Sermon 08-12-12: “All Things New, Part 1: New Beginnings”

August 16, 2012

“Do you want to get well?” That’s the question Jesus asks the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda. Every one who is confronted by the life-changing and life-saving grace of God in Christ has to answer that question for himself or herself. If we say “yes,” however, that will sometimes mean making painful adjustments to the way we live. Fortunately, God gives us the grace we need to be successful.

Sermon Text: John 5:1-18

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

When I was a kid, my favorite place in the house I grew up in, by far, was the basement. My parents often threw big parties down there. The basement had a bar and a loud stereo and a game room. We kids weren’t allowed downstairs during parties. But some of my earliest memories were being three or four years old, lying in bed, listening to the loud rumble of voices, music, laughter, and clinking glasses coming up through the ventilation system. Everyone seemed to be having so much fun! Of course, back in the early-’70s, there was also cigarette smoke coming through the vents. My parents didn’t smoke, but their friends did—and no one minded very much about second-hand smoke back then. You’d open the basement door when a party was going on, and you’d think the basement was on fire with the thick fog of cigarette smoke! Ahh… you gotta love the seventies.

Anyway, when the adults weren’t having parties down there, the basement belonged to us kids. There was a pinball machine. A pachinko machine. Do you know what pachinko is? It’s a Japanese casino game that’s similar to that Price Is Right game “Plinko.” There was an air hockey table. There was a TV with a primitive, Pong-like video game system from Magnavox called the Odyssey. At the center of the basement, though—the very center of all my childhood play—was the pool table. It was that classic kind of pool table. When the balls went in the pockets, they rolled down a side alley and emptied out into a bucket at one end of the table.

When we were young kids, though, none of us really knew how to play pool. That was too hard. But we did play a simple game that we invented using the pool table called “bloody knuckles.” That was where two people stood at opposite ends of the table. The object was to roll the billiard balls as hard as you could at the fingers of your opponent, who was also trying to roll balls as hard as he could at your fingers. Whenever your opponent did this [mimic getting your fingers smashed],you scored a point.

But we didn’t just play “bloody knuckles.” At other times, we used our imaginations to transform the pool table into an excellent boat, car, tank, island, airplane, spaceship, aircraft carrier, and stage… The pool sticks became swords and spears and guns and light sabers. We used the pool table for nearly everything except what it was designed for! Of course, as we later learned, you can only walk, jump, and dance around on a pool table for so long before it becomes warped. By the time we got old enough and coordinated enough to actually play pool, we could hardly do it because the table was practically ruined—the felt of the table top was torn in places; the surface was uneven. Balls would sort of roll on their own or change their trajectory. It would take some major repair and renovation and refurbishment to get the pool table back in playing shape.

Brothers and sisters, I believe that our lives—apart from the life-changing and life-saving grace of God through Jesus Christ—are a little like that pool table!

In today’s scripture, Jesus encounters a man whose life is broken and in need of repair. He doesn’t have use of his legs—he’s a paraplegic. It’s hard for us to imagine—in those days before modern medicine and technology—how difficult life was for someone like that. Not that being a paraplegic today is easy, by any stretch, but wheelchairs allow some mobility, and most public buildings enable at least some access to people with disabilities. If you’ve been paying attention to the Olympics, you have no doubt been inspired by the story of Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner who became the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics. Advancements in prosthetics have made what used to be impossible now possible. We’ve come a long way.

But in Jesus’ day, if you suffered from any kind of disability, you were cut off from nearly everything in society. Begging was your only option for making ends meet. To this man’s credit, no matter how difficult his life was, somehow he found a way to survive like this for 38 years. I’m 42—that would virtually be my entire life. So when Jesus asks him, “Do you want to get well?” that was a good question. “Getting well” would require drastic and painful adjustments!

I listen to this wonderful public radio show called This American Life. One recent episode told the story of a man who had been behind bars for 30 years for killing a man. He had, however, been an absolute model citizen in prison and finally got paroled. He was doing O.K. in his life outside prison, but his route to work each day took him past the prison that had been his home for 30 years, and whenever he went by he said he felt deeply sad. He didn’t want to go back there, make no mistake—but he described feeling homesick. Because even though it was prison and living conditions were hard, and people were often cruel, and the food was lousy, it was home; it was where his friends and family were. Life in prison wasn’t a great life, but it was the only life he knew… He knew how to survive in prison. The world outside was something different, something new and uncomfortable… “Are you sure you want to be free?”

Similarly, Jesus asks: “Do you want to get well?” Do you want to play “bloody knuckles” for the rest of your life, or are you finally ready for me to teach you how to play the game properly?

Do you want to get well? Every human being, when confronted by the life-changing, life-saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, has to answer that question for himself or herself. I’ve known people, and I’ve read credible accounts of people, who, after they first receive the saving grace of Christ, are immediately and miraculously healed—physically or spiritually or both. I believe that this kind of healing can happen sometimes. But more often than not, healing doesn’t happen so quickly and easily. Think of no less a saint than the Apostle Paul. In 2 Corinthians 12, he describes struggling with something that he calls a “thorn in his flesh.” We don’t know what it was—some recent scholarship suggests that it was likely a physical ailment that would have been noticeable or obvious to others. But whatever it was, Paul calls the problem a “messenger from Satan” sent to “torment” him. Three times, Paul says, he pleaded with the Lord to take this “thorn in the flesh” away, and the Lord wouldn’t do it. Instead, Jesus tells him, “My grace is enough for you.”

My grace is enough for you—to help you deal with the struggles and challenges and temptations you’re facing. It’s not going to be easy, but my grace is enough.” I’ve known alcoholics, and you have to, who’ve counted the days that they’ve been sober—and they celebrate each day and each milestone. It’s been one day, or five days, or one week, or one year, or ten years since they’ve had a drink. Regardless of how long it’s been, they’re only able to be successful one day at a time. They depend on the Lord every day, every hour, every moment, to give them the grace that they need to survive.

If only we could see the threat and danger of sin as clearly as the alcoholic who hits rock-bottom and joins AA! If only we could heed the warning of our Lord who says, not merely, “Get up, take your mat, and walk,” but “Don’t sin anymore in case something worse happens to you.” Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that Jesus is simply pointing back to this man’s life 38 years earlier and saying, “Your sin caused this disability, and if you continue to sin, you’ll get some disease that’s even worse.” I think, instead, Jesus is speaking of eternity. The “even worse” thing that might happen to this man, and the even worse thing that might happen to any of us, is God’s judgment, and even hell. Jesus is saying, “You’ve got your health back now—and that’s good, but be careful. Physical health is only temporary. In the end, we all die. And just as the Apostle Paul complained about the “messenger from Satan” trying to shipwreck his faith and ruin his life and ministry, there are forces of sin and evil at work attempting to do the same to us—there is spiritual warfare.

I can think of one significant way right now in which Satan is doing this destructive work. It’s a widespread problem among Christian men, especially, and the church is very squeamish to talk about it. And I’m a little squeamish, too, but it needs to be said. I’m talking about pervasive and sinful problem of internet pornography. It’s a widespread problem in part because, unlike in the past when you had to go to a brick-and-mortar store in some seedy part of town to buy it—and you had to actually pay money for it—it now comes into everyone’s home—absolutely free of charge. It boggles my mind that internet service providers and cellular providers don’t offer an option of filtering it out—or at least charging people “extra” for it. Why don’t they do that? You’d almost think that Satan himself had something to do with it, wouldn’t you? Hmmm…

If you’re struggling with this or any other sin in your life, let me ask you: “Do you want to get well?” Getting well, starting over, beginning again, means first of all recognizing sin for what it is. Confess it. Repent of it. Pray that the Lord would give you the all-sufficient grace, day by day,to help you deal with it. And like an alcoholic in an AA group, celebrate every day that you’re victorious over temptation. Every day that you resist sin. Every day that you keep from stumbling.And if you stumble—or when you stumble—repeat the process, knowing that through the cross of Christ, God has made a sufficient provision to forgive all your sins—yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Remember when Michael Phelps finished fourth a couple of weeks ago in his first swimming event, the 400-meter IM. Ryan Lochte won gold. And people were like, that Phelps is a washed-up has-been who didn’t train hard enough and partied too hard. He got lazy. He rested on his laurels. I’m sure he heard that criticism and it hurt, but that didn’t prevent him from going on to win four gold medals. Phelps found redemption after that setback. In the same way, redemption is available for all of us—even when we fall short. But we can’t give up. We can’t give in. We gotta keep fighting. Keep trusting. Keep praying. God is going to make us well… sooner or later. If not on this side of death and resurrection, then on the other.

[Sabbath elevators story]

Notice that Jesus gets in trouble with the religious leaders after this healing takes place because he broke the law by healing on the Sabbath. That was bad enough, but he gets in worse trouble when he explains why: “My Father is still working, and I am working too.” See, no Jew imagined that God himself was resting right now on the Sabbath—babies were still being born on the Sabbath, after all. God continued to govern and order the universe on the Sabbath. So Jesus tells them, in so many words, “Because God works on the Sabbath, so do I.” These religious leaders heard Jesus loud and clear: Jesus was equating himself with God! He says that he has the right to do what only God can do! Who does he think he is? God? Well, in so many words, yeah.

In some ways, Jesus’ opponents in today’s scripture understood better what Jesus was saying than many of us post-modern people do. See, Jesus is not merely one great teacher among many great teachers; one path to God among many paths to God; one truth among many truths. No! Jesus is God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the way, the truth, and the life, the only means by which we are reconciled to God.

If Jesus is God, what does that mean for us?

It means we don’t get to have any other god before him—including false gods like money, sex, popularity, or possessions. It means we owe absolute allegiance to him and him alone. It means that he’s at the center of our lives—influencing our thoughts, our choices, our actions. It means we better get busy sharing his gospel with others, so that they, too, can repent and believe and find new life in him—so that they, too, can be made well.

Best of all, if Jesus is God, it also means that God really loves us. Because look what God did for us through Jesus: He became one of us. He became one with us. He willingly committed himself to a course of action, as we see in today’s scripture, that would lead to his death on the cross. And he lovingly chose death on a cross because, on it, he took all of our sins upon himself, and dealt with them once and for all. He destroyed sin’s power to enslave us, so that we could find forgiveness and new life—so that we could find a fresh start, a new beginning.

“Do you want to get well?” Have you met Jesus? Because he has the power to make you well.

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