Sunday, August 6, 2017

“Do You Want to Get Well?”

 A sermon based upon John 5: 1-15
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
9th Sunday After Pentecost, August 6th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #7)

 Who likes to go to the doctor?  Raise your hand.  Just as I thought, I didn’t think I’d get a very good show of hands. 

Still, we all know, whether we like it or not, that good medical care along with eating wisely and daily exercise, are all necessities for maintaining good health.  We know this, but still it can be hard to do.   Perhaps you heard about the follow who was more than a little overweight.   He told the doctor he was exercising daily, but the doctor refused to believe it. So, the the fellow listed all the the exercises he did every day: jump to conclusions, climb the walls, drag my heels, push my luck, make mountains out of molehills, bend over backward, run around in circles, put my foot in my mouth, go over the edge, and beat around the bush (Readers Digest Online).

A short time ago, I made a visit to the doctor myself.  It was not a routine visit.  I had an unexplained elevation in blood pressure along with dizziness which caused me to feel like I was going to pass out while pulling weeds from my garden. 

So, when the nurse and physician came in, they started bombarding me with all kinds of questions:  “Why did you come in?”  “What symptoms did you have?”  “Are they still going on?”  “Has this ever happened before?”  “Did you eat anything different?”  Questions, Questions!  They were full of many questions.  It made me remember what one of my doctor-skeptical relatives once said, when the doctor asked him, “What’s going on with you?”  He answered very smartly, “I don’t know, you tell me. That’s what I came to ask you.

For those who are a little smarter than my smarty-pants relative, we all know that asking questions is an essential part of making a proper diagnosis.   Doctors are not gods, and even more so, we rightly describe them as ‘practicing medicine’ because even medical science is not an exact science.  Illness and good health depend on many different factors, and even though there are some general rules to disease and wellness, every ‘case’ is different because people and their bodies are different.  

In the healing arts, and it is as much arts as it is science, there is just no such thing as ‘one size’ or ‘one case’ exactly ‘fits all’.  This is why there are so many warnings on medicine labels.  It's also why after you see or hear a new medicine being advertised on TV, right after you hear about everything this new drug might do for you, they also have to warn you what it might do to you.  This is also why you have to fill out so much personal and medical history when you visit a new doctor.  To help you, they not only need to know about what’s wrong with you, they also need to have some way of getting to know who you are.

What we know about Jesus, is that he was not only a “master teacher”, but he also conducted a healing ministry and is called ‘a great physician’.  And like any other physician, and even more so, Jesus most always approached the afflicted person with questions---different questions.   When Jesus approached the mentally ill man, possessed with demons, his first question was “What is Your Name?”   On another occasion, Jesus asked a blind man,  after he removed his bandages and applied a ointment of spittle and mud, “What do you see?”   When another Blind man cried out for Jesus to ‘stop and have mercy on him’,  Jesus ironically asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Just like those doctors to have to ask many questions in order to get a proper diagnosis, Jesus asked them too.

Think again about that demon possessed man who was living in the graveyard and continually cutting himself.   The very first question Jesus asked him was: “What is Your Name?”  How many of us have entered the emergency room and had to answer too many questions and fill out all those forms before a doctor would see us?  It’s frustrating at times, but in most cases it’s very necessary.  It was also necessary for Jesus to ask this mentally and spiritually confused person about his identity.  How that man answered, “My name is Legion, because we are many”, told Jesus and us as much about his spiritual condition, as it did his physical one.  Any good doctor will remind you, that a good treatment that promotes healing always starts with asking the right questions, and also not rushing to quick answers.

During my seminary training, I worked as a Chaplin in a major teaching hospital.  This short three months gave me a much broader pastoral experience than I could have ever gained in church-based ministry.  Sometimes I even got to rub shoulders with some very talented and busy physicians, some who were glad I was working with their patients, others who didn’t care, and still others who were willing to learn.  In one situation, I was called by a doctor who told me he had unanswered questions about why one of his patients would not respond to normal medical treatment.  It should have been routine to watch this man begin to get well from the medicines and therapy, but he didn’t.

After reading the charts with nurses reports, the wise physician, who knew nothing about spiritual matters, noticed that this fellow appeared depressed without any clinical reason.  Remembering that he was trained to ask for chaplains, as a frontline approach to signs of emotional or relational stress, he called me to ask if I’d make a visit.  I did, and I didn’t just make one, but many visits and found this man to be depressed, not for physical reasons, but for spiritual reasons, which we were able to talk and pray through quite extensively.  As several weeks went by, the doctor noticed that his patient’s physical condition started to respond to treatment and condition improved.  One day, when he saw me passing in the hallway, he stopped me and reported the favorable result, even though he couldn’t explain why or how?   His willingness to ask questions, beyond his own knowledge was as important to the healing, as my own training was to learn how to ask spiritual questions, without giving or suggesting easy answers.

This question Jesus asked in our text for today, “Do you want to get well,” sounds very strange.  But when you consider the answer the paralyzed man gave him, it makes a lot more sense.

 Jesus had just found this man lying near a unique pool of water where all kinds of ‘disabled’ people were always gathered around.  Especially on this special occasion,  many crippled and diseased people were seen waiting around the pool, until ‘the water is stirred’.  The stirring waters, perhaps had very natural causes, but were believed to have been moved by angels, or some other positive, spiritual forces.   For them, at least  this was a therapeutic whirlpool with healing properties.

What was most revealing about this crippled man’s response, was exactly why Jesus asked him such a strange-sounding-question.   The man, no doubt, had someone to bring him to the pool called “Bethesda”where many other blind, lame, and paralyzed were already gathered.  But the man answers Jesus’ question, not with an affirmative answer, but with an excuse.   He answers that ‘when the water is stirred’ he has ‘no one to help him.’  This must mean that he has no one to help him quickly get into the pool before the movement stops.  He can get to the pool, but he couldn’t get into the water.

I once had a aunt that I loved dearly.  She had never been married.  My grandmother, her mother died when I was two years old.  Her father, my grandfather, died when I was six.  Because my aunt still lived on the farm, my parents would visit every other Sunday during my childhood.  One Sunday we would visit my still living grandmother, my Father’s mother in North Iredell.  The other Sunday, we would visit my aunt, my mother’s older sister who lived a few miles west of Statesville.

I loved how rustically, and independently my aunt lived.  She didn’t have a bathroom.  She didn’t have running water, except in the kitchen.   She also didn’t have central heating; only a wood stove extending from the fireplace in the living area.   In the wintertime, I loved fetching wood from the woodshed.  I also loved feeding the chickens and slopping the hogs, as well as pulling fresh cherries from cherry trees, picking apples or pears in season.   It was one of my favorite places to be.

I loved it so much, that once, as a child, I decided I wanted to spend the night with my aunt.  I almost made, until she started telling me how bad she felt, how her back or head was hurting her.  I’m sure she made have had some real health problems from time to time.  But the real issue was that she was lonely.   She liked to complain a lot.  I noticed it, even as a kid.  When she started into a ‘fit of complaining’, as mom called, I couldn’t take it anymore and I had my aunt call my parents to come and get me.

Again, I’m sure my aunt had some real health problems from time to time, as we all do.  But it seemed that every time the doctors helped her, she quickly developed something else to complain about.  She even once ordered a prayer cloth from healing evangelists Oral Roberts.  When I suggested, with tongue in cheek to my aunt that it must not worked, my mother stepped on my toe, which signaled me to keep my big mouth shut.  Did my aunt really want to get well?   It seemed to me, that at least sometimes, she didn’t.  She really wanted to keep reminding us how lonely she was.

Perhaps the reason Jesus opened with the question: “Do you want to get well” is because, for this fellow, as for us too at times, the sickness can seem easier than the cure.  Sometimes its easier to give up.   Sometimes the treatment is overwhelming.   Sometimes we get so wrapped up in blaming somebody else, we forget how to take responsibility for ourselves and our own actions.   Coach John Wooden used to tell his UCLA basketball players, on their way to become men, not just athletes: “Nobody is really defeated until they start blaming somebody else.”   So, he said,  “Try to fix the problem, don’t lay the blame.”  Losers can blame, winners never do.  I can’t ever remember a winning team saying, “Well, it’s their fault that we won!” 

This man is not helping his situation by laying blame, but as the story unfolds, I love how Jesus didn’t say a single thing negative to this man up front.  What he does offer him is healing without any up-front requirements at all.  Without another word, Jesus turns to him and commands:  “Get Up!  Pick up your mat and walk!”   This is one of the stronger, double commands, Jesus ever gives, and he gives it to a crippled man.   It is not a command to insult him, but it is a command to challenge the limits that has gotten into his mind and heart, as well as, to challenge his physical situation.  In directly, Jesus is saying: Stop blaming anyone and ‘get up’ and you can walk!

One of my smart school mates, Robert Setzer Jr., comments in his own sermon on this text, that ‘the measure of Jesus’ greatness is that sometimes (I’d say often), he bets on a loser.’  He continues, (I’m paraphrasing) that many of us, he and me included, would still be lying beside our own pools of desperation, paralyzed with blame, fear or self-defeat, drained of all our spiritual strength and emotional resources, had not Jesus’ love and challenging words of grace not come to us.  Many you’ve been there, like I have and most have, when unexpected sickness comes, with depressing diagnosis comes, when you lost your job, when you lost a loved one, or when others let you down.  It’s easy to get lock into to laying blame---even blaming yourself.  But Jesus will not let you lay there for long.  He says to me, like he said to this cripple, and he says to any of us when life cripples leaves us paralyzed with hurt: “Get Up!”  Stop blaming them!  Stop blaming yourself!  Stop blaming me!  Just get up and you will be on the way to healing and hope. (Based on Encounters with the Living Christ, Robert B. Setzer Jr., Judson Press, 1999, pp 58-59).  

If you are the one lying around, blaming yourself or others for your problems and your pains, would you let Jesus challenge you today?  Would you let him challenge you with a friend to walk beside you, with a church family who not only talked about grace, but makes it happen.  Would you let Jesus challenge you with a word from Scripture that could leap off the page and find a lodging place in your heart?   Would you hold your head up just long enough to look into his eyes or reach out, and feel the touch of grace in his hand? 

An old legend tells of hiker who lost his way and fell into some quicksand.  Confucius found the man in this predicament and offered him a word of wisdom: “If I were you I’d stay away from places like this?  Buddha also saw his plight and said, “Let the plight of this one be a lesson that you should not repeat such folly!”  Mohammad came by speaking with great resolve: “Alas, this must be the will of Allah for an infidel.”  But then, finally Jesus came up to the man, reach down his hand, saying “Brother, take me by the hand and I will pull you out.”

Isn’t this the gospel?  Isn’t this the good news of Jesus Christ, that not only does not leave us in our dying or hurting place, but offers us a way to live and to heal.  And this is we know we need a savior, and we know that we can’t save ourselves, when life has fallen in around us, and there’s no one left to blame, and in no way will Jesus leave us there, but offers us a way, when there is no way, and someone, when there is no one.     
Just like Jesus skipped the big party in Jerusalem and went around to the places of hurt and pain to find someone to save, Jesus can find us too, no matter where we are lying, and no matter how all alone we might feel.

Still, just like the ‘stirring waters’ can’t really heal except perhaps psychologically, or as auto-suggestion, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is no magic nor miracle cure either, unless it has our own active participation. This is why Jesus later locates the once crippled man in the temple and reminds him: You’d better ‘stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (v.14).  

Does it sound like ‘your Jesus’ or ‘my Jesus’ or ‘the real Jesus’ to show up at church, after you and I have been saved, healed, or made whole, and then to find us, look us straight in the eyes and directly say in no uncertain terms: “You’d better stop sinning, or something worse, worse than even being paralyzed or being lost, might happen to you.”   Do you think Jesus is threatening this fellow?   Do you think Jesus would be threatening us?  Or could this be a sober, realistic, friendly reminder that, as Bonhoeffer once said, “Grace is free, but it’s not cheap!”  

Do you see why Jesus said this to the man.  Ever since he was healed, he still hasn’t gotten out of the old pattern of placing blame.  When religious leaders started asking him why he is carrying his mat on the Sabbath, instead of describing how he was healed, he blames ‘the man who made him well’ for commanding him ‘to take up his mat and to walk’ (v.11).  But when question further, he did not know who ‘this man’ was because Jesus had quickly ‘slipped away into the crowd’.  But when the man came into the temple, perhaps to give thanks, Jesus sees him, and challenges him ‘to stop sinning’ or ‘something worse could happen’. Right after than, falling into his habit again, the man went to the religious leaders who wanted to kill Jesus and squealed on him saying, ‘it was Jesus who made him well’ (v.15).

What happened to his man after this?  We can only assume, as my school mate Bob Setzer writes, “This is one man whom even Jesus couldn’t cure.”  Yes, you heard right.  Like the Rich Young Ruler who went away sorrowful.   Like the Rich man in Jesus’ parable who went to the Hell of unending torment.  And even like Judas, whom John later will say ‘was a devil’ for betraying Jesus, and died only to ‘go to his own place’, here is one of the few people Jesus healed, but didn’t cure.   Perhaps it was the same for those nine lepers, who didn’t return to thank Jesus too.  We don’t know.  But what we do know is that Jesus not only didn’t cure everybody, he couldn’t cure everybody, because some did not want to be cured.  They wanted to stay the way they were, or to go back to the same old unhealthy patterns and irresistible habits.  The wanted their own way, or it was the highway, as we say.  What they didn’t get, was the endurance of the saints, who are those will are not only saved by grace, but have been changed and transformed by that grace, and will be saved, because they will endure to the end.
So, hearing Jesus’ warning of grace,  can you really understand his question?  Do you really want to get well?  Or is this just the same, o same o? 

I conclude with a story, I also owe to Dr. Setzer, about a great surgeon, who was about to perform plastic surgeon on a young boy who had lost his arm in an accident.   When the surgeon came in to question the young man, he looked at him, and asked, “Now, would you tell me about your handicap?” The young fellow look the famous doctor with a look of surprise, and then with fire in his eyes answered, “Sir, I don’t have a handicap.  I just don’t have a right hand.”

Now, that’s the kind of healing that is more than skin deep.  It points us straight to the deeper, spiritual, and more personal kind of healing, that Jesus came to give.  Do you want this kind of healing?   Do you really want to get well?  You can, but you must ‘get up’ and ‘you must walk’ it, and not just ‘talk it’.  Amen.

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