Sermon 03-13-16: “Do You Want to Be Healed?”

March 18, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

Do we Christians water down Jesus’ hard sayings? After all, in today’s scripture, he tells the man who had been paralyzed for 38, “Sin no more, so that nothing worse will happen to you.” By contrast, don’t we often say, in effect, “There, there… Just do your best. Your problem with sin isn’t so bad”? Well, Jesus wants us to know that our problem with sin is so bad—it’s the worst problem imaginable! And unless or until we come to grips with this fact, we’ll never receive the saving grace that he offers us.

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3 of this sermon.]

Sermon Text: John 5:1-18

Growing up, the basement of our house was the very center of my childhood. The basement was a rec room, or rumpus room, back when those were popular. And in the early-’70s my parents entertained down there—a lot. My parents’ social life revolved around the Shrine Club, and the stereotype of Shriners, let’s face it, is that they liked to party. So my parents threw parties down there for dozens or hundreds at a time. And literally some of my earliest childhood memories involved lying in bed at night listening to this loud rumble of partygoers as they talked and laughed and listened to music and clinked their glasses together—the festive sounds reverberating through my bedroom vent from the basement down below. And of course, since this was the ’70s, cigarette smoke also came through my vent! No one smoked outside then!

At one time or another, the basement included a pinball machine, a dartboard, a pachinko machine—which is a Japanese pinball machine used for gambling—an early Pong-like video game system, a TV, a stereo… But the showpiece of the rec room was trouble—which started with T, which rhymes with P, which stands for pool. Yes, we had a pool table. And when the grown-ups weren’t around, that pool table doubled as a tank, and an airplane, and a spaceship, and battleship, and a fishing boat. We climbed all over that thing. And the cue sticks were swords, spears, bazookas, and fishing poles.

But our favorite game by far, which actually involved using the pool balls, was a game we affectionately called “bloody knuckles.” To play, opponents would stand at opposite ends of the table, and roll the pool balls as fast as possible to the other side of the table. And the object was to smash the fingers of your opponent with these heavy balls. [mimic this action] It probably should have been called bruised knuckles rather than bloody knuckles but still… Bloody knuckles was great fun, until… inevitably, someone—usually my sister, or a friend, or a cousin—started crying… because I was good and ruthless at bloody knuckles. And often that person would go tell my mom… and my mom would walk up the hill in the backyard to get what she called a “hickory stick,” a switch, and then I would be the one who was crying!

All that to say, the pool table was a lot of fun. Except we used it for everything except what it was created for. We weren’t using it correctly. We weren’t playing the game of pool correctly. And what I’m going to argue in this sermon is that, similarly, we are not playing the game of life correctly. And I’m not talking about the Milton-Bradley board game. I mean, we’re not as happy, not as joyful, not as grateful, not as content, not as satisfied with life as our Creator intends for us to be. We’re doing something wrong.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, let me draw your attention to a recent opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. He writes, “One-quarter of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder.” Twenty-five percent! Unsurprisingly, anxiety and depression are at the top of the list! To make our anxiety worse, psychologists say, we’re anxious about being anxious!

In other words, we are a mess! Something is wrong with us. And I honestly believe that if we take to heart the message of today’s scripture, which diagnoses our root problem, it will go a long way toward healing our problem—or moving us in the direction of healing.

So what’s going on in the text? First, there’s a pool in Jerusalem. And people with physical disabilities would gather at this pool, which was likely fed by an underground spring. This spring probably had therapeutic properties—like the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. But there was apparently a legend or a superstition about an angel stirring up the water. And if you have a King James Version, you can read about this in verse 4. In modern Bibles, that verse is actually missing—but it’s in a footnote. Bible scholars known as textual critics now believe that verse 4 wasn’t a part of the original inspired text. In other words, John didn’t write verse 4; it was added later. Probably by a scribe who wrote it in the margin to explain why many people believed that the pool could heal people. So is it possible that an angel was disturbing the water? It’s possible; but we’re confident that the Holy Spirit didn’t inspire John to write those words, so who knows?

Regardless, Jesus doesn’t need the pool to heal this man. And when he heals him, the man, who has been paralyzed for 38 years, picks up his bed and walks away. And this gets him in big trouble with the religious authorities. Because by carrying his bed, he’s doing forbidden “work” on the Sabbath.

Carrying anything from one place to another was prohibited on the Sabbath. This was one of 39 rules and regulations regarding what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. If the man could have somehow attached the bed to his clothing—he could have gotten away with it because carrying something on your person was legal. But what the man was doing was considered illegal “work.”

And we read this today and say, “That’s so self-righteous. That’s so judgmental. That’s so legalistic.” But are we so different?

Take, for instance, social media. I’m nearly convinced that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram exist in order to make us feel bad about ourselves. We go on social media and we see that we’re not good parents; we’re not good spouses; we’re not voting the right way; we’re not good Christians; we’re not good preachers; we’re too fat; we’re too slow; we’re not pretty enough. We’re going to the wrong church. Basically, whatever our interests in life, whatever we’re doing with our lives, we’re told in a million different ways that we’re not doing it right; we are doing it wrong; we are not as good as we ought to be. So, while Facebook isn’t God’s Law, but it’s still like “the Law,” and we feel judged by it; and we judge others; and we feel inadequate.

So the laws may be different. But the legalism is the same…

Besides… To the credit of the Jewish authorities in today’s scripture, at least—at least—they were trying their best to obey God, to follow God’s law, to avoid sinning. So these Jews created extra laws, laws not found in scripture, for their own protection. So if God says, in Commandment number 4, not to work on the Sabbath, let’s make absolutely sure we understand what “work” consists of. Because we don’t want to break God’s law. So they put a guard rail around the commandment. And the guard rail is some distance from the edge of the sheer cliff on the side of the mountain—so if you steer clear of the guard rail, you can be confident that your car won’t roll off the side of the mountain and fall down into valley below! In other words, if you are so strict about keeping the Sabbath holy that you won’t even carry a mattress home after you’ve been miraculously healed… well… chances are you won’t come close to crossing the line and breaking God’s law.

I’m sharing this with you because I want us to sympathize with these Jews; I want us not to judge them too harshly. They were afraid for their lives—afraid for their souls—afraid for their eternal destinies. This was deadly serious. Sin was deadly serious.

And on this point, Jesus agrees completely: “Do not think,” he says, “that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished… For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees”—and remember, it was the scribes and Pharisees who were accusing Jesus of breaking the Sabbath—unless your righteousness exceeds theirs, “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[1]

Jesus agrees with the Law that we shouldn’t commit adultery, but he goes further and says, “Don’t even lust,” because lust is adultery of the heart. Jesus agrees that we shouldn’t commit murder, but he goes further and says, “Don’t even get angry,” because anger is “murder of the heart.” And, by the way, if you so much as call your brother or sister a “fool,” you’re in danger of the fire of hell!

See, we’re the ones who water down Jesus’ hard teaching. We say to the greedy person, “There, there… It’s not so bad. Learn to tithe, and you’ll be O.K.” Jesus, by contrast, says to the greedy person, “Don’t give ten percent of your money away; give a hundred percent—or else you’ll miss out on heaven!” We pat sinners on the head and say, “Just do your best, and you’ll be O.K.” Jesus says, “Don’t do your best. Be perfect—in the same way your Father in heaven is perfect.”

Even in today’s scripture, what does Jesus tell this man who had suffered for 38 years with a terrible disability? Does he pat him on the back and say, “There, there… I know you have a problem with sin, but you’ve had a hard life. Don’t sweat it”? I mean, after 38 years of suffering with this disability, if anyone deserved to be cut some slack, surely it was this man! But what does Jesus tell him when he finds him later in the Temple later? “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” And that worse thing is death, final judgment, and hell. And if you want to avoid that, Jesus says, sin no more.

Sin no more? Um… O.K. 

On Facebook last week, I saw a clergy acquaintance who I think was responding to something in the news related to the presidential race. He was vague, but he said something like, “Being a Christian is more than mere words. Being a Christian means living like Jesus. You don’t just get to pick and choose when to follow him.”

Yikes! Can I just say that if being a Christian means “living like Jesus,” I am not a Christian.

When I was in seminary, I had to take a class with a teacher who was herself an ordained clergy. She was a tough grader; she was merciless in her critique of us budding pastors; she had incredibly high standards; and, I’m not proud to say that she and I butted heads for two of the three years I was in her class. I later learned to love and appreciate her—but at the time I didn’t like her. She scared me. The point is, a few years after seminary, I attended a mandatory seminar that this person taught. And, you know, like all of us, I was on my phone during the seminar. Not focused like a laser beam on what she was saying. And I wrote a text to Lisa, my wife, about this person and it was a little mean and judge-y and self-righteous… And I kind of enjoyed putting her down in this text message. It made me feel good! And so I sent this text to Lisa.

Or… at least I thought I sent it to Lisa. I accidentally addressed it to this person about whom I was texting. Have you done this before? It’s frighteningly easy to do! Needless to say, I had some explainin’ to do. Some dancing to do. Some back-pedaling to do.

My point is this: At the time I sent that text, I might have been a good preacher. I might have been a good pastor. I might have read my Bible every day. I might have prayed for hours on end. I might have tithed on my income. I might have volunteered regularly at the homeless shelter. I might have gone to Africa as a missionary—and I did at least some of those things. My point is, I could have done all these things and more, yet this text message exposed was in my heart! And Jesus cares much more about what’s in our hearts than even the things that we do. Following those 39 Sabbath regulations is much easier than fixing what’s wrong with our hearts. Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect? Sin no more? Be like Jesus?

Who am I kidding? This isn’t merely hard. This is impossible.

And that’s precisely Jesus’ point: contrary to popular opinion, Jesus doesn’t lower the bar of God’s law to make it easier for us to step over; he raises the bar so high that it’s utterly impossible for even the most experienced Olympic athlete to pole-vault over. And this is, as Paul makes clear in Romans and Galatians, the purpose of the Law: to teach us how impossible it is to measure up.

Utterly impossible… If you read commentaries on today’s scripture, you’ll see that Bible scholars like to put this formerly disabled man down. They complain that when the religious authorities blame the man for the sin of breaking the Sabbath, what does he do? He shifts the blame back on Jesus.

In his defense, however, that’s about the only thing he gets right! Fortunately, we do get to shift the blame on Jesus. Or at least Jesus voluntarily takes our blame—takes our guilt, takes our shame—the guilt and shame of our sin—and places it on himself. And he suffers and dies on the cross because of it.

See, we ought not to hear Jesus’ words, “Sin no more,” and say, “Let me give it the old college try, Jesus.” We ought to hear these words and fall at Jesus’ feet and say, “Save me, Lord Jesus. I can’t do what you’re asking me to do! I can’t ‘sin no more.’ I want to, but I can’t. Can you do it for me? Can you live the life of perfect, sinless obedience to our heavenly Father that I myself am unable to live? Can you suffer the penalty that my sins deserve? Can you face the judgment I’m unable to face? Can you die the death I deserve to die? Can you suffer the hell I deserve to suffer?”

And of course, our Lord Jesus says, “I’d be happy to… Because I love you that much.”

Unless or until this man at the pool of Bethesda asks Jesus to do that, he may be cured of his disease—but that’s strictly temporary. He won’t be eternally healed. We need an eternal healing.

So it seems like maybe I’m saying that since we’re powerless over sin, apart from God’s grace, maybe we should just stop worrying about sin so much? Maybe, as critics accused Paul of saying, “We should continue in sin so that grace may abound.”[2] But don’t misunderstand me. I’m actually not saying that at all. “Faith without works is dead,” James says. If we’re not repenting of sin and becoming a more faithful follower of Jesus, there may be something spiritually wrong with us.

So what am I saying?

It’s like this… I like to run, as a hobby. And I use an app on my iPhone, with its built in GPS, and I use my Fitbit to track my run—to tell me how fast I’m running; to tell me how far I’m running; to tell me how many calories I’m burning; to tell me how high or low my run is in terms of altitude; to tell me how much weight I’m losing; to tell me how much better I’m doing than my friends—or how much better worse I’m doing.

But this iPhone and this Fitbit can easily become like the Law to me: “You’re not doing it right. You’re not measuring up. You’re falling behind. You’re not achieving your goals.” And suddenly this activity, which I enjoyed doing before has now become deadly to me: it’s become a terrible burden and a source of guilt as I realize that I’m not reaching my goals or I’m not measuring up. And this happens frequently.

On the other hand, sometimes I get so lost in the music that I’m listening to through my ear buds, I enjoy the music so much, that I don’t give a second thought to my iPhone or my Fitbit.

And I reach the end of my run—and I find that I ran faster than I did before. I exceeded all my goals. God’s grace is like this.

As Christians, I want us to live our lives with a laser-like focus on the “music” of God’s grace. And when that voice of the Law, that voice of guilt and shame and accusation whispers to us, “You’re not good enough. You’re not measuring up. You’re failing,” we can say, in reply: “You’re right: But Jesus was good enough for me. Jesus measured up for me. Jesus succeeded for me.” That’s how we’re intended to live. Amen?

[1] Matthew 5:17-19a, 20 ESV

[2] Romans 6:1

13 Responses to “Sermon 03-13-16: “Do You Want to Be Healed?””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Okay. I agree with you (and Paul, as I understand him) that the PRIMARY purpose of the law is to point out our sinfulness so that we know we need a redeemer. The law is a “pointer” to Christ.

    I also agree that we can be so “overwhelmed” with how far we fall short that we can despair even of life itself as a result. Whereas, in such extremities we need to fall back on our eternal “security?” 🙂 that Christ has paid the price for all our sin, so that if we have, in fact, “accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior,” we are not going to “lose out” on heaven or a relationship with God because we subsequently sin.

    All that being said, I further think that the “pointing to Jesus” purpose of the law is not “exclusive.” It also does tell us how we are supposed to live (as further enhanced and elucidated by Jesus and the NT scripture writers). In other words, it does give us “goals” to aim for. I doubt that you disagree with any of this, but what I have difficulty with is the idea that “giving it the good ole’ college try” is an “off-base” attitude on our part. In other words, ONCE SAVED, following the law is not an “all or nothing” proposition. We should be “striving” to obey the law, for our own benefit and to “enhance” our “personal relationship” with God.

    Allow me to give an illustration. My relationship with my wife. Assuming we meant our vows and will follow through on them, then (with possible exceptions beside the point presently), we will “never leave or forsake” each other. But obviously my wife’s heart will “glow” more if I help out around the house, keep my job, occasionally write her a poem or bring home flowers, etc. Our relationship will be “enhanced” as a result. Now, I can never be the “perfect” spouse (obviously in my case!). But I ought to be “striving” to be. That should be one of my “goals” in our marriage. And I SHOULD feel bad when I “louse things up.” I SHOULD “repent” and “try harder next time.” I think all those things are true with our relationship with Christ as well (indeed, Paul gives marriage as being a “picture” of the relationship of Christ with us). If I am not “striving,” I am “dying” (so to speak).

    Of course sports are another example (Paul also uses that as an illustration–I’m agreeing with Paul!). I beat my body into submission, Paul says. I fight not as one who is punching into the air. I am running the race with the goal to win! I cast aside every hindrance (every sin).

    So, again, living by the law is not “all or nothing.” As a Christian, a “saint,” I should have as my goal to live “saintly.” So, while we should on the one hand focus on grace and mercy, on the other we should focus on “winning the race.”

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      (Forgot to click “notify” again.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      But did you at least appreciate the part where I talked about “faith without works,” and without works we are in trouble?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Yes. We aren’t that “far apart,” as you have indicated. The “burr” under my saddle is the implicit castigation of the “good ole’ college try,” which I think is meritorious (so long as we don’t think we are “earning salvation” thereby, or think any “slip-up” will “doom” us).

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    The expectations of behavior by “today’s Christian” seem quite low to me. There is much more emphasis on the forgiving love of Jesus than there is on the standard he set for His disciples. Jesus knows that we will always fall short of the glory of God, but as Tom says, I think he expects us to try. It is that trying, which constitute the works we have been talking about. The works that will be examined by the Lord when the crowns are handed out.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I don’t know if I’m a Molinist, but I’ve been meaning to post a favorable word about it on my blog. There’s a passage of scripture from 1 Samuel which endorses one aspect of Molinism—the idea that God has “middle knowledge,” that God knows not only what we _will_ do but what we _would_ do under different circumstances. Philosophically, that God knows counterfactuals.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Maybe I’m not all that smart, but I find the view of the Molinist not very different from the Calvinist. If God knows every decision we would make, in every circumstance, before we make it, or even when we don’t have to make such a decision, then it seems that we are predestined by our DNA to only do a specific series of things in response to the events that God has preordained. If God is the author of our DNA, then isn’t he the author of our destiny?

    It seems like a distinction without a difference. I have read William Lane Craig on the subject, and still come away with this question.

    Either way, I’m comfortable with what I think is being said.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I hear you, Grant. This is why some people believe that God’s foreknowledge is a problem. Here’s how I think of it: Sequentially, God’s knowledge of us comes first—because he knows before he creates the universe what we will do. Logically, however, our freely chosen actions come first—because what God foreknows is what he “sees” us doing in the future. His foreknowledge isn’t determinative, in other words.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      The primary distinction between me (ostensibly a Molinist) and a Calvinist is that the Calvinist believes God chooses without regard to any merit in the human being. God just simply chooses. Whereas, I believe God “foreordained” based on what he “foreknew.” Although we cannot perfectly picture this with an analogy, imagine that a parent has learned enough about his child’s disposition to understand how likely he is to act in various situations. Once knowing that, the parent can “guide” the child into various “choices” by placing the child in various “settings.” On the one hand you could say the parent is “ordaining” the child’s actions. On the other hand, however, the child would be acting “as the child wished,” based on his own personality, in each such situation. The key point is that the parent did not “create” that personality. Likewise, God did not “create” the ESSENTIAL aspect of our personality as to “how we will respond to God.” God very well may create any number of other aspects of our being, including other aspects of our “personality,” but not whether we will, as it were, say “Yes” or “No” to God, and how “loudly” we may do either of those.

      How can people be something other than their “DNA” and their “environment”? When I was in college, I did not believe there could be any “other,” so I was a fatalist. This, among other things, inclined me toward an atheistic bent because I did not see how such a God, who “makes” us do what we do, could be justified in sending anyone to hell based on “what he made them do.” (For this reason, now as a “believer again,” I cannot be a Calvinist.)

      So, “How can these things be?” “With God, nothing is impossible.” That is, somehow or another God can create beings that can say “Yes” or “No” to him “of their own free will.” To say God cannot do such a thing places a limit on God’s capacity as the Creator which is unwarranted. We don’t know how God can do the things he says he does in various instances. We have to accept on faith that he does do things, consistently with his revealed character, that the Bible indicates that he does. So, once God “foreknew” what kind of “free chooser” we would be, that “essence” of our character, then God was free to put people in the various places and times that he did which would both “bring out that character” (and hence lead to salvation versus damnation) and accomplish his goals for human history.

      That’s about the best I can do with this difficult subject. (I just saw what Brent said as I was finishing this, and I think he has a fairly good succinct statement of the matter.)

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    I would like to commend for your reading Randy Alcorn’s “Hand n Hand”. In this book, Randy compares and contrasts Armenian and Calvinist teachings. He covers many “misunderstandings” that each group has about the other. It was very helpful to me, because it doesn’t pit one group against the other. Rather, he seeks to show the value of both, while not shying away from stating his own beliefs.

    Surgeon said that when he found two things in Scripture which could not be reconciled in his mind, he simply chose to believe that both were true, and that God would explain how later. I kind of like that.

  5. Tom Harkins Says:

    I’m pretty sure Spurgeon embraced predestination. I don’t hold any “ill will” toward anyone of a different persuasion from me on such theological matters, but that does not mean I don’t find such a position important. Consider the fact that in my case the teaching of predestination was part of what led me away from the faith (I don’t doubt other influences). There is something that just seems fundamentally unfair about determining someone’s eternal destiny to be in a place like hell based on nothing other than God’s “immutable, inscrutable” choice. Either we have something to say about “how we end up,” or we don’t. It seems to me that it is as simple a matter as that.

    Since I find that we MUST have something to say in the matter for God to be “just” in his judgment (“Will not the God of all flesh do right?” Abraham asks. “Far be it from you to treat the righteous as the wicked! Far be it from you!”), then I have to find some way to reconcile God’s “preordination” with our “choice.” The only way I know of to do that is through focusing on the same passage’s saying, “For whom he did foreknow….” Foreknowledge comes first, before predestining. God “sees ahead” as to what type of person we will be and then “sets everything on course” in light of that.

    Why can’t I just “accept both”? Because they are “moral” opposites. I already gave God credit for doing something seemingly “practically” impossible. I can’t actually fathom how God can create a “free chooser.” But it is necessary that he be able to do so for the rest of scripture to “fit together” and for God not to be an “ogre” (in my estimation). So, I embrace what to me is a “practical” conundrum over trying to reconcile two opposing views of God’s “morality.” The one thing God CANNOT do is act contrary to his nature. God says in scripture what his nature is like. So I have to go with that and as to the rest, let the chips fall.

    • Grant Essex Says:

      Yes he was:

      “It is no novelty, then, that I am preaching; no new doctrine. I love to proclaim these strong old doctrines, that are called by nickname Calvinism, but which are surely and verily the revealed truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus.” —Charles Spurgeon

      But, he also said what I attributed to him. Get Alcorn’s book. If you don’t like it, let me know, and I will reimburse you. 🙂

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