Sermon by Bob Smith based on John 5:1-15
Scattered across the world are certain places reputed to be centres of healing, to which people suffering various ailments go on pilgrimage hoping to be cured. The most famous is Lourdes in France. But there are many others, including a Catholic church I once visited in New Caledonia, whose walls are covered with plaques erected by people who claim to have been healed there. But I wonder how many people there are who have hung around such places, hoping to be healed, but never received the blessing they sought.
One of the great stories of the Bible is about a man like that. He’d been crippled from birth and, like many others, would go daily to a pool in Jerusalem called Bethesda where, it was believed, an angel would occasionally make the waters bubble up, bringing healing to the first person able to get into the pool. But he had no-one to help him and so it had never happened for him. Thirty eight years later he was still going there, even though hope had disappeared – that is, until he met Jesus.
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The story of how Jesus healed the crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda is the second in a series of miracles that John’s Gospel records, all of which were meant to be signs of who Jesus is and what he’d come to do. The first thing I want to draw your attention to was the context in which Jesus did this.
He performed this act of healing on the Sabbath – the holy day of the people of Israel. And it wasn’t the only time he did that either, even though nothing was more guaranteed to raise the hostility of the religious authorities.
‘Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy’ was one of the Ten Commandments, and nothing was more sacred to the people of Israel than those commandments. But by this time, the religious leaders had defined and redefined those great principles so many times that when they finally came to be written down they filled sixty volumes of rules and regulations listing all the things you couldn’t do on the Sabbath. Carrying a burden – even something as insignificant as a needle stuck in your clothes – was one of them. So, in their eyes, when Jesus healed this man, not only had he broken the Sabbath law by actually healing somebody, he had also caused the man to break it by telling him to pick his stretcher up walk home.
Now there were few things that angered Jesus as much as religious hypocrisy; and that’s what he thought of those Sabbath regulations. For Jesus, the Ten Commandments were great principles to enrich people’s lives. But the religious elite had turned them into impossible burdens.
It raises the question of whether religion is a blessing or a burden; does it heal people or does it hurt them; does it set them free or does it imprison them? Sadly, it’s often appeared more as a burden; and over the years I’ve seen many people who have been emotionally and spiritually crippled by a version of Christianity that is a cruel caricature of the faith Jesus taught.
It’s the age old battle between a faith based on the eternal love and favour of God. Which brings healing to our lives, and one based on the cold, hard letter of the law that makes life feel like having to push a rock uphill. It’s the conflict between a faith that draws people together, and one that drives people apart; between one that encourages people to open their hearts and minds, and one that keeps them closed. It was the great battle Jesus had to fight with the religious leaders of his day, and it’s been going on ever since.
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One of the most startling things about the story of Jesus healing the lame man was the question he put to him: ‘Do you want to be healed?’ At first glance that seems like asking the obvious. But when you think a little more about it you see the sense in it. The fact is the world is full of people who bemoan their condition but have lost the motivation to do anything about it. I suppose that the man in the story once had been motivated that way. He had heard the stories of people being healed there, and had once believed the message and probably still did. It was just that he had given up hope that it would ever happen to him, and so now he just hung around that place because he had no other life to go to.
And there are many of us are like him. We once had such high hopes for what God would do in our lives, and may have even seen those hopes realised in others. But it never quite happened for us, and little by little hope faded to be replaced by resignation, which eventually became apathy. But we still hang around because there’s nowhere else to go – nowhere that really offers us what we once hoped for.
The deeper question Jesus still asks us is, ‘Do you really want to be changed?’ If we are content to stay as we are — no matter how miserable that may be — there can be no change, no possibility of healing for us. It is almost as if Jesus was saying to that man: ‘If you are really serious about this, then you and I will do this thing together!’
The gospel teaches us that if God is to touch our lives we have to recognise our utter helplessness apart from him. But then we must realize it is also true that miracles can and do happen when our will cooperates with God’s power to make them possible.
But even God himself can do little for us if we are not willing to be part of the process. Carl Sandburg summed our dilemma up well when he said: ‘There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud.’ A part of me wants to fly like an eagle, but I get too accustomed to wallowing in the mud. We all have our dreams and visions, but then as we get older; the hard realities of life convince us to settle for less — or to forget them altogether, until our dreams fade away. Fortunately for the man in the story, Jesus got to him before that spark finally died.
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It’s important to note the way Jesus brought healing to that man at the Pool of Bethesda. He didn’t get into argument about whether it really was an angel that stirred up the water of the pool or whether it was just a natural phenomenon. He didn’t even mention angels and miracle-working pools, he just turned to the man who, despite his faded hopes and even though he hadn’t said it in so many words, still really did want to be healed; and said ‘Get up off your stretcher, pick it up and carry it home.’
It was almost an anti-climax. The man probably expected Jesus to carry him over to the water’s edge ready to drop him in as soon as it started to bubble. After all, that’s what everybody said was supposed to happen. Instead, Jesus spoke to the power of faith that had been lying dormant in the man and simply told him to get up and stand on his own two feet.
It reminds us that there are two things that combine to bring God’s blessing in our lives. The first is God’s grace – which means God’s love and desire to bless us. The second is our faith – our willingness to believe it and do what God wants us to do. And that is the critical thing we so often miss when we are looking for help from God. There is always something God tells us to do, too. Whether that man suddenly felt something happen when Jesus told him get up, we don’t know. What we do know is that those words must have spoken to whatever faith was still there, and when he acted on it, strength came into his withered limbs and he began to walk.
The point I want to make is this: for those of us who still nurture in our hearts the secret hope that one day we too will be healed of whatever it is –physical, emotional or spiritual – that cripples us, but have become resigned to the likelihood that it will never happen, we have to stop bemoaning our condition, and listen to Jesus speaking to our hearts and asking: ‘Do you really want to be healed?’
And if our answer is “Yes’, then we need to listen even more closely to what his still small voice is saying about what we have to do about it. For some of us it may be to discipline ourselves to adopt a healthier lifestyle; for others it may be to get the sort of professional help we need to deal with our addictions or depressions. For others it may be to discipline ourselves to keep away from the things that feed our weaknesses. Whatever that word is, only we can hear it, and hear it we will when we honestly listen to what our own hearts tell us.
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The world is full of people like the crippled man Jesus met at the Pool of Bethesda – people longing for a touch from God, which seems never to come. Perhaps you are one of them.
Often the things we hoped would bring it have proved to be disappointments; sometimes because what they promise is little more than superstition and sometimes because they have perverted the boundless love of God into something cold, legalistic and burdensome. But as often as not it’s because we ourselves have failed to listen to what God, in our own innermost being, is telling us to do.
But Jesus still comes to us, as He did to that crippled man, and says, ‘Do you really want to be healed?’ And if the spark of hope still flickers, He will reveal to us what we are to do. All that is left, then, is for us to do it, and to discover for ourselves that, by his grace, we can stand tall too.