that we don’t really know what we want!

And if you go back and read the original 1001 Nights, you’ll find that the genie-in-the-bottle stories actually capture this conundrum. For instance, the man thinks he wants to be a billionaire, so he wishes for that. But then, as a billionaire, he becomes a target for every robber, every jealous king — and then he lives a miserable, hunted life until he tells the genie, “take the money away, I don’t want it anymore!” What the man failed to realize is that actually he didn’t want a billion dollars; actually he wanted financial security. He didn’t think about it deeply enough: he thought a billion dollars would give him security — instead it resulted in the opposite.

Well, that is the question Luke wants us to ponder today. If Jesus were to turn up in front of you today and offer to grant you your deepest desire, what would it be?

Okay. With that in mind, let’s get started.

So the last time we saw Jesus, he had just told kampung Capernaum, “you can’t keep me here, I’m called to preach to all the towns!” Remember, they thought they knew what they wanted: they thought they wanted a permanent Healing Ministry in their town. But Jesus said, “no. I’m not here to set up Healing Ministries. I’m here to preach.”

So here he is at the beginning of Chapter 5: preaching to a crowd beside the Lake of Gennesaret.

— which is a local name for the Sea of Galilee. The fact that Luke uses “Gennesaret” shows that he actually went there and talked to the locals when he was doing research for this book; it is a mark of this book’s authenticity —

And the beach is so crowded Jesus gets into his friend Simon’s fishing boat so he can use it as a preaching platform.

— remember Simon? He’s the guy in the last chapter who invited Jesus to his house after church, and saw Jesus heal his mother-in-law. Simon lives in Capernaum, so apparently Jesus has circled back through the area on his preaching tour —

Now by this point, Simon has heard Jesus preach a few times. And he has certainly seen Jesus do a bunch of healing miracles. So when Jesus finishes preaching and says, “hey Simon, let’s head out into the deep water and let down the nets. I promise you a big catch,” Simon is only a little bit skeptical.

First he registers a small objection (verse 5), “Master, I’m pretty good at my job, and I’m telling you: the fish were not there last night!” With the unspoken implication that they definitely won’t be there during the day either, because the kind of nets they used back then are visible to the fish during daylight; fish may not be super-smart animals, but they won’t swim into a net they can see. But then Simon remembers that this guy Jesus has already done him a big personal favour by healing his mom-in-law — that’s why he calls Jesus “Master” — so he says, “but sure, why not? I’m happy to do whatever you want.”

Anyway, Simon obeys Jesus…and it almost costs him his business. It’s all right here in verses 6 and 7: nets are breaking, boats are sinking, it’s so much good fortune it almost kills Simon and his business partners!

And as soon as Simon can see his way clear of the chaos, he falls at Jesus’ knees and says, “please leave me alone, Lord! I’m a sinful man!”

— and we’re going to pause here for a second to think about Simon’s reaction. Doesn’t it strike you as strange?

Look at it this way: Simon the fisherman has just made a fortune! Isn’t that what he wants? Isn’t that what most of us want? We would expect him to fall on his knees and say, “Jesus, let’s go into business together!” just like the people of Capernaum did.

Instead he is terrified. He says, “please…go…away…Lord!” (Notice how it’s “Lord” now instead of just “Master”?)

Why is he so freaked out?

Well, we have to understand that this is really a very special miracle. It’s unique. Healers? Exorcists? Meh, there are lots of those in Judea at this time. Sure, Jesus is the best one anyone has ever seen, but still: he is just one of many. But commanding nature? Directing wild animals into a net that they can see and avoid? Nobody else can do that!

In Jewish understanding, nobody can command nature except God.

So does Simon think that Jesus is God? Not yet. But Simon can see that Jesus definitely has God-like power.

But why is that terrifying?

Well, again, we have to remember the Jewish mindset: the only God Simon knows about is Holy beyond comprehension. The only God Simon knows about hates sin. The only God Simon knows about has the power to command nature, and the power of Judgement.

And here Simon finds himself in the presence of a man with those same powers. Jesus can command fish to enter a net in daylight; he can also see Simon’s sins, and call down fire from heaven.

That is why Simon is terrified —

But what does Jesus say (verse 10)? “Don’t be afraid.” “Actually,” Jesus says, “I want you and your friends to work for me now. You’re going to be a catcher of men.”

— and it’s kind of cool that this word “catcher” really means “to capture alive”. This is the word soldiers used to describe capturing a man from the enemy army and holding him for ransom. Which is exactly what Jesus has been doing, isn’t it: capturing people who have been forced to serve as slaves in the dragon’s army! And now Simon is going to be serving God in the same way —

[11] So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

— huh. That is also a strange reaction, isn’t it? A minute ago, Simon was terrified of his sins, terrified of Jesus’ judgement. Then Jesus says, “don’t be afraid!” and Simon is like, “oh. Okay!” And just like that he quits his business and follows!

What just happened here?

Well, what Simon wants has changed. If we had found Simon washing his nets that morning and asked him, “Simon, what do you really want?” he probably would have said, “I’d like to make a small fortune so my family doesn’t have to worry about money anymore.”

But then, when Simon was confronted with the reality of God’s judgement…then he realized what he really wanted: he really did not want to fall under God’s judgement! Every other desire disappeared except one: “please…leave…me, Lord!” Please give me another chance to make things right with God! Please give me another chance to go to the temple in Jerusalem, to sacrifice an animal, and have my sins forgiven!

And Jesus said, “okay! Don’t be afraid!”

And so Simon rushed off to the temple to make his sacrifices —

No, he didn’t, did he! Instead he abandoned his business to follow Jesus. Whaaaat? Doesn’t he care about his sins anymore? Isn’t he worried about judgement?

No. Apparently not. But why not? His sins cannot possibly be forgiven yet: he has not done what God’s Law requires! — 


Let’s go on to the next episode. Maybe Luke will clear things up as we go (verse 12) —

[12] While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy.

— Now, leprosy was a terrible skin disease. By God’s Law lepers were “unclean” — infectious; they had to live in isolation, outside of town; and — this is the most significant thing — according to God’s Law they could not enter the temple in Jerusalem. They could not offer sacrifices for their sins. In other words, they could not be forgiven. Lepers were unclean on the outside and on the inside: infectious on the outside, unforgiven on the inside.

And this man knows it. He is desperate to be clean. We know this because here he is in town to meet Jesus.

And I should explain: entering town was not against God’s Law; but it was against Jewish law. Do you remember how in Capernaum the people waited until sunset to carry their sick to Jesus? Carrying their sick on the Sabbath was not against God’s Law; but it was against Jewish law, which was really the dragon’s distortion of God’s good Law. The people of Capernaum had been lied to: they had been told that if they broke the dragon’s law they would be cursed by God.

This guy has been told the same lie: if you are a leper, don’t go into town, or you’ll be cursed by God and lose any chance at being healed. But this guy doesn’t care. Luke says he is “covered with leprosy”; that means the infection is complete: death is near. In other words this man has nothing left to lose —

So he breaks the dragon’s law; he goes into town; and he falls down on his face in front of Jesus and begs him, “Lord!” — (notice how he skips the “Master” title and goes straight to “Lord”), “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

— now, what, really, does this man want more than anything? Physical healing, physical cleansing? Yes. But what extra benefit comes with the physical cleansing in this case? The chance to go to the temple and be spiritually cleansed: to be forgiven.

Does this man know he is asking for more that mere physical cleansing? Yes. Remember, death is near. And like most people when death draws near, this man is dreading the torment to come.

See, unlike Simon — who was ambushed suddenly by the reality of God’s judgement — this leper has lived for many years under that shadow. He knows exactly what he wants: he wants to be healed…so he can be saved. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Lord, if you are willing, you can give me another chance to stand in God’s presence! If you are willing, you can give me another chance to go to the temple in Jerusalem, to sacrifice an animal, and have my sins forgiven! —

And Jesus grants his request (verse 13): he reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.

Then Jesus says, “Go! Go now! Don’t waste any time! Do what you have been longing to do! Go, make the sacrifices; take the ritual baths required by Moses’ Law; be sprinkled — baptized — by the priests, just like Leviticus chapter 14 commands! Go and worship your God!

“Oh, and do all this as a testimony to them.”

— huh. That is a strange way to end that sentence. The way Jesus said that…it’s almost as if these sacrifices aren’t actually needed anymore for this man’s forgiveness. It’s almost as if they are nothing more now than a testimony, a visible metaphor, a mere…shadow of the reality.

But what gives Jesus the right to suggest that the sacrifices are just for show? What gives Jesus the right to suggest that the man is already clean within as well as without?

It is almost as if Jesus thinks he has the authority to declare a man “forgiven”. And only God can do that!


Let’s go on to the next episode (verse 15) —

[15] 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. [16] But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places — desert places, there’s that word again — and prayed. He continues to take the battle into the dragon’s stronghold.

And then one day, as Jesus is teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law are sitting there.

— but now we’re all wondering: who? Pharisees? Luke’s never mentioned these guys before! Well, the Pharisees were Jewish theologians; they were pastors, experts in God’s Law —

And they have come to evaluate Jesus’ teaching, to make sure he’s not leading the people astray.

— we know this because Luke tells us that they have come from everywhere, even the big-wigs from Jerusalem. That would be like imams from Mecca flying to Malaysia to check out some local ustaz: it’s a big deal! —

So Jesus is in this house teaching, and the Pharisees are there to check him out, and Jesus is healing people left and right, and the place is so packed no one else can get in. And then someone tears a big hole in the roof and lowers a bed down into the living room: a bed with this paralyzed guy lying on it.

— now, let’s pause the story for a moment to ask this question: what, do you think, does this man want more than anything? Healing, right? Surely this man is not concerned about his soul the way the man with leprosy was?

Well, put yourself in this man’s place for a moment. You live in Galilee, days and days of travel from Jerusalem. Unless you have friends who are willing to carry you for days and days, you have not been able to make the sacrifices that God’s Law requires for your forgiveness. You have years of unforgiven sins on your conscience! And add to this the Jewish tradition that paralysis is a special punishment from God for especially bad sins.

Now what do you want more than anything? You may not be near death like the leper was, but death will come for you eventually. And what is going to happen to you then?

But if Jesus heals you, what extra benefit will come with that physical healing? You will have a chance to go to the temple and be spiritually healed: to finally be forgiven.

And if you don’t mind, while we have the story paused, let me point out another, even deeper layer to this scene:

According to God’s Law in the Old Testament, crippled men are forbidden to serve as God’s priests. That’s this guy, lying there on his bed. But remember who else is there? The Pharisees and teachers of the law, some of whom were priests, from Jerusalem, no less!

So we have here, in this freeze-frame, a scene of stark contrasts: the lowest of the sinful low, and the holiest of the holy, in a room with Jesus.

The paralyzed man and his friends, these ones who represent the lowest of the sinful low: they have come to be healed, to have a chance at sacrifice and forgiveness. They have come humbly — but aggressively — to ask Jesus for something.

But the Pharisees and teachers of the law, these ones who represent the holiest of the holy; these ones who ought to understand the reality of God’s judgement more than most: why are they here? For healing? No. They don’t need healing; they’re able-bodied priests, not cripples. Do they want forgiveness? No. These are the kind of guys who keep up with their sacrifices; they are confident that God has nothing against them.

So why are they here? What do they want? Luke has already told us: they want to evaluate Jesus. They want to test him. They have come to judge him.

Which group, do you think, will Jesus respond to?

Let’s press play again and find out —

Verse 20: Jesus looks down at the paralyzed man. And this is where the paralyzed man should say something. He should say, “go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man!” or, “if you are willing, you can make me clean!” But he doesn’t say anything. Maybe he is too weak; maybe he is overwhelmed with fear; maybe he has so little hope he can’t even ask for what he wants.

So Jesus looks up at the man’s friends. And then, Luke tells us, when Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

— now, we absolutely have to pause the story again, because: this is the first time Luke uses the word “faith”. It is going to become a central concept, so we had better begin to understand it now.

What does Luke mean when he uses the word “faith”? In our age, faith is a mushy, mystical, private thing. “You just gotta believe, man!” But that’s not what Luke is talking about. He is talking about faith that can literally be seen with the eyes. Jesus “saw their faith”! That means Jesus literally saw with his eyes how hard these men had worked, how many rules they had broken, just to get their friend into the house. After all, why would these guys go through so much effort and risk if they didn’t believe Jesus had the power to heal?

But then we have to ask, “what is the relationship between faith and forgiveness?” Jesus saw their faith, then he said, “your sins are forgiven.” What’s the connection?

This is the connection: Jesus will not — cannot — forgive those who do not see the need to be forgiven.

Remember Nazareth? Sure, they wanted healing; they wanted signs and wonders, health and wealth and power; but they didn’t want anything more. They thought they were “good enough”, simply because they were related to Jesus. That is the opposite of faith.

And what about these Pharisees, sitting here? They don’t even want healing, much less forgiveness! They’ve done their sacrifices! They’ve bought their fire insurance! They think they’re “good enough” to test Jesus! That is most definitely the opposite of faith.

But when Simon said, “please leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man!” that was faith, and Jesus answered it with forgiveness. When the leper said, “if you are willing, Lord, you can make me clean!” that was faith, and Jesus answered it with forgiveness. When these men cut a big hole in the roof and lowered their friend down in front of everybody, then — even without saying a word! — that was faith, and Jesus answered it with forgiveness.

Faith is when you realize that no one but Jesus can give you what you want, and you will do anything, break any rule, to get his attention.

And here’s something else to notice about this moment, friends: Jesus skips right past the healing, and straight to what the man really wants — to what the man really needs. See, just like a man who wants a billion dollars because really he wants to be secure, this man wants to be healed because really he wants a chance to go to the temple and be forgiven.

So instead of giving the man what he thinks he wants, Jesus gives the man what he really wants.

And I’ve often wondered: what if the story ended there? What if Jesus had said to this man, “Friend, your sins are forgiven!” but never said, “get up and walk”? Would that man still have been carried home rejoicing?

What if Jesus says to me, “Friend, your sins are forgiven!” but chooses not to heal me, my wife, my children, my loved ones who are in distress? Will I still be carried home rejoicing?

But the story doesn’t end here —

Immediately (verse 21) the Pharisees and the teachers of the law think to themselves, “whaaat? Who does this guy think he is: God? Only God has the authority to declare a man “forgiven”!”

But Jesus reads their minds. He says, “dudes, apa hal ah? What’s your problem? [23] Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? [24] But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” He said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.

So the man gets up, takes his mat, and goes straight to the temple to make his sacrifices.

No, he doesn’t, does he. [25] Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God.

— so: why did he go home, and not to the temple? Well, for the same reason Simon gave up everything and followed Jesus: because he knew his sins were already forgiven.

How did he know his sins were already forgiven? Because Jesus really does have the authority to forgive sins.

And how do we know Jesus really does have the authority to forgive sins? Because the paralyzed man got up and walked. See, this is what scientists like to call “empirical evidence”. Faith in Jesus is based on facts, not feelings. The fact that Jesus has the power to heal the man, proves that Jesus has the power to forgive the man. Jesus speaks the words, and his speaking makes it true.

And this is the point Luke has been building toward for two chapters now: Jesus’ miracles are wonderful in themselves — but they actually point to something much, much greater: forgiveness. Does Jesus heal? Yes. Does he cast out demons? Of course. Does he command wild creatures and nature itself? Yes! But all these miracles are nothing more than proof that what Jesus says becomes true.

And what are the most important words Jesus can speak? “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” What is the greatest miracle Jesus can possibly perform? “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” What is the greatest sermon Jesus can ever preach? “Friend, your sins are forgiven!”

This is why Luke keeps emphasizing that Jesus has come to preach; from this point on, Luke will be emphasizing that Jesus has come to preach forgiveness. It is forgiveness that will defeat the dragon. It is forgiveness that sets captives free; casting out demons is simply a shadow of the deeper reality. It is forgiveness that gives sight to the blind; miraculous healings are simply pointers to the greatest miracle of all: forgiveness —

So the man gets up, takes his mat and goes home praising God. And then Luke tells us: [26] Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

— everyone was amazed? Yes; even the Pharisees, apparently. But we are left wondering: what has impressed them more, the miracle? or the reality that God himself has appeared in their midst to take away the sins of the world?

Come back next Sunday, and we’ll find out!

Okay. That was the Word of God, as recorded by Luke. Which means it’s time now to ask the question we ask every week: so? What does this have to do with us?

Well, if you are here today and you aren’t really aware of your sins, if you’re looking at your life and you’re thinking, “I don’t really need forgiveness,” well then I have to let you know that you might be on the wrong side of this story. Jesus will not — cannot — forgive those who do not see the need to be forgiven.

I guess the silver lining in your situation is that if you don’t feel the need for forgiveness you won’t feel the lack of forgiveness. But if ever the moment comes that you do realize you have screwed up beyond recovery, then remember: that is Jesus’ speciality. You can cry out to him at any time.

But if you are here today and you are aware of your sins, if you are longing for forgiveness but you’re worried that Jesus won’t hear you, if you are worried that you don’t have enough faith, or the right kind of faith, or something like that —

Then I have good news for you: that longing for Jesus’ forgiveness is faith. And if you have faith, then Jesus has already seen it. He has already said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven!” So go home today praising God! And continue to join us. Continue to learn, along with the rest of us, what that forgiveness means for your life.

Now, to those of us who have been Christians for a while, who are a little more mature in the faith: what does God have to say to us?

Well, first: keep your priorities straight. Your faith in Jesus’ forgiveness is not based on miracles he does today; it is based on a miracle he performed two thousand years ago when he made a paralyzed man walk. Mature Christians do not demand that Jesus prove himself again and again by giving them every little thing they think they want. Remember, he has already performed the greatest possible miracle for you! To complain when he does not answer every prayer as you expect is like a boy who gets a brand new Mercedes from his Father, and then says, “thanks, dad, but I won’t really believe you love me unless you also give me a skateboard!”

Second: never forget to preach Jesus’ sermon to one another: “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” This phrase is what sets your Christian faith apart from all other religions; this phrase is what ought to set your Christian community apart from all other religious communities. You are the forgiven ones! so you are called to be the forgiving ones.

Of course Luke is going to have a lot more to say about this, especially in two weeks, when we get to Chapter 6. But in the meantime: let us remember to forgive those who sin against us.


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