Sunday, May 5, 2013

God Loves Anyway!

The man at the pool of Bethesda wasn't all that interested in what Jesus had to offer.

But it wasn't about him, was it?

It was about Jesus. God's love is contingent not on the worthiness of the object, after all, It is the character and intentionality of the One who loves...

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 – then 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 while it has been argued over for millennia, when it comes right down to it, it doesn’t matter. There’s really no good reason for Jesus to be down by that pool of Bethesda, or “Beth-zatha,” as our translation puts it… unless he is looking for something, or someone. You see, there are apparently lots of sick people around. After all, every now and again the waters 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!

Jesus and his disciples walked around that pool, but no one there seems to have noticed. No one called out for healing. No one really 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, waiting for the bubbling, waiting for their chance to be the first to touch the healing waters.

And Jesus stops, finally, and speaks to a guy who has shot at, and missed, the mark for nearly forty years.

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. Not this guy. Every time the water stirred, someone beat him to it. 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. That way, if nothing else, he could roll in when the time came, but no. He just lay there, day after day and year after year. Maybe there was still hope in his heart. Maybe he felt, each time, he was so close that surely next time he’d be first! Or maybe at some point he gave up. Oh, he still went through the motions; after all, what else could he do? He might have been homeless, and stayed there all night and day. Maybe someone brought him there every morning, and took him home every night, but couldn’t stay with him. Whatever the case nothing changed for him, day in and day out, and he had several very good reasons why not, excuses all rehearsed and ready when and if he was asked why he had been there so long.

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 may not even have looked up from the water. And he really doesn’t answer the question, does he? He doesn’t say he wants to be well, he simply rehearses his list of reasons why it’s everyone else’s fault he isn’t well.

Maybe the man hopes this guy will hang around for awhile, and if the water stirs he’ll help him get there first. But Jesus doesn’t offer to wait with him, he cuts to the chase and does what he needs. Jesus simply says to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." And before the man even comprehends what is said, before he can react in any way, he is whole. Just like that.

Does the crowd around the pool react in shocked awe, praising God for the healing?  Nope. No one even looked up from the water.

And does the man fall at Jesus’ feet, thanking him? Does he immediately take up his mat and follow Jesus?

Oh, he took up his mat all right. Sure, he began to walk. But he walked away.

The guy didn’t ask for the miracle, and didn’t appreciate it very much when it happened, it seems. Not even a “gee, thanks” from the guy.

And it gets worse. We have to read further in the Gospel account to see it, but the way our Lectionary passage ends, with the words, “Now that day was a Sabbath,” is very important.

We are familiar with the idea of the Sabbath being a day of rest, a day when the law Moses brought down from Mount Sinai demanded no work be done. Over the years, questions had been raised: if we cannot work, what exactly is “work?” How far can we go without breaking God’s law?

There ended up being dozens of stipulations on how far one could travel, how much one could carry, how many actual things one could do on the Sabbath. Among them was the rule that, of you were carrying a couch (or a mat) with someone on it, it was OK, but if you were carrying it just to take it somewhere? That was work, and it broke the rules.

So of course, almost immediately, some prim and proper Jewish folks, most likely the Pharisees, stopped the guy. “Hey, hey! You can’t do that! It’s the sabbath; it’s against the law for you to carry your mat.”

This guy responds, “Hey, it isn’t my fault, the guy who healed me told me to!”

“Oh yeah? And who, exactly would that be?”

“Him,” he says, and turns around to point, but Jesus is gone. “Oh. Uh… just some guy…”

Amazing, isn’t it? Not only does this guy immediately shift the blame to the person who made him well, he doesn’t even know who it is who healed him! And later, when Jesus finds the guy 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.

It could be argued that Jesus didn’t just go to the pool of Bethesda simply for the sickest man there. He 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. Someone who couldn’t muster the backbone to resist selling Jesus out to the authorities. Someone who couldn’t see love and joy and freedom and forgiveness, not the first time it hit him at the pool, or even after it found him again in the temple.

Jesus found the worst just so God could restore him – heal him – and love him anyway!

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.”

The Gospel – the Good News – 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.

I said this last week: God’s love is never about the worthiness of the object of that love, but about the character and intentionality of the one who loves. God loves and heals and restores – even when it isn’t the proper time, even when the one to be loved and healed and restored isn’t worthy or appreciative. The man from the pool at Bethesda didn’t ask for or show thankfulness for his healing, but he didn’t lose it, did he?

We did not choose to be saved. When we were furthest from God, before we had an inkling of our need for the love and healing and restoration that is found in the cross of Jesus Christ, Jesus took up that cross, and suffered and died and rose on our behalf.

And that love continues today. God loves – even those we deem unworthy of love. Even when we don’t love God back. God heals – even when we have given up hope. God restores – even when there seems to be nothing left to restore.

The height and depth and breadth of God’s love reaches beyond our expectations, our desires, our demands, beyond propriety or convention. God loves us, all of us, even when we don’t want it or ask for it, even when we are looking somewhere else for the pool to bubble, expecting our own efforts to be enough to bring us to the healing waters.

God heals and forgives and restores anyway. God loves anyway.

Alleluia, amen.

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