Sermon -- May 5th, 2013. John 5:1-15. A Poolside Proclamation.
1 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem – for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 Now there is, in Jerusalem, near the Sheep Gate, a pool, which, in Aramaic, is called Bethesda,and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there, and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” (N.I.V.)
In John, chapter 5, we encounter a man who had been disabled for a very long time. In our text this morning, we encounter Jesus, and we also hear from the Jewish religious leaders. Our text has much to say about human nature and we find some special insights about Jesus as well. I pray that God would richly bless our consideration of His Holy Word this day!
Experience teaches that, most of the time, people act in predictable ways. They seek answers to their problems in predictable ways as well. But, once in a while, God has a surprise for people. Once in a while, God intervenes, in a very special way. God’s grace comes in different forms. And, as we will see again this morning, God’s grace changes lives. Our text this morning is brings us the story of a miracle. And it also brings us an account of an ongoing conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. We begin with the miracle.
You know, sometimes change happens because we’re actively searching for it. At other times, however, change happens in a serendipitous fashion – unexpectedly, at just the right time, and with great benefits. The change we need may be physical. Or it may be spiritual – sins forgiven and the promise of eternal life. Sometimes, as it was with the man in our text this morning, it’s both. In the 5th chapter of John’s gospel, we hear about a pool. The name of the pool is Bethesda. The name suggests a "place of outpouring" or a "house of kindness, grace and mercy." The pool of Bethesda is an interesting place. For the longest time, scholars believed that this pool had never existed, because archaeologists hadn’t found any sign of it. But then, in the nineteenth century, an archaeologist discovered a pool, which he thought was the one described in John chapter five. Further excavations, in 1964, confirmed that the pool had been found, and that it was part of a collection of waterworks that included the so-called “upper pool” of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Some scholars believe that this pool was an Asclepicion – in other words, that it was a place where healing was supposed to take place by the power of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. It’s ironic that Asclepius was called “savior” by his followers. So it could very well be that, in the minds of most people of Jesus’ day, this pool wasn’t connected with the God of the Holy Scriptures at all. The pool, however, whatever its background, brought hope to some people. But it also brought disappointment as well. The man mentioned in John chapter 5 had a serious problem. He had been disabled for a very long time – 38 years as a matter of fact. His hope had faded, over time. John’s Gospel records how Jesus had came to this place of false hopes, with His grace and healing. John tells us that, at the time this event took place, there was a Jewish festival going on. Scholars aren’t exactly sure which festival it was. But Jesus went to Jerusalem. And, on the Sabbath day, he went to the pool of Bethesda, walked up to a desperate person, and asked, “Do you want to be healed?”
There’s a very good chance that this individual – with his disability – would have come here until his dying day. It’s very likely that, if Jesus hadn’t intervened, nothing would have changed for this man. We need to remember that this individuals wasn’t searching for Jesus. It seems that Jesus was the furthest thing from his mind. Truth be told, the Lord was searching for him. There’s a basic spiritual truth here. On our own, by our own reason or strength, we don’t seek the Lord. As a matter of fact, we avoid Him. On our own, His Word and His ways seem to be foolishness to us and we cannot understand them.
This man’s focus was on the pool, rather than on Jesus, the Messiah. Our text this morning describes a crowd of down and out people, who had gathered by the pool. It was said that if you managed to get into the water at just the right moment, you would receive a healing. These people put their faith in the so-called healing waters. Jesus suddenly stepped into this forlorn community and asked one individual if he would like to be healed. We’re not sure why Jesus choose this particular person. Perhaps he had been there the longest. We just don’t know. At end of the day, however wholeness wasn’t to be found in this pool, despite the commonly-held belief. At the end of the day, wholeness and healing was found in Christ and in Him alone.
"Sir,” the man said to Jesus, “There’s never anyone to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up. Someone else always gets there first!” It seems that this man had no friends. He was sick. He was alone. And it had been that way for a very long time. Jesus spoke to the man, simply and firmly.
“Rise, take up your mat and walk," he said.
The man stood to his feet. He reached down and picked up his mat. And he walked away from that place. When he looked around to thank his benefactor, he was gone! You know, there are many people in our world who sit and wait, year after year, waiting for something magical to happen in their lives. They wait, year after year, seeking healing and wholeness, peace, and forgiveness, and hope. But the angel never appears, and the water is never stirred up. Like Asclepius in the ancient world, the false gods of our day always let people down. Promises are made. But they’re never kept. The Scriptures say that all of us, by nature, are powerless when it comes to spiritual things. As the catechism says, in our natural state, that is, before the Lord intervenes in our lives, we are blind, and dead, and enemies of God. But our text this morning reminds us that full provision has been made for our cure, by means of a cross and an empty tomb. Our Lord Jesus cured this man, despite the fact that he didn’t ask for the healing and didn’t know his Healer.
Our text this morning reminds us that, as human beings, our idea of God is often too small, too limited. Instead of looking to God and to His Word for what is need most, people look elsewhere. They look to healing shrines, to healing waters, to false gods. What Christ did for this man he did out of love and grace. He brought the man what he had longed for, for so many years. Christ initiated a relationship with this man and He hoped that the man would see fit to continue on in it. Jesus makes the difference between what we are, as sinful human beings, and what we can be, his forgiven sons and daughters.
Even after his healing, the man didn’t seem to fully understand what had happened to him. He seemed to be without spiritual insight, and he had no faith – at least not at first. Not long afterwards, Jesus re-appeared. He brought the man words of comfort and words of warning. Again, Jesus took the initiative. He reminded the man of his healing and told him that he must "sin no more." Jesus then said that if his sin did not cease, something worse would happen to him. Think about it for a moment. What could be worse than what this man had already been through? What could be worse? Eternal separation from God! Jesus was, in effect, telling this man that he needed more than just a physical healing. He needed to allow Jesus to establish a saving relationship with him. Then, his healing would be complete.
So, there you have it – the account of the man’s healing. But, as I said earlier, that’s only part of what we find in this text. The other part has to do with the conflict that developed between Jesus and the religious authorities. In the midst of the man’s joy and elation, he was approached by a group of stern-looking religious leaders.They questioned him, not about his healing, but about the fact that he was carrying his mat on the Sabbath day. The man said that it wasn’t his fault. He said that he was only doing what he had been told to do.
As the Jewish leaders interpreted the Scriptures, and as they understood the traditions of the elders, this act of carrying a mat on a Sabbath day was forbidden. The conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities arose because the man’s healing had taken place on a Sabbath day. The Jewish religious leaders, not surprisingly, were more interested in the supposed Sabbath infraction than they were in the man’s healing. At the root of these Sabbath prohibitions was the thought that, because God had rested on the seventh day, His people should do the same. The problem, of course, arose in defining what was “work” and what was not. Jesus said that He worked on the Sabbath day because that was what His father had been doing. The way Jesus explained it, God the father continues to do good on the Sabbath Day, and so does His son. Jesus had said, in Matthew chapter 5 verse 17,
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (N.I.V.)
The Pharisees now had further evidence of what they saw as Jesus’ blatant disregard of their Sabbath regulations. What was, to us, an unexpected, pure act of God’s grace, was, to the Jewish leaders, a lawless act performed by a man who played fast and loose with their hallowed traditions. To make things worse, by saying that God was His Father, Jesus was making Himself equal with God. As I say, Jesus defended his actions by pointing out that he was imitating His Father by working on the Sabbath. In what sense was God working? He was working to maintain his creation. He was working to bring about his plans and purposes. He takes no days off from these things. And neither does His Son.
The man’s infirmity is symbolic of sin and what sin does to people. As we’ve seen, the man had convinced himself that his healing depended on his own efforts and initiative. He lived in a “survival of the fittest” kind of world. But Jesus healed this man, without being asked to do so. God’s salvation isn’t something we need to push and shove each other around to achieve. God salvation is offered by grace alone. It’s completely and totally undeserved. Our Lord Jesus always takes the initiative. He always takes the first step. As we have seen, we are spiritually blind and dead and enemies of God. Without God’s intervention, we would die in our sins and heaven would be denied to us.
In John’s account of what happened at the pool of Bethesda, the person who most needed the healing would be least likely to receive it. When it comes to our salvation, God doesn’t respond to our actions, our efforts, or our good works. He simply responds to our need – our need for forgiveness and new life. He simply reaches out a gracious hand to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We acknowledge our need for his salvation and, enabled by His Holy Spirit, we reach out the hand of faith and we receive His gifts from him. When Jesus intervenes in our lives, by means of His Word and the Holy Sacraments, healing takes place, not just temporary physical healing, but permanent spiritual healing. Jesus’ Word brings life.
What this man received from Jesus can be described in one word: and that word is WHOLENESS. This word is repeated five times in our text, in verses 6, 9, 11, 14 and 15. The original Greek word emphasizes wholeness and restored unity. Jesus’ gracious intervention brought liberation to this man – a new life. Weakness and bondage were left behind. In His ministry, in His dealings with the common people, as well as the religious leaders, Jesus brought a radically different way of doing things. But to people whose minds were locked onto their traditions and could not countenance any changes, Jesus was a huge threat. When it comes to people with a mindset like this, the question might be asked, “How would they change a light bulb?” The answer is simple, “Oh, they wouldn’t change that light bulb. The would just stand around, endlessly admiring the old one!”
Jesus’ words and deeds definitely ran counter to the expectations of the Jewish religious elite. Jesus Himself had said, in Mark chapter 7, verse 7:
7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ (N.I.V.)
And in Matthew 12:8, he said,
8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (N.I.V.)
We have seen this morning that Jesus’ healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda brought joy to one person and consternation to a group of others. We’ve seen that all of us need the healing Jesus provides – healing from the effects of sin through His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. We’ve also seen that, too often, people look in all the wrong places for this healing. Thankfully, our Lord Jesus always takes the first step in reaching out to us with His salvation. Through His Word, he asks everyone, “Do you want to be healed?” May all of us rejoice in His wonderful salvation, and do our best, as individuals and as a congregation, as He enables us, to share His blessings with the world. Amen.
Let’s pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – We thank you for the spiritual healing your provide for us through Your Son. We thank you for his grace and compassion, for His taking the initiative in bringing us the fullness of His blessings, now, in this life, and forever, in heaven. In His name we pray. Amen.