All three of today’s lessons (Isaiah 41:17-29; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 2:1-12) resonate with the same theme: God continually leads his people to recognize new and previously unthinkable ways of expanding his kingdom.
Around the time of the Babylonian Exile (6th century BCE), the Israelite religion shifted from monolatrism to monotheism. Until then, the people of Israel and Judah had always believed that their God—Yahweh—was supreme among many gods (“There are no other gods like you”). Something about the tragedy of complete national destruction helped God’s chosen people realize that their hopes didn’t depend upon the belief that their God was more powerful than any other gods but that their god was the only god. In a mocking tone, Isaiah quotes God as taunting the imagined gods of the other nations, saying, “Set forth your case…bring your proofs…that we may know that you are gods.” But, as the prophet concludes, “Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their molten images are empty wind.” The consequence of this radical change in belief was earth-shaking. Now that Israel believed in the existence of only one God, they were forced to acknowledge that their God was actually the God of all—that everyone and everything belonged to the same loving creator.
In Jesus’ day, the belief in only one God reinforced the religious authorities’ understanding that “[no one] can forgive sins but God alone.” Though it’s easier to remember the paralytic’s dramatic healing, in Mark’s account of the gospel, the first miracle Jesus performs is the forgiveness of the lame man’s sins. Knowing this would ruffle the feathers of the scribes who had gathered to hear him preach, Jesus declared that which no one else on earth could say—that someone’s transgressions had been pardoned and that God’s forgiveness had been granted. “God is one, and there is no other” the authorities rejoined. “You cannot make yourself equal with God.” But Jesus’ two-fold reply—part word, part action—silenced their objections and inspired the crowd to praise God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.” God’s authority to share divine love, forgiveness, and healing had been brought to earth, and, with it, God’s kingdom on earth was growing exponentially.
How far could the kingdom grow? What would its limits be? Writing to an early Christian congregation that was struggling with diversity, Paul declared, “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.” If the reign of God once had boundaries—whether geographic or genetic—Paul was convinced that the blood of God’s son had shattered any barrier or restraint. Not even circumcision—the principal mark of belovedness for God’s chosen people—could segregate the “loved” from the “unloved.”
God’s nature is to reveal himself over and over in new and exciting ways. Although sometimes threatening to the traditions of the day, those divine disclosures always represent expansions of humanity’s understanding of God’s love and inclusion. In each generation, God is asking his people to imagine his reign on earth in broader and more embracing terms. How is God asking us to grow in this age?