Notes from a sermon preached on 19.10.08 – see comments
It’s amazing what responses a genuine attempt at doing something good can have. I remember a few years ago being on a trip with L. H. who used to come to Wormley. We were driving to a Sierra Leone Mission meeting in Sussex, approaching the Dartford crossing. I’d been telling her about some sessions I’d had at the Soul survivor Church in Watford. There, Mike Pilavachi was encouraging us to be ‘generous in obscurity’ – in other words to do good deeds but in such a way that no one would no who it was, or would bring us praise. He told us the tale of one time when he’d been going over the Dartford Crossing, and decided to pay the toll not just for himself, but also for the car behind – even though he had no idea who was driving in it. Masterful idea I thought. We decided we’d give it ago. We sorted the money out, £1 for us and a £1 for the car behind. The tension rose in the car as we crossed lanes to get to one where there was a human attendant. I wound the window down, reached over, handed him the money and proudly said – that’s for us and the car behind! That felt good. Our bubble was somewhat burst when the guy leaned down and said – it’s a van, that’ll be another 20p please… Sadly, we didn’t have that on us…
Then there was the time when we took this idea of trying to good things for no return onto the streets of Cheshunt. We spent a day painting the Drill Hall, putting up fire alarms and such like. My abiding memory is of Jack Wells, chasing some disbelieving bloke down the street, clutching a biscuit and hot cup of tea, insisting that it really was for free…
The pool at Bethesda was the place of last resort. This is where those who couldn’t afford to pay for health care came – or those for whom health care had no answer. The blind, the lame and the paralysed lay there in great numbers, waiting, hoping. The pool was said to have healing powers
One invalid had been laying by its waters for some 38 years. What sort of life does that hint at! He wasn’t able to get to the waters by himself, and when he needed to –when the waters stirred suggesting the healing powers were there, he had to call out for someone to help him. This took time – everyone else was too busy getting themselves into the pool. I suspect you can picture the scene – a bit like Harrods at the start of the January Sales where everyone simply stampedes to get ahead, leaving everyone else in their wake. By the time he found someone kind enough to give him a hand, he’d missed his chance, and it was back to the edge of the pool to await the next time. It was no wonder that he’d given up hope – can you imagine 38 years of missing out like this. His only hope had been a constant no hope.
I imagine by now to be honest he had given up. This life had become familiar. Being a victim, a martyr to his condition, had become his identity. It was who he was.
This happens easily. Amongst my gaming friends it is a running joke that I am cursed because I rarely seem to roll a good dice roll in the games we play. Most of the time, it is taken for granted that I will fail, and to be honest, most of the time I think that too.
Of course it can be more serious than that. I think of my friends in Sierra Leone who’s country has been in such a bad way for so long that they have got stuck in a rut of thinking that they have nothing and can do nothing for themselves and are dependent on aid from charities and governments. Part of our job in the mission is getting them to see beyond that and begin to help themselves.
On a personal level, maybe we’ve always got the impression from others that we’re not attractive, or clever or popular. These remarks or behaviour shown towards us can be way of the mark, but we can easily take it on, and begin to believe that we are that thing and get stuck there. This can be a hard place to escape from.
Into this hopeless situation comes Jesus. Hearing about this invalid, Jesus turns to him. ‘Do you want to get well?’ I wonder what emotion that phrase was charged with? Was it a gentle question? A rebuke ‘Do you really want to get well?’ Was he trying to encourage the man or shock him out of his despair, or even was he trying to rebuke him for his self-pity? The man’s answer is a helpless one, no one will help me… he has given up.
But then Jesus calls him to get up, pick up his mat and walk. At once the man is cured, and that is exactly what he does! The word for ‘get up’ here is the greek verb ‘egeire’ – remember that, we’ll come back to that later.
I find it fascinating that we’re not told what the man thought of this. It doesn’t tell us that he went away leaping and praising God, or that he reluctantly gave up his life of begging. Instead the continuing conversation is on the question of who it was that healed him. This is probably quite important. It would be all too easy to tell this story in wonderful detail. To spend time elaborating how the man felt, what the reaction of the crowds was and so on. But as exciting as these things would be, John wants us to focus on one fact. Jesus is the one who can enter into hopeless situations and change them. Jesus is the one who can heal, who can set free the victim, who has the power to turn lives around. Jesus is the bringer of life. If you ever feel in such a situation or place, you needed despair, as there is one who can make the difference.
There is more to this story though than this miraculous healing. John wants us to discover through it something more about this life-bringer.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were in many ways a great bunch. They had a passion for doing what God wanted. They poured over the scriptures which they believed revealed to them what God wanted, and strove to understand what that meant for them in the age that they were living in. Over time they produced lists of how they thought the law should be applied to their culture, in many ways they were doing what most churches do most Sundays during the sermon. We often knock them – as Jesus himself did – but at heart their motivation for doing what they did was not a bad one.
They lived in a multi-cultural society. This mean that they had to work hard to maintain their distinctive identity. Not surprisingly the command to make the Sabbath a rest day became a key one – this truly did mark them out from those around them. One of the guidelines they drew up was that you shouldn’t carry things on a Sabbath…
Jesus was in trouble. To be accurate, he was in double trouble. Not only had he performed a miracle on the Sabbath = work, but he had also got the man to pick up his matt = work. Can you picture the scene? Jesus gets home pleased about his day, when there is a knock on the door. It’s the elders. The minister has heard he’s been up to no good and has sent them round to deal with it…
Jesus has a quick retort, v.17, ‘My Father is always at work to this very day, and, I too, am working.’ If God stopped working, the world would end. He needs to keep working to sustain it day by day. In other words the rule could be, and ought to be, broken in order to do good.
You’re out and about and you see a little girl fall over, hurt herself and burst out into tears. What do you do? Do you rush over, brush her down, comfort her and look for her parents? Or do you stand back and hope someone else might help because you’re concerned about people’s response to your actions in the age of CRB checks and litigation?
Someone comes to church who you’ve not seen before. It soon becomes clear that they don’t really know what they’re supposed to do, and they keep butting in during the sermon. What do you do? Tell them to be quiet, or allow them to have their say?
It’s all too easy for us to let rules and guidelines dictate how we live, instead of the desire to express love. It is also all too easy to let them affect the way those outside the church see us and more importantly our God. Catch is, it isn’t always so easy to see this happening unless someone points it out to us. This is why I’ve appreciated visiting other churches or going to Sierra Leone. Stepping out of our own cultures helps us to evaluate them afresh. What are your priorities? Doing things as they’re supposed to be, or bringing life?
Jesus, John tells us, was all about bringing life. That was his top priority, and he wasn’t going to let traditions or rules get in his way…
So we have this developing picture of Jesus as the one who can bring life even into the most despairing of situations, and the one who makes bringing life his top priority. This behaviour gets Jesus into trouble – not that this stops him at all. But what really starts the friction between him and the religious leaders, what blows this debate from an argument to hatred, is what Jesus also claims.
He claims a special relationship with God – he calls him his Father.
He claims that he does what his Father reveals to him – in other words, God has made him privy to his plans. Think about that for a moment. What does that mean? Most of the time I’m not privy to the Prime Ministers plans. To know what he has on his mind, you’d need to be in the cabinet or close to him in some way. Here Jesus is saying that he such a close relationship with God, close enough for God to reveal his plans to him, and close enough that God wants him to do them.
He claims that he can do things that most Jews thought were God’s prerogative. He claims that he has the power and the authority to raise people to life – not just a renewed life as in the invalid at the pool at Bethesda, but to raise people to eternal life, just as his Father does. Equally, he has the power and authority to judge those he raises – as he is the Son of Man. Incidentally the word used for raise in vs. 28,29 here is the same as the word used for ‘get up’ in Jesus’ instruction to the invalid. It is the same life giving power.
Remember that vision in Daniel where he sees one like a Son of Man approaching the Ancient of Days and being given power and authority? Jesus is claiming to be him.
Put this together and you have an outrageous claim – Jesus is clearly saying that he is more than just the bringer of life. He is claiming that he is the source of life, God himself. He has a different role to the Father, but is equal to him in status and of the same power and will.
Many things set Jesus up against the religious leaders of his day. There was ‘professional jealousy’, the way he was more popular than them, his criticism of their hypocrisy, his stand against Roman oppression and the implications of their being crossed and so on. But this was the one thing that above all others riled them and lead ultimately to his death; his claim to be divine.
Knowing that they took offence to this, he calls upon the witness of John the Baptist, the reality of his miracles and the thrust of scripture to support his claims. This is what I am, and these things prove it.
Through this story a picture of Jesus has been gradually and carefully crafted.
· Jesus is the one who can bring life even into the most hopeless of situations.
· More than that, bringing life is his top priority, above following laws and traditions.
· Jesus has the power to not only bring life to us here, but also life in the world to come, where he will raise us to either new life or judgement
· How is this? Because Jesus is not just the bringer of life, but the source of life, God himself. Through him all things were created as John puts it in his introduction!
What does this mean to us? We have a response to make. Do we, like the religious leaders of the day deny his claims, and risk his judgement? Or do we, like the invalid at the pool accept his offer.