Scripture: John 5:1-18
Sermon prepared by Rev. Henry Katerberg, Hamilton, Ont.
Dear congregation of Jesus Christ,
It would be nice to get a break, to be surprised with some good fortune. We are quick to complain: "I deserve better." "Life isn't fair."
We want to begin this sermon with the story of a man who got an undeserved break, a break that changed his life. Walking along the beach on the coast of California in 1955, Jake Worm was unsure of what the future held. He was deep in depression, and filled with despair, and without hope for the future. The relationships in his life were in ruins, he had discarded those people that were close to him, and he had declared bankruptcy. Jake wondered: “what have I got to live for.” At 55 there seemed to be no reason for him to keep going. Life had not been fair to him. He couldn't see it any other way. Those desperate thoughts swirled through his mind, and showed in the way he walked. As he pondered the pointlessness of life, he stumbled upon a bottle in the sand. Picking it up, he examined it closer, observing that there was a note inside, contained and preserved by a cork stopper. Jake uncorked the bottle, pulled out the note, unfolded it and read:
"To whoever finds this note I will give one half of all my estate. The other half will go to my attorney. Signed, Daisy Alexander, June 20, 1937."
Jake Worm laughed to himself. This had to be a joke, that note couldn't have been in that bottle for 18 years. He almost threw the bottle away, but he decided to take it home. He stored it in a closet where it collected dust for some time.
One day he related the bizarre story of the bottle to a friend. The friend stared at Jake with wide open eyes. "Jake"' he said, "don't you know who Daisy Alexander is?" Jake Worm shook his head. He had never heard of Daisy Alexander, a daughter and heiress of the Singer Sewing Machine fortune family. Filled with curiosity and hope of a large windfall, Jake Worm began to research the life of Daisy Alexander. She had indeed died in 1939 at the age of 81. Her last will and testament declared that she had put a holographic will in a bottle and that her assets were to be distributed according to that holographic will.
Jack Worm went to court to claim half of Daisy Alexander's estate, hiring an ocean expert to help prove his case. The ocean expert verified that a bottle dropped in the Thames River could make its way through the English Channel to the North Sea, through the Bering Strait, into the North Pacific, and onto the shoreline of California in about a 15-20 year period. The judge awarded Jake Worm 12 million dollars. The most difficult part of the process for Jake Worm was taking the bottle out of the closet, and claiming the gift that was his all along.
Our Scripture passage has brought us in contact with another man in despair. This man lay by a pool in a place called Bethesda. He lay there with little hope for the future. This man had come here for healing. People believed that this pool had healing powers. Below the pool's surface was a subterranean stream, which would periodically bubble up. The common belief in that day was that whoever was first immersed in the water would be healed. This particular man had been laying next to the pool for 38 years. After all these years he had given up hope of ever being healed, but he stayed because he had no place he could go. Here at Bethesda he was surrounded by people like himself — the lame, the blind and the maimed — the porticos were filled with broken and crippled lives.
It is a pitiful picture as John paints it in this story. Now think with me beyond the immediate picture of this lame man and beyond the crowds in the porticos. What John paints for us, in dramatic strokes and colors, is the helpless and hopeless condition of the human race in the grip of sin and death. We have no strength to redeem ourselves. All we can do on our own is pity our condition. We are like patients on a cancer or aids ward in the hospital — they pity themselves and they pity each other. That is the human race apart from God's grace in Jesus Christ. We need the redeeming grace of God's love. God didn't wait for us to make the first move, to make our decision for him. You and I cannot be redeemed because we said "Yes" to Christ. We are saved by grace alone. We are saved because God said "Yes" to us in Christ.
God made the first move. He took the initiative, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3: 16). Grace is — "God's redemption at Christ's expense".
In our Scripture passage Jesus makes the first move, he reaches out to the lame man:
Jesus learned about the man's condition
Jesus walked up to the lame man
Jesus started the conversation
Jesus asked the question, "Do you want to be healed?"
Of course the man wanted to be healed. That is his reason for being there. How dare Jesus question that he might not want to be healed.
Not so fast! Don't assume what you don't know. Healing, being well again, will take a lot of adjustment. And Jesus knows that change is always difficult. There is comfort in the familiar. The lame man knows what he's got now, he doesn't know what getting well will bring. We can't close our eyes to the difficulty, change can bring. Change — even positive change — always involves loss. Jesus knows what C. S. Lewis verbalized, that "a familiar captivity is frequently more desirable than an unfamiliar freedom." Jesus knows that it is not easy to go from sickness to recovery; from letting a part of your life cripple you, to walking freely without fear. He knew that a change in our lives challenges us to shoulder new responsibilities, and new opportunities are to be grasped.
This question, "Do you want to be healed?" is the major faith question that confronts us. It is a question for us to ask ourselves. It is the question of a lifetime. Do we really want to be healed? Are we ready for the challenges healing brings? Think about that.
I love the comic strip that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post some years ago, illustrating a man who was shipwrecked and marooned on an island. A ship came up to rescue him, sending a little boat to shore. Six sailors came ashore and handed the marooned man a stack of newspapers.
Bewildered, the man said,"but why the stack of newspapers?" "Oh", they said, "these are from the captain. He wants you to glance at the headlines and see if you still want to be rescued!" Getting back to the mainland and into the mainstream of life can have its own problems. So Jesus asked (and still asks us today) the question, "Do you really want to be healed?" The lame man did not answer the question. Perhaps he didn't even hear the question. He lived in his own world of self-pity. A pity-party he could handle, not a challenge to be healed.
We have read his words of self-pity. "Sir", he said "every time the water bubbles, I try to get down there, but I have no one to help me. Every one else has somebody to help them, but I don't have anyone. When I make a move down there, I almost get in, but then somebody cuts in front of me and they're healed and I am not. It just isn't fair. I deserve some help after all these years, don't you think?" The man was drowning in self-pity. In his self-pity he had shut out the possibility of healing.
Have you ever felt that way?
The man in the gospel of John focused on the injustice all around him. He thought he deserved better, deserved a break. It just isn't fair. Have you ever felt that way? You have been passed over for a promotion you had counted on. A friend got the scholarship you had in your pocket. Or maybe you are prepared for the job you want, it's yours, your name is written all over it. But instead of picking you, at the last minute they hire somebody else. It feels like a slap in the face, as if the world is against you.
We must carefully monitor our reactions to those situations. It becomes very easy to throw a pity-party. It is easy to complain about perceived injustice. We too are quick to blame others for our hardships. We have complained about injustice that has come our way, we have complained that life isn't fair. When we were forced to care for someone for many years, putting our own lives on hold, when life has dealt us a cruel blow, when we have multiple loses all at the same time. I have been that man... haven't you?
The interesting thing about this story is that as the man keeps up his cry of self-pity, Jesus crashes his pity-party. Jesus says to him, "You're healed. You're well. Get up! Pick up your mat and walk."
At that moment the man had to make a decision he had not expected to make: do as Jesus says or stay in his helpless state of self-pity. Jesus provides the healing, but the crippled man still has to take the step of faith.
That is how God saves sinners today. We provide nothing to accomplish our salvation. Our "salvation comes from the Lord." (Jonah 2: 9) As the apostle Paul writes: "It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy."(Romans 9: 16) Our salvation depends not on our recognizing Jesus or reaching out a hand towards him. We cannot help ourselves. Nor does God wait to "help those who help themselves". God is out of our reach, but we are never out of his. And that makes grace so very amazing.
Jesus came to Bethesda to find the lame man. Jesus told us that "the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19:10) Jesus did not make healing a possibility for the lame man; Jesus healed the man. All he had to do is live out of his healed condition. And that is true for our salvation. Will you argue that you are not helpless, that you are not lame and paralyzed?. We confess that "we are saved by grace alone." Still we want to step in and say, "I am saved because I chose Christ as my Savior."
We want some of the credit. We want to be able to say, "I did it my way." We use that language in sharing our faith. "Give Jesus a chance" sports a popular bumper sticker. Wait a second. Give who a chance? Is Jesus really the co-worker in securing my salvation? We may not take amazing out of grace. Let's not fall into the trap of devaluating God's grace. Then we end up with what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." Bonhoeffer said, "Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves." We can't bestow grace on ourselves. Grace on the lips of a person who wants to help himself is profane. God's grace for the lame man is based on God's mercy. God's grace for you and me is based on God's redeeming love.
We need to hear this again and again. No one seeks God unless God has first sought that person. (Romans 3: 11). Salvation is first of all God's work. We don't have salvation because of our efforts. No matter what we choose, our destiny is in God's hand. We don't find God. We don't give Jesus a chance.
Grace brings the focus back to God, for whom we exist, rather than the other way around. We can't miss that emphasis without doing damage, fatal damage to our life of faith.
When we look at the lame man in his healed condition, three things are engraved on his mind:
— his years of paralysis at Bethesda
— the wonderful person who healed him and
— his totally changed condition.
Do you understand the amazing message of this miracle? It is the picture of our lives. Our sinful condition was as miserable as that of the lame man. It was a condition of despair and hopelessness. Then Jesus came into our lives. He is our Savior, our only Comfort. The story of our life may now center around him. God wants us to know his grace and experience it. The joy of the Lord fills our heart. That joy should be visible. Others must see the change Christ has brought into our lives, the beauty the Lord has worked in us.
To see good works by us is to see Christ in us. We remember Jesus' words from the sermon on the mount. "Let your light shine." (Matthew 5: 16) It is not something we create or make up, but something we allow the Lord to do through us. It is God's light. It is God's work in us, our choice is whether to hide it or to show it. Our lives are to magnify God's grace and power. This is the supreme calling of life: glorifying God. Everything we do is to cause others to give praise to God.
Will you live that way this week? Will you live a life transformed by the grace of God? Will you live a life of comfort, even if you suffer pain and loss?
May God spare us a life of fairness! To live with God's grace is better by far than to have absolute fairness. Fairness only gives us what we deserve and I wonder if that will satisfy.
I don't think so. A world with grace will give us more than we deserve. The life God wants for us is one of peace in him. He comes to each of us again as he did to the lame man in Bethesda. He comes and crashes our pity-parties and says to us "cheer up! My grace is sufficient for you." This is the good news of the gospel. God has met the problems of your sin through his Son.
"Free from the law, oh happy condition,
Jesus has bled and there is remission;
Cursed by the law and bruised by the fall,
Grace has redeemed us once and for all.
Once for all, O sinner receive it;
Once for all, brother, sister, believe it;
Cling to the cross, the burden will fall
Christ has redeemed us once for all"
Respond to that redeeming grace. And remember grace will give us more than we deserve. In Christ we are in God's eternal favor.
Lord Jesus, we thank you for your redeeming love. You have come to us in grace, giving us far more than we deserve. We were helpless on our own because of our sin. Continue to strengthen us by your Word, and lead us by your Spirit, that we may be holy and that your name may be glorified.
Proposed Order of Service
Welcome and Announcements
Call to Worship
Silent Prayer — concluded with the singing of Hymn #625 or #629
Gathering With God
Leader: In whose name is our help?
People: Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.
Leader: May the grace and peace from God our Father through Jesus Christ our Lord in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.
Opening Hymn #187
Call to Confession: God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from every sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
Prayer of Confession:
Leader: Let us confess our sins together
People: Most merciful and Holy Father, we confess to you and to one another, that we have sinned against you by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have no always had in us the mind of Christ. You alone know how often we have grieved you by wasting your gifts, by wandering from your ways, by forgetting your love. Forgive us we pray, most merciful Father, and free us from our sin. Renew in us the grace and strength of you Holy Spirit, for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son, our Savior. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: To all who confess themselves to be sinners, humbling themselves before God and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation, I declare this sure promise: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense — Jesus Christ, the righteous one. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
God's Will For our Lives
Various selections are possible: Exodus 20:1-17; Leviticus 19:1-4 and 11-18;
Deuteronomy 5:6-21; Romans 12:9-21; Ephesians 4:17-5:2; Colossians 3:1-17
Song of response Hymn #267
Listening to God
Prayer of Illumination
Children's message and Children's dismissal for Sunday School
Scripture reading John 5:1-18
Reader: This is the word of the Lord
People: Thanks be to God
Sermon: "The day Jesus crashed a pity party."
Responding to God
In song: Hymn #363
In Congregational Prayer
Going With God
Benediction followed by three-fold Amen
May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.