Sermon 24 February 2019

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET, REVD ANDREW ANDERSON

ENCOUNTERING JESUS, 3: THE HEALING AT BETHESDA, John 5.1-15

Listen Here; https://soundcloud.com/user-942286720/sermon-24th-february-2019 

 

This is now my third Sunday with you, and this morning we are going to look at a third encounter that people had with Jesus as recorded in John’s Gospel, a third occasion when someone met with Jesus, and their life was transformed, and for the better.

 

I have said that, as we look at these three different Bible stories, I hope we will all be encouraged to see how we, in our own faithful encounter with Jesus as our Saviour and Lord, can be changed: we can know him better, we can love him more, and we can follow him more faithfully, and, because he first loved us, we can go out to love and serve others in his Name.

 

First, we looked at Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes to see Jesus at night. Then, last week, we looked at the Samaritan woman who encounters Jesus at the well. This morning we will look at the encounter that the disabled man had with Jesus at the pool of Bethesda..

 

There is a simple little story which I have always liked. It’s about a little girl who was drawing a picture. Her mother saw her and asked her, “What are you drawing?” And the little girl answered, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” “But”, her mother said, “no one knows what God looks like.” “Ah,” said the little girl, “they will do — when I finished!”

 

It is a silly little story, but a story that raises a profound question, a question for all of us, without exception. What is God like? We are all here this morning either because we believe in God, or we are searching for him. So what is he like?

 

John, in his Gospel, sets out to give us his answer. He does this in a series of signs, or miracles, which Jesus performed during his ministry and which John sees and records for us as signs, or pointers, to who Jesus is. He does this also in the encounters that we have been looking at. The people who encountered Jesus knew so much more about him afterwards.

 

Jesus had gone up to Jerusalem to celebrate one of the great Jewish feasts. The commentators suggest it was probably the feast of Pentecost, the harvest festival. And Jerusalem would’ve been full of pilgrims and visitors.

 

Jesus found his way to a part of the city called Bethesda where there was a deep pool of water with remarkable miraculous healing properties, or so it was claimed. The area surrounding the pool was very crowded with many disabled and sick people. Apparently, from time to time, the water was stirred up in some strange way, and whoever managed to get into the water immediately afterwards is healed. That was what was claimed, but was this just some kind of superstition? Or was there some truth here?

It’s not difficult to imagine how popular a place with such a reputation for healing would be. People want to be healed, and to live a normal life, and they are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve it. If we are seriously ill, and conventional medicine won’t work for us, then we will consider any alternative. Today, if you claim to have the gift of healing, the demands on you can be almost overwhelming. The NHS is our national treasure. But the demands upon it are insatiable. Everyone wants to be well, and to be healed when they need it

 

For reasons that we are not told Jesus singles out one disabled man, and makes enquiries about him. He is told that he has been an invalid, disabled, for the astonishing period of 38 years, a lifetime in those days, you could say, yet he has never been healed, and carries his severe disability still. He is a pathetic figure: helpless, isolated, and lonely. Jesus asks him — and it’s an extraordinary question when you think about it – “Do you want to get well?”

 

At first sight, of course the man wanted to be healed, why else would he be there? But why have 38 years gone by? Surely at some point during this long time, perhaps sooner than later, this man’s turn would have come, someone would’ve helped him into the water, and he would’ve been healed.

 

Is there something deeper going on here? Had he just got used to being there? Did he perhaps quite like it? He would have plenty of company. He would have to beg to get a living, and perhaps he was doing quite well from his begging, as some beggars do. Had this man become comfortable with his way of life, dependent on it, without much incentive to change?

 

This is a picture of a particularly sad and pathetic individual, a man with a severe disability which has resulted in him becoming totally helpless, isolated and lonely. Was there no one, no one in his family, or amongst his friends and neighbours, who would help him into the water?

 

In his wildest dreams, he could not have imagined what happens next.

 

Jesus is very direct with his command: “Get up, pick up you mat, and walk!” Not only is this completely unexpected, it’s impossible! If there is one thing the man knows he knows he can’t walk. For 38 years he’s been disabled, an invalid, a beggar, whose condition has provoked his helpless situation. But he does what Jesus says, he gets up, he picks up his mat, and, carrying it, he walks away. An astonishing miracle demonstrating Jesus’ divine power and authority and compassion!

 

This is a sign to the disciples, as to the man at the pool of Bethesda, and a sign to us, of who Jesus is. It seems to me there are two points of focus in the story: the disabled man, and Jesus. Let’s look at the man first.

As we have said already the picture that we have of this man, this disabled and invalid man, is a pathetic one. He is friendless, and isolated. He is beyond hope, with no-one to turn to. And if we ask why did Jesus single out this man before all the others it may be because this man in his helplessness and hopelessness represents the human condition. This man represents us, you and me, in our sinful and fallen human predicament. Of course, we are not in the same condition and circumstances of this man. We have better health and the resources and a motive for living which he did not have. But we are sinners nonetheless, in great need of the forgiveness and healing of a loving God. This story is a sign of what God longs to give us: forgiveness and healing and new life, what we and our world so desperately needs, but what we cannot do for ourselves.

 

I am Chaplain to the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, OCMS, and one of the precious experiences that I have had there has been meeting and hearing from some of our students and alumni from all over the world who serve their churches in situations of persecution and threat. I have learnt that the relative security and safety that we enjoy here in the UK is not typical of the world. In so many parts of Africa, and Asia there is instability and conflict and violence, and much of that directed against Christians. Our world is broken and sinful one. I think it was G K Chesterton who said, “The one Christian doctrine that does not need proof is the doctrine of the fall, of human sin: because the evidence is all around us.”

 

The man in our gospel story today is, and I believe this is what John intended, a sign pointing us to ourselves, and our condition. We need to be delivered and rescued, we need to be forgiven and healed and renewed. We cannot do it ourselves. We need a Saviour! We need to encounter him for ourselves.

 

So let’s turn now to the second point of focus in our story, to Jesus.

 

Here we see all the compassion and kindness and mercy of God himself. Jesus comes to the pool of Bethesda, a place in which human need and hopelessness is so evident. He singles out an invalid man whose need was perhaps more pressing than any other. He gently asks if he wants to get well. He listens to the man’s pathetic reply. And then he dramatically and instantly helps him: “Get up… walk.” And this healing is such a clear sign that in Christ there is forgiveness and new life for us all. This man in all his hopelessness, with no one to turn to, turns to Jesus, and he’s healed.

That’s the gospel message! It’s simple to state, hard to believe, harder still to put into practice. Jesus died for our sins, yours and mine, and raised to life he calls us to himself and promises us that we will know for ourselves life in all its fullness, life in him. He wants us to be disciples, learning from him, following him. And we can begin to know that life today.

 

This healing at the pool is a sign that points us to Jesus, points as to who God is, for Jesus is God. Jesus says elsewhere in John, (10.30) I and the Father are one.” And again, (14.9), “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” That’s John’s overriding concern and passion in his gospel, to show us what God is like, and he is like Jesus. As we encounter Jesus, we see him for who he is, and we become like him.

 

One of my teachers and friends at New College in Edinburgh, when I was study-ing Divinity all those years ago, had been a chaplain with one of the Scottish regiments in the Second World War. He told the story of an incident when his unit came under heavy fire when advancing through Northern France. One of his soldiers was seriously, indeed mortally, wounded and lay dying although conscious. My friend went to the man and put his arms around him to comfort him. And the soldier said to him, “Padre, is Jesus God?” And my friend, who was a most devout and godly Christian man, said in all sincerity and conviction, “Yes, Jesus is God.” Moments later the soldier died, but my friend said he the consolation of knowing that he died with this glorious gospel truth in his heart.

 

May that be a truth laid in all our hearts this morning. And may it encourage us to encounter, to meet Jesus for ourselves and so grow as Jesus’ disciples.

 

Andrew Anderson, Oxford, February 2019, 1805 words.