The complaint - John 5:1-15
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During World War 2, Winston Churchill included within his coalition cabinet, the socialist Sir Stafford Cripps. Now, he and Churchill were like chalk and cheese in terms of their character. Cripps' was a teetotaler and vegetarian and was ,in Churchill's eyes at least, a somewhat crabbed personality. His only connection with pleasure was smoking cigars. But eventually Cripps renounced that too, giving them up as an example of sacrifice for the cause. On hearing the news, Churchill quipped, 'Too bad, it was his last contact with humanity'. Cripps was also a strong Calvinist and, again as far as Churchill was concerned, had such an inflated view of God's providence in his life that it spilt over into a sense of self-importance and conceit, such that one day when Cripps had left a cabinet meeting, Churchill turned to another colleague and remarked, 'There but for the grace of God goes God.'
I think we have to admit that conceit is one of the most perplexing and ugliest aspects of human nature. Why, for example did the French after themselves having suffered so much abuse under the tyranny of the Nazis go on to inflict similar atrocities on the inhabitants of Indochina in the late 40's and early 50's? The bullied can so easily become the bully.It is strange, isn't it? that those experiences which should engender within us a sense of humility, sometimes have the opposite effect and give rise to pride and downright conceit.
Now when the Son of God came into the world, this too was something he was to experience in all its vileness as we see in the episode we are looking at together this morning in John chapter 5. And what we have here is the conceit of an individual, the conceit of a people and yet the compassion of the Christ.
In fact, what we see being worked out throughout the Gospel of John is the theme set out for us back in chapter 1 v 10 where we read, 'He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.' In incident after incident we are presented with the person of Jesus - the Divine Son; the work of Jesus- the giver of life; and the response to Jesus- those who reject him and those who believe in him. And you know what? Those are exactly the same issues people are having to face today. How are we going to respond to Jesus? Because our answer to that question will determine our eternal destiny-whether we have 'life' or not. Well, let's see how this is worked out by that pool in Jerusalem on that hot Palestinian afternoon.
First, we have an authoritative word vv 1- 9. Look at v1 ff 'Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. 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. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie-- the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 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?"
Just try and imagine the scene. Here is a pool surrounded by five large porches, appropriately called 'Bethesda' - 'House of mercy', which is exactly what these people lying there are looking for. As far as the eye can see there are rows and rows of sick and disabled people. I am sure that some of you can remember that famous scene of the railway yard in Atlanta in the film 'Gone with the Wind' , where there are columns of wounded confederate soldiers lying on stretchers begging for relief, and as the camera slowly pans back, what seemed to be a few dozen men, turns out to be hundreds- that is the kind of picture here. It is picture of abject futility, pitiful in the extreme. And it is into this situation of desperate need and total misery that the Son of God walks. And you know, what he sees is a microcosm of what God sees everywhere as he looks upon our world. This physical manifestation of fallen, broken humanity is but a reflection of the deeper broken spiritual state of humanity, as we are all in the condition of those who are spiritually blind, crippled and infirmed, lost in a lost world. The deadening , disabling effects of sin is a universal condition. Our need on the spiritual level is a parallel of what these people's needs are on the physical level, and, as we shall see in a moment, this is exactly what Jesus came to put right.
But there is one man in particular who captures Jesus attention, someone who has been lying there for 38 years would you believe? His muscles would have wasted away to almost nothing and as a result we see in v 7 that he is totally dependent upon other people for help. So this is someone who, we would think, is in no position to be conceited, he is too far down on the lower rungs of the social ladder for that. And it is to this person that Jesus offers a word of hope: "Do you want to get well?" But you say, 'there were scores if not hundreds of other people on that day in as much need as this man, perhaps more so. Why didn't Jesus offer them a word of hope too?' The short answer to that question is, we don't know. But one thing is for sure,as the story unfolds, there was nothing about this man which particularly commended him to Jesus -there was nothing but his need. And when you think about it, that is exactly our natural state before God. You see, what we are faced with here is something of the mystery of God's electing love, a love which targets particular people. As we saw in that verse from the first chapter, if anyone is born again as a child of God it is not because of their will-a human decision, but God's. However, that does not mean that by focusing upon one individual Jesus is neglecting others. For what Jesus often does is to work in the life of one person in order to draw out faith in other people. Remember, he did that with the Samaritan woman with the result that the whole of her village came to believe. And so it is here. As this person encounters Jesus and is transformed by him, the question is will others be drawn to him as well, or will they simply reject him?Will they look at the miracle and ask: 'Who is this who has such power? Is this God in the flesh? If so what does he want from me?' And it may well be that you are here this morning and although you do not feel that God has been especially at work in your life, you cannot deny that he has been at work in the lives of others, some of your friends, members of your own family maybe. Well, those are meant to be taken by you as signals from God, provoking you to ask , 'What kind of God is this who works in the lives of individuals, changing them, so that they seem to know God personally and I do not?' With the end purpose in mind that you seek him out too. You see, God through his Son is saying to you, like he said to this man, 'Do you want to get well?' Do you want to be cleared up of your spiritual paralysis? Well do you? If so, then pay attention to what happens next.
Now as is so often the case with people Jesus meets in this Gospel, the man interprets what Jesus says superficially- v7, "Sir," .."I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me." As far as he is concerned Jesus is just another well meaning man who really hasn't a clue. Of course he wants to get well, he wouldn't be here otherwise, as he has bought into the current belief that the pool had miraculous healing powers ( a little like the Ganges river in India) but with the added belief that these powers were present only when the waters were allegedly stirred by an angel, so the first in was the first healed. And so the response of the man to Jesus question is rather sour, full of self-pity and maybe with a hint of a rebuke. 'Fat chance I have of being healed' he is saying in effect, 'lying here like this with no one to help me.' The implication being that if Jesus does want to see him healed he had better hang around and wait for the right moment to give him some assistance. And isn't that often the way we treat God? He can help us, sure, but on our terms. Perhaps through some superstitious ritual he can jump through the hoop and come to our aid. You know, it is amazing how many people even today see the Christian sacraments in the same way. We had better have our baby christened as some divine insurance policy, or take communion, at least at Easter and Christmas, just to be on the safe side and keep in with the Almighty. It may not always be voiced in that way but those are the thoughts often lurking behind what we do and it is travesty of the way God relates to us. He an intelligent ,personal being who will not hang around at our beck and call like some sort of lacky. He is God! And as if cutting the man off before he says anything else which might be unhelpful, Jesus issues his word of command v8, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." The voice which is going to command life from the dead at the end of time (v 28) is the same voice which offers new life in time and the effect is both immediate and total- 'At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.' Now how would you have expected the people to react having seen this? Thrilled? Amazed? Gobsmacked? Hallelujah? Those are just a few words which spring to mind aren't they? But no, not a bit of it, either by the man himself or the religious authorities. On the contrary for what we see is a rebellious response vv 9-15.
Now John hints that trouble is just around the corner by the way he ominously says in v 9 'The day on which this took place was a Sabbath..' Oh dear, some people are not going to be happy and that's right for we go on to read , 'and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat." But he replied, "The man who made me well said to me, `Pick up your mat and walk.' " So they asked him, "Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?" The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.'
Now I don't know about you but I find this little exchange quite astonishing. If you want any evidence of how twisted and conceited we human beings are then you need look no further than this. First of all, all the fuss over carrying a mat on a Sabbath. What was the Sabbath. Well, the word means, 'rest' and in the Bible is associated with wholeness and completion. Looking back it was the day designated by God to be set apart as different, a non-work day- as it celebrated God's completed work in creation-the seventh day. But looking forward it pointed to God's future work when he would restore a fallen creation from its bondage to sin, when we shall experience perfect rest in the world to come. So what better day than to heal someone than on the Sabbath? This is a vivivid picture of what God through Christ is going to achieve for everyone who trusts him- complete restoration. Secondly, notice how when the man was asked : 'Who told you to carry your mat?' and he answered, 'the man who made me well told me', the Jewish authorities didn't pick up on the miracle at all. 3 times in two verses explicit reference is made to the healing and it was completely missed by the relgious purists. All they saw was someone who in their eyes was breaking God's law. How blind can you get? But thirdly, notice how no one, including the healed man, knew who Jesus was. And we are back to chapter 1 and verse 10 again :'He was in the world, and though the world was made through him the world did not recognise him.' But it was to get even worse than that, for when the man does discover who it was who healed him, straight away he goes and reports him to those who are out to get Jesus- v15, with the result that the 'Jews persecuted him'. The man was not so stupid that he didn't realise that by doing this he was making trouble for Jesus. Healed after 38 years and all he can do is turn Jesus in. And all the others can do is to give Jesus grief. Again we were prepared for this shocking behaviour in chapter 1: 11 ' He came to his own (the Jews) and they did not receive him.' But why did the do this? Why the betrayal? Well, could it have been those words Jesus addressed to the man in v 14? , "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you." Now that is the thing that hits home doesn't it? Here is the challenge to our conceit; the thought that somehow our present state may be of our own making? Like this man we prefer to think of ourselves as the victim, never the victimizer. We are the innocents ,never the guilty. It is always someone else's fault, never our own. We readily take God's blessing -like this healing -but not his rebuke:'Who does Jesus think he is telling me that I am in a sinner? Making threats about worse things happening to me unless I mend my ways? As if anything could be worse than lying paralysed for 38 years. That is not the God I want to believe in. I believe in a God of love I do .' And so like the man off we go to get our own back.
Let me give you an example of this. It concerns a former missionary doctor who was appointed an elder/leader in his local church. He was well respected, well liked. He must be all right, after all he had been a missionary, and by definition missionaries are such spiritual people aren't they? Well, some time later he had an affair, left his wife and abandoned his children cutting himself off from all contact with the Christian community. Countless attempts were made to rehabilitate him and they all failed. He would have none of it. And one of the most sober assessments of the whole sorry mess came from one of the church leaders. He said that the doctor who had come from a Christian home and had received all the blessings which go with that, had never had to make a decision which had cost him anything. Even his missionary work was bound up with medicine which he wanted to do anyway. Everything was all too easy- his so called 'Christian' service was really a disguised form of self-service. And so when an attractive option came his way he had no moral centre on which he could depend in order to resist. He had never taken a decision for Christ which would be hard and he was not going to start now and he certainly was not going to take any rebuke from the church. So off he gos and betrays Christ. Is there not something of that here? This man was not going to take any command of Jesus which might cost him, least of all which might incur the disapproval of his fellow countrymen. Betraying Jesus seemed so much easier than following Jesus. The bitter irony is that the moment Jesus tells him not to sin again, straight away he does exactly that. But let us be careful here, because we need to take into account just who it is we are thinking of turning our backs on. Hence, a divine lesson vv 16-22.
Who is Jesus? He is the divine Son that is who; v17 , "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. They at least got the logic right, but not their response.
What did he come to do? Why, to give 'life' of course- a new spiritual life which begins now and will culminate in a new resurrected life in the future- v 21 'For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.' We are back to God's electing love again- life to those he is pleased to give it.
What should be our response ? v 22; ' Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.' It is all to do with honouring Jesus. You see, by rejecting Jesus as did this man and some of his fellow Jews, they were dangerously sealing their own ultimate rejection by God. This is the something worse than 38 years of paralysis for the man, being abandoned by God in hell. That is why even indifference to Jesus is so dangerous. You don't have to be outright hostile towards him in order to reject him, just by ignoring him, not giving him due consideration is 'not to honour the Son.' Yes it is wonderfully true that, 'God so love the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life', but it is also true that God so loves his Son that he will see him honoured. It is not sufficient to say, 'But I believe in God', for here we read that it is only when we honour Jesus the Son that we honour God the Father, with the implication that if we do not do that we dishonour God. No, if we want to know God and receive the eternal life he lovingly extends to us, then we have to surrender the whole of our lives to the Lord Jesus.
There may well be nothing worse than human conceit, with its most frightening expression when we think we are far too good for God. But let me also say there is nothing more wonderful the divine compassion either such that even when we do treat him like this, he still patiently calls us to come to him. Shall we do that now as we pray.
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