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.
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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.”
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.” 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?
 Matthew 5:17-19a, 20 ESV
 Romans 6:1