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Worship Guide

One consequence of the human condition is that we are all in need of healing. Things are broken in our lives, and at almost any given moment, we are either consciously or subconsciously looking for a way to improve that. There are many options to which we can turn — but only one option that can deliver. Do you want to be healed? If the answer is yes, watch this sermon as we consider how the tiniest bit of faith in the true source of healing is all it takes.

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    Back in 2007, the philosopher Charles Taylor wrote a book titled “A Secular Age.” What do we mean by secular? Most people define it as a space or a point of view that is neutral or non-religious. We might speak of a secular school or a secular government or perhaps a secular song, where religion apparently plays no role.

    But Taylor defined the secular in a slightly different way. He defined it in terms of our lived experience. He poses the question, “What does it feel like to live in a secular age?” He observes that in the modern world in which we live, religious faith has not disappeared. Look around: we're evidence of that. Religious faith has not disappeared, and yet it has been surrounded by a growing number of alternative options for belief and meaning. He calls this the “Nova Effect.” You can imagine the sudden emergence of a bundle of new stars. He says the modern world has produced an ever expanding explosion of alternative options for belief and meaning, and therefore, what does it feel like to live in a secular age? Religious faith is still possible, but it is, perhaps, more difficult to sustain because there are all these other competing ideas and ideologies and ways of life.

    You might say, so what? Who cares? What difference does this make? Here's the practical payoff. This is why this matters. This way of thinking about things explains why, if you were to turn to a friend and say that you are a Christian, they might respond by simply shrugging their shoulders. Who cares? Imagine, for example, that you told a friend that you believe that there is a good Creator God who made this world and everything in it for us to enjoy — everything we have, everything we are is a gift of His grace. He's given us life and breath, and he's designed us so that we might be able to think and reflect and plan and prepare and will and desire and give and love. He made us in such a way that we would only find true lasting happiness, meaning, purpose in life in him. He's the one around which our lives are meant to revolve. There is no other way to find our true authentic self. And your friend responds by saying, “Good for you. Whatever works for you. You do you.”

    Increasingly, I think, among younger people, when you talk about religious faith, they may not be offended by Christianity. They're just not all that interested in it, and the reason is because there are so many other ways of being human. They don't believe that when you talk about Christian faith that it impinges upon them in any way. So you talk about your faith, and they respond by saying, “Jesus is your thing. I have to find my own thing, and maybe my thing is jazz or technology or preserving the environment or fashion. You have to do your own thing.” So in that context, Christian faith simply is presented as one alternative option among many equally valid life choices.

    Let me add an additional wrinkle. I see this starting to happen among the friends of my kids, for example. The deeper we move into a secular age, the more Christianity also becomes an object of curiosity. It may become foreign and strange in a way that it hadn't been in decades past, especially when we discover that all those other options that we have pursued don't seem to be able to provide us with the kind of life that we thought they would provide. Against that backdrop, we may begin to wonder, “Perhaps there is something to this whole Christian thing after all.” And in that context, we might find that Jesus is strangely compelling and attractive. For that reason, what I'd like us to do over the next several months is engage in a new series in which we take a fresh look at Jesus — a fresh look at the strangely compelling and attractive person of Jesus — through the eyes of the people who met him. I'd like us to begin today by looking at an unnamed man in John 5. This is a rather provocative passage, so as we explore this encounter with Jesus, I'd like to do so under three headings. Let's consider 1) the provocative question, 2) the provocative word, and 3) the provocative controversy.

    1After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

    2Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. 3In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 7The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” 8Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” 9And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

    Now that day was the Sabbath. 10So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” 11But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” 12They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” 13Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” 15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. 16And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

    The Provocative Question

    In my introduction, I mentioned that many people pursue alternative options to faith today. That was true in the ancient world as well. This passage gives us a striking example of that. The Pool of Bethesda was located in Jerusalem just north of the Temple Mount area, and people from both a Jewish as well as a pagan background considered it to be a place of healing. At one point it was even dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine whose symbol was a snake entwined around a staff. You've probably seen that symbol on ambulances and the like. 

    The basic idea at the Pool of Bethesda was that from time to time the water would bubble up. It would be stirred. People believed that the first person into the water after the water was stirred would be healed of all of their infirmities. Some people even thought that an angel stirred the water and caused the disturbance. You may notice that there's no verse 4 in our passage, and the reason for that is because some ancient copies of the Gospel of John included an extra verse that described this little detail that people believed that an angel stirred the water, and the first one in once it was stirred up would be healed. But that verse was not found in the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John, and that's why it’s not printed here in our modern Bibles.

    You may also be interested to know that critics in the past doubted whether or not this Pool of Bethesda ever existed at all. But archaeologists actually found it in 1876, just as it's described here. You can see it for yourself in Jerusalem today. This pool was surrounded on all four sides by a roofed colonnade. And then there was a fifth colonnade that divided two parts of the pool in half. They even found a faded fresco of an angel troubling the waters. We know that back then there was a subterranean stream that ran underneath that Pool of Bethesda, and that's what caused the water to bubble up from time to time. There's actually a subterranean stream that runs beneath this sanctuary, which is why, especially when it rains during a particularly big storm, we have to deal with our own Pool of Bethesda in the basement. But that's another story.

    Obviously, this shrine was not very successful. It failed to deliver what it promised, because John tells us that there were multitudes of people who gathered around this pool, suffering from all different kinds of infirmities, including those who were blind, lame, and paralyzed. Obviously, the pool was rather ineffective because it only gathered more and more people but didn't seem to send more and more away healed.

    And yet, out of all the many people that are there beside the pool, Jesus singles out one unnamed man in particular. He had been an invalid for 38 years. The duration of that ailment would have only compounded his sense of suffering. Thirty-eight years is a long time. Many of you have not even lived 38 years yet. Do you know where you were 38 years ago? Do you know where you were in 1986? I know where I was. I was eight years old, living in Chicago, watching Tom Cruise in “Top Gun,” and cheering for the Chicago Bears who just beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. Thirty-eight years is a long time.

    Jesus notices something that is not just true of this man but of all of us. Speaking for myself, I can say whether you identify as a Christian or not, all of us from time to time turn to some kind of false strategy, false approach, false hope, false mechanism, false help, false tool to try to improve our lives. We're relying on some alternative option that we believe will improve our way of life or provide us with some kind of coping mechanism. It'll give us a sense of identity — we’ll know who we are — or a sense of belonging. Or perhaps we believe that it will provide us with that sense of significance or security that we're ultimately looking for in life. We think that this alternative approach, strategy, help is going to solve all of our problems, provide us with meaning or purpose, or help us feel better about ourselves. But like this pool, all those alternative approaches end up being spasmodic and inconsistent at best, or perhaps nothing more than an idle dream. We realize that perhaps it is just a legend, a superstition, or maybe, like that pool, just a cruel joke.

    But Jesus sees that in this man and in all of us, and therefore he asks the provocative question, “Do you want to be healed? Do you want to get better?” On the one hand, we might think to ourselves, “What kind of a question is that? Of course this man wants to get healed. What else would he want? Why is he there? That's why he's there. Of course he wants to be healed.” But on the other hand, John tells us that Jesus perceives that this man had been there a long time. And Jesus knows the human heart. Jesus understands that it's very easy for physical weakness or for mental depression or for helpless despair to take over our lives. Jesus knew that it's very likely that this man didn't want to be healed — that he didn't want to get better — because he had gotten accustomed to the way things were. Perhaps he'd gotten used to it. Or maybe he'd given up all hope. The paralysis of his body might have spread and turned into a paralysis of the soul. And he felt stuck. Have you ever felt stuck right where you are?

    This is the question that Jesus wants to ask all of us. Do you want to be healed? Do you want to get better? And you might say, “That's a stupid question. Yes, of course I want to be healed. I want to get better.” But do you? It's not a stupid question. Stop and think about it. Do you really want to change? Do you want to be different? Do I want to be different? Do we want to do whatever it takes? Sometimes we're comfortable with the status quo. Or sometimes we're cynical about whether or not real change is possible. Maybe you're afraid of what it would actually be like to be set free from past patterns of thought and behavior. Then what are you supposed to do? You may have lost any and all desire, hope, or expectation that things could ever be different in your life. That is why Jesus asks the provocative question, “Do you want to be healed?” What do you really want? Do you want to be different? Do you want to be changed?

    The Provocative Word

    That provocative question leads to Jesus' provocative word. I want you to notice how little this man gives Jesus to go off of. He's not looking for Jesus. He's not looking to be found by Jesus. Even after it's all over, he has no idea who Jesus is. He doesn't even know his name. When people ask him about the person who's healed him, he throws Jesus under the bus. When Jesus asked the question, “Do you want to be healed?” The best he can do is offer this feeble excuse: “I have no one. I have no human being who can pick me up and put me in the pool when the water is stirred, and somebody else always gets there first.” That's all he says. He doesn't express any faith. Contrast this with the blind man in Mark 10 named Bartimaeus. Here is Jesus coming down the road, and he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

    That's not this man. This man basically says, “I've been giving this pool a shot for a long time, but nothing seems to be working.” That is enough for Jesus. How about that? That is enough for Jesus. That's all it takes. All you have to do is ache in the direction of Jesus, and that is sufficient for him. That's all it takes, and then he issues his provocative word, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” That's how faith often starts. It's not necessarily deep or sophisticated or theological or even all that biblical. That's how faith starts. That's why Jesus said that just the tiniest little bit of faith is sufficient. Your faith can be as tiny as a little mustard seed, and that's enough. You could be like this man and you could say, “I don't know what to do. Everything else I've tried in life has failed. I've got nothing,” and Jesus says, “That's enough for me. Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” Do you realize how much he loves you, how much he cares for you, how much he wants to help you? Just the tiniest little bit of faith is sufficient — even if that means all you do is ache in Jesus' direction.

    I've witnessed this firsthand. I've had the privilege of praying with people when they've turned to Jesus in faith for the very first time. Do you know what their words and their prayers sound like at the very beginning? Their words are so simple and yet straight from the heart. Do you know what it sounds like? It sounds like this: “I love you. I'm sorry. Thank you. Please help.” That's it. And that's enough. You might say, “Was that real faith?” Absolutely. You better believe it. That faith will grow. It'll develop. It'll expand. But that's where it starts, because all the elements of prayer are right there: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Adoration: I love you. Confession: I'm sorry. Thanksgiving: Thank you. Supplication: Please help. That's enough for his provocative, transformative word to come into your life.

    I want you to notice something else. This pool was not only a Jewish site but also a pagan shrine. We may be familiar with the idea that Jesus fulfills the hopes and the expectations of the Jewish world, but what this passage shows us is that Jesus also fulfills the dreams and the longings of our secular world too. The Pool of Bethesda represents everything that we look to outside of Jesus or alongside of Jesus to try to make our life go well. Notice the pool isn't all that bad. There's nothing all that terrible about the pool. From the outside looking in, you would say that it's harmless. And yet the problem is that it just couldn't do what it promised. It just failed to deliver. It couldn't bring the healing that it promised.

    We're all in the same position. We may not be lounging around the Pool of Bethesda, but all of us to one degree or another, are looking to something other than Jesus to help us deal with our lives. But Jesus is the only one who can fulfill that desire for whatever it really is. Whatever it is that we're looking for, he's the answer. If you're looking for approval, for recognition, for success, for acceptance, for belonging, for forgiveness, for understanding, for love, for healing, you find it in him. He can do it all with a word. That's all it takes. He says it, and it's done. “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” There is nothing you need that you will not find in his simple, straightforward, authoritative word.

    The Provocative Controversy

    Jesus’ provocative word sparks a provocative controversy. It's all about the Sabbath. I have to say, I've read this passage for many years, and I’ve never understood what was going on here. I thought to myself, “What is the big deal about the Sabbath?” Until I realized what Jesus was doing. For centuries God's people celebrated God's work of creation by resting from work on the seventh day. Over the years, people developed their own rules in terms of what counted as work. Healing someone was not necessarily considered work, but telling someone to get up and carry their bed was because you weren't allowed to carry anything on the Sabbath.

    Have you noticed that Jesus had a rather curious habit of deliberately doing things on the Sabbath which he knew people could interpret as work and which people often did interpret as a direct violation of the Sabbath — one of the Ten Commandments. Why did Jesus do that? This is a classic example of that. This man had been crippled — he’d been paralyzed — for 38 years. One more day wasn't going to hurt him. This is not a life-threatening condition. He could have muddled through the next couple of days. Why didn't Jesus just put this off until Monday morning? The answer is because he did this on purpose in order to make a point. What was the point that Jesus was trying to make?

    As the gospel writer John makes clear, these deliberate actions on the part of Jesus were all intended to be signs. Signs of what? Signs that Jesus was ushering in a new creation. God's people were supposed to rest on the seventh day to celebrate God's work of the old creation. But that day of rest was always pointing beyond itself to something greater, which the author of Hebrews makes clear to us. Hebrews 4:9 says, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” That Sabbath was pointing beyond itself to something greater. “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” What is that greater Sabbath? We will celebrate the real rest, the true rest, the ultimate rest when God completes the work of the new creation. That's why Jesus concludes this section by saying, “My father is working until now, and I am working.”

    If Jesus is working now to bring about the new creation, and therefore he can't rest until it's done, what stands in the way? What's standing in the way of the new creation moving forward? In a word, the answer is “sin.” That's why Jesus, when he finds this man again in the temple in verse 14, says, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” We have to be careful here. On the one hand, Jesus implies that somehow this man's condition was related to, connected to his sin in a way that perhaps only Jesus could know. But that's not always the case, because four chapters after this in John 9, Jesus meets a man who is born blind. Jesus there insists that this man's condition is not the result of anyone's sin. And therefore, Jesus makes it clear that we cannot draw a direct one-to-one correspondence between sin and suffering. Sometimes we suffer and we have no one else to blame. It is the result of our own fault. But sometimes we suffer even though we haven't done anything wrong. There is a mystery in the relationship between sin and suffering. I can tell you that as a pastor, I have met many suffering saints, and I've also met many cheerful, happy-go-lucky sinners. There's a mystery in the relationship between sin and suffering.

    Either way, the point is that Jesus is working. Jesus is on a mission. Jesus will not rest until he eradicates both sin and suffering — something that the Pool of Bethesda could never do. Perhaps that is why the very last thing that Jesus says in the Gospel of John is, “It is finished.” It's not until Jesus goes to the cross — it's not till he dies in our place as our substitute in order to take away the sins of the world — that his work is finished. Then we can enter into that true rest, the ultimate rest that he alone provides. Perhaps that is why Jesus speaks this provocative word to the man beside the pool, and he says, “Get up!” which is the same word in Greek that is used throughout the New Testament to describe the resurrection.

    Jesus is ushering in the new creation. We can read about the days of the old creation in the Book of Genesis. In the Gospel of John, we read about the days, the signs of the new creation. Jesus is not just marshaling or controlling the powers at work in this world to try to make this life a little bit more manageable. That would be the secular approach: to rely on what this world alone has to offer. No, Jesus is ushering in the new creation, which means that he's bringing the life of God, the power of God, the love of God to bear on the fallen world in which we live in order to make all things new. He's ushering in the new creation. And as then, so now, not everyone likes it. It sparks a controversy. So the question is: How will we respond?

    Interestingly, this passage ends in a little bit of a cliffhanger. We don't really know what becomes of this man. We don't know how he responds. We don't know what he does. We can't know how he ultimately responds to Jesus. All we can know is about ourselves. So how will you respond to Jesus and his provocative word?

    If you're not yet a Christian, the question I want to ask you is: What is your Pool of Bethesda? What's that approach, that strategy, that tool, that help, that scheme, that hope that you are trusting in, relying on more than Jesus’ word? Do you see that whatever you're hoping to find in that other pool can be more fully and satisfactorily found in Jesus. He fulfills not only the hopes and expectations of the Jewish world; he fulfills the dreams and the longings of our secular world, too. He's the real answer. He is the true source of which all those other lesser pools are just a mere shadow.

    If you are a Christian, you still may be relying on some of those alternative options, too. So the question is: Do you want to be healed? Do you really? Do you want to change? Do you want to be different? Do you want to get better? Or would you prefer to remain the same? The point is that there is no human being who can pick you up and put you into that pool. Only Jesus can do what you're hoping to find. There is no one else, and you can't do it yourself. Do you want to be healed? Do you want to be changed? Do you want to be different? You have to let him do it.

    C.S. Lewis illustrated this idea in his book “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” At one point the character named Eustace joins Lucy and Edmund in the Land of Narnia, and he's not a very likable person. He's selfish. He's constantly whining and complaining, but one day he discovers a dragon's lair filled with treasure. In his selfish greed, he starts to think about how he can transport that treasure without anybody else knowing about it. Then he falls asleep on top of that dragon's hoard, and when he wakes up, he realizes that he has become a dragon himself. That reveals a truth of the human condition, that we become whatever it is that we most love. If we love Jesus, we become progressively more and more like him. But if we love something else, someone else, then we will become like whatever it is we most love. He wakes up to discover that he's been transformed into a dragon. He's miserable and lonely, and he tries to scratch off these dragon scales, but it doesn't work. He manages to slip off one layer of dragon skin only to discover another one underneath. He removes two more layers, but it's still not enough. Then Aslan the lion, the Christ figure, appears and tells him, “You have to let me do it.” Eustace was terrified of his claws, but he lay flat on his back to allow Aslan to do it. Then he took one claw and dug it straight into his chest. And that first tear was so painful, Eustace felt like he was piercing his heart. The only reason why he could bear it is because he was so relieved to have that dragon skin removed. As Aslan peels it off and throws it into the grass, he sees that the skin is so much darker, so much thicker than the thin layers that he'd removed previously. And now his body is so tender; he doesn't have anything to protect him. With his claws, Aslan picks him up, and you know what he does? He throws him in a pool of water. At first the water stings, but then it turns to delight, because as he's splashing around the water, he realizes that he has been transformed, once again, into a boy. Aslan takes him out of the water and dresses him in new clothes. But the only way it works is if you let him do it.

    Do you want to be healed? Do you want to be changed? Do you want to be different? We have to let him do it. He is the only one who can dig deep enough right to the heart in order to transform us into a new creation and to throw off the scales of our old self. Do you want to be healed? If so, come to this table where Jesus has promised to meet us.

    Let me pray for us.

    Father, we pray that you would help us to hear this provocative question: “Do you want to be healed?” Help us to respond with even the tiniest inkling of faith so that you might usher the new creation in us and issue your provocative word, “Get up.” And then in response, no matter how much of a controversy it might provoke, help us to follow you and join you in your work to bring about the new creation of which our lives, our community, our sacrifice, our service are merely signs of what it is that you have promised to bring about. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.