Nehemiah 13:15-22, John 5:1-9
May 13, 2007
We’re looking at this healing story in John chapter 5. And it’s an interesting story. Because it’s a story that’s about more than just a sick man being healed. It’s about Jesus. It’s about what people were willing to accept about him. And it’s about how we are healed, and how that healing has to do with the whole of us, body, mind, and spirit.
First let’s look at this healing story. Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem, and they were passing near one of the city gates where there was a pool called Bethzatha. Now there was a belief about that pool, that from time to time an angel went down into it and stirred up the waters. It may have been that there was some kind of natural spring in that pool. But, the belief was that when that happened, whoever stepped into the water first would be healed of whatever disease they had. So, as you can imagine, there was a large number of people there – a multitude it said – lying around, waiting for the stirring of the water, hoping to be the first one in.
Jesus approached that scene, and he noticed one man who John says had been ill for 38 years. It doesn’t say what kind of illness he had, but obviously it was quite debilitating. He lay on a pallet – a makeshift bed – and he was unable to move very much. We probably can’t even imagine the life he had, confined to bed, unable to do anything, unable to work. Who knows how he was able to eat. He probably relied on charity. He was imprisoned by a terrible debilitating existence!
So Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be healed?” And we can only imagine the frustration in his voice as he explained what we now know about this pool. He said, “I have no one to put me in the water when its’ stirred up. And when I try to get in myself, I move so slowly that I’m never able to be the first one.” Then, as the story goes, Jesus tells the man to take up his pallet and walk. Which he does. And the man is healed!
That’s a great miracle story. It’s a great healing. And as we think about it, I’d like to suggest to you that when Jesus healed a person, he did so “holistically.” That is he healed people, not just in the body, but in the “whole person.” As I understand it, that’s the approach of “holistic medicine.” Holistic medicine doesn’t deny the practice of conventional medicine. Far from it! But it sees that as part of the process of the healing of the whole of a person. And I believe that was the approach of Jesus. When he healed a person, he wasn’t just interested in restoring the person’s health. He was interested in their heart and their soul as well.
I hope we see that he wants to do the same with us, too. He doesn’t just offer us forgiveness. He doesn’t just want to heal our “disease” of sin. He wants to heal our heart. He wants to set us free. Too many of God’s people forget that. As you’ve heard me say, too many in the Church only want to do the minimum that is required of them. Sometimes their approach to faith is very legalistic. They just want to do the least and believe the basic stuff, in order only to deal with the “problem of sin,” but little more. As this man was set free from his life of infirmity, so God wants to set free our hearts.
Now, think for a moment what this story means to our understanding of what we might call “faith healing.” That can be a hard subject for us to understand, can’t it? When we think of the way we pray for someone who is ill or infirmed, we can find ourselves getting caught up in the whole business of trying to “say the right things,” or ask “the right way.” Because we feel somehow that if we do it all right, then we will be more likely to receive the healing we desire. And all of that prayer is good. Don’t get me wrong. In fact, the Bible tells us that we are to pray for healing, doesn’t it? And it’s good that we recognize when God actually does heal someone. But at the same time, it’s frustrating because we know it doesn’t always happen. What then?
Some people who are ill or infirmed spend much of their lives dealing with this. Some go from faith healer to faith healer trying to find the right one, searching for the right formula in prayer, hoping the next one will know just how to touch them. This scene from the pool of Bethzatha has been repeated down through the centuries in churches, and tent meetings, and “revival” auditoriums. And we people of faith sometimes have a hard time sorting it all out, and knowing what to believe.
Well, I don’t pretend to know all the answers. This is tough stuff! But I think it helps for us to look at these stories in terms of the healing of the “whole person.” As I said, when Jesus healed somebody, he was always interested in more than just the person’s body. I remember a conversation I had with an old colleague of mine. We were talking about all this, an he said, “Remember, God doesn’t promise us perfect physical health! Think about it. If he did, then perhaps there would be something to the notion that we would always be healed “if only we have enough faith.” But that’s not the way it happens. “And if it were,” as my friend said, “the hospitals would be filled with people with weak faith!” And that’s not true either, is it?
You see, even more than the body, God is interested in the health of our heart! And that doesn’t mean the same as it does in restaurants! That doesn’t mean God is into low cholesterol, and cardio fitness, and all that. What it does mean is that God does not promise us perfect physical health – though physical health is certainly important to him. What he does promise us is perfect spiritual health. For as we read last week, when we are his, “We are being changed into his likeness – the likeness of God – from one degree of glory to the next!”
That’s what we need to be willing to see in all of this. Jesus wants to do more than just heal the body, or heal the soul from the disease of sin. He wants to set us free. He wants to change us and make us whole. And we see in this story some who didn’t “get that.” These Pharisees couldn’t accept the miracles Jesus did as being valid, and they couldn’t come to grips with him for who he was. Because they were stuck in this legalism of keeping the law.
In the part of this story we didn’t read, there is this unbelievable contrast between this man who was healed of his infirmity, and these Pharisees. There was this contrast between the man who Jesus healed, and these who couldn’t see past their “obsession” with keeping the Sabbath Law. Look at this when you get a chance. (In fact, make a note to yourself to read this whole chapter.) What’s the first thing they say after this man was healed, after suffering this infirmity for four decades? They said, “Hey, it’s unlawful of you to carry your pallet on the Sabbath!”
From our perspective, that is unbelievable, isn’t it?! It’s borderline whacky! It’s over the borderline! What’s with these guys?!? Why couldn’t they embrace the miracle? Why did they not want to accept the truth about who Jesus was? Did they not want to see the truth? Were they so caught up in their own understanding – for whatever reason – that they refused to see anything else? And this is in contrast to the passage from Nehemiah. That was about people who were forsaking God by failing to keep the holy Sabbath. In this story these guys were forsaking God by keeping the Sabbath!
The more I read this, the more I think that’s why John told us this story. He wanted us to see the contrast between the message of Jesus, and how that message “landed” on the world around him. Remember how he started his Gospel. In the great prologue to this book he wrote, “The true light the enlightens everyone was coming into the world… the world was made through him… but his own people received him not.” That is incredible!!! “But to all who did receive him… he gave power to be children of God.” (John 1:9-11)
That’s the contrast he’s trying to show us throughout his Gospel. That’s the focus of this story today. It is the healing of this man. It is his freedom in Christ, and it is the refusal of others to see. As we go through the Gospel of John, we would see that it gets worse.
In John 9 there is this story of the man who had been born blind. Without going too much into that healing story, just imagine it. This story for today was an incredible miracle. This man had been sick for almost 40 years. Many people didn’t live that long! But imagine, one who was born blind, all of a sudden being given sight. That’s unbelievable! I’m told that something like 80% of all the input to our brain comes through our eyes! And yet, in that case, the Pharisees said, “This man (Jesus) is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” (John 9:16) That’s unbelievable!
Now, as unbelievable as it sounds, do we sometimes do the same? Do we sometimes forget the wonder of healed hearts and joyous souls? And do we get stuck at the point of the simple healing of the “disease” of sin?
It is my hope that we can continue to grow in our understanding of the glory of God’s kingdom. It is my hope that we can “take in” that we are being “transformed into the likeness of God, from one degree of glory to the next.” It is my hope that we can see ourselves as being “holistic” in terms of the change in us – body, mind, and spirit. And the Christian life does mean that we are changed. I know that’s not a very popular word for us “Presbyterians.” But “if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, the past is finished and done. Behold the new has come!” (II Corinthians 5:17)
We have been healed and set free! And our freedom is beyond our understanding. We have been set free from sin, but also from the debilitating effects of sin. We are made whole in the most wonderful sense of the word! We are changed! Not from one degree of perfection to another, but from one degree of glory to another! Live differently. Love differently. Give God the glory and honor and praise!!!
Lord, indeed you have healed us and made us whole. Help us to know the newness of life in Christ Jesus. Help us to look to the kingdom he came to tell us was in our midst. Transform us, that we may life the joyous, and free, and fully alive life we have in you. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.