Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Faith for Life - Hope for the Whole Person

Preached on Sunday, February 5, 2017

Scripture readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; John 5:1-18

Whenever I read this story about the man healed by Jesus, at the pool of Bethesda, I don’t know what to think. I can’t help asking, “What, on earth, is wrong with this guy?”
Along Lower Crab Creek, Desert Aire/Mattawa WA
January 2017
Of course, there was something physically wrong with him for a long time. John, the author of the gospel, doesn’t tell us exactly what that was. In Greek, John tells us that he was “dried up” and that would suggest that he was withered or atrophied, but we don’t know why. He seems to imply that he was barely mobile, and perhaps couldn’t walk at all.
We don’t know what caused this. The thirty-eight years of his disability probably meant that he had been an invalid for most, if not all, of his life.
Some people think that he had only himself to blame for this. They think that he had done something wrong and that this had happened to him as a result.
Here’s the reason why they think this. It’s because, later, in the Temple, when Jesus found him for a second time, Jesus said a strange thing. Jesus gave him a warning. Jesus said, “See! You are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” (5:14)
Some people think that Jesus was saying that the man’s long suffering was also because of sin, but Jesus may not have meant that at all. Jesus was saying that the man was currently sinning, perhaps even as Jesus was there speaking to him.
Maybe it wasn’t an old danger, but a present one. The sin that Jesus warned him against may have been whispering in his ear ever since his healing.
There was something going on with him. There was something wrong with him.  I believe Jesus was saying that there are worse things in life than to be an invalid, or even to be paralyzed, for thirty-eight years.
Jesus was able to see what was going on in people’s hearts. (John 2:25) He knew what was going on inside of them, just as he still does with each one of us. Jesus warned the healed man because of something in the man’s present, not only in his past.
Yet, maybe there was something wrong with the man that had been going on for a long time: not in the past before his illness but maybe there was something wrong in his heart during that long, long time of suffering.
The clue to this may be in Jesus’ very first words to the man: “Do you want to get well?” We may see what was wrong in the man’s own answer, when that man didn’t answer Jesus with a “yes”. He didn’t say that he wanted to get well.
There are a couple of things we need to know about the world of the man at Bethesda Pool. One fact is that he had to be a beggar who made a living from his suffering. Passers-by would give him money in order to participate in the mercy of God, and to be partners of compassion with God. He probably did very well with this, because he showed a talent for tugging at the heart-strings of those who came to him.
He tried to do this with Jesus, not so much to get well as to make a decent living. And, next to the Jewish Temple, which was practically right next door, he had one of the best locations for the begging business in the world. The Jewish Temple may have been the number one best location, but the pools of Bethesda had to come in second.
It was a spiritual landmark. Bethesda was a phenomenon. Something would happen with the water. The water in the twin pools would suddenly move in a strange way and the first person in would be healed. Some people said that an angel moved the water and gave it miraculous power. When the Romans destroyed the Jewish city of Jerusalem and the Temple, in 70 AD, and then rebuilt it as a pagan city about fifty years later, they restored the pools and they built a temple beside them dedicated to the pagan god Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing. Asclepius was the same god who had the winged staff with the snakes that you see as a symbol for doctors and medicine today. Even in the days of Jesus, the pools of Bethesda were a holy tourist trap.
If Jesus healed the man, the man would lose his means of making a living and he would have no skills for supporting himself. He would have to start from scratch at the age of at least thirty-eight.
What would he do? Would anyone with such a history dare to truly desire to get well? If you wondered what might be wrong with the man, and the reason why he didn’t say that he wanted to get well; it might have its roots in that. Even after he was healed, his healing may not have been what he wanted most in life.
His answer to Jesus’ direct question was to avoid giving a direct answer. “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” (5:7)
For one thing, there had to be someone who was available to carry him to his reserved spot at the pools (probably a relative or a family member) and to take him home at the end of the day. That’s how this all worked.
But there was something that sounded like a plea for pity in his voice. He had spent many, many years seeing other people healed, and knowing himself to be passed by. He may have started out wanting to be healed. And yet he found himself being used by his own family. We can only imagine.
As I read the story, I wonder if there was something more there than self-pity. I wonder if there was something much worse going on that could lead to something worse happening to him.
I wonder if his answer to Jesus was the sound-track of his life. I wonder if those words, and more words like them, were constantly running in the background, in his head, all the time, and even when he slept. If that were so, those thoughts would have become something like a poison; something deadly, like anger and judgment, always accusing others, and the world, and himself.
Sometimes I think I have a subtext in my life; of hurt, anger and judgement. My temptation, my sin, is to play that subtext over and over, and I rob myself of life by doing that. Jesus gives me life, every day, abundant and free, and I let the opposite of Jesus drip, and drip, and drip into it. It’s something like the voice of that man by the pool.
I pray about this. I pray to the King Jesus who is so much the king that he refuses to limit himself and what he has to give. Jesus doesn’t hold himself back from people like me. He gladly gives us life. He dies to do this and, even though there is this vein of sin that kills him on the cross, Jesus is the king who is so much stronger than what I have in myself that he can rise from the dead and keep on giving and not be defeated. I need the life from Jesus that is stronger than my sin. I need the life from Jesus that will not let itself be defeated. In this strange healing, we have read the story of this determined King Jesus.
Simply having read the story we have been told something that I haven’t said anything about yet. That is, the man who was healed had no idea who Jesus was. The man who was healed didn’t know that he was in the presence of a healer when Jesus said, “Pick up your mat and walk.” He couldn’t have had faith in Jesus, because he didn’t know who Jesus was. Even when he knew, he didn’t understand.
There is one other person like this man in the Gospel of John. In the ninth chapter, John tells us about the time when Jesus healed the man who was born blind. (John 9) The blind man didn’t know who Jesus was, either.
All the blind man knew was that someone put mud on his eyes and told him where to go in order to wash it off and, when he washed the mud off his eyes, he was healed. Jesus also went looking for him, and told him who he was, and the formerly blind man bowed and worshiped Jesus. (John 9:38)
When the lame man who was healed at the pool was found by Jesus, Jesus warned him that he was in terrible danger from a sin that lurked in him. He responded by going away from Jesus and reporting him to the authorities.
John tells us, in the twentieth chapter of his gospel, about his purpose in writing it. “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)
Christ means king in the sense of a very different kind of king than one who is a head of state. The Christ is the king of the kingdom of God. Jesus rules a kingdom that he creates by dying for the sin of the world, so that those who believe in him become truly alive in a way that no one who belongs, heart and soul, to this world is alive.
The Prophet Isaiah, pictures the kingdom of God as a place where all harms are healed. All barrenness is replaced by fruitfulness. “The eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”(Isaiah 35:5-6)
It’s a new world. The Bible calls it a new heaven and earth. This world, with its rebellion, and darkness, and selfishness, and violence, and injustice, and hatred, and victimization (and all of that) is a world that God plans to replace. And God wants to make us into people who belong, heart and soul, to that new world, beginning as soon as we begin to know him, and trust him, and follow him. Jesus is the king of this new life, and Jesus, dying on the cross and rising from the dead, is the way to this new life.
The man born blind was healed when a king he didn’t know came to him in the darkness and gave him sight and light. He got in trouble because of Jesus healing him but, being found by Jesus, and learning who Jesus is, gave him joy and life.
The man who was an invalid for almost forty years was given strength and motion when a king he didn’t know came to his place of begging and ordered him to his feet. His life changed forever.
Like the blind man, he also got in trouble because of Jesus healing him. He was judged and sort of put on probation (probably) and, being found by Jesus, and knowing Jesus as his healer and the giver of a new life, and being warned by Jesus of the dangers of not entering into that life, he chose to go to the judges who condemned him so that he could get off the hook.
He sided with the judgers and the condemners of healing, instead of siding with the giver of healing and life. He sided with judging, instead of siding with compassion. He went to the rule keepers, instead of following the grace giver. He went away from Jesus, instead of worshiping him, or following him. He knew Jesus as his healer, but not as his Lord and Savior.
Jesus gave to both men a grace so perfect and complete that they didn’t have to know anything at all. They didn’t even know enough to have the thing we call faith. It was enough for the king to be faithful to them, and to keep faith with them, even when they couldn’t meet whatever requirements you would think to be necessary for entering God’s kingdom.
The man at the pool is a warning to us. There is a temptation that exists for those who receive wonderful gifts from Jesus.
The temptation is to not enter into the spirit of the gift; to not enter into that grace. The temptation is to choose the old world left behind. The temptation is to go back to the old life, and the old ways, and the old rules. The invalid chose to live a life where he could win points and enjoy a status that he could get by joining the angry, and by joining the judgers.
But I don’t want to judge him. I only want to be warned by him. I see that Jesus is willing to bless anyone, absolutely anyone, whatever that person may deserve. Jesus even loves those who will never love him back.
I want to love Jesus back. I want to be thankful for his grace. I want to be thankful for a life I cannot earn or deserve.  Jesus has died for me, and for the whole world, in order to give to us all a love that is infinitely strong. As the king of that life, Jesus may warn me but never condemn me.
This world is ruled by judgers and condemners who do enormous evil. Anger and hatred are symptoms of this judging and condemning world, which is opposed to the kingdom of God as we see it in Jesus.
The world, as we know it, is a scary place and, even though we know the love and grace of Jesus, we are tempted to revert. We are tempted to go back into that angry, and judging, and condemning world; and we are tempted to live by its rules, even though the power of Jesus offers to set us free and give us that new life.

Jesus is God as the seeker of the lost, the wholeness giver, the healer. Jesus is God as the judge who turns judging upside down, and turns the judgers into the judged. Jesus is God blowing our minds by giving grace to the undeserving, and calling us to blow other people’s minds because we do the very same thing. This is what it means to have life in his name, and to share it with the whole world. 

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