Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Man Who Didn't Deserve To Be Healed

As always, comments and constructive criticism welcome.

Acts 16:9-15
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

Revelation 21:10, 21:22-22:5
And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day-and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

John 5:1-9
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids-blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The 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 making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me."Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath.

This is the Word of the Lord.

You know, just when you think you’ve got this whole thing figured out – I mean this Gospel message thing, maybe not explaining miracles but certainly categorizing them, putting them in neat little packages that can be used to highlight another aspect of the divinity of Jesus, or the love of God, or the efficacy of prayer – along comes a passage of Scripture that turns it all on its head.
Our Gospel reading today has been called “the strangest miracle,” and there is good reason for that.

There’s some festival going on in Jerusalem; we don’t know which one, and I guess it doesn’t matter, but there’s really no good reason for Jesus to be down by that pool of Bethesda, or “Beth-zatha,” as our translation puts it. Though there are apparently lots of sick people around, none of them seems to have noticed or called out to or cared at all that Jesus was there. They were too busy watching the water intently, as if it were the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl. You see, every so often, the water in that pool would bubble up. The belief was that an angel stirred it up, and when that happened, the first person to get in the pool got healed of whatever ailment they had! Can you imagine?

One of the things I am terrible at is fishing. My problem isn’t that I’m afraid of fish, or can’t put a worm on a hook, my problem is that bobber thing. I’ll put the line in, and that red-and-white bobber will be floating on the surface, and I get tensed up waiting on it to move… was that a nibble? Ooh, quick, hook it! Oh, that was nothing, oh, well… wait, did it… by the time something actually takes the bait, I’ve zoned out completely staring at that bobber and I nearly always miss it!

But even as bad as I am, I occasionally catch a fish. This guy, the one Jesus talks to, has been trying to catch that bubbly water for thirty-eight years. You’d think there was some kind of seniority, that over the years he would have at least gotten his mat put down closer to the water, so if nothing else he could roll in when the time came, but no. He just lay there, day after day and year after year. I think that at some point, maybe years ago, he gave up. Oh, he still went through the motions, after all, what else could he do? Most likely someone, maybe his family, brought him there every morning, and took him home every night. But as far as anything ever changing? No. Never had, never will, and he had several very good excuses all rehearsed and ready when and if he was asked why he had been there so long.

But that’s not the only thing that makes this miracle strange. So often in the Gospels, we read where people come to Jesus looking for a miracle: the leper who confronts Jesus in the village, blind Bartimaeus crying out for Jesus as he passes by on the road, the man who interrupts Jesus’ dinner to come and raise his child from the dead, the woman with the issue of blood who pushes through the crowd and strains just to get her fingertips to brush the fringe of Jesus’ robe, and on and on… this guy doesn’t ask Jesus for a thing. In fact, when Jesus asks him, directly, “Do you want to be made well?” he really doesn’t answer the question! He simply rehearses his list of excellent excuses.

But the strangeness doesn’t even stop there! (I feel like Vince, trying to get you to buy a ShamWow, “but wait, there’s more!”) So often, when you read of Jesus performing a miracle, the one who is healed is thankful, the people around are amazed and glorify God, there is some kind of acknowledgment that something wonderful has happened! Not this time. The guy doesn’t ask for a miracle, and while I guess you’ve got to give him credit for doing what Jesus tells him to do, “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” there’s no mention of joy, or thankfulness, or any such thing from the man who is healed, or the people around Jesus, or anything like that!

What’s more, if we read further in the Gospel account, well, this guy who got healed, I mean, man, what a weasel! I’m sorry, that’s probably not a proper theological term, but come on! The prim and proper Jews, most likely the Pharisees, who were sticklers for every point of the Law, stopped the guy because it was against the religious law to carry something as large as a mat on the Sabbath. Not only does he immediately shift the blame to the person who made him well, he doesn’t even know who it is who healed him! And when Jesus finds the guy later in the Temple, does he take the opportunity to thank Jesus and glorify God for this miracle, this healing, this restoration of wholeness and health? No, not even close! He immediately runs off to rat out Jesus to the Temple authorities!

If there were ever anyone on earth more undeserving of help, undeserving of healing, undeserving of anything, it’s this guy! Jesus gives him his life back, after nearly forty years, and in return all Jesus gets is persecution!

Can I tell you this morning that this is, for us, good news? Because what we learn from this, among other things, is that in Jesus Christ, God reaches out to us and loves us and heals us and restores us based not upon how deserving or desiring or devoted or prepared or even how cognizant or thankful we are for that healing and love and restoration, not based at all upon who we are… but upon who God is.

And whenever we, in our brokenness and inhumanity toward one another, decide that someone or some group is undeserving of God’s love, especially God’s love as demonstrated in our own lives and actions, we miss the point – and not just the point of this passage of Scripture, but the point of the Gospel.

One of my favorite passages of Scripture is found in Romans 5, verse 8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

It could be argued that Jesus went looking for the most undeserving person he could find – someone so disengaged from life that he couldn’t even be bothered to mumble “thank you” when he was given his life back, who couldn’t muster the backbone to resist selling Jesus out to the authorities, who couldn’t see love and joy and freedom and forgiveness even after it found him again in the temple – just so God could restore him – heal him – love him anyway!

Because the Gospel has never been about who deserves God’s love, it’s never been about us, and it’s never been about “them,” whoever “them” may be. It has always been, and always will be, about who God is.

And for that, we must all say “Thanks be to God!”

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