Yesterday the United States celebrated 2 hundred and 32 years of freedom. And as I was sitting there Thursday night waiting for the fireworks to go off in Collegedale, I couldn’t help but wonder how things would look very, very different that many years ago. People milling around dressed so differently than they would in 1776. Culturally speaking, America has changed a lot since July 4, 1776, as someone has suggested with these “Only in America” factoids.
Only in America can a pizza get to your house faster than an ambulance.
Only in America do we use answering machines to screen calls and have call-waiting so that we won't miss a call from someone we didn't want to talk to in the first place.
Only in America do drugstores make the sick walk all the way to the back of the store to get their prescriptions, while so-called “healthy” people can walk right up to the front and buy their cigarettes.
Only in America do we leave cars worth thousands of dollars in the driveway and put our junk in the garage.
And this one got me. Only in America do people order double cheeseburgers, large fries and a DIET coke.
But in all seriousness, we love our freedom. Every year we celebrate it and we’re proud of those who have made sacrifices to defend that freedom. We’re so glad that we are citizens of a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
That being true, we must always remember that followers of Jesus are first of all citizens of the Kingdom of God and then, secondly, citizens of their particular country.
I’m thankful that God has always been on the side of freedom. Especially the kind of freedom that comes from knowing and trusting in Him.
Let’s go back much, much farther in time than the 17 hundreds, to imagine the story of a certain paralytic who discovered that freedom, the story of John, chapter 5.
John 5, verse 1, tells us that there was something special happening in Jerusalem.
And I like to picture in my mind, first of all, the watchers on the walls seeing the crowds coming. I see the people working in the fields all around Jerusalem looking up from their plows. And the sheep herders on the hills seeing the first crowds ambling toward the city. Looming clouds of dust marked the soon arrival of visitors, as well as the noise of donkeys complaining while they were being prodded and sheep bleating loudly. Children scurried about to excitedly announce all the new events happening to their friends and families.
The next day, Sabbath, was to be a high day, and so the city was astir with excitement. Many had traveled far and wide for the occasion, and by the end of that day, the population of Jerusalem had swollen to almost twice it’s normal size and many tents popped up all around outside the city.
The next morning, when the sun rose to proudly proclaim its daylight there was a different feeling about this Sabbath. Trumpets could be heard blaring loud and long throughout the city and the hillside, calling people to worship at the temple.
Yes, everything seemed different today. But not everything.
John 5, verse 2, introduces us to that fact.
You see, one of the paths into the city led through the Sheep Gate, not far from the temple, and near the Sheep Gate, there was the double-pool of Bethesda, according to some Bible translations. This pool was surrounded by five roofed patios with columns and arches. The word for these colonades in the Greek was ‘stoa’. People could gather there to meditate and that’s how we get the word ‘stoic’.
But on this day there were no philosophers gathered there. There were no wise men or teachers or Rabbis with their usual flocks of attentive students sitting at their feet. Instead, as usual, there were crowds of sick and blind and lame people loitering there, lying on their filthy, unwashed garments and their bed rolls, and they were just waiting.
Outside the pool area, multitudes passed by the scene in their fine, colorful clothes, clean from their baths the day before and doused with fragrant oils. As they passed by the pool, the sights and smells were not very pretty nor were they very fragrant, but they didn’t look in that direction, and they covered their noses as they went.
Hundreds of sufferers gathered there at the pool, all of them captives to their pain and misery. Some, I understand, spent the night in these porches, creeping to the edge of the pool day after day, in the vain hope of finding relief from their misery. They were all there because of a commonly held belief about the waters. Periodically, they thought, an angel came down from heaven and agitated the otherwise quiet water, and that whoever got in the pool first would be healed of whatever disease he had.
How strange it was, that in the land of the truth, in the land of the scriptures, the revelation of God, that these people were captives to a false hope.
Did I mention that there was tremendous crowding here? Many couldn’t even get near the pool. And many who had succeeded in getting close to the edge of the pool died on its brink. They were that sick. In fact, there was always someone dying every few days. The place was littered with dirty humans. It smelled of body odor, and reeked of human excrement. Not the kind of place you want to go to on Sabbath morning, when you want to go to church, or worship.
For those who spent their lives there, time spent alternated between long stretches of boring silence, punctuated by a few moments of tense exhilaration. For most, there was just the eternal waiting and watching, the moans and groans, mingled with prayers to God for healing and for mercy. According to some Bible translations, it was The House of Mercy. Bethesda.
“Yeah, more like the House of Waiting,” it was joked, I imagine.
Days, perhaps weeks passed by and nothing ever happened. But when the waters were suddenly agitated, that was a totally different picture. It became a loud, noisy rush. There would be so many people shouting and scrambling forward that they would trample underfoot men, women and children, weaker than themselves. No, there wasn’t much mercy at the pool of Bethesda. Not much mercy there at all. Just scrambling, selfishness and competition.
Some of the homeless were new arrivals, placed there by sympathetic friends, hoping they would be healed. But according to verse 5, there was one who had been there the longest, one case of supreme wretchedness. It was that of a man who had been a helpless cripple for thirty-eight years. Alone and friendless, and no doubt feeling he was shut out from God's mercy, this sufferer had passed long years of misery. Some people who pitied his helplessness would carry him to the porches when they expected the pool to be troubled.
But whenever the water did suddenly and mysteriously move, they were nowhere around, and he had no one to help him in. Weak and lame as he was, he couldn’t move very fast. His legs were paralyzed and useless, so no one bothered him because he couldn’t really compete with anyone, feeble as he was. He was only an invalid with no real hope, only desperation.
Others who weren’t as bad off, perhaps talked among themselves as to how long it would be before he would die. Of course, as soon as he would die, someone else would occupy his meager space.
The man himself had stopped counting the many times the water stirred and he would drag himself for all he was worth with his frail arms toward the edge of the pool, but others were always stronger than he and would plunge in the water before he could get there. He couldn’t compete with the selfish, scrambling crowd. All he could do was hope that one day he might be fortunate enough to get in the pool at the right time, however that would happen. But his anxiety and this continual disappointment were fast whittling away the last bit of his strength, and he knew he didn’t have much time left. He was getting weaker and weaker.
But on this day, something radically different was about to happen.
Outside the pool, one lone Traveler separated from the crowds heading toward the city and walked over to the pool, I imagine to the disbelief of the others, still on their way in the path, and once there, He saw the wretched sufferers watching for what they supposed to be their only cure. He longed to exercise His healing power, and make every one of them whole. But because it was the Sabbath day, He knew that it would provoke the Jews prejudice and all their stingy traditions and His own work would be cut short.
He walked around and carefully observed everyone, threading his steps carefully so as not to step on anyone, and finally He saw the old one. He saw the man and He knew the man’s whole history. That his disease had been mostly the result of his own sin, and so, by everyone else, it looked like this was a judgment from God on him. He knew this man needed healing and to know that God had not forgotten him, and that God was Himself the source of all mercy and forgiveness.
The sick man had just turned his head to look at the pool and rested his head back down on his mat, closing his eyes, when a tender, compassionate face bent over him. "Do you wish to be healed?" The words jolted him back to attention, and the first thing he noticed about this face that had spoken those words, were those kind eyes and that look of compassion. And briefly he hoped that he might get the help that he wanted, but only for a very brief moment, because the glow of encouragement quickly faded, and he remembered how often he had tried to reach the pool, and now he had little prospect of even staying alive until the waters would be troubled again.
After all, he was the weakest, most hopelessly paralyzed cripple of all in that crowd. Why should help come to him now? He turned away forlornly. "Sir, when the water is stirred, I don't have anybody to put me in the pool. By the time I get there, somebody else is already in.” (John 5:7, Message). So many times he had missed out on the one thing he was hoping for. The healing he desired was always “so close, but so far away.”
He felt despair and aloneness. No one was there to help him. No one cared. And soon he expected this Man to leave him as all the others had done before.
And then he heard that same kind voice speaking to him. "Stand up! Stand up, pick up your mat and walk." He turned and looked again at the face bent over him. Up until this time his hope was centered on healing from this supposedly miraculous pool. But as he studied this face over him, it seemed that something about the Man made him believe that a different outcome was about to happen. There was such a convincing authority about Him. Such kindness, and yet an authoritative tone. It encouraged him to believe and he came to the conclusion that this Man was no ordinary Being. That He loved him and cared for him, and that He had power.
So he came to the conclusion that he should trust Jesus and obey His command, and he started moving, and as he did there was this switch that just went off inside him like a trigger. A strange electrifying pulse that went through him, almost unnerving, and yet so powerful and tingling. New nerve connections popped into his brain and new muscle fibers obeyed his mind. It was like an out-of-body experience. Was this really happening? And then he was standing up to an upright position, bouncing to his feet, straight and tall.
Why this was a freedom he hadn’t felt in 38 years!! No longer weak and crippled, he could go anywhere his new legs would take him. It was a totally new life before him. And he stooped down to pick up his bed, which was only a rug and a blanket, and as he straightened himself up again with a sense of delight, “Wait a minute. Where is this Man?” He was gone. He had slipped back into the crowd.
He looked around but Jesus was nowhere to be seen, and now the intensity of his joy was matched, almost, by the anxiety that he felt of never, ever knowing the One who had healed him.
But no need to stay here. He hurried on his way, bedroll in hand, with firm, free steps, praising God and rejoicing in his new-found freedom.
What does this story tell you?
For me, this is a story of one man held captive by disease and false hope for a long time. Many people lived and died by that pool, falsely believing it to be the source of healing. They were stuck there, held captive, as it were. But God came to the worst case to bring hope and freedom. God spoke to him and this old man chose to trust in the God of mercy and not the Pool of Bethesda. The result was a wonderful freedom from his captivity.
What about us? What holds us captive? An addiction, perhaps? Wrong beliefs and traditions? Legalism, or a cold, formal, ritualistic experience? Or perhaps unwise, unhealthy choices?
Whatever we are held captive by, there’s freedom in choosing to believe in Jesus. The man at the pool believed Jesus could be trusted enough to follow Him, and Jesus came to show that man, and to show us the way to freedom. And that’s the kind of freedom that I want. Do you? Nothing else is more important.
Hymn of Praise: #645, God of Our Fathers Scripture: John 5:1-5 Hymn of Response: #250, O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing
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McDonald Road Sermon transcribed by Steve Foster 7/5/08