Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Pool of Bethesda - John 5: 1-15

 “Bethesda” may be translated either as “house of grace” or “house of disgrace.”  Based on what was going on there, the second meaning seems a better fit.

Scholars have identified Bethesda as related to a kind of Greek temple called an asclepion. These were dedicated to the god Asclepius, who was the god of medicine and snakes. Each one had a pool where people bathed with other sick people, and then waited for a sign for some sign of healing.

 Sometimes, the priests gave them drugs, to make them dream and have visions. Other times, they lay beside the pool and allowed snakes to crawl over them. If a snake touched them, they would be healed. Another device they used was to have priests operate air pumps that made the water bubble. When the water bubbled, the first one in the water was healed. It was all fake and trickery, but the sick people were desperate, and paid to get in.  These temples were in every major city, and made a fortune. In Jerusalem it was forbidden to worship Asclepius, so  they claimed instead that an angel was troubling the water. They just left the pagan god out of it, and substituted an angel.

This was not only immoral, it was also very dangerous. Imagine sharing an unsanitary pool with hundreds of sick people!  Imagine the awful spectacle of hordes of sick people fighting to be the first in the pool! What a horrific sight it must have been!

That day when Jesus came to the pool, why didn’t He shut it down? Remember that day when Jesus made a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the temple—why didn’t He do that here? Instead of stopping it, Jesus chose to ignore it.  Instead, he spoke to a lame man on the edge of the crowd. Or better yet, why didn’t Jesus use His divine power and heal them all? He didn’t interfere, but instead went and talked quietly to one man on the edge of the crowd.   

There are a couple of reasons He didn’t. First, it wasn’t the right time. Jesus’ time was limited. He had to proclaim the Kingdom of God and be crucified on the Passover in Jerusalem. It was a strategic use of time and effort, not just a passionate response. There was so much evil in the Roman world—slavery, child abandonment, ritualized murder and death, disease, homelessness, poverty, unemployment, and so forth—that if He took on them all, he would have done nothing else. Second, Jesus allowed people to keep their idols. He invited people to turn from their idols, but He didn’t break them. Instead, Jesus wanted to break the power of idols in the hearts of people by inviting them to follow Him. If you break a person’s idol without giving them anything else, then they will just get another idol. If he took away the pool of Bethesda, someone would just build another one. So instead of breaking idols, Jesus invited them to turn to Him.

There are two view of how Christians should relate to the society around us. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are a matter more of emphasis. One view is that Christ came to reform society. Christianity is a political movement more than a religious movement. Jesus came to set up the Kingdom of God on earth by overcoming wrongs.  The other view is that Christ came to reform individuals. When individuals are changed, then society is changed. We can’t take down the idols in society, but we can help individuals turn from them and see Jesus. This story supports this latter view.  Jesus didn’t take down the idol of the pool, but he took one man from it, who would then testify to others about the true source of life. 

The crowd around the pool were not just sick people--they were deluded. They really believed this place would heal them. Jesus doesn’t mess with our delusions. He just offers us the truth. As long as those people looked to the pool, instead of God, they would never be really healed.

We don’t have such a pool, but we have other delusions. Our delusions promise us health, wealth, and happiness, but give us nothing. Stand outside a convenience store on the day of a big jackpot and you will see the poor, greedy and desperate people line up for tickets, hoping for a lucky number. Turn on game shows where people audition for their one shot at stardom. Watch open tryouts for the major-league baseball and football, where they only take one in ten thousand. It’s insanity to think that anything which depends on luck or chance will ever make our existence worthwhile.

God doesn’t give us a chance for happiness. He gives us happiness, guaranteed. If the only way we can find happiness is through a chance of circumstance, then we don’t understand the plan of God for our lives. God offers us help by offering us Himself in the form of Jesus. When we find Jesus in our lives, whether we have good fortune or bad, we have a source of happiness that will sustain us.  There are times in life when we should and must take chances. But happiness is not a chance. God’s grace is not a chance. It is a reality for anyone who will look away from the crowd and look to Jesus. 

This is another example of how Jesus looks away from the crowd to minister to one individual.   People mattered to Him one by one.  Anyone who comes to Jesus, anyone who meets Jesus can and will be changed. But in order to experience the grace of God we must follow Jesus. 

In our story, the man is changed. We can see the process of this change in the three statements that Jesus makes to this man.

First, came a question, “Do you want to be healed?”  Sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it?  If he didn’t want to be healed, why was he hanging around the pool?

It’s not a silly question at all. This man had settled down into a sick routine of life. His life was not prosperous, but at least it ws familiar. The man was being fed either through begging, relatives, or living off the public dole. He had companions. He didn’t have to work. Charity and public assistance becomes a habit after a while, and there’s nothing harder for any of us to accept than change. After a while, charity becomes addictive. 

Healing brings changes and some of those changes can be painful.  But when God gives us an opportunity to be whole, then we must be willing to receive it. That always means embracing a new lifestyle  and a new attitude.  

Alcoholics, drug addicts, and other addictions often will say they want to be rid of their addiction. But when change is offered to them, they usually choose to avoid the pain and stay with their sickness. They chose to stay as they are, rather than face a new life. 

A man came to Jesus one day an and said “Master, what must I do to receive eternal life.”  Jesus told him to keep the commandments. Then he listed some of them—do not steal, do not murder, do not commit adultery, and so on. Beside each one, the man put a little mental check mark—done that, done that, done that. All these things he was already in the habit of doing.

Then Jesus threw him a curve ball—“Give all you have to feed the poor, and come and follow me.”  Wait a minute! The man thought.  I didn’t plan on this!  Jesus always does this to us. The biggest thing Jesus asks for each of us, if we want to be well, is to surrender our habits to Him. Break out of comfortable shells and look at life in a different way.  Being healed is always going to cost us. We must be willing to choose change over comfort and routine and break free by looking at Him. 

The second thing He said was, “Take up you bed and walk.” Walking is leaving somewhere and going to somewhere. First he left his couch. Sickness, depression, and laziness puts us on the couch. We must leave the comfort and safety of our old routines. Second, he left the crowd. People have told me that they would rather go to hell than heaven, because all their friends are there. Don’t continue in delusion, because that is where your friends are, but trust God to give you some new companions when you start your new life. Third, we must break our lifestyle of dependency. You can’t stay an invalid, being helped by others, but you must be willing to stand on your own. God will help you do this, but you must be willing to stand alone.  

Walking is going to somewhere. After Jesus left this man He headed for the house of God. 
If we do not come to God, then we will fall back under delusion. It was only there, at that time that Jesus was revealed to this man as the Son of God.

Come to church. You can meet God anywhere, but God has set aside a place for us to meet him in the company of others. That place is in the fellowship and worship of a church.

The third thing Jesus said was, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”  
Why does He say this? Is Jesus suggesting that his illness came from some sin that he committed?  Not at all. It’s not the cause of his lameness that is the problem, but his continuing delusion of thinking this pool will save him. His “sin” was looking in the wrong direction. He was looking for an angel disturbing the pool to be his savior, not God Himself. This is idolatry.

The tendency to idolatry is never far from any of us. None of us are immune to it, or to going back into idolatry at any time. That is why we need to not only look to Jesus, but to keep looking at Him. That is the difference between justification and sanctification. Justification is to be forgiven for our sins. Sanctification is the process of being cleansed from our sins. If we accept God’s forgiveness, then we will have eternal life. But to live holy lives, we must follow Him. Christians sin even after we have been saved. That doesn’t make us unsaved, but it still makes us a mess. We must not go back to the idols that used to dominate our lives.

Jesus offer us healing—not a chance for healing, but a guaranteed healing on the Cross. But first we must ask ourselves if we are willing to receive it. Then having received it, are we willing to set aside our idols daily, and follow Him. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy, but it is the only guaranteed way of salvation, given to us by God Himself, so we can be truly whole.  

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